World Literature

Anita Brookner

 

BORN: 1928, London, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Nonfiction, fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Watteau (1968)

The Debut (1981)

Hotel du Lac (1984)

Family and Friends (1985)

Altered States (1997)

 

 

Anita Brookner. Brookner; Anita, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Anita Brookner began writing novels at the age of fifty- three after establishing herself as a respected art historian. Since then, she has been a prolific writer, averaging a book a year. Although some critics have noted her tendency to return to the same themes time and again, Brookner has garnered significant critical praise for her novels, winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 1984.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood in Suburban London. Brookner was the only child of middle-class, socialist, nonreligious Jewish parents. She was born and grew up in Herne Hill, an upscale suburb of south London. Her birth date is July 16, 1928, although when she started to write she deducted ten years from her age until a friend pointed out the discrepancy in the London Times. Brookner’s mother, Maude Schiska, was a professional singer who gave up her career to marry Brookner’s father, Newson Bruckner. Brookner remembers her childhood as both crowded and lonely. Living in a suburban villa with her grandmother, parents, bachelor uncle, and many servants, she remembers her parents as silent and unhappy. In the 1930s and during World War II, the household was also filled with Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi Germany’s persecution and imprisonment of Jews. During the war, the Nazis killed roughly 6 million Jews through exposure to the cold, starvation, and execution. The tragic situation of Jews in Europe permeated Brookner’s childhood and adolescence.

Early on, Brookner showed great academic promise. After attending a local primary school and James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, she studied history as an undergraduate at King’s College, London, and then completed a doctorate in art history at the distinguished Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where its director, the magisterial art historian and spy, Anthony Blunt, both encouraged her as her teacher and used her as an unknowing stooge in his covert operations (a fact of which Brookner was not aware until the publication of Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher in 1987).

Art and the Turn Toward Fiction. After studying the art of Jean-Baptiste Greuze in Paris on a French government scholarship, Brookner was launched on her first distinguished career as an art historian. Brookner’s area of specialization is late-eighteenth-century and early- nineteenth-century French art, and her books on the subject are not only respected but composed with the kind of narrative drive that in retrospect merges seamlessly with her talent as a novelist.

By 1980, Brookner had earned considerable recognition as an art historian, but she turned to fiction as a form of escape. In a 1989 interview with Olga Kenyon, Brookner summed up her life and the mental state that turned her toward fiction at the age of fifty-three. ‘‘Mine was a dreary Victorian story: I nursed my parents till they died. I write out of a sense of powerlessness and injustice, because I felt invisible and passive.’’

A Prodigious Output. Brookner wrote her first novel, A Start in Life (published in the United States as The Debut), during her summer vacation. ‘‘It was most undramatic,’’ she told Amanda Smith in 1985.

Nothing seemed to be happening and I could have got very sorry for myself and miserable... and I’d always got such nourishment from fiction. I wondered—it just occurred to me to see whether I could do it. I didn’t think I could. I just wrote a page, the first page, and nobody seemed to think it was wrong. ... So I wrote another page, and another, and at the end of the summer I had a story. That’s all I wanted to do—tell a story.

The influential editor Liz Calder accepted the novel for Jonathan Cape.

A Start in Life was followed by two more novels in 1982 and 1983, establishing Brookner’s reputation for insightful and stylistic prose. This reputation was cemented by her fourth book, Hotel du Lac, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1984. Not one to rest on her laurels, Brookner has continued to publish roughly a novel a year for over twenty-five years.

Despite her success in two highly public careers, Brookner’s has been a quiet, fastidious life. She is not part of the social scene of literary London. For many years she has lived in the same small apartment in Chelsea in London, and her needs have been simple: no word processor, answering machine, microwave, cellular telephone, or car.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Brookner's famous contemporaries include:

Nora Ephron (1941—): American film director, producer, screenwriter, and novelist best known for her romantic comedies. She is a triple nominee for the Academy Award for Original Screenplay.

Anne Tyler (1941—): American novelist best known for winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for her novel Breathing Lessons. Tyler was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1986 and National Book Critics Circle Award winner in 1985.

Charles, Prince of Wales (1948—): The eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Charles is heir apparent to the thrones of sixteen sovereign states known as the Commonwealth realms. He was married to Diana of Wales from 1981 to 1996.

Iris Murdoch (1919-1999): Irish novelist and Booker Prize winner known for such novels as Under the Net (1954).

Chinua Achebe (1930—): Nigerian novelist and poet most famous for his first novel Things Fall Apart (1958).

 

Works in Literary Context

With the appearance of her first novel in 1981, Anita Brookner immediately secured a reputation as one of the finest stylists among contemporary writers of fiction in Britain. After a late start as a novelist, Brookner has proved to be a prolific source of the morally engaged novel of consciousness and of exquisite sensibility. Equally admired and criticized for her attention to the themes of stoicism, loneliness, and melancholy, which beset her contemporary, genteel characters, Brookner’s voice is instantly recognizable as the most recent contributor to a tradition of distinguished British female writers that includes Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barbara Pym.

Brookner’s work both borrows from and differs from that of the writers she admires. Like Charles Dickens (and despite the limitations of her range), she is a chronicler of London life. Like Henry James, she is an intense moralist, examining the dilemmas of the upper class. Like Marcel Proust, she has a deep interest in psychological obsession and the failure of desire. Brookner has a compelling interest in the individual and the family, in romance, and in the ways that art structures expectations. She also writes in a thoughtful and sometimes combative dialogue, using the cruder versions of the feminism of her day, with the topic of the life of the solitary, independent, intelligent woman being one of the hallmarks of her fiction.

