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I really do love Anita Brookner’s writing, although, I find when it comes to writing a review I am somewhat at a loss to explain why. Her novels are certainly not plot driven, and people who only like plot driven narratives might well be driven mad by the quiet contemplation and introspection. I like the quiet genteel lives of Brookner’s world, and find – maybe alarmingly that I understand them. I often hear and see the word depressing applied to reviews of Brookner’s novels – well I can see why – though I prefer the term melancholic. Anita Brookner does make me examine my own life – and it’s not always comfortable to do so.
In Brief Lives we meet Fay and Julia in middle and late middle age. Both are married – and later widowed, affluent and childless. Fay was once a singer on the radio before her marriage, Julia an actress – who has ever since retained her sense of the dramatic. The novel opens with Fay reading of Julia’s death, a woman with whom she shared a great deal of her life until more recently.

“Julia died. I read it in The Times this morning. There was quite a substantial obituary, but what immediately fixed my attention was the photograph, one of those studio portraits of the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, all huge semi-transparent eyes, flat hair, and dark lipstick. I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.”

In her younger days, newly married, Fay lives in quiet fear of her mother-in-law Vinnie, who’s obsessive like adoration of her son Owen is intimidating. This relationship is mirrored to an extent in the “friendship” that develops between Fay and Julia, Julia the wife of Owen’s business partner. As the years pass, Julia – eleven years Fay’s senior – becomes more reliant upon Fay – in a purely selfish way, she manipulates Fay, who, knowing that she is in thrall to Julia seems unable to leave Julia behind, even when their husbands through whom they are connected have died. Julia is a kind of frail but elegant bully. Around Julia are the lonely women, who help her live quietly in her grand flat, including a slightly pathetic young woman Maureen who Julia obviously despises, and Julia’s former dresser from her theatrical days. Julia orders them around in her imperious way, little appreciating what they do for her, while telephoning Fay to wheedle another visit. As she herself ages, Fay must contend with the deaths of her mother and then her husband, finding that she is now alone, alters Fay’s view of herself and the world around her.

“I was very lonely during the weeks that followed my mother’s death. I knew that I should never again be all the world to anyone, as it says in the song. Normally I despise women who claim never to have got over their parents’ death, or who affirm that their fathers were the most perfect men who had ever lived. I despise them, but I understand them. How can any later love compensate for the first, unless it is perfect? My simple parents had thought me unique, matchless, yet they had let me go away from them without a murmur of protest.”

Although I enjoyed this novel enormously, Brief Lives won’t be my favourite Brookner novel, I think that would be A Closed Eye, or Look at Me, however it is a typical Brookner book and so if you were to read it and enjoy it, then it would be fair to say you will like her others too. Anita Brookner’s writing is beautiful, her observations of people in their quiet genteel lives, for me quite unparalleled. Though I find there is a coldness to Brookner’s writing, which is absent in the novels of such writers as Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, who also examine the lives of upper or middle class women. With its overriding themes of ageing and nostalgia, Brief Lives is an intelligent and poignant novel, which benefits from a slow and considered reading.

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I have become rather a fan of Anita Brookner although of the 24 novels she has written this is only the eleventh I have read. I love the mood she creates with her writing, the lonely suburbia, damp evening London streets, the senses of quiet isolation and life slipping by unremarked. Her books are fairly small, although I find her a “slow read” – books I need to take time over. I also find her extremely hard to review. This is therefore likely to be a very short review.

Most of the Brookner novels that I have read have been from a female perspective, this is only the second I have read from a male perspective. Lewis Percy is a lonely bookish academic. As the novel starts he is a student in Paris in 1959 – where after a day in the library he looks forward to going back to his rented room in a house full of women. Here he enjoys simple companionship, listening to the conversations of the other inhabitants of the house.

Lewis returns home to London, to the house he shares quietly with his mother. He knows it is an unremarkable life – but he is even then unfit for any other. When his mother dies suddenly Lewis is aware of his utter aloneness. Lewis is desperately ill-equipped for life on his own and needs someone else to take care of the day to day practicalities of running a home. First he engages a daily help – who rather begins to take over his home, but soon he starts to think more in terms of marriage. He meets agoraphobic Tissy at the library where he used to collect his mother’s books. There is no romance – they are merely beneficial to each other. The unsatisfactory nature of this marriage – and the way in which it inevitably ends is beautifully portrayed by Anita Brookner.

“He did not for a moment believe that she had left him. The suspicion began later, as the weeks passed. He thought at first for a person of Tissy’s susceptibilities pregnancy, and a late pregnancy at that was bound to be upsetting.

“He loved her in a hurt damaged way. He loved her as a child might love a broken doll, half frightened at having caused the breakage.”

At times out of step with the world he is living in Lewis must find a way to move forward and break away from his non marriage.

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Amazon Editorial Review
This text contains a male protagonist in the form of a young solicitor, his mother, a loveless marriage, and holidays on the Swiss border
.

This is one of Anita Brookner’s novels written from a male perspective. Brookner’s male voice is convincing and poignant. Anita Brookner creates beautiful English worlds, where nothing very dramatic happens, lives are quiet and dignified. Alan Sherwood is a solicitor who having once become obsessed by the beautiful, selfish, and deeply unpleasant Sarah, is unable to leave her behind. After a short liaison with her, his life is punctuated by a couple of fleeting glimpses and brief meetings which change his life. Alan takes refuge in a loveless marriage with Angela, another deeply unhappy character. His cosy relationship with his mother is changed by her second marriage, and Jenny – the wife of his uncle Humphrey – is drawn unhappily into Alan’s marriage, and is also pathetically obsessed with an indifferent Sarah.  Alan has to live with the guilt of his betrayal, and come to terms with his life.
I did find the time-line of this novel confusing – I was never certain how much time was supposed to have gone by – some people seemed to age quite a bit – while others didn’t seem so much older at all. It is quite difficult to date the events, although it isn’t really important. Also Sarah is described on the back cover as Alan’s cousin, however, she was the daughter of his (much older) half sister. Still these are minor irritations in an otherwise brilliant novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed this beautifully written novel, no one writes about solitude and quiet rain soaked evening streets better than Brookner.

