My rating: 7.5/10
Our bookshelves are in a constant state of flux. We’ve organized them in various ways throughout the years, even, for a brief halcyon time, in alphabetical order by author, just like a real library. Of course, that was many years ago, and just after a major inter-provincial move, so our joint collection was much smaller than it is now, after 22 years in the same house.
Most recently I’ve noticed we tend to group our books by type, as much as by author. Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, and Bruce Chatwin share shelf space with Thor Heyerdahl; Lucy Maud Montgomery and Dorothy Emily Stevenson are bookshelf chums – or, rather, kindred spirits – both being represented by stacks of well-read, gaudily-covered paperbacks stacked precariously upon a few treasured vintage hardcover editions of their works; Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley and Jack Hodgins anchor the Can-Lit section, with Farley Mowat off in solitary exile in our son’s cabin across the yard; Megan Whalen Turner and Robin McKinley are close at hand, right beside Diana Wynne Jones, ready to provide a escape into a well-created fantasy world when the real world loses its charm, as it occasionally does.
Off in a quiet corner there resides a community of women – and a few token men – who are just a little bit difficult, just a shade sometimes-dreary. Their company is not often called for, though occasional visits prove refreshing; an antidote to the high drama and more obvious humour of so many of our other authorial favourites. The sisterhood on that shelf includes Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen; Vita Sackville-West and Nancy Mitford have settled nearby, as have H.E. Bates and D.H. Lawrence, the last two gathering quite a lot of dust, I must admit, though not in any way destined for the discard box. Though perhaps a bit out of place among that company of women, the melancholy tone of much of their work has placed them among the introspective ones.
And that shelf is where this author is headed. Anita Brookner’s Brief Lives is a fitting companion to Pym and Spark and Taylor and their ilk. It is quite beautifully written with a cleanly distinctive style, and an appreciable quantity of understated humour; the author is obviously one of the “intelligent women writers” who seem to have split their time equally between observation and introspection. The books on these shelves are rather thoughtful books, and, dare I say it, women’s books, in a most intimate way. Though men frequently feature in them, the intellectual emphasis is on the female characters, and the insights given are very much those of the feminine point of view.
Not much happens in Brief Lives; what drama there is exists mostly in the mind of the narrator; she is one of the self-aware observers who watch and hear themselves and rather brutally analyze their own actions and words and thoughts and feelings, while still proceeding with their outwardly “normal” ways.
Fay Langdon, narrator and chief character of Brief Lives, was once a modestly successful singer with a promising radio career. This ended with her marriage to a highly ambitious solicitor, Owen Langdon. Fay’s focus was shifted to the management and embellishment of her husband’s house, and to the frequent entertaining and socializing his rising career made de rigeuer. The marriage is childless, to Fay’s gentle regret, but she fills her days with her wifely duties, uncomplainingly accepting of her new role in the world, yet continually wistful for the life she once lived.
I accepted this routine without demur. I felt no indignation that he should give priority to the office; I doubt if many wives did in those days, or at least the sort of wife who came from my background, which I began to perceive was a little too simple for a man like Owen. He was used to complexity, trickiness, ambivalence; he would rather, I thought, be intrigued by a woman than disarmed by her. He hated those moments of unavoidable truth-telling which occasionally passed between us. I really think that he hated desire. He wanted a wife who would cause him no anguish, yet at the same time he wanted to hold her at arm’s length. He never seemed to sense the incompatibility of those two needs, the one for trust and the other for distance, even for a sort of formality, and I soon learned not to draw his attention to what was, to me, faintly alarming, his abrupt cancellation of intimacy as soon as the occasion for that intimacy had passed. My fault was precisely this, that I would seek to prolong our moments of closeness when I could see that he was already restless with the wish to do something else. My mistake was to lie in his arms moist-eyed with tenderness and gratitude, when the correct stance would have been a certain detachment, an irony, as if to imply that he would have to love me to a much higher standard to convince me that I had to take him seriously. I should have found such a tactic odious, but now I see that it is sometimes necessary to meet withdrawal with withdrawal, dismissal with dismissal. I did not know this then, and because of what happened since I remain unconvinced of it even now, but I see that if a woman has it in mind to bring a man to heel she may have to play a part which runs counter to her own instincts, unless her instincts are those of an aggressor, which mine certainly were not.
Fay is telling her story from the present day, looking back on sixty-some years of life. She is now widowed, and, left financially secure by her husband’s careful financial planning, she seeks to fill her days with some sort of meaningful occupation. Fay is carefully social on those occasions, increasingly rare, when she moves about among the people whom her marriage made into her peers. She is constantly mindful of overstepping the bounds of casual friendship; she dreads most of all becoming one of the emotionally needy women who others dread and eventually actively avoid.
Fay’s friend Julia has no such inhibitions. A decade older than Fay, and much more successful during her own show business career as a diseuse, a performer of dramatic monologues (I admit that I had to look that term up!), Julia’s husband was richer, her popularity greater, and her social circle higher and wider. Julia is a supremely unapologetic egoist; Fay has become an increasingly reluctant participant in the shrinking coterie of “helpers” whom Julia has collected to pander to her needs and desires.
The book opens with the announcement of Julia’s death in The Times, and Fay’s glimpse of Julia’s picture opens a floodgate of memories, and we follow along in almost horrified fascination as Fay monologues on about her life, marriage, and long and conflicted relationship with the acidic Julia.
I found, though “nothing happened”, I couldn’t look away from this novel. And yes, it was dreary, but I didn’t find it particularly depressing, even though I fully appreciated that Fay’s and Julia’s declining years were brutally lonely, and that they’d lived their lives in ways that fated them to an increase in that loneliness as the years advanced. I think it was the writing that tipped the balance. Anita Brookner, if this book is in any way a representative sample of her work, has a very readable, crisp and clean style; Brief Lives was an effortless read, in a very good way. I’ll be reading more Brookner in the future, and, yes, shelving her (I strongly suspect) right next to her literary sister Pym.
The novel lost points for its rather handy but not terribly believable removal of Julia from the scene right near the end. I felt it was a total cop out on the author’s part, though of course it allowed the character of Fay more scope for introspection without the bother of coping with the physical and emotional demands of her pseudo-friend. In real life I think this would have played out in a much more extended and ultimately tragic way.
An interesting author, with a dedicated following.
More on Brief Lives here:
And more on Anita Brookner: