The British novelist Anita Brookner, who died last year at age eighty-seven, suffered from the most misleading of literary reputations. Over the course of several decades and an astonishing twenty-four novels, including the Booker Prize–winning Hotel du Lac, the prevailing myth held that Brookner wrote conservative, middlebrow stories about dull and repressed women. The novelist Tessa Hadley admitted in the Guardian that before reading her, “I’d expected something ladylike, lavender-scented, prissy and precious; I knew as soon as I opened my eyes to her words that this writing was everything opposite to that.” On a recent episode of the Backlisted podcast, the literary critic and Brookner convert Lucy Scholes said, “For many years, I labored under that rather stupid impression that she wrote novels about spinsters in the worst possible shape and form a spinster can take.” It didn’t help that Publishers Weekly, in 1990, described Brookner as “a latter-day Jane Austen,” a label oft repeated despite its almost comical inaccuracy.
If Austen popularized the marriage plot, Brookner upended it, immersing us in the emotionally clandestine lives of mistresses and other romantic misfits. Literature from the point of view of “the other woman” is rare, and she is the genre’s subversive maestro. Cheated-on wives, in her portrayal, are too self-centered, ruthless, and confident to warrant our compassion. In any case, their marriages and invariably privileged lives are never in jeopardy.
In The Rules of Engagement (2003), the unhappily married narrator, Elizabeth Wetherall, embarks on an affair with her older, undesirable husband’s charismatic friend. Before she does so, she grimly assesses her soon-to-be lover’s wife:
Small, dark, and sardonic, she was tacitly given permission to interrupt her husband, to demand attention, to wait with a cigarette between her long fingers until he lit it for her; and to view me with an amused insistence which seemed to me to hold little indulgence … She was rude, with the rudeness of a moneyed woman who was wealthier than her husband.
The gift for demanding attention is, in Brookner-land, the defining characteristic of the successfully married woman. As a teenager, Elizabeth has already diagnosed herself as “not the kind of woman who sent out the right messages.” She was excluded, she perceived, “by some sort of biological misunderstanding” from the high-flown passion she saw in films. Yet nurture, not nature, is to blame. What has marked Elizabeth for life is the hostile atmosphere at home, the palpable enmity between an unfaithful father and a mother whose “scornful bitter voice in the bedroom filled me with horror.”
In Brookner’s tragic vision, the die is cast by family dynamics, and one’s destiny, so ordained, cannot be averted via either inner or outer resources. Her heroines rarely aspire to personal growth (the very phrase would doubtless strike them as embarrassingly American). Nor do they undergo psychotherapy (which only features in her novel most explicitly about the Holocaust, Latecomers). Rachel Kennedy in A Friend from England has aquaphobia and is plagued by recurrent symbolic dreams but considers any kind of self-analysis dangerous. “Telling dreams, like blaming one’s parents, or falling in love and making a fool of oneself, comes into my category of forbidden things.” Safer to stick to superficial attachments, easily ditched.
Look at Me (1983), one of Brookner’s earliest, saddest, and best novels, is a sustained and gripping meditation on her central theme: the inevitable and Darwinian triumph of the shallow and grasping over the observant and kind. Frances Hinton, an aspiring novelist who works in a medical library, is scarred by a past affair with, it is indicated, a married man (“That time of which I never speak … That secrecy, that urgency, that lack of hope”). When she is taken up by Nick and Alix Fraser, a glamorous couple she meets through work, deliverance from past mistakes and a brighter future seem possible.
Alix, a charming emotional terrorist, takes a proprietorial interest in Frances (or, as she calls her, “Little Orphan Fanny”), who marvels “I had been rescued from my solitude; I had been given another chance.” As she responds to the overtures of the Frasers’ divorced friend James, her writing habit is superseded by, if not quite happiness, then its tantalizing prospect. The passage in which she reflects on her new circumstances is a beautiful and brutal x-ray of a writer’s soul:
It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me. It is your penance for not being lucky. It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find you have no voice at the world’s tribunals, and that no one will speak for you. I would give my entire output of words, past, present, and to come, in exchange for easier access to the world, for permission to state “I hurt” or “I hate” or “I want.” Or, indeed, “Look at me.”
In the end, James rejects Frances in favor of Alix’s friend Maria, a gregarious Italian divorcée who requires no such permission. In the climactic scene at the group’s habitual restaurant, Maria’s uninhibited carnality underscores Frances’s impregnable reticence, and she finds herself in a Boschian hellscape: “The faces before me seemed to me to be flushed, venial, corrupt, gorged with sweet food and drink, presaging danger. Smoke wreathed the hot air, and flakes of ash fell on the unheeded plates.” Completing the nightmare is her realization that Alix had “foreseen or even contrived” the situation and was dissatisfied by Frances’s failure to display shock or anger.
Frances, however, lacks the requisite boldness to either throw a public fit or take a permanent place among the lucky ones. “I now feel that all good fortune is a gift of the gods,” said Brookner in her 1987 Art of Fiction interview with The Paris Review, “and that you don’t win the favor of the ancient gods by being good, but by being bold.” Frances’s solitude is thus an incurable condition. The rewards of fiction writing will do duty, she decides, for more conventional forms of happiness. And yet, for all the heartbreaking defeatism of her pledge to writerly claustration, the reader is left with a suspicion that for Frances, living without a creative outlet—“that inner chemical excitement that made me run the words through my head while getting ready to set them down on the page”—would eventually have proven more debilitating than spinsterhood.
Or perhaps seeking a note of hope, albeit a faint one, is to miss the point of Brookner’s philosophy, in which happy endings are spurious and disappointment unassuageable. For her, writing was merely “a displacement activity,” not a raison d’être. “If I were happy, married with six children, I wouldn’t be writing,” she told The Paris Review. “And I doubt if I should want to.” She insisted in her last interview, with the Telegraph in 2009, that she derived no satisfaction from completing novels, nor pride in their success. “I think most writers are monomaniacs; they just go on,” she said. “That’s probably true of me too.”
Anyone craving consolation or—God forbid—inspiration won’t find it in the travails of Brookner’s characters. Those readers, though, are spoiled for choice elsewhere, nowadays more than ever. Brookner’s singular legacy, long may it endure, is a sentimentality-free perspective on the inherited and unsolvable hazards of heterosexuality. And if her work’s appeal is limited by its principled refusal to let the modest stoics emerge victorious over the brash egomaniacs, its primary focus on the inner lives of lonely, courageous, intelligent women, then Brookner was fine with that. “I’m not very popular,” she once said of her novels, “because they’re bleak and they’re mournful and all the rest of it and I get censorious reviews. But I’m only writing fiction. I’m not making munitions, so I think it’s acceptable.”
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, the Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications.