Saturday, July 16, 2011

A dance of opposites to the music of repressed passions (Books - A Closed Eye by Anita Brookner)

I'm really pleased that Thomas and Simon gave me an excuse to read another of Anita Brookner's novels. In a certain way A Closed Eye (1991) is the kind of story I expect from Brookner: a repressed English woman becomes aware that she is not living her live fully, she meets opportunities to change that, and she reflects on it (I won't say whether she does change it or not). What is notable about the two Brookner books is I have read is, given this formula, they are not banal but rather involving and surprising. Here the devil is in the details.

Harriet, has a strawberry mark on her face, but is born to outgoing parents, determined to enjoy life.
They were so young, so dashing, that Harriet's birth passed almost unnoticed. Except, 'Oh, Lord,' said Merle, when shown the baby. 'It may fade as she gets older,' said the nurse, pulling the shawl a little tighter round that baby's face, where the red mark appeared so incongruous beneath the wise innocent eyes. Merle felt for her, as well as love, a kind of reluctant pity, almost a distaste. She was glad to leave the child with her nurse and to put on the little black dress, the fur cape, and the cocktail hat to go off to her young husband, equally dashing in his air force uniform, with the officer's cap pushed back from his forehead, and the white silk scarf draped carelessly round his neck. How they drank! How they danced!
And so, as if in response, Harriet grows up retiring where they are spirited, practical where they are frivolous. She makes three friends: Tessa, Pamela, and Mary, but assumes their friendship is almost a form of pity. She spends evenings reading. She goes to secretarial school and takes pleasure in a day's typing. She is introduced to a contemporary of her father's - Freddie. They marry. Her mother, Merle, worries that Freddie is too old. Her thoughts sing a Brooknerian tune:
Her own marriage, which had begun so rapturously, had ended in disappointment. Privately, she wondered if all women were disappointed, and concluded that this was probably the case but was never admitted. She felt better when she had managed to persuade herself of the truth of this. The prospect of spending money, after the years of careful parsimony, cheered her considerably, and in a while she forgot about Harriet, for the furnishing of the new flat made her feel as if she were the heroine of an adventure, a fresh start, while her daughter, who looked on solemnly and without comment, seemed oddly static, as thought the roles were reversed and she were now the adult. Sometimes Merle hid the prices on the articles she now bought so feverishly, as if Harriet might disapprove and order her to return them to the shop.
It is Tessa "tall and fair and commanding" of whom she is almost enamored. Tessa marries Jack Peckham, a handsome man who travels the world, wears his hair long, and his beard unshaven. It is Jack whom awakens in Harriet desire for something outside the bounds of her stoic existence.
When Harriet first saw Jack Peckham she put up her hand, instinctively, to shield her face. With no one else had she ever done this. The gesture was symbolic, as if she were hiding more than her face, as if she were hiding herself, for she recognized in him the stranger of her dreams, and in the light of day did not wish to be found.
Brookner is brilliant at these sort of gestures. It like something an actor would discover in playing a character, or a painter would capture. It's the moment of a person distilled into a single movement, which Brookner then revisits as a kind of refrain. It is the pleasure of the book to read what Harriet does regarding Jack, but how it functions in the novel's progress, I can tell you without a spoiler. It slaps Harriet into the arena of the living. It exposes her to the risk of, as Brookner so bluntly puts it "succumbing to self-knowledge."

This is a novel of comparisons. Comparison of Harriet to her parents, to Tessa, and then when Tessa has a daughter - Lizzie - and Harriet has Imogen - the next generation seems to repeat it, only with ironic variation. Lizzie becomes the reclusive reader - socially ill-at-ease, and Imogen selfish, willful, indulged, and domineering. Lizzie, in fact, becomes a foil of Harriet, but she is not trapped by the social conventions of the 1950s and doesn't have to marry. She is determined, she awkwardly but self-possessedly informs Freddy when still a teenager, to become a writer.
'But not straight away, not until I'm old.' 'How old?' Harriet had persisted. 'Forty,' was the answer. Freddie, behind a newspaper, had laughed; he was already over seventy. But Harriet had taken her seriously. 'You will have to travel, I suppose, and have lots of interesting experiences.' 'Oh, no,' Lizzie had said. 'It will all come out of my head.' That was all that she would say.
Here is a different version of whom Harriet could have become. Someone who knows herself and finds a purpose for her quietness, her desire to remain apart, her love of books, and her talent to observe. I suppose it's inevitable that, in this passage, she becomes the representative of Brookner herself. The writer who chronicles reclusive bookish women and who doesn't start writing until mid-life. Although, Lizzie tells us, her work will be invented - so we shouldn't apply her story too literally.

This book, like its subject, has a quiet and intelligent surface, beneath which the hungers of life have been kept at bay by a combination of some innocence and also subtle self-deception - the 'closed eye' referred to in the title, and borrowed from Henry James, whose writing many think Brookner's evokes. In A Closed Eye these hungers are brought to a boil. The novel's elegance is in the structure of opposites Brookner constructs - bold and shy, indulgent and austere - these become partners in a dance of gains and losses. A dance to the music of repressed passions. Better a life that is modest, considerate, and half-lived, or one careless of consequences, but where one strides boldly, unafraid of asking and of taking? Or is there a third route? One of patient observation, satisfying work, and pleasures taken in the solitary company of one's imagination? But then, what of love?

Now check out the rest of the posts over at the International Anita Brookner Day website.


AnneCamille said...

Thanks for the review. I've never read anything by Brookner, but after reading your review and following some of the links on IABD site, I think I should reconsider.

Ted said...

Hi Cam - I think you would enjoy her. I really liked The Debut a lot too.