Book review / Love and slippery fish

Altered States by Anita Brookner, Cape, pounds 14.99

With so much new fiction seeming to coast along less on merit than on street-cred rating, it's refreshing to come upon a courteous Anita Brookner novel. The disregard for fashion and political correctness, the coyly euphemistic references to all things erotic, seem curiously daring and subversive. It's like encountering a crinolined lady in the middle of an orgy.

There are no surprises here, just the guilty nudge of recognition as you identify with one or other of the manifold inadequacies of the characters. You know exactly what to expect, but in a way that is the point of an Anita Brookner novel. There will be ample evidence of a stern yet vulnerable intelligence, acutely refined observation, passages of elegance and eloquence interspersed with long waffly bits, and an over-riding sense of tedium teeming with snakes.

There will also, of course, be a typical Brookner solitary. Here it is Alan Sherwood, "a respectable member of the middle class", a middle-aged solicitor embracing the safety of mediocrity with a desperation that testifies to the fact that he is actually half mad, albeit in that quiet, sane way most of us manage somehow to contain.

Encountering a woman on a station platform, for a moment he is reminded of Sarah Miller, a woman he had once known. This encounter sets off the long locomotive of reminiscence which is his life story, one characterised by the overwhelming illusion that he has actually had an affair with this woman.

Brookner cleverly creates a chasm between what the narrator thinks he is telling you and what you actually understand. He is relating a grand passion; you are perceiving a minimal, passing thing, an awkward filigree of indifference, crossed lines and missed chances. The magnetic redhead, Sarah Miller herself, can scarcely be said to exist at all. Her character is a deliberately slippery fish, impossible to catch. She may be just a deeply unimpressive poser but we're never sure. Alan is so completely baffled by her, he can only put her across as some sort of black hole into which all definitions fade.

What translates to the reader is a profound, sad sympathy, in particular for his short-lived wife, Angela, a woman as frightened and childish as himself, and Jenny, a guilt-inducing nuisance to absolutely everyone, whose progress into a lonely and suspicious old age is so ably defined it manages to be both cruel and compassionate in equal measure.

This is a world of life's losers, those looking in rather than participating. Alan is out of control. He doesn't choose things, they happen to him. No wonder Sarah, whoever she was, passed him by. In the end, ominously, it becomes clear that the woman for whom he actually feels most is poor, neglected Jenny. His sympathy for her is reinforced by the suspicion that "at the end I too will be told kindly lies by those who know me well enough to spare me the truth".

Pithy and pitiless, stoical and accepting, this sums up the tone of the book. An older and wiser man, he can now look unflinchingly at the truth and even take a sort of comfort in the recognition that "the transformation of an unremarkable affair into a sort of pilgrimage has a certain nobility".

Brookner excels at portrayals of extreme pain seeking refined expression. They are studied, understated, excruciating, as when Alan hears that his child has been born dead with the cord round its neck. The image of a staid businessman pulling repeatedly at his collar, alone in a hotel room, will remain long after a great deal of fashionable froth has dated and, in keeping with the spirit of the age, disposed of itself.

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