The tragedy of Anita Brookner’s novels

Dr Anita Brookner won Britain's Booker McConnell fiction prize for Hotel du Lac (PA)

All lovers of the English novel will be feeling sad at the news that Anita Brookner has died. It strikes me that Miss Brookner’s writing summed up our age where other louder and showier voices failed to do so. Her writing spanned three decades, from 1981 until 2009, and caught much of the spirit of the time in which we live.

Her novels were polished, elegant, precise and also rather dull, in that not much happened in them. Indeed, that was the point: her heroines and occasional heroes were people whom by and large life had passed by: their pleasures were small ones, and the great storms of passion were things that happened to other people.

But this indeed is what life is like for most of us: experience is something we watch; adventures are what happen to others. The modern age, which has promised us so much, has delivered very little. We live in an age of liberation, which means we are all free, especially women: but free to do what? Freedom, in the world of Anita Brookner, is a largely sterile concept. Perhaps future generations will wonder about us, and ask: having won their freedom, why did they do so little with it?

The other thing that persists in the memory having read Anita Brookner is the sense of dislocation. She was old enough to remember the time before the War, and the way London gave refuge to some (not enough) Jewish refugees. This experience of being uprooted, of having no roots, is a strong presence in her novels.

Few of her characters have much attachment to place, or to family, or to embedded traditions. Though it is obvious to the reader that several of her characters are, like their creator, Jewish, none draw any consolation from religious belief or practice, and none seem to be members of a community.

Her world is populated by rather sad solitaries. The Hotel du Lac, the setting for her best known novel of the same name, is essentially a place of exile and transience, a Swiss lakeside hotel. But this is of course our world too. We are all just passing through. More and more of us live alone these days; people have no relations, or no relations they ever see; and religion, which is supposed to be a great binder together of people, is in decline.

Miss Brookner herself, though born into a Jewish family, abandoned her faith, and her fictional world is one where there is no faith either. It reminds one of the vision of Dover Beach, in which Matthew Arnold evokes a world without religion, which is not a good place:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

There was certainly an inner melancholy to Anita Brookner’s fiction. In many ways, in her style and her scope, and her sometimes sly wit, she resembles Jane Austen; but Jane Austen was a Christian (and probably quite a devout one) and a firm believer in society and the ties that bind.

That is why in a Jane Austen novel the heroine always has somewhere to go at the end, when she takes her proper place in society – unless of course like Maria Rushworth she is beyond redemption and has to be banished to a remote farmhouse with only Aunt Norris for company. But in Anita Brookner, the sense of an ending is much more muted, for the sense of society is not so pronounced: rather we are left with the individual alone, making his or her own brave way through the world without much company. This is why, I think, Jane Austen is a comic novelist, whereas Anita Brookner is in the end tragic.

It is some years since I read her books, but this is how they persist in my memory. Perhaps I am wrong. One thing I feel is certain: her books will repay rereading, and will endure. She was certainly of her age, the age of Thatcherite individualism and the succeeding years; but being of an age, and recording it so faithfully, she illuminated something that is permanent in human existence.