My rating: 6.5/10
There is no denying that Anita Brookner is a smoothly accomplished writer, for if she wasn’t I suspect I would have quietly laid this novel aside partway through without regret. As it was I had to steadfastly avoid glancing at the many more-tempting books waiting for me on the Century of Books shelves, in order to maintain my focus on this increasingly monotone novel.
The opening chapter sets the stage. An orphaned female narrator (“my parents died years ago…”) muses on the characteristics of her mother which she has started to notice in herself:
My mother read a lot, sighed a lot, and went to bed early…
Maffy, daughter of French Maud and English Edward, goes on to set up the story. She has happened upon a notebook among her late mother’s effects. There are only a few cryptic phrases jotted on the first few pages, but Maffy is inspired by these to create a speculative biography of both of her parents’ lives.
It is a fabrication…one of those by which each of us lives, and as such an enormity, nothing to do with the truth. But perhaps the truth we tell ourselves is worth any number of facts, verifiable or not. This unrecorded story…is a gesture only, a gesture towards my mother…who told me nothing either of what happened or what failed to happen, and how she came to live with us, so far from home.
Maud grows up in genteel bourgeois poverty, living quietly with her widowed mother and waiting the days away, passively beautiful, awaiting her future without attempting to shape it in any way. This changes when Maud meets the predatory David Tyler, holidaying in France. The two have an affair, and Maud awakens to the possibilities of love just as Tyler has had his fill of her and moves on, dumping Maud on his friend Edward, who has been watching the proceedings with jealous eyes. Edward and Maud end up marrying, and move back to England, where Edward is engaged in resurrecting a musty second-hand book shop he has inherited from a family friend. Maud stays home, keeping their apartment pristine, cooking under-appreciated gourmet meals, and otherwise spending her days reading.
And then nothing else happens. Even the birth of a child nine years into the marriage only serves as a minor blip; Maud goes through a long episode of depression, but Edward provides a nurse who remains with the family for many years, allowing Maud to drift along not really taking much interest in anything, though we realize that she does indeed love her daughter in an undemonstrative way, and that she respects and feels affection for the more passionate Edward, who has never quite forgotten that David Tyler was Maud’s first and deepest love. Anything that Edward gets is very much second best; he is willing to take it but something deep inside rebels, surfacing in his last months of life in a passive-aggressive form of personal neglect which ends in his death.
Maud hangs on four more years, until she too turns her face to the wall and drifts undramatically away.
Maffy is left to ponder the meaning (or lack thereof) of her parents’ lives, and how her own personality has been shaped by her dual heritage.
Did I like this book?
Well, “like” is perhaps too strong a word in regard to this novel. And no, I didn’t exactly like it, but I did admire it, in a shuddering “Why am I reading this? I know this will leave me feeling completely apathetic” sort of way.
There were moments of strong feeling, but these were isolated and served to emphasize the bleakness of the majority of the characters’ lives. The mood of a sultry French summer in the early 1970s and Maud’s brief sexual awakening is perfectly portrayed, and contrasts severely with the ambitionless futility of the remainder of her life, and her passive submission to everything else which happens to her from the moment David Tyler walks away. (Though farther along she pulls herself together enough to reject his advances when they meet again, showing a kernel of unsuspected pride, which kept me on her side even as she offhandedly absorbed Edward’s love without really attempting to meet him half way; passive acceptance with no overt sign of repulsion doesn’t quite satisfy, as Edward bitterly reflects.)
A beautiful bit of writing, all in shades of muted blush and grey. But not a writer whose novels I could read over and over and back to back. After reading a Brookner one needs something with more vibrancy to shake one out of the enervating trance of hopelessness which immersion in this sort of thing brings on, at least in me.
While some of the novels by Anita Brookner I read this past summer – Hotel du Lac, Brief Lives – reminded me of Barbara Pym in their rather sly wittiness, Incidents in the Rue Laugier was really like nothing I’ve yet read. It reclines in Proustian solitude on its chaise lounge with the drapes drawn against the sun, so very all alone.
Some thoughful reviews: