Yesterday I read in the Telegraph the long obituary of Anita Brookner, novelist and art historian. It highlighted the significant factors of her life as the only child of wealthy Jewish refugees: the unhappy household, where her parents lived a formally devoted but actually loveless marriage; her early passion for art; the novel-writing which began in her 50s; her pessimism and acceptance of euthanasia.
Dr Brookner, as everyone who knew her has testified, was a deeply private person, who rarely gave interviews after fame had come to her. She never married and her novels, often concerning the lives of single, intensely reflective women, reflected a bleak understanding of human relationships, which was seen as a forlorn wish for love that was destined to remain unfulfilled. One might speculate on how her childhood cast its shadow over her later imaginative life.
I write about her here as I once briefly knew her – at a distance. It was 1968, I was reading Part II of the Tripos in Fine Arts at Cambridge and, as the newly appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art, Dr Brookner came to give a series of seminars on the French and English painters of the late 18th and early 19th century to our small group of undergraduates. I can say without hesitation that she was easily the most formidable of all the tutors I came across. She exuded an icy precision of diction, alongside a severe approach to scholarship and a manner that seemed to repel intimacy.
Each week for the eight-week term we had to give individual presentations on particular paintings, such as David’s Death of Marat or Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, which Dr Brookner would then amplify in a way that showed her great love for her subject, if not for humankind. For some reason I was never called upon to give a presentation at these seminars. This might have been because we were a group of nine undergraduates and the term was only eight weeks; it might have been because I never raised my hand to offer to do so; or it might have been that, as I concealed myself at the back, she once caught my eye in her fearsome gaze and dismissed me, recognising my frivolous approach to the one subject that gave meaning to her life.
So I only knew her for a term “at a distance”, as I have said. Nonetheless, such was her brilliance in communicating the significance of a painting that I later framed a copy of Gericault’s “Wounded [Napoleonic] soldiers in a cart” on which she had expounded so memorably, and have it framed above my desk as I write this, 48 years later. It was only after her retirement from academe that Dr Brookner began to write novels. Whenever I read that a new one had been published, the memory of this impeccably dressed woman, with her air of self-control and aloofness and the tone of her voice, in which every comma and semi-colon was effortlessly enunciated, would come into my mind.
The Telegraph obituary (as well as Mick Brown’s interview with Dr Brookner in the Telegraph magazine in 2009), helped me to see something I could not have articulated in those student days, though I was intuitively aware of it: her aura of isolation and loneliness. Just as the heroines in her novels never found fulfilment, it seems she too felt unfulfilled in her life, regretting that she never had children. Her novels were a “displacement activity”, she would say.
I read recently that Gloria Steinem, one of the founders of feminism in the US in the 1960s, admitted to feeling liberated when she realised that she “didn’t have to have children”. No-one should be compelled to live out the role of motherhood, but I think that Dr Brookner – too private and too independent-minded to be a feminist – understood more than Steinem the profoundly human and creative aspect of motherhood and thus could acknowledge and mourn her loss.
As an atheist (she called herself a “pagan”) Dr Brookner is quoted in the obituary as believing “we should promote euthanasia: as quickly as possible, as universally as possible”.
This unremitting pessimism was in accord with her life. Unlike the late Lord Clark, a convert on his deathbed, she was never able to see that a passionate allegiance to beauty cannot be separated from love and truth. It is customary when a person dies to pray that they will “rest in peace”.
Dr Brookner, a restless spirit, was never at peace, but somehow this phrase doesn’t fit her indomitable temperament. So, after Mass this morning in honour of St Patrick, I lit a candle for her and prayed that now, in death, she has come to know the absolute Beauty, Truth and Love that is Christ Himself.