The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner

Beckett meets Mills & Boon in Anita Brookner's living hell. Michÿle Roberts is rooted to the spot

When Anita Brookner sets her novels in the south of France they are almost cheerful. The Bay of Angels, for example, offered a typically bleak vision of loneliness stoically borne, but softened by allowing the heroine to be depressed in Nice, to walk at dusk on the beach with a personable French doctor. Her South Kensington and Marylebone, on the other hand, can be the pits. The Rules of Engagement is set mainly in these districts of London, its protagonist permitted only brief, glum sorties to Paris. So we realise from the earliest pages that she is going to have a tough time.

Born in 1948, too young fully to enjoy the Sixties but taken aback by the feminine freedoms of the decade, Elizabeth falls into marriage with dull, rich Digby, who is much older than she is. Soon she declines into a tedious life of washing teacups and feeling grateful but bored. She sleeps a lot, then becomes mistress to Edmund, a family friend.

Digby is felled by a stroke at work and brought home. Elizabeth does not call the doctor but nurses him, by herself, for three days until he dies. Magically, no inquest takes place. Elizabeth's schoolfriend Betsy, innocent to the point of naïvete, reappears after a disastrously ended affair.

The two women visit Peter Jones and tentatively exchange commonplaces over cups of coffee. They both have one more brief and dismal affair. Elizabeth spends her time on her own, doing very little. Then death intervenes again. The novel is narrated by Elizabeth, many years after these losses. The gap between the action and the telling is filled with interminable-seeming pages of reflection, which suggest Elizabeth's need to fill up her loneliness with endless analysis of what she thought and felt, fantasies of what she might have done.

Events scarcely occur; the narration of their absence swells across chapters. Elizabeth is sustained in her willed isolation by a re-reading of the French classics and by her determination to avoid self-indulgence: "At this faint show of sympathy she let down her guard and wept. Yet even as she did so she attempted to reassure me. It was a sign that her essential decency had not been compromised."

Passion occurs only in the adulterous bedroom, and is discreetly referred to as "strenuous activities such as those which had taken place in Bruton Street". Outside this secret place, decorum is observed. Men must take the initiative, women cannot rely upon each other, and overstatement is to be avoided: "My quiche Lorraine was thoughtfully and sincerely praised."

Since her subject is the life not lived, Brookner cannot be fairly blamed for choosing to reproduce this at the level of style. The result, though, is the enactment of depression through the flatness of the storytelling. Long sentences bandage the reader in gloom. Everything is remembered rather than witnessed. Interaction is described from a distance, as though close-ups would be too embarrassing. Dialogue is rare and clumsy, mirroring the misanthropy of the protagonists.

I admire this novel's unique fusion of nihilism with romance, tragedy with social satire, existentialism with conventional femininity. It reads like a fantastic and bizarre cocktail of Beckett, Racine, Baudelaire and Mills & Boon. It is absurdist and camp. With its near-masochistic honesty, its moral scrupulousness and integrity, its unrelenting humourlessness, it offers a particular version of heroism. Nobody else will ever write like Anita Brookner. Elizabeth seems a classic Brookner heroine, starving herself of life and happiness, a somnambulist marking time before death. But perhaps she did murder her husband after all, and is simply not letting on. If her confession is meandering enough, perhaps the policeman-reader will go away and leave her in peace.

Michèle Roberts's new novel is 'The Mistressclass'

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