“A Nonentity”: Anita Brookner, Providence

I must grow up, she thought. I must stop being so humble. I can make decisions and initiate actions like anyone else. I am not stupid. I am not poor. If I want to do something I do not have to wait for permission. I am old enough to make up my own mind. . . . But I must act, she thought. I am a total bore as I am. A nonentity. Not even a pawn in the game.

I found Anita Brookner’s Providence both claustrophobic and irritating. It is deliberately so, I think, if I am right to read it as recreating (though on somewhat different terms) Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, which Brookner’s protagonist Kitty Maule is teaching over the course of the novel. I had never heard of Adolphe before beginning Providence, but based on the discussions in Kitty’s tutorial and what I found when I looked it up online, it is (basically) the story of a young man emotionally debilitated by his love for an older woman, told with minute attention to his erratic feelings. Kitty, in her turn, is unable to live her own life with real confidence or commitment because of her preoccupation with her dashing older colleague Maurice.

Kitty thinks about Maurice incessantly when they are apart and watches him constantly when he is nearby. She longs for clarity in their relationship, for proof that her adoration is reciprocated. Her pain can be poignant, but her hero-worship is where things get annoying, especially because we aren’t left in any doubt that Maurice doesn’t really deserve it, or her. “His brilliance and ease,” as Kitty sees him,

his seeming physical invulnerability, the elevated character of his decisions, the distances he covered, his power of choice and strength of resolve, cast him in the guise of the unfettered man, the mythic hero, the deliverer. For the woman whom Maurice would deliver would be saved for ever from the fate of that grim daughter, whose bare white legs and dull shoes, designed perhaps from some antediluvian hike or ramble, continued to register in Kitty’s mind’s eye. Maurice’s choice would be spared the humiliations that lie in wait for the unclaimed woman. She would have a life of splendour, raising sons. Ah! thought Kitty with anguish, the white wedding, the flowers. How can it be me? How could it be me?

Maurice is indeed a kind of mythic creature, though more in an anti-heroic vein hinted at through Kitty’s work on the “Romantic Tradition”: in wrestling with her yearning for him, I think Kitty is also  struggling with ideas about heroism and romance and love and arrogant egotism, in keeping with the metatextual interplay with Adolphe–though because I don’t know Adolphe at all, I can’t really go further in figuring that out. On those grounds, however, I am prepared to be more tolerant of Kitty than I would be if the novel were just a character study.

Even so, I found Kitty’s difficulty declaring herself, or just being herself, frustrating. I also struggled to figure out how Brookner means to position us in relation to Kitty. Sometimes I thought Kitty was sympathetic: Brookner is very good at evoking the pangs of uncertain longing, the hypersensitivity to every nuance of speech or body language that comes with wondering how someone else feels. Kitty’s loneliness is also very poignant, and makes her dreams of happiness with Maurice something more than just a sentimental crush.

But why must it be marriage, much less marriage to Maurice, that she dreams of? Over and over we –and Kitty–get signs that she has strengths of her own, including her academic work, her teaching, her friendships. In that context her fixation on Maurice as her savior seems like a failing (especially, again, because Maurice is not really worth much). Is she the victim of the fairy tale story of female success, unable to accept her life on terms beside “the white wedding, the flowers”? Or is the novel perhaps the story of her gradually growing out of that delusion, taking control of her life rather than hoping, watching, and waiting? That is certainly what Kitty keeps telling herself: that now she is going to take charge, make a change, turn things around. Right up to the last page, though, she’s still more acted upon than acting, letting life be fitted against her like the dresses her seamstress grandmother makes for her that are never quite what Kitty really wants or feels comfortable in.

The novel’s title hints at a thematic reason for Kitty’s irresolution, though I’m not sure how to work out the pattern. Maurice is religious, while Kitty is not; at least in theory, she believes herself mistress of her own fate, but she has difficulty committing herself to the lack of extrinsic purpose or design. In her anxiety about her future, for instance, she visits a clairvoyant, hoping to know the future that (again, in theory) she is responsible for shaping. She believes that “the key to Maurice was his belief in the divine will”–but “in her own soul she found nothing.” She does not, in the end, win Maurice: does this failure reflect on her faithlessness, or is it a lesson for her and for us about not trusting to Providence if we hope not to be nonentities?

