BOOK REVIEW / Be bland, but not too bland: A private view - Anita Brookner: Cape pounds 14.99
Bland is a 65-year-old bachelor who has just retired from a worthy job in a dull office. He lives alone in a respectable block of flats, cheated of the companionable globe-trotting he had planned by the unexpected death of an old friend. For 20 years he had sustained a limping love-affair with Louise, who surprised him (but not the reader) by deciding to marry a doctor. Now widowed, Louise comes to call on him with her grandson, an unpleasant child of sixish called Stuart. Politeness being George's great strength, he offers Stuart a drink. 'I've got some Bovril somewhere,' he says. 'Would you like that?' In a rare moment of surprise and delight, we hear Stuart's reply. 'I don't give a bugger,' he says.
Into George's life stomps Katy. She has come to squat in the opposite flat, while George's neighbours are on holiday. She is horrible. The first impression she gives is of 'heaviness, of dullness', but she re-appears as an even less attractive sulphurous siren in black silk and George begins to take a morbid fancy to her. She has been living, we must presume, in a stress workshop in California, and is into tantric massage, chakra and crystal therapy, though she seems to create far more stress than she relieves.
Gradually, George decides that all he wants is to take Katy to Rome for Christmas. Goodness knows why. We are told that he desires her, even that he is in love with her, but his desire is corrupt and he knows it: 'He suspected that in visiting some kind of violence on her, in actually manhandling her flesh, he might experience a powerful erotic satisfaction'. Pathetically, he thinks that he might have one last chance to 'change his outlook to one of joyous determination, or at least of voluptuous brooding.'
It is, of course, not to be. As we all knew from the start, Katy cares nothing for George. All she sees in him is his wealth. She is there to extract money for her return to America. George gives her 'a sizeable cheque, one which he thought might cover everything: the ticket, a hotel, a flat even, meals, new clothes'. One of the few things we know for sure about Katy is that she wears Armani clothes, so it must have been some cheque.
We look over his shoulder to see the amount, but he hides it, and by the next day has forgotten it, has not even filled in the stub on his cheque book - which must be an all-time first for such a man.
This is a novel measured out in coffee cups. Coffee, tea, a Fortnum's cake, a gloomy, pimpled cold chicken and two Italian meals at the same restaurant provide the interludes in an otherwise relentless probing into the shallows of the unloving, unloveable Bland character. He has baths, he sleeps, he dreams of his grim childhood, and he goes for long solitary walks. He visits the Sickert exhibition and sees himself reflected in the pictures, 'seedy, tetchy, graceless'.
John Donne declared, resoundingly, that no man is an island. Matthew Arnold in a despairing moment left every man in the sea of life enisled. Anita Brookner - or at least Mr Bland - is one of Arnold's islands. She writes with an incisive and, it must be emphasised, pleasing elegance. Her style is balanced, controlled, academic and, above all, careful. But you find yourself longing for some spark of humanity, humour, warmth, sibling affection and love in this world of cold, unrelieved isolation and resentment.
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