Book review / Love and slippery fish
Altered States by Anita Brookner, Cape, pounds 14.99
Saturday 08 June 1996
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.
MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word
Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says
Review: One Direction, Fourmusic
Review: The World of Ice and Firebooks
Film More romcom than S&M
Review: The Imitation Gamefilm
Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars
TVNetflix gets cryptic
TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth
Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 'Not suppost to cry': 9-year-old lists the worst things about being a boy
- 2 'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
- 3 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 4 Lana Del Rey rape video: Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking leaked footage
- 5 Largest ever study into the gay gene 'erodes the notion that sexual orientation is a choice'
Lee Evans announces his retirement from comedy on The Jonathan Ross Show
Iggy Azalea responds to Eminem rape lyrics: 'I'm bored of old men threatening young women'
Angelina Jolie confirms retirement from acting: 'I've never been comfortable on-screen'
Lana Del Rey rape video: Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking leaked footage
Willow and Jaden Smith talk duality of apples, holographic realities and the melancholia of the ocean in incredible New York Times interview
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
'Muslims pre-date Columbus in discovering America,' says Turkish president Erdogan
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
Former Tory PM Sir John Major says 'we would not have an NHS without migrants'