A game of solitaire: It's widely assumed that the lonely intellectual heroines of Anita Brookner's novels are based on herself; that she's an unhappy spinster, a victim of circumstance. She puts the record straight

Blake Morrison
Sunday 19 June 1994 00:02 BST

'IT'S WRITTEN in tablets of stone now, isn't it,' says Anita Brookner, with quiet exasperation. 'It' is the idea that she writes the same novel over and over, and that its heroine - sad, solitudinous, dowdy, virginal - is a description of herself. In her own mind, she creates different stories with different characters, but still there's the assumption that these reveal her own character, her own story - that of a genteel Miss Lonelyhearts. 'I feel I could get into the Guinness Book of Records as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman,' she said in the year she won the Booker Prize with Hotel du Lac. And 10 years on, she's still up against an image problem.

'Well, I am a spinster,' she says. 'I make no apologies for that. But I'm neither unhappy nor lonely. I am interested in people who live on their own, people who get left behind, who drop through the net, but who survive. They seem to me quite heroic characters sometimes, but no one inquires about them because they're people who do without much conversation, whose loudest moments are internal. If such characters persist through my novels that's because I don't know much about them, not because I know them too well. I write to find out what makes them tick.'

Part of Anita Brookner's image problem has to do with her very dependability. Since 1981, when she started life as a novelist, she has published a novel a year, regular as clockwork, first in August, now in June, either way a fixture of the English summer, like Wimbledon or the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. If it's 1994, then the new one, just out, must be her 14th - and it is. A Private View is about Bland, a sexuagenarian (that's the only sex about him), brought to the edge of misbehaviour by a young American girl. Devotees will recognise the central character: muted, cautious, ennui- laden. And the book's moral dilemma: the shy, decent person (in this case, not for the first time, male) brought into the orbit of an exploitative extrovert. And the question the book poses: 'Why should life seem exciting only if there is the possibility of throwing it away?'

'Clearly I'm not a 65-year-old man who has worked in personnel,' Brookner says. No. But if someone said to her, not that she was gloomy and sad, but that her novels were, how would she reply? 'I'd agree. I don't intend them to be like that, but I think they're an accurate reflection. Life is not a nightclub, and some of the reviews I've had, particularly from women, which assume that it is, seem to have been quite defensive. These women are angry. They believe they can get what they want from life. Maybe they're just lucky enough not to have found that out that they can't'

So her novels are about how difficult it is for people to get what they want? 'How difficult it is to get what you want and still be a married person. That seems to me the difficulty - though I'm aware, now there are no moral rules or sanctions, it's hopelessly old-fashioned, this notion, and that people will want to distance themselves from this poor unfortunate creature who writes these books about poor unfortunate creatures.' She raises an eyebrow, tilts her head, and smiles teasingly: ' People assume that I know nothing about the world out there. Little do they know . . .' And adds, even more teasingly: 'As you can tell, I'm not about to reveal all.'

ANITA BROOKNER says she hates her Chelsea flat, but that at least, unlike most of the houses in the square, it's modern. And yet it isn't as neutral as I'd been told: the colours are pale, the furnishings minimal, but there's taste, elegance, order. So, too, the woman herself is an altogether more chic and cosmpolitan figure than most of her heroines. 'My ambition is to be unnoticed,' she tells me, but in this she is a conspicuous failure: even at 65, even in a grand mittel-European hotel, she would stand out from the crowd: the impeccable clothes, the auburn hair, the china-doll delicacy of the head, the humour waiting to break from the eyes.

Some years ago, as retirement from the Courtauld Institute loomed and she needed to move her books and belongings, Anita Brookner bought another flat, in the same block, on the same floor, in fact literally next door. It seems odd, to have a second home on the doorstep of your first home: it's as if she were sending up the idea of a country cottage or the workplace within walking distance, or as if she were parodying herself as someone of almost agoraphobic unadventurousness. But the flat makes perfect sense: 'I simply work there. It's got a desk, and a bed, and a telephone number which nobody knows, so I can ring out but nobody can ring me.' It's hard to imagine a more respectable double life. But a double life, of sorts, is what it is: the woman and the novelist keep separate addresses.

But of course her fiction, if not a description of the life she leads, is certainly an expression of herself. And a recurrent dilemma of her novels is: Should I marry? This has also been the dilemma of much great (not merely romantic) fiction of the past. But Brookner's characters often receive the wrong kind of proposal, or bolt from the impending ceremony, or marry in haste and repent at leisure. The choice between lonely self-possession and companionable self-immolation - this is her theme. How much has this to do with her own life?

'What can I say? I have had offers of marriage but I didn't accept them. I possibly never met anyone to whom I could really entrust my life. I suppose it stems from early childhood.'

In what way?

'Well, I was always wary of my parents' plans for me. And I never really wanted to be taken over, or to have to give up anything else. It would have meant giving up work.'

But did she never think: working as an art historian need not rule out marriage - I could have both?

'No, I never thought that. From the outset the work absorbed me and I felt passionately about it. Of course I fell in and out of love like anybody does, but I think I knew that I was always going to live on my own.'

