BOOK REVIEW / A prig in need of a conscience: 'A Family Romance' - Anita Brookner: Jonathan Cape, 14.99 pounds
Saturday 10 July 1993
Dolly, Jane's aunt by marriage, is 'a true primitive' who is 'gifted for pleasure'. She is noisy, colourful, vulgar, and of obsessive interest (discreetly so, of course) to Jane. Dolly lives wholly and only 'in the present, which is actually quite a difficult thing to do', certainly much too difficult for Jane, who dusts through and tidies up the past with incessant and fastidious care, and who harbours longings 'simply to watch the world from my window'. In fact, in a most proper Anita Brookner manner, Jane might be said to live only in vicarious retrospect.
Jane - no prizes for guessing that she is the narrator - recalls in precise and luminous detail her childhood, which was timid and pallid but contented. Her sense of it (and hence the reader's) is akin to a view of pressed flowers under glass, faded, but emblematic of a former fragile beauty. Her most vivid memories are of the infrequent but garish intrusions of Dolly, a fish out of water whose appearances linger as turbulence in the becalmed backwater of family life.
Only the years move, only deaths happen. Dolly's husband Hugo (reckless brother of Jane's gentle mother) dies; Jane's parents die; her two formidable grandmothers do not so much die as have the afterglows of their absences extinguished. Only Dolly is left - without money, or least without anywhere near enough for her insatiable needs. And Jane is left - without needs, or least without any she can identify, and with scads of money, enough to embarrass her profoundly (or so she rather frequently protests).
Jane, in fact, is stuck in her childhood-under-glass and never emerges from it. All her life she identifies with children, and even after she becomes a successful writer of children's books and an international cult figure she sustains the kind of exaggerated fear of saying the wrong thing that can only be called magical in the atavistic sense. She is unable even to voice a quibble with the avid American fans who erroneously interpret her authorial stance as feminist, for to demur 'would be to ignore the laws of hospitality, of ordinary courtesy'. This is rubbish, of course; it is the magical thinking of the fearful child.
Ironically, then, it is not only Dolly who is 'primitive' - though Dolly is also childlike, prone to tantrums and to blurting out whatever she pleases with a child's indiscretion and a child's blindness to consequences. Nevertheless it is Jane, so perceptive of the behavioural mechanisms of others, so unaware of her own, who is ultimately the 'true primitive' sustained by precise rituals and by magical beliefs.
Like a child, Jane yearns for perpetual dependence on some allpowerful Other. She prefers other people to make even the simplest and most trivial decisions on her behalf. ('Since they both seemed to want me to move, I said I would, although the loss of my only home would grieve me.') Thus someone else is always accountable for disappointments or wrong turns. In her own way, Jane, like her putative opposite Dolly, absolves herself of any and all responsibility or accountability for her own life, which moves on, in spite of her addiction to stasis, from withdrawn childhood to reserved adolescence to emotionally reclusive adulthood.
There is no one who matters to Jane, which does not bother her unduly, though she claims to yearn for that one true romance which will save and transform. In analysing this longing she reaches what passes - in her own mind - for enlightenment, a perception that she and Dolly are sisters under the skin after all. 'I now understand . . . that Dolly and I had something in common, an age-old ache . . . to be taken in.' And so finally, Dolly and Jane - lonely remnants of the family, polar opposites in style, a generation apart, two women who distrust, disapprove of, even disgust each other - are revealed as equally desolate and are finally drawn into a bond to which Jane gives the name of love.
But the reader perceives rather more than Jane does by this point, for the novel is in fact a brilliantly acerbic study of two narcissisms, two solipsisms. We come to realise that it is not dependence per se which Jane craves, but rather the heady role of mainstay for some totally dependent Other. (Oh horror, Jane] Your American feminist fans, had you revealed this to them, might have gone so far as to call you a 'male-identified woman', the kind of personally ambitious feminist who wants to be Daddy.) Dolly's financial dependence, after all, is not sufficient for Jane; but Dolly's emotional capitulation is a triumph. Love may be as good a word as any other imprecise label for the bonding of Dolly and Jane, but what draws them together is Dolly's greedy need and Jane's equally greedy need to be needed.
Is Jane's solipsism shared by the author? I think not. Brookner is too intelligent a writer, too acerbically aware of self-delusions, too wittily sharp an observer of telling detail (she speaks of Dolly's 'beautiful predatory hands'; of Dolly's sleazy lover Harry as 'the sexual equivalent of an osteopath or a chiropractor; he offered relief') for Jane's unconscious self-exposure to be unintentional; and even Jane has moments of awareness of her own complacent self-righteousness: 'I was a prig who needed a clear conscience.'
It is no accident that Jane is reading David Copperfield at the time of her mother's death. She longs for an aunt like Betsey Trotwood but is stuck with Dolly who, she decides, 'was not only Mr Micawber, she was Mrs Micawber as well'. If this is so, we realise that not only is Jane David, with whom she identifies, she is Uriah Heep as well.
And yet it is not Jane's self-righteousness, but compassion that pervades this novel. What stays with the reader are two moments of great poignancy: Dolly's face, collapsed, desolate, yet determined, as she heads towards a Christmas dinner for the desperate at Bournemouth; and Jane's intense but tightly reined-in grief at her mother's death.
The truth is, for all their solipsism, we come to care about both Dolly and Jane. We like them. We like Dolly because, like the Wife of Bath, she is larger than the tale which contains her. For all her monstrous selfishness and vulgarity, she exudes a vibrancy which is seductive. And Jane's narcissism is that of the frighteningly vulnerable. 'Grief, like pain,' she confesses, 'is immensely tiring', and when, in the wake of her mother's death, the almost affectless Jane sleeps 'deeply, greedily, voluptously, as if sleep were the only pleasure to which I could legitimately aspire,' the poignancy of those transposed adverbs of desire takes the breath away. In other words, Brookner can make us grieve for Uriah Heep, which seems to me to be an extraordinary achievement.
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