“Endurance”: Anita Brookner, Strangers


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.

Weekend Miscellany & Recent Reading

Weekend Miscellany: some things that have caught my eye in recent Internet ramblings:

Joseph Epstein reviews Gertrude Himmelfarb’s new book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (via). I agree with Open Letters‘s Sam Sacks that Epstein’s generalizations about the Victorians are tired (“The Victorians had a comprehensive and confident view of human nature”… ), though I think Epstein may to be trying to convey what the Bloomsbury-ites thought of them, rather than what he himself takes to be the case, as he moves on to praise the progress we have made from such Bloomsbury-inspired stereotypes. Sacks suggests that “when Epstein moves on to discussing George Eliot, he does fine”; I’d say there too, though, Epstein could do better. It’s tedious, for one thing, that he leads with a discussion of her appearance, complete with Henry James’s infamous insults (imagine a sentence along the lines of “A short, homely man with bulbous eyes, Charles Dickens nonetheless charmed audiences with his impassioned readings…”–why do so many people feel it necessry and appropriate to lead off with comments on her looks?). What can he mean by his remark, after noting that George Eliot was not a supporter of female suffrage (she was not much of a supporter of universal male suffrage either, it’s worth keeping in mind), that “George Eliot’s feminism was of a superior kind”? Superior to what? It sounds as if he might mean she wasn’t one of those shrill political types. He refers to Eliot as a “Zionist,” but as the work of Nancy Henry and others shows, it is tricky to use that term as if it applied in her moment as it came to later on.

George Eliot goes on Oprah: I’ve often thought Oprah should take on Middlemarchfor her Book Club, but its emphasis on failed ambition and entangled idealism would rather undermine her show’s relentless emphasis on overcoming obstacles and triumphing over “this petty medium.” As I always figure that the more people who read it the better, I’ll be interested (in sort of a “bystander at an accident” way) to see if this producer and those who read along find the expeience rewarding.

At ReadySteadyBlog, Mark Thwaite asks his readers to name “academics who manage to retain their rigour, but speak beyond the academy, if only to a quite self-selecting and small audience.” As he asks, “who is doing it for you?” I think in principle any academic could “speak beyond the academy” if you follow Mark’s lead in looking to academic books for insights on literary figures or topics of special interest; academics who write deliberately for a non-academic audience would be a much smaller group.

Reviews are piling up of Sarah Waters’s new novel, TheLittle Stranger. I don’t need to read any of them to know I want to read the novel, but this piece by Waters herself on the novel’s background and relationship to Josephine Tey’s classic The Franchise Affair really whetted my appetite for it. (via)

N+1 takes a couple more shots at bloggers (“Bloggers on the whole write carelessly, their ideas are commonplace, they curry favor with readers and one another, and their popularity is no index of their worthiness.”) even while admitting that there can be a “special eloquence” in the “speech-like qualities” of on-line writing (though that eloquence doesn’t really count, it turns out, as “the same discovery is made by bloggers and texters and chatters in a minor and disposable way all the time”). With 76 million blogs ongoing (or whatever the current estimate is), any claims about what they are like “on the whole” must be a difficult thing to ascertain. I wonder how many blogs the author read to come up with this generalization.

Recent Reading

Two of the books I finished recently are so dissimilar in tone and style–indeed, in almost every way–that it comes as a surprise to me to discover, on reflection, that I think they are pursuing a very similar idea. The books are Nawal El Saadawi‘s Woman at Point Zero, first published in 1973, and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker prize in 1984. El Saadawi’s novel is the fictional equivalent of repeated slaps in the face, if such startling, painful moments could also somehow be imagined as poetic. Brookner’s novel, in contrast, is subtle, patiently nuanced, and faintly sardonic. How can I say that the blunt first-person narrative of an Egyptian prostitute on death row for murder and a cool first-person account of a British romance novelist vacationing in Switzerland after leaving her fiance at the altar have anything in common? Perhaps the connection is a tenuous one, but both books seem to be fundamentally about the relationship a woman has with herself, and how that relationship is compromised and challenged by the sexual politics–the distribution of power, including physical and economic but also social and cultural power–of her world. Both bring these compromises and challenges into focus by emphasizing their protagonists’ struggles to discover their own identities and maintain their integrity, even when (especially when) that means disregarding how they are looked at by others.

