Sunday, May 2, 2010

Brutal power in a quiet package (Books - The Debut by Anita Brookner)

Anita Brookner's The Debut was her's in the fiction world (she had written art history prior to writing fiction); it was as well my first encounter with her writing, and I was pleasantly surprised. I had been led to expect the repressed work of a bookish spinster, but my experience of this novel about a young woman who has escaped into books to avoid the tyranny of her indulgent actress mother and clueless father, was of a literate mind which energetically subjugates words to its bidding to produce a wry, bittersweet story with acutely etched characters. Her's is a piquant voice, with a clearly defined moral stance, one whose observations are without mercy but also full of humor.

Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education, which dictated through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.


And yet she had known great terror, great emotion. She had been loved, principally b a leading philologist at the Sorbonne, but that was not her story. Her adventure, the one that was to change her life into literature, was not the stuff of gossip. It was, in fact, the stuff of literature itself. And the curious thing was the Dr. Weiss had never met anyone, man or woman, friend or colleague, who could stand literature when not on the page.

Her writer's eye seems hungry to land to alight on the unsuspecting scene and have at it, producing some delicious set pieces, like this one of George and Helen's (the parents) arrival in Brighton for their first holiday in years:
... The taxi had unloaded George and Helen into a maelstrom of returning holiday makers, a world they did not know existed: Elderly men with veins standing out on their foreheads trying to cope with five suitcases, elderly women with swollen feet and glistening white cardigans bought especially for the holiday, enduing the fright of a lifetime in order to enjoy the pleasure they had promised themselves all through the winter, too many children, shrill with tiredness, their long hair sticking to their damp faces, their mouths smeared and stained with sweets and ice lollies, none of them aspiring even to the relative comfort of a taxi, but queuing patiently for buses, shifting their burdens from hand to hand, trying to quiet the children, longing for that cup of tea at home, safe at last for another year.
Doesn't that paragraph makes you feel sticky with the grime of a long journey? Brookner's writing can appreciated for its precision, its delicious topography, its consistency of outlook, and its ability to call up visceral experience. There is another similarly potent paragraph on caring for an elderly invalid that is a gem.

The writer Brookner most calls to mind for me is Cynthia Ozick, also a consummate crafter of memorable characters, her experience deeply steeped in the close reading of literature, and a writer of darkly funny novels. Apparently this novel is somewhat autobiographic and since Brookner decided to make the switch from art history to fiction, she has turned out something like 25 of these 200-page works at the rate of one per year, according to this Paris Review interview with her. The Debut had a brutal power in a quiet casing - like someone wielding a sledgehammer encased in soft batting. I am admiring both of Brookner's skill of observation and the delicious prose with which she delivers them up. Do any of my readers have a Brookner favorite they recommend I read next?


Thomas Hogglestock said...

A very good review. Much deeper than anything I manage to come up with in my "reviews". As much as I love Brookner I am never able to keep her 23 or so novels straight in my mind, but Incidents in the Rue Laugier and Making Things Better (US title) I remember enoying more than usual. Oddly enough, her Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac is not one of my favorites. But I have been meaning to re-read it to see if I missed something the first time around.

Ted said...

Thanks, Thomas for the compliment and the recommendations.

Pete said...

Great review, which succeeds in making me want to read Brookner. I always noticed Hotel du Lac lying around at home and never picked it up. But now I'll look out for it again (or perhaps The Debut instead).