Shades of gathering dusk

Anita Brookner's 15th novel is as impeccable as ever. By Penelope Fitzgerald Incidents in the Rue Laugier by Anita Brookner Cape, pounds 14.99
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"My mother read a lot, sighed a lot, and went to bed early." She is like Dr Weiss in A Start in Life, who "on certain evenings" lets the dusk gather in her small sitting-room and props her head on her hands, or like Harriet in A Family Romance, who feels "it might be pleasant simply to watch the world from my window." These elegant, well provided for women, who long not so much for death as for silence, are under Brookner's spell, and so, for the 15th time, are we.

Maffy Harrison, the narrator of this new novel, is in search of her mother's hidden past, the mother who sighed a lot. To help her she has only a notebook - the kind you you can get at any French stationer's - with an unintelligible entry: "Dames blances. La Gaillarderie. Place des Ternes. Sang. Edward."

Her mother had never explained herself, Maffy reflects, but muteness is in itself a kind of elegance. Her own account will have to be "a fabrication, one of those by which each of lives." In all Brookner's novels, the truth that matters most is the truth we tell to ourselves.

Maffy's mother, we discover, was Maud Harrison, nee Gonthier. The story is told from changing viewpoints - first from that of Nadine, Maud's tough mother, then from that of Maud herself, growing up in Dijon in the Sixties, then from Edward Harrison's, the weak creature she finally marries, but never from that of the destructively good-looking Tyler, the book's dark "spoiler". We get to know him only through his effect on less confident people.

Edward wears a blazer and laced shoes. He is an innocent who would like "to exert his rights to full membership of the human race," but hardly knows how to set about it. He was up at Cambridge with Tyler and became his friend, or rather his subordinate, more than a little in love with him.

We're not surprised when Edward, on what he'd thought of as a rather dashing visit to Paris, can find nothing to do but visit the Louvre and patrol the hard pavements round his borrowed room in the rue Laugier. Then the scene changes to La Gaillarderie, a small country house between Meaux and Melun, impeccably described with its charming 17th-century brick facade and its one erratic bathroom. La Gaillarderie belongs to Maud's aunt, who has invited her, somewhat grudgingly, for a holiday. The lordly Tyler is a friend of the son of the house. Edward is sent for by Tyler in case he might be useful. The shrieking local girls who arrive for tennis contrast with Maud, a serene, virginal, golden blonde, so far quite indifferent to men. But after only a few days Tyler leads her upstairs to an empty box-room and lays her down "gently on the bare boards." "It was over too soon. It was she who reached up to him and encouraged him to start again. When a distant clock chimed four she put out a hand and reached for her clothes. 'I love you, Tyler,' she said. He said nothing."

Here, Brookner's genius for convincing detail, which notes every button and fold, every emotional setback and recovery, is temporarily out of action while Maud is "nourishing a deep atavistic longing for the most commonplace of stereotypes", a tall, dark, heartless Jack-the-lad. It's as though Tyler is the wrecker not only of Maud's happiness but of all the necessary conditions for that marvellous artefact, a Brookner novel.

Edward, meantime, is content to observe the other two "with a kind of woeful excitement." When he marries the deserted Maud he feels that his love for her is only a new form of loneliness. But, unexpectedly, he turns into a tedious and demanding husband, "poking with a suspicious fork" at Maud's French cooking.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier is a sober, delicate novel, with a sense of approaching dusk. For her part, Maffy recognises that "women now are so free that it seems ungrateful not to enjoy that freedom," but she knows that what she will do in fact is to go to Dijon and keep her grandmother company until she dies.

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