That was one of the dubious endowments of ageing, a conviction that one’s desires had not been met, that there was in fact no reward, and that the way ahead was simply one of endurance.
Anita Brookner’s Strangers is a quietly ruthless dissection of the discomforts and disquietude of growing old alone. Its protagonist, Paul Sturgis, is a nice man in his early seventies — “too nice,” he remembers an old girlfriend telling him dismissively, breaking up with him. Retired, solitary, undemanding, he lives a life, not exactly of quiet desperation, but of unrelieved introspection and almost no pleasure. He has money and a flat of his own, but he finds no fulfillment in his solitary walks, his visits to the library, his reading, or the one family connection he still has when the novel begins — his late cousin’s wife, to whom he makes ritual Sunday visits with no great rewards on either side, until her unattended death completes his isolation and gives him a painful glimpse of his own likely future.
Paul’s life feels insubstantial to him:
It seemed to him a terrible thing to live without witnesses, as if he had failed to make good the inevitable deficiencies of both past and present, had never created a family of his own, so that he was haunted by a feeling of invisibility, as if he were a mere spectator of his own, his only life, with no one to identify him, let alone with him, in the barren circumstances of the here and now.
What is there, what can he do, that will infuse meaning into his day-to-day existence? Once, the routine of work kept such questions at bay, and there was occasional travel, and friends, including girlfriends. None of this has lasted, though, or had any lasting effect. Paul thinks the answer might lie in connections with other people, and in another novel, that would be the answer, and the relationships that develop across the second half of the novel would restore him, and thus us, to happiness and hope.
“But not so,” as Hardy says — and in fact there is something faintly Hardy-esque about the unremitting bleakness of Strangers, though Paul’s suffering never rises to the morally grandiose level of Jude’s. Paul’s solitude is impinged on, first by the willful and energetic divorcée Vicky Gardner and then by his old girlfriend Sarah, herself now also aged and alone. Both prove unsatisfactory companions, though, and their contradictory needs and demands stir Paul to selfishness rather than sympathy, to a restless if inchoate ambition to effect some kind of change on his own behalf. Must the scant time that remains to him be spent in the encroaching dullness of his flat, the dreary time-killing of his unmotivated outings? The novels he once enjoyed “usually finished on a note of success, of exoneration, which was not for him”:
In the absence of comfort he was forced to contemplate his own failure, failure not in worldly terms but in the reality of his circumscribed life. He knew, rather more clearly than he had ever known before, that he had succeeded only at mundane tasks, that he had failed to deliver a reputation that others would acknowledge. . . . his life of reading, of walking, was invisible to others: his friendships, so agreeable in past days, had dwindled, almost disappeared. Memories were of no use to him; indeed, even memory was beginning to be eroded by the absence of confirmation. As to love, that was gone for good. Whatever he managed to contrive for himself would not, could not, be construed as success.
Strangers meticulously documents Paul’s confrontation with these realities, and then his growing wish that somehow, old and set in his ways as he is, he can “make it new.” But how? He lacks talent, ambition, drive; he has no sense of mission to lift even his wildest dreams above the quotidian. Brookner offers Paul no epiphany, though at the very end she does grant him a reprieve, as he finally acts to set his “fantasy” of change in motion:
This was the obverse of all fears, the assurance that life was still a possession to be treasured and that its possession was unalienably his.
The lonely end he anticipates cannot be staved off altogether, but it can at least be approached from a different direction. This is not quite the “note of success,” the “exoneration,” of the novels Paul has repudiated, but Brookner had brought me so low, along with Paul, that I rejoiced with him at the promise of something at least a little better than just endurance.
She indeed doesn’t offer an epiphany, and I’m grateful for that, because a number of Brookner’s final lines offer false hope, unearned by what has gone before. The last chapters of Strangers are hard to read; we’re on dangerous ground. She has run out of plot and must get by on style alone. I used to think late Brookner was just for the fans, recycling old material, but now I think these works have a special place in her oeuvre. I enjoyed your review very much.