Penguin Books, 1991 (1981)
Contemporary Literature, english, 176 pages.
I bought this book back in 2006 when the biggest english bookstore in Jakarta at the time, QB World, was on sales for all of its books prior to its stores closing. Did not know exactly what I wanted to buy in that sales occasion, I just picked this Brookner’s book by feeling. QB had probably had complete works of Brookner at that time as I remember her books were just lined together in quite a number on the shelves. I just thought this must have been “an important” writer as QB had had such a collection of her works, whilst I had never read any of Brookner’s. For an unclear reason as well, I picked this to-be-read book from my bookshelf at home and brought it along here.
I just read this one recently, and I just got fascinated by her powerful writing. I felt like I had just found a treasure — a treasure that had so far been sitting solemnly on my bookshelf, with me not knowing it. The story itself is not a big dramatized one; it is about a middle aged scholar named Dr. Ruth Weiss, a celebrated academic figure on Balzac, who, at her 40th of age, recalls her life, her childhood in London, her friendship and her doomed love affair in Paris. A life that had been too deeply seduced and impassioned by literature and academic responsibility, and now she comes to think that once again she must make a start in life. But would she, or could she?
Brookner plays more on what is happening on the character’s mind rather than what is going on in the outer world. She elaborates rather the interior landscape and those who look for plot more than anything will get disappointed. Loneliness and being anonymous in the crowd of an intelligent character has been her main theme here, but this depressing theme is written beautifully. Of course the emotion of loneliness in general is not that favorable compared to joy or happiness, but analogue to seeing a painting about loneliness, if it is a good painting, you will feel the emotion just when you are seeing it –it has the capacity to transform you into another world, to the subject’s mind. That is why I found her writing, her prose and words, beautiful yet powerful; it does not make you weep, but rather feel the loneliness under your skin or inside your blood. She also has a sharp eyes in capturing the subtle phenomena in natural way. Here is a taste:
“… among all the girls who had not yet set their sights on the boys wheeling round the school gates on their bicycles at four o’clock in the afternoon. Ruth was always sad when this time came. The day’s security was ended, the anonymity of the school uniform no longer a guarantee…” (page 23)
Reading this book I came to think that it possibly reflects her own biography, partly because the story is told in a way as if it was reel, and partly because I saw the resemblance of the plot in Ruth’s life as in Brookner’s. Born in London in 1928, Dr. Anita Brookner spent some postgraduate years in Paris and taught art history at Reading University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she specializes in the eighteenth and nineteenth century french art. She is a respectable figure in both art and literature fields in England, though she only started writing in 1981 with A Start in Life as her first novel. She has been a productive writer — has written 24 novels, with Hotel du Lac, her forth novel (1984) won the Booker Prize. Beside writing fictions, she has also written some non-fiction books on arts.
I really enjoyed this book. Browsing into some reading blogs suggests that people can just adore or hate her books, and there is even a book titled Understanding Anita Brookner by Cheryl Alexander Malcolm. More I found many who got mystified profoundly by her prose, or did a literature thesis on her works. As for me, definitely I wanted to search for more of Brookner’s books (and have found some!). I strongly think her works can be considered classic in the future.
Paris, 2 August 2010