Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner a reader in the history of art at the Courtauld Institute in London, is the author of a study of David and of two novels, A Start in Life and Providence.

Fearless Solipsist

Anita Brookner, 31 July 1997

It pays to take a romantic view of oneself; distinction is only tardily conceded by others. In the business of self-assessment – which was her business – Colette was never far from self-promotion. This endeavour sustained her through three marriages, numerous love affairs, and, more important in her own estimation, 49 volumes, some of them admittedly slight. She expressed admiration for George Sand, who could finish one novel and begin another in the same half-hour, yet she herself could shoulder the equally impressive task of projecting her image throughout a long and varied life, both on and off stage. Her undoubted beauty helped, yet it is not as a beautiful woman that Colette is remembered but as a fearless solipsist. The title of one of her later books, Le Voyage égoïste, describes her progress perfectly To her singular status the gift of sumptuous prose, refined from tentative beginnings, seemed a natural adjunct. Her readers came from every level of society, and from every sex: her emotional range was wide, but not necessarily indulgent. Henry de Montherlant, who described her as ‘le plus grand écrivain français naturel’ was wrong: Colette is a work of art, and one created entirely by her own means.’’

Mme de Blazac and I

Anita Brookner, 19 June 1997

When I first went to Paris as a student I was directed, by an association set up to sort out the problems not so much of visiting students as of indigent widows with large apartments, to Mme de Blazac in the rue des Marronniers, in the 16th arrondissement. Initially, the rue des Marronniers struck me as a haven of suburban rectitude: I did not then know that it was expensive. Mme de Blazac, unlike the sort of Frenchwoman I had had in mind, was welcoming, though with an infinitude of reservations. Rather than formidable and omnicompetent, as I had imagined from the aristocratic name, Mme de Blazac was small and tremulous, and clearly more nervous than myself. She had shaken hands, had hovered in the corridor, while indicating a room covered with dustsheets. Layers of plastic were wrapped round the few books on a shelf by the bed. When I opened the wardrobe, which was empty, I was met by a nose-tingling blast of moth repellent.

On high heels up Vesuvius

Anita Brookner, 21 July 1994

In October 1879, Flaubert, then aged 57, invited Maupassant to dinner, informing him that there was a purpose behind this invitation. He wanted to burn some letters, and he did not want to do so alone. After a particularly good meal, Flaubert brought a heavy suitcase into his study and began to throw packets of letters into the fire, occasionally reading passages from them in his booming voice. This process went on until 4 a.m., not an unusual hour for Flaubert. (History does not relate whether Maupassant was equally alert.) One particularly thick bundle of letters contained a small package tied with a ribbon. This was seen to consist of a silk shoe, a rose and a woman’s handkerchief, which Flaubert kissed and threw into the fire. It has always been assumed, and it is assumed by the author of this book, that these relics, and in particular the letters, were evidence of his attachment to Louise Colet, his mistress in the late 1840s and early to mid-1850s. His letters to her, now in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Avignon, contain reports on the work in progress, which was to become Madame Bovary, together with remarks and maxims which form the essence of his artistic credo.

Daddy’s Girl

Anita Brookner, 22 December 1983

This disturbing, even unpleasing book arose out of a reaction from which only a nerveless and protected minority are saved. As a child, the editor, Ursula Owen, found a photograph of her father which showed him in an attitude, a guise, that seemed to her ‘uncharacteristic’. It was not simply the fact that he was a German Jew and was photographed wearing the uniform of a colonel in the British Army: that somersault was circumstantial and could be explained away in a single sentence. (As a German-speaking industrialist, he was being sent back by the British Government to make a survey of Germany’s not quite ruined industrial potential.) No, the truly disturbing and dismaying quality of the photograph, and one which was to work underground and to result many years later in this book, was conveyed by the expression on Ursula Owen’s father’s face, one which had presumably never been seen there before. ‘After a while I realised what it was; my father looked vulnerable.’

Good Girls and Bad Girls

Anita Brookner, 2 June 1983

Those happy readers who sing hymns of praise to lyrical childhoods, their own, and, by extension, those in their favourite works of fiction, would do well to study Deborah Moggach’s extraordinarily skilful account of a childhood blasted by what is now acknowledged to be a more widespread offence than was previously recognised: incest. To write about childhood without sentiment is difficult, for childhood can be a time of boredom and confusion, when events occur in advance of the critical apparatus which might accept or deflect them. One of Deborah Moggach’s great successes is to portray this state of randomness while making us aware that it is only a matter of time before a dawning consciousness will reflect on damage irrevocably done.