El Sadaawi’s protagonist, Firdaus, fails: her courageous attempts to reinvent herself, to believe in herself and the possibility of her own economic, moral, and sexual freedom, are repeatedly–relentlessly, shatteringly–defeated. The cyclical structure of the novel, in which the same language (assuming the translation is accurate) is repeated for different incidents as if to prove no real progress has been made, that the core crisis remains literally identical, gives a formal pattern to this defeat. It would be an understatement to call this an angry book: to borrow from Matthew Arnold, it is full of “hunger, rebellion, and rage.” It is an activist book, a book designed to smack you out of your complacency. It is interesting to compare it, as I inevitably did, with Ahdaf Souef’s novels, which seem to speak from another world entirely. The timing makes some difference, though I wonder how much: is Firdaus’s experience impossible two decades, three decades, later? Today? How much of the difference between Soueif’s confident, ambitious women and El Sadaawi’s Firdaus is economic or class-based? The novel has been described as fable-like; it may also be that it is meant to transcend its time and place, to speak very fundamentally to the subjection of women, or of the roots and effects of all oppression.

Brookner’s protagonist ends her novel with no triumphant resolution but with a questing sense of possibilities. She has rejected two relationships that promise her social security, protection from the slights and indignities she faces daily and fears will overtake her as she ages: now she must discover what it is like to live on her own terms. To be sure, her situation is dramatically more secure than Firdaus’s, though in both cases money is seen to be key to both security and autonomy (“money is what you make when you grow up,” she tells a less independent companion). She faces no physical violence, no overt discrimination–but nonetheless she has difficulty imagining happiness for herself without love.

Hotel du Lac is the first Brookner novel I’ve read. I enjoyed the language a lot: it was descriptive but restrained. It opens with shades of grey that become thematically apt too, for the repressions that limit its protagonist’s expressiveness. I liked the “vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore”–that image of anaesthetic is proleptic of the life Edith might have. The novel surprised me repeatedly, not with big shocks or twists, but just by not being or saying quite what I expected. It felt like an Edwardian novel; I kept picturing its characters dressed like those in The Enchanted April (they use words like “smocks”–do people say that anymore?). But then someone said something about deconstruction and signifiers and I was reminded of its more contemporary moment. I wonder if the historical ambiguity created by its tone was deliberate, or if I just missed some basic clue as to when exactly its action takes place.

I’ve also recently read Emma Darwin‘s The Mathematics of Love, a novel which weaves together a historical with a modern plot. I thought both parts of the novel were individually well done, though the more contemporary (late 70s, so not really contemporary) part was more compelling. The 19th-century part was written in a more formal style, but that seems like an unnecessary artifice. Perhaps one reason Sarah Waters’s neo-Victorian novels read so well is that although she seeks out 19th-century slang and provides plenty of allusions and contextual details, she does not try to sound “Victorian” (which to so many seems to mean “stuffy”). I didn’t think Darwin brought the two stories together effectively: the interest of her 20th-century protagonist, Anna, in her 19th-century protagonist, Stephen, was never well-motivated. I liked the way she used photography as a device for evoking the strangely palimpsestic character of historical sites and stories, caught in time, leaving impressions that may be sharp or blurred, suggestive or specific, visible or even tangible to successive generations of viewers. The battlefield reminiscences are vivid, and the aftershocks of war provide another common element between the two plots, as do the various love stories that ask us to consider why we love who we do, what love is, and how we suffer for love. Just because I also read it recently, Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter is the inevitable comparison for this book: with Donoghue’s novel, I couldn’t see what it was about beyond the story it told, while with Darwin’s, I felt it was about a number of things but not integrating them in a fully satisfying way. But I liked it enough that I might try her second novel, A Secret Alchemy–also because it has been a long time since I read any Richard III-related novels.