Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner a reader in the history of art at the Courtauld Institute in London, is the author of a study of David and of two novels, A Start in Life and Providence.

Fearless Solipsist

Anita Brookner, 31 July 1997

It pays to take a romantic view of oneself; distinction is only tardily conceded by others. In the business of self-assessment – which was her business – Colette was never far from self-promotion. This endeavour sustained her through three marriages, numerous love affairs, and, more important in her own estimation, 49 volumes, some of them admittedly slight. She expressed admiration for George Sand, who could finish one novel and begin another in the same half-hour, yet she herself could shoulder the equally impressive task of projecting her image throughout a long and varied life, both on and off stage. Her undoubted beauty helped, yet it is not as a beautiful woman that Colette is remembered but as a fearless solipsist. The title of one of her later books, Le Voyage égoïste, describes her progress perfectly To her singular status the gift of sumptuous prose, refined from tentative beginnings, seemed a natural adjunct. Her readers came from every level of society, and from every sex: her emotional range was wide, but not necessarily indulgent. Henry de Montherlant, who described her as ‘le plus grand écrivain français naturel’ was wrong: Colette is a work of art, and one created entirely by her own means.’’

Mme de Blazac and I

Anita Brookner, 19 June 1997

When I first went to Paris as a student I was directed, by an association set up to sort out the problems not so much of visiting students as of indigent widows with large apartments, to Mme de Blazac in the rue des Marronniers, in the 16th arrondissement. Initially, the rue des Marronniers struck me as a haven of suburban rectitude: I did not then know that it was expensive. Mme de Blazac, unlike the sort of Frenchwoman I had had in mind, was welcoming, though with an infinitude of reservations. Rather than formidable and omnicompetent, as I had imagined from the aristocratic name, Mme de Blazac was small and tremulous, and clearly more nervous than myself. She had shaken hands, had hovered in the corridor, while indicating a room covered with dustsheets. Layers of plastic were wrapped round the few books on a shelf by the bed. When I opened the wardrobe, which was empty, I was met by a nose-tingling blast of moth repellent.

On high heels up Vesuvius

Anita Brookner, 21 July 1994

In October 1879, Flaubert, then aged 57, invited Maupassant to dinner, informing him that there was a purpose behind this invitation. He wanted to burn some letters, and he did not want to do so alone. After a particularly good meal, Flaubert brought a heavy suitcase into his study and began to throw packets of letters into the fire, occasionally reading passages from them in his booming voice. This process went on until 4 a.m., not an unusual hour for Flaubert. (History does not relate whether Maupassant was equally alert.) One particularly thick bundle of letters contained a small package tied with a ribbon. This was seen to consist of a silk shoe, a rose and a woman’s handkerchief, which Flaubert kissed and threw into the fire. It has always been assumed, and it is assumed by the author of this book, that these relics, and in particular the letters, were evidence of his attachment to Louise Colet, his mistress in the late 1840s and early to mid-1850s. His letters to her, now in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Avignon, contain reports on the work in progress, which was to become Madame Bovary, together with remarks and maxims which form the essence of his artistic credo.

Daddy’s Girl

Anita Brookner, 22 December 1983

This disturbing, even unpleasing book arose out of a reaction from which only a nerveless and protected minority are saved. As a child, the editor, Ursula Owen, found a photograph of her father which showed him in an attitude, a guise, that seemed to her ‘uncharacteristic’. It was not simply the fact that he was a German Jew and was photographed wearing the uniform of a colonel in the British Army: that somersault was circumstantial and could be explained away in a single sentence. (As a German-speaking industrialist, he was being sent back by the British Government to make a survey of Germany’s not quite ruined industrial potential.) No, the truly disturbing and dismaying quality of the photograph, and one which was to work underground and to result many years later in this book, was conveyed by the expression on Ursula Owen’s father’s face, one which had presumably never been seen there before. ‘After a while I realised what it was; my father looked vulnerable.’