Anita Brookner, 3 February 1983

Glyn Hughes’s novel, Where I used to play on the green, won both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the David Higham Fiction Prize in 1982, yet it received not a tenth of the publicity awarded to winners of the Booker and the Whitbread. This is a pity, for it is a fine achievement, although too dour a story to command affection in the media. It reminds us not only that the past is a foreign country but that England, too, is a foreign country and perhaps never more so than at times and in places which we think we know fairly well. Those whose images of 18th-century England have been fashioned by the painters of that time and who are accustomed to the smiling faces of a well-fed squirearchy, looking ineffably satisfied with the onward march of progress and its own contribution to the wealth of nations, will receive a shock when they read Glyn Hughes’s account of the coming of Wesleyanism to the poverty-stricken weavers of Yorkshire and the madness and suffering that attended it. His characters are historically real, although perhaps not historically important: William Grimshaw, the fanatical wandering preacher, and his associates, early martyrs – the word is not too strong – in the cause of the simplest and most primitive of trade unions; a cast of six-year-old children sent to work in the pits, of narrow-minded cloth manufacturers on the brink of becoming the new rich; and an illiterate and starving populace at the mercy of every restriction laid on it in the name of ‘enthusiasm’.


Anita Brookner, 7 October 1982

The President’s Child works, effortlessly, on many levels. First, it is a political thriller. Isabel Rust, a television producer and former hack reporter, once had an affair with a man who is supposedly being groomed as Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Her apparently spotless marriage was hastily contrived by her to provide a home for herself and the child of that previous union. On the surface, all is middle-class respectability in Camden Town. But as news coverage of the Primaries increases, people begin to notice the resemblance between Isabel’s son and his real father: Isabel herself is seen by the candidate’s campaign managers as a potential menace, and various moves, entirely credible, are made to dispose of her.

Women against Men

Anita Brookner, 2 September 1982

The Golden Notebook takes one back not only in time but in consciousness. It is just 20 years old, and yet, reread from the standpoint of 1982, it seems to belong to an immensely confusing period, weighed down by the anxieties of a decade that now seems remote, incomprehensible to those for whom the Sixties signify permissiveness, euphoria, liberty, and pleasure. It reminds us, among other things, that the Sixties inherited the dilemmas of the Fifties, surely the dreariest decade this century, and made an all too conscious attempt to bury them. Reading The Golden Notebook when it first appeared, I remember being impressed by its entirely grown-up seriousness; it connected in my mind with its not dissimilar counterpart in France, Simone de Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins. Both were concerned, overwhelmingly, with the lives led by thinking women, in and out of politics; both had to do with loyalty, disillusion, the fragmentation of beliefs formerly held to be indissoluble, and the effects of such fragmentation on the personality. More significantly, both had to do with the paradox of the thinking woman’s attitude to love and expectation in her personal life, and it is salutary, and not a little shocking, to reflect on how much has been gained, and how much more lost, in the 20 years of The Golden Notebook’s history.

Scarsdale Romance

Anita Brookner, 6 May 1982

Mrs Jean Harris, a trim widow of 56, was a woman who had reason to congratulate herself on making a success of her life. She had risen from undistinguished but respectable suburban beginnings to the position of headmistress of the select Madeira School for girls, in McLean, Virginia. She had married young and had two fine sons. She had kept her looks, and, apart from the occasional bout of depression or fatigue, her health. She was well respected in the academic world, was an active fund-raiser, and presented to the girls in her charge a picture of independence, decorum and high moral standards. So high, indeed, were these moral standards that the penalties she inflicted on her girls for such relatively unimportant misdemeanours as drinking beer or smoking marijuana met with some criticism, not only from the girls themselves but from her colleagues and from the school board. Yet such criticism was powerless to modify Mrs Harris’s actions, for it was clear, even to those who did not warm to her, that Mrs Harris was a lady whose behaviour was so impeccable that she expected no less of others. Mrs Harris did not drink beer or smoke marijuana. But she did something else. On the night of 10 March 1980, Mrs Harris took a gun, got into her car, drove for five hours to Westchester, woke her lover of 14 years, Dr Herman Tarnower, from his sleep, shot him, then left him dying on the floor while she went back to her car and began to drive away. She did not intend to escape. In any event, the police were already approaching, alerted by Tarnower’s housekeeper, Suzanne van der Vreken. Mrs Harris was taken to the police station and in due course brought to trial. She was convicted of murder in the second degree and condemned to serve a sentence of a minimum of 15 years.

Dressing and Undressing

Anita Brookner, 15 April 1982

Fashion, according to Baudelaire, is a moral affair. It is, more specifically, the obligation laid upon a woman to transform herself, outwardly and visibly, into a work of art, or, at the very least, into a work of artifice, thus acknowledging the distance that must be measured between her natural and unredeemed state and the peculiar idol she must become if she espouses the work of self-admonition and self-regulation, and therefore of disguise, constraint, impassivity. She must do this because, naked and unashamed, she once performed the original act or sin of flouting God’s will and of bringing man to full knowledge of himself. Since that time she has served as a constant reminder of the fallen state, and, to Baudelaire, was only tolerable when her body was corseted, her legs disguised by a crinoline, her arms immobilised by the dropped sleeves of her low-cut bodice, and her face rendered unrecognisable by rice powder, rouge and kohl. At once travestied and made inaccessible, she could then take her place in a box at the opera, and inscrutably fulfil her duties both to the passing scene and to the demands of her conscience. Or, rather, to the demands of Baudelaire’s conscience. A failed dandy himself, he appreciated signs of effort in others; the loose, the slipshod, the revealing drove him to bitterness, and the unbound hair of his mistress was only too closely associated in his mind with her venality. ‘La femme est naturelle, c’est-à-dire abominable.’

