Anita Brookner: drowning in Venice

The Independent Archive; 13 August 1987 Brookner's new novel, `A Friend from England' (Jonathan Cape), reveals her as a novelist of astonishing technical skill
THERE IS a great deal of nonsense talked about Anita Brookner. The jacket of her latest novel quotes one reviewer who claims: "Anita Brookner has proved herself so fine a novelist that she deserves to be judged always in a class of her own."

Such comments are not only frivolous, they are irresponsible: they provoke equivalent banalities from less enthusiastic critics whose critical orthodoxy (to dignify their parrot-cry a little) goes something like this: the emotional limitations of Brookner's heroines are a reflection of her limitations as a novelist.

This judgement poses (or "begs", as its supporters might wrongly put it) a number of questions. There are limitations in Brookner's fiction, it is true, but the interesting question to ask is whether these limitations are indeed proof of a restricted imagination. Might they not, equally well, be the self-imposed restraints of a writer who has discovered the emotional pressure that formal confinement can exert?

Her new novel, A Friend from England, is highly characteristic in this respect. The main character, Rachel Kennedy, is a woman who lives her life "on the surface". Wounded by an earlier love affair with a married man, she now, in her thirties, avoids emotional involvement and leads a life of low-key independence.

She works in a bookshop in Notting Hill above which is a little flat where she brings people (men presumably) when she feels the need for human contact. Her fear of romantic love is symbolised, rather luridly, by a fixation about water and drowning.

Rachel's dilemma is explored through her friendship with Heather, a woman in her late twenties. Heather is a person of inert and suggestable affection who believes in love, husbands and the idea of happiness through romantic attachment. That is when she believes in anything: for much of the time she merely drifts, apparently at the mercy of other people's actions. This aimlessness irritates the practical Rachel - doubly so, we begin to see, because Heather's passivity also contains the seeds of a self-reliance which eludes the more actively questing Rachel.

As the characters shift through a number of stifling interiors, the play of Rachel's feelings is examined with marvellous subtlety. Anita Brookner builds, with painstaking detail, a model of an entire female sensibility.

There is a pleasant ticking rhythm to Anita Brookner's prose. The sentences are long, but mannerly, with verbs artfully placed to haul the lengthy clauses. But, while it has a tick, it also has some tics - most noticeably the use of the word "for" as a casual conjunction, as in: "For their life was the apotheosis of everything that pertained to indoors." This is an awful sentence, but it would at least have started better if English had a word to serve for what is meant by "for".

Sometimes, however, what at first appear to be false notes are examples of the author's extreme subtlety. The "false" note may be deliberate; there are not many novelists today capable of that degree of psychological insight or technical skill.

Finally there is the emotional recognition or about- turn, which takes place in Venice - a nightmare city for the hydrophobic Rachel. After one failed marriage, Heather is embarking on a second and Rachel goes to talk some sense into her.

Her moment of self- knowledge is wonderful. When you look back you see that it was always coming, that it is not only plausible but almost inevitable. And yet for an instant it seems as though your heart has stopped beating: in addition to the literary satisfaction, you feel a perceptible pressure on the ducts behind the eyes.

Anita Brookner is a novelist of astonishing technical skill, and A Friend from England is a very good book. It is not her best novel, and nor does she deserve to be "judged always in a class of her own"; but if the people who talk of her "limitations" had themselves one tenth of her scope, ah, what critics they would be . . .

Sebastian Faulks

From the Books page of `The Independent', Thursday 13 August 1987