Good Girls and Bad Girls

Anita Brookner, 2 June 1983

Those happy readers who sing hymns of praise to lyrical childhoods, their own, and, by extension, those in their favourite works of fiction, would do well to study Deborah Moggach’s extraordinarily skilful account of a childhood blasted by what is now acknowledged to be a more widespread offence than was previously recognised: incest. To write about childhood without sentiment is difficult, for childhood can be a time of boredom and confusion, when events occur in advance of the critical apparatus which might accept or deflect them. One of Deborah Moggach’s great successes is to portray this state of randomness while making us aware that it is only a matter of time before a dawning consciousness will reflect on damage irrevocably done.

Wintry Lessons: Anita Brookner

Dinah Birch, 27 June 2002

Anita Brookner’s first novel appeared in 1981. Since then she has published it again, slightly altered, almost every year. It is a remarkable feat. Nor is it irrelevant to what she has to...

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Missing Mother: romanticism

Graham Robb, 19 October 2000

Trying to define Romanticism has always been a typically Romantic activity, especially in France. The word romantisme first appeared in the year of Napoleon’s coronation (1804) and soon...

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Living with a little halibut

John Bayley, 8 October 1992

The novel and story depend a good deal on mystery. Pip has great expectations – where do they come from? – but more important, who is Pip, and what is he after? Everyone can be made...

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Dreams of Avarice

Patrick Parrinder, 29 August 1991

‘The rich are different from us.’ ‘Yes – they have more money.’ Though it is Hemingway’s riposte that sticks in the memory, Scott Fitzgerald’s belief in...

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Dirty Jokes

Julian Symons, 13 September 1990

‘Julia died. I read it in the Times this morning... I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.’ The first...

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Looking for magic

Dinah Birch, 14 September 1989

It’s not long since the fairy story seemed the least political of genres. Not so today. A preoccupation with transformation and escape, coupled with a repudiation of the sober certainties...

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Ruined by men

Anthony Thwaite, 1 September 1988

Alison Lurie’s new novel is, among other things, an anthology of several characters from her earlier novels. Readers unfamiliar with these books need not be apprehensive, however: The Truth...

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Rachel and Heather

Stephen Wall, 1 October 1987

Anita Brookner’s novels have been preoccupied with women who feel themselves to be profoundly separate. This may be the result of either choice or necessity, or of stoically making a choice...

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John Bayley, 4 September 1986

‘Old people were rather in fashion at the time. Every week one or the other of the quality Sunday papers included a feature on the elderly, and if it could be shown that they were being...

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Frank Kermode, 5 September 1985

So far as the evidence of five novels goes, Anita Brookner has one basic theme, which she varies with considerable and increasing technical resource. All five books are quite short, and all have...

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The Great Exhibition

John Sutherland, 6 September 1984

A prefatory note testifies that Empire of the Sun draws on its author’s observations as a young boy swept up by the Japanese capture of Shanghai, and his subsequent internment in Lunghua...

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Dear Sphinx

Penelope Fitzgerald, 1 December 1983

Ada Leverson (1862-1933) said she had learned about human nature in the nursery. A little brother got her to help him make a carriage out of two chairs, but when he was taken out in a real...

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Elaine Jordan, 21 April 1983

The 19th-century novel was the great forum for writing about life – from sanitation to the condition of women, from politics to love. All the novels reviewed here are very much of the 20th...

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Robert Taubman, 20 May 1982

The voices in A Chain of Voices are those of 30 characters, Boer farmers and their hired labourers and slaves, in the Cape in the early 19th century. The voices are ‘all different yet all...

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Graham Hough, 16 July 1981

The four novels before us are all highly original, but they tend to confirm an old popular belief – that there are two sexes and that there are some differences between them. All end sadly,...

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Art and Revolution

Norman Hampson, 18 December 1980

In what her publishers claim to be the first monograph in English on David, Dr Brookner explains that she sees her book as a ‘preparation’ for more specialised studies at present...

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