Precipitations fall thickly and heavily in Abel Gance’s Napoleon: snow in the courtyard of the college in Brienne, feathers from savaged pillows, rain and hail on the drums at the siege of Toulon, song-sheets fluttering down at the National Convention, confetti at the extraordinary Bal des Victimes, at which everyone present had to have lost a relative on the scaffold or to have been reprieved himself. This migraine-inducing technique, confined to a screen the size of an old-fashioned glass lantern slide, tests one’s nerve and endurance much as those of the recruits in the Army of Italy were tested before General Bonaparte, lanky, scarecrowish, hat planted sideways, won them to confidence, excitement and triumph. By the end of the day-long showing, the audience rose in a comparable mood of exaltation as the screen opened out onto an immense triple montage of red, white and blue, with a long last image of exploding galaxies.


Art and Revolution

18 December 1980

SIR: It is perhaps unfortunate that Jacques-Louis David’s erratic passage through the French Revolution should coincide with Professor Hampson’s more specialised knowledge of this period (LRB, 18 December 1980), or indeed that David’s aesthetic intentions and preoccupations should prove in many ways impermeable to a purely political interpretation.My book, which I would defend only...

Wintry Lessons: Anita Brookner

Dinah Birch, 27 June 2002

Anita Brookner’s first novel appeared in 1981. Since then she has published it again, slightly altered, almost every year. It is a remarkable feat. Nor is it irrelevant to what she has to...

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Missing Mother: romanticism

Graham Robb, 19 October 2000

Trying to define Romanticism has always been a typically Romantic activity, especially in France. The word romantisme first appeared in the year of Napoleon’s coronation (1804) and soon...

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Living with a little halibut

John Bayley, 8 October 1992

The novel and story depend a good deal on mystery. Pip has great expectations – where do they come from? – but more important, who is Pip, and what is he after? Everyone can be made...

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Dreams of Avarice

Patrick Parrinder, 29 August 1991

‘The rich are different from us.’ ‘Yes – they have more money.’ Though it is Hemingway’s riposte that sticks in the memory, Scott Fitzgerald’s belief in...

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Dirty Jokes

Julian Symons, 13 September 1990

‘Julia died. I read it in the Times this morning... I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.’ The first...

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Looking for magic

Dinah Birch, 14 September 1989

It’s not long since the fairy story seemed the least political of genres. Not so today. A preoccupation with transformation and escape, coupled with a repudiation of the sober certainties...

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Ruined by men

Anthony Thwaite, 1 September 1988

Alison Lurie’s new novel is, among other things, an anthology of several characters from her earlier novels. Readers unfamiliar with these books need not be apprehensive, however: The Truth...

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Rachel and Heather

Stephen Wall, 1 October 1987

Anita Brookner’s novels have been preoccupied with women who feel themselves to be profoundly separate. This may be the result of either choice or necessity, or of stoically making a choice...

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John Bayley, 4 September 1986

‘Old people were rather in fashion at the time. Every week one or the other of the quality Sunday papers included a feature on the elderly, and if it could be shown that they were being...

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Frank Kermode, 5 September 1985

So far as the evidence of five novels goes, Anita Brookner has one basic theme, which she varies with considerable and increasing technical resource. All five books are quite short, and all have...

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The Great Exhibition

John Sutherland, 6 September 1984

A prefatory note testifies that Empire of the Sun draws on its author’s observations as a young boy swept up by the Japanese capture of Shanghai, and his subsequent internment in Lunghua...

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Dear Sphinx

Penelope Fitzgerald, 1 December 1983

Ada Leverson (1862-1933) said she had learned about human nature in the nursery. A little brother got her to help him make a carriage out of two chairs, but when he was taken out in a real...

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Elaine Jordan, 21 April 1983

The 19th-century novel was the great forum for writing about life – from sanitation to the condition of women, from politics to love. All the novels reviewed here are very much of the 20th...

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Robert Taubman, 20 May 1982

The voices in A Chain of Voices are those of 30 characters, Boer farmers and their hired labourers and slaves, in the Cape in the early 19th century. The voices are ‘all different yet all...

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Graham Hough, 16 July 1981

The four novels before us are all highly original, but they tend to confirm an old popular belief – that there are two sexes and that there are some differences between them. All end sadly,...

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Art and Revolution

Norman Hampson, 18 December 1980

In what her publishers claim to be the first monograph in English on David, Dr Brookner explains that she sees her book as a ‘preparation’ for more specialised studies at present...

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