Autobiography. While Brookner’s novels have varied in plot and subject, many critics have pointed out that much of her fiction is autobiographical to some extent. Her heroines, such as Dr. Ruth Weiss from A Start in Life or Kitty Maule from Providence, are intelligent, solitary women who must make sense of the connections, and lack of connections, with the people around them. Themes of loneliness, cultural and social isolation, and complex moral dilemmas—issues with which Brookner herself has had to deal—permeate her work.

 

Works in Critical Context

Acknowledged as one of the most successful prose stylists of twentieth-century British fiction, Anita Brookner has attracted both the rabid devotion and critical scrutiny ofa major author. She established a reputation for consistent and insightful fiction with her first three novels and then won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1984 for Hotel du Lac.

Hotel du Lac. John Gross of the New York Times, who considers Brookner ‘‘one of the finest novelists of her generation,’’ calls Hotel du Lac ‘‘a novel about romance, and reality, and the gap between them and the way the need for romance persists in the full knowledge of that gap.’’ What distinguishes this novel from Brookner’s previous novels, says Anne Tyler in the Washington Post Book World, is that in Hotel du Lac, ‘‘the heroine is more philosophical from the outset, more self-reliant, more conscious that a solitary life is not, after all, an unmitigated tragedy.’’

With the award of the Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac, Brookner received accolades that assured her of a place among the ranks of the best contemporary writers of British fiction. Many critics and readers regard it as Brookner’s best novel to date. However, along with a greater readership, the novel also crystallized criticism of Brookner’s writing, as she was now seen as an important enough writer to attack. For example, Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the New York Review of Books, stresses the ‘‘masochism’’ of Brookner’s view of romance and comments that ‘‘Hotel du Lac works so hard at the limpness of its heroine that it has a perversely bracing effect.’’ The novel, in his view, ‘‘is divided between narcissism and selfmortification, between wallowing and astringency.’’

From this time onward, the annual publication of one of Brookner’s novels automatically attracted reviews, commentary, and interviews. Noting, too, her interest in the topic of humiliation and failure, she said that in England her books were criticized for being depressing. She attributed this to her ‘‘semi-outsider’’ position in England and her affinity with French life. While some critics fault the lack of thematic variety in her works, many regard Brookner’s elegant prose and detailed descriptions of place, her use of literary devices common to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French literature, and her confessional tone as features that elevate her fiction above the romance genre.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Brookner's Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac focuses on an Englishwoman who travels to Geneva to rethink her life. Other works about foreigners in Geneva include:

Daisy Miller (1878), a novella by Henry James. The ebullient young American girl, Daisy Miller, travels to Switzerland and Italy and falls victim to her own flighty nature in this oft-studied short work by James.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party (1980), a novel by Graham Greene. This somewhat bleak novel centers on a rich Englishman living in Geneva who gives dinner parties in which he humiliates his guests.

Frankenstein (1818), a novel by Mary Shelley. Geneva is the hometown of the original mad scientist Victor Frankenstein, and much of the action in the novel takes place in and around Switzerland.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Brookner has received both praise and criticism for her portrayal of women. Choose one of Brookner’s female central characters and examine her as a role model for women. What messages does that character send? Would you want to live that life?

2. Brookner was a successful art historian before she became a novelist. Research other writers who had prior careers and then turned to writing later in life. How does their previous work experience affect their writing careers, overriding themes, and literary techniques?

3. Brookner claimed that Henry James and Charles Dickens were the two novelists who influenced her the most. Research either one and look for signs of influence in Brookner’s work.

4. Hotel du Lac won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1984. Who were the other finalists, and why was it a controversial year for this prize?

5. Brookner has been much admired as a prose stylist. Choose one passage from her novels that is particularly well written and examine it for literary techniques. Which of these techniques do you think she employed consciously and which intuitively?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Hosmer, Robert, Jr. ‘‘Paradigm and Passage: The Fiction of Anita Brookner.’’ In Contemporary British Women Writers. Ed. Robert Hosmer Jr. London: Macmillan, 1993.

Kenyon, Olga. ‘‘Anita Brookner.’’ In Women Writers Talk: Interviews with 10 Women Writers. Ed. Olga Keny. Oxford: Lennard, 1989.

Sadler, Lynn Veach. Anita Brookner. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Periodicals

Fisher-Wirth, Anne. ‘‘Hunger Art: The Novels of Anita Brookner.’’ Twentieth Century Literature 41 (Spring 1995).

Guppy, Shusha. ‘‘The Art of Fiction XCVIII: Anita Brookner.’’ Paris Review (Fall 1987).

Mars-Jones, Adam. ‘‘Women Beware Women.’’ New York Times Review of Books (January 1985).

Morrison, Blake. ‘‘A Game of Solitaire.’’ Independent on Sunday (June 1994).

Smith, Amanda. ‘‘Anita Brookner.’’ Publishers Weekly 228 (September 1985).

Web sites

Landow, George. The Victorian Web (Thomas Carlyle). Accessed February 28, 2008, from http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/carlyle/index.html. Last updated in 2007.

Lewis, Jone Johnson, ed. The Transcendentalists (Thomas Carlyle). Accessed March 1, 2008, from http://www.transcendentalists.com/thomas_carlyle.htm. Last updated in March 2008.