Books: Chilled out by a wicked generation

Carole Angier witnesses another smash-and-grab raid; Visitors by Anita Brookner, Cape, pounds 15.99
Anita Brookner keeps writing the same novel. But it is such a good novel that it's always worth rereading. And perhaps it is slowly and subtly changing, as she and her heroines move - in the opening words of Visitors - towards evening. Her central theme has always been a piquant inversion of the struggle between good and evil, in which good is bad - cold, fearful, life-denying - and bad is good - brave, joyous, fully human. Her heroines are the battlegrounds for this struggle: drawn towards selfishness, sex and charm, but unable to give, or risk, pain.

Anita Brookner is a modern Jane Austen, constantly rehearsing the battle between sense and sensibility, but inclined to let sensibility win. The Brookner heroine is like a Jean Rhys woman trapped inside a Jane Austen one: an exotic, helpless girl obliged to be a dull and decent woman, Fanny Price concealing Antoinette Cosway.

In Visitors, the Brookner heroine is Thea May, a spinster until she was 40, now a widow in her seventies. Like (for instance) Maud of Incidents in the Rue Laugier, she has had her youthful fling with a bad but passionate man. As with all Brookner heroines, this was more life than she could bear. She is proud, intelligent, obedient and lonely, the "brave soldier" her dying mother urged her to be. Her husband, Henry, has been dead 15 years; her only remaining contacts are with his cousins, gentle silly Molly and monstrous, manipulative Kitty.

One of the journeys we make with Thea is towards pity and love for Kitty, whose own possessive, controlling love has driven her son Gerald away. The second is the one invoked in the title. Gerald's daughter Ann returns from the US, asking to be married from Kitty's house. Ann, her born-again fiance David and their hanger-on friend Steve are the visitors who, with their youth and sub-American culture, upset the delicate balance of the old people's lives and show them something at the same time worse and better.

The first journey makes Visitors reminiscent of A Family Romance and its heroine, Dolly. Henry's name was originally Meyer (as was Dolly's); two generations ago his family, like hers, was Viennese, and clearly Jewish. Thus the form of spoiled and selfish charm which both appals and touches English Thea of Visitors, as it did English Jane in A Family Romance, is Mitteleuropean, vintage 1920s-1930s, the peak Freudian years. I can attest that it is wholly authentic. If you have any Swiss Cottage connections, you will laugh and cry over Kitty.

The second journey introduces a new version of the Brookner battle between half-dead Good and vital Bad: the battle between youth and age. Here the dynamic is slightly different. Ann, David and Steve are far from charming: they are entirely free from the desire to please. They think in terms of rights, not duties, especially for women. This calls forth a good deal of irony from Thea (and, one feels, from Brookner: "Those were the halcyon days ... before hurt feelings led to industrial tribunals, before a compliment was perceived as sexual harassment".) But it also calls forth their admiration, even their love. This is the old Brookner tension: still dramatic, because still unresolved.

And yet a step has perhaps been taken towards resolution. For Thea moves towards love not only for Kitty, and for the young people - that is, for sensibility - but also for herself: that is, for sense. Visitors, like all Brookner novels, is full of the heroine's regret for her pale and self-protective choices, for her lifelong fear of an Intruder, which is realised, finally, in Steve. But it ends with an acceptance of all these things. Thea doesn't avoid joy, as she once self-mockingly says; she just finds it in small things - a bird on the lawn, a conversation with Kitty. And that, as Steve would say, is cool too.