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strangers

He was haunted by a feeling of invisibility, as if he were a mere spectator of his own life, with no one to identify him in the barren circumstances of the here and now.Â’ Paul Sturgis is retired and lives alone in South Kensington. He walks alone and dines alone, taking pleasure in small exchanges with strangers. His only acquaintance is a widowed cousin whom he visits on Sundays. Unable to make sense of his solitary nature, and fearing death among strangers, he wonders whether at last he might be ready for companionship. But a chance meeting with an old girlfriend and an encounter in Venice with a recently divorced younger woman compel Sturgis to decide how (and with whom) he will spend the rest of his days.

This is Anita Brookner’s most recent novel. There is much that is recognisable from her earlier novels here, loneliness,, aging,  unsatisfactory relationships, the desolation of London streets often seen in the dark or the rain. This is what Anita Brookner does so well, her writing is beautiful, and rather melancholic, as she makes her reader look deep in to themselves, maybe we can sometimes see glimpses of ourselves in the vulnerabilities of her characters.

In this novel, the central character is Paul Sturgis, at 72 he has lived in the same flat for many years, a flat he doesn’t even like really, he dreams from time to time of another life in another place. Paul is a nice man, gentle and polite, he is unprepared for Vicky Gardner, a divorced younger woman with seemingly complicated domestic problems, whom he meets in Venice, and is reacquainted with back in London. Shortly after Paul meets Sarah, a former lover, who had once rejected him.  Paul must make decisions about his life, and how he will spend the remainder of it, and possibly with whom. This is the first novel of Anita Brookner’s written from a male perspective that I have read. Recently I was talking to a friend who also like AB, she told me how she prefers the novels written from a male POV. I did enjoy this novel, although I can’t say it was a favourite, it is a really rather sad novel, but so well written, and with such subtle poignancy that it’s hard not to be hugely impressed.

Anita Brookner

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Dr Ruth Weiss, a celebrated authority on Balzac is now forty, and looks back on her London childhood, her friendships and doomed Parisian love affairs to tell the story of a life impassioned by literature, and she realises that once again she must make a start in life.

a start in LifeI do so love Anita Brookner novels, I always rather like the characters, they are so human, fragile and flawed as well as beautifully written. This is one of Anita Brookner’s earliest novels, yet it is still highly accomplished. At forty Ruth Weiss an expert on Balzac thinks her life has been ruined by literature. As Ruth looks back on her life, her role as a daughter living with her peculiar parents and their funny housekeeper, her short time in Paris and a doomed love affair, she is in a sense preparing to start again.

As always Brookner’s sense of time and place is perfect, I love her world, and her beautiful writing. Hugely readable, intelligent and poignant.

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rules of engagement

Amazon Editorial Review:

‘I have come to believe that there can be no adequate preparation for the sadness that comes at the end, the sheer regret that one’s life is finished, that one’s failures remain indelible and one’s successes illusory.’ Elizabeth and Betsy are old school friends. Born in 1948 and unready for the sixties, they had high hopes of the lives they would lead, even though their circumstances were so different. When they meet again in their thirties, Elizabeth, married to the safe, older Digby is relieving the boredom of a cosy but childless marriage with an affair. Betsy seems to have found real romance in Paris. Are their lives taking off, or are they just making more of the wrong choices without even realising it?

It was only about 3 years ago I think, that I started to read Anita Brookner, and she is now quietly becoming a firm favourite.

This is the 7th of her novels I have read. There is a touch of the melancholic about her writing, but I don’t find her depressing at all. The themes of this novel are very similar to that of the others I have read, that of lonliness, grief, and the choices women make in their lives.

Elizabeth married a man many years older than herself, while her childhood friend Betsy entered into a much less suitable relationship with a man in Paris. These choices they made years earlier continue to have an impact as they approach middle age. Elizabeth’s life is hardly exciting, she is well off and has no need to work, and yet she fills her time somehow, she takes to walking in the early mornings or late evenings, she sees the seasons change, and contemplates taking a trip. The observations of everyday life, of women like Elizabeth, and their small preoccupations is what makes Anita Brookner’s novels so poignant and true.

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Born to elegant but frivolous parents, Harriet grows up unguided, shrouded in an innocence that her friendship with Tessa, and later her marriage to Freddie, do nothing to dispel. Freddie is far older and disapproving of Tessa and her husband Jack. And yet all four are bound together.

I suppose I came quite late to the Anita Brookner party – but now that I have I am enjoying her work immensely – and I have three more TBR. As with the other Brookner novels I have read, there is a touch of sadness here. Her characterisation is brilliant, so many small things beautifully observed, in the way people are, and behave, their hopes, fears, disappointments and secret desires laid bare with such realism.   Imogen, Harriet’s beautiful daughter, is such  a wonderfully poignant contrast to Harriet herself – in all her compliant dullness, while Lizzie, Tessa’s daughter is more a mirror of Harriet than Tessa, her quiet politeness,  and heartbreaking adoration of a mother who is too busy trying to snare her own husband to notice – just as Harriet possibly loves her daughter too much, and indulges in fantasies about Jack, Tessa’s unattainable husband. This is a novel about the lonlieness within a marriage, the disappointments of life. 

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