Yet she was attracted by the idea of marriage? 'I thought when I was young I would give everything up to be happily married. But you grow out of that, I think. By 30 a sort of wariness had crept in - I began to recognise men and what they were doing it for. These are people with their own agenda, who think you might be fitted in if they lop off certain parts. You can see them coming a mile off.'

In this sense she's like her heroines, then, who tend to receive unsuitable proposals, unsuitable because they have nothing to do with love? 'Yes. Or even sex.'

Did she never come close to marrying?

'To somebody who'd asked me? No, I would have run a mile, frankly. I considered one or two offers very seriously. But at the same time I was aware I was being leaned on, was being used as a prop. Which was an unhealthy situation: I didn't want a weak man, you see.

'I would have liked companionship. And I would have liked to have had children: I enjoy children's company. If we could have got the difficulties of the proposal out of the way and settled down as perhaps two old people with small children, that would have been an ideal set-up. Then I could have got on with my reading and writing and all the rest of it. But I really didn't want to be taken over. Although it may be very boring of me to insist that I want some time on my own for working, how else could I work effectively?

'And I wouldn't have been a very good wife, I can tell you. I'm a rotten cook - I've been a good cook, until I discovered how very much you could eat without actually cooking it yourself: that was a great day for me.'

It seems bizarre now to think good cooking a requirement (in women) for marriage, and Brookner is aware of sounding old-fashioned: 'If I were a young woman today I'd make demands, I'd be conscious of my rights.' On the other hand, living with someone was no kind of alternative: 'That would be even more disruptive than marriage, I'd have thought. Anyway, you know, I can't blame anybody for this. I was too absent-minded to get married.'

Forgetful, does she mean?

'Just ruminative. It's not very attractive.'

But she might have met someone else ruminative, a like mind?

'Then you'd never exchange more than a few words. That would have suited me very well.' Such people, though, she implies, don't make marriage proposals. And if she had married, she'd have needed to find a way to go on writing, 'which would have meant marrying someone who was living in a different place and getting him to stay there - an even more difficult thing to arrange.'

Anita Brookner, it's clear from all this, is no victim. She has made her choices and - for all her air of melancholy propriety - these have been strong-minded, even feminist choices: rather a life alone than in someone else's pocket; rather nothing than a man who thinks he owns you. In a male novelist, choosing to stay single in order to write would be called dedication. In Brookner, because she is a woman and because marriage hovers over her fiction still promising to solve and satisfy and set unchangeably in order, it is seen as a condition to be pitied. But Brookner does not pity herself, does not equate solitude with unhappiness:

'It has its drawbacks. It can be lonely. If something terrible happens you have to cope on your own: a disappointment in love, for example - these things have to be shouldered alone. And the basic situation of coming home to an empty house. But I'm very comfortable. You can please yourself, you can do what you want, make your own timetable, you can read at meals. And you're not doing anyone any harm by this. It's the ideal combination. You're completely selfish, and yet you can be quite benevolent at the same time.'

SELFISH and yet benevolent. It is a reasonable description of Anita Brookner's life. She isn't someone who lets you come close: there seems to be some deep-rooted and perhaps quite justifiable fear of violation and betrayal; and beyond all that, the wish to be alone. On the other hand, she has friends and she is kind to them; she is (an unusual quality in famous novelists) a good listener; on her own terms, she is sociable, living in London rather than some rural hermitage, and attending private views and publishers' parties as she chooses.

There aren't many Anita Brookner stories - a triumph, from her point of view. But there's one, of a party for the Times Literary Supplement. On arrival, she lingered by the door with a woman biographer she knew. They talked for a bit and then she entered the crush. Two minutes later she was back, on her way out. 'But Anita, you've only been here five minutes,' protested the biographer. 'And I'm so happy that three of them were spent with you,' Brookner replied.

Her politeness is legendary. She is one of those people who, if once told the names of your children will recall them, as she asks after their health, five years later. An almost ritualistic formality is there in her friendships, too. If she meets a friend for lunch at one (a single fish course, and no wine), it will be over by 2.15 at the latest; if it's dinner at 7.30, you can expect to be home in bed by 9.30.

It sounds cheerless, but with her dry melancholic wit and slow smile she is good company. Her correctness can be bracing, even exhilarating: as one of her friends puts it, 'you find yourself watching your punctuation as you speak, and thinking: this is where I should put a semi-colon in.' In Brookner's world, leisure isn't as the rest of us perceive it. Julian Barnes recalls her telling him once that she'd been 'doing nothing lately but relaxing'. 'I suppose that means you've been re-reading Proust,' he said. At which she beamed: 'For the third time. How did you guess?'

Her high standards seem to demand a similar rigour of others - and moral rectitude. When Liz Calder, her editor at Cape, left the firm to start a new publishing company, Bloomsbury, she remembers Brookner saying: 'You will behave impeccably, I know.' The implication, among other things, was that any attempt to woo away Cape authors - particularly this Cape author - would meet with disapproval. Brookner is nothing if not loyal: she has stuck by her agent and publisher (and by the Spectator and Observer, for whom she reviews), just as she also stuck by the Courtauld Institute until retirement, even after her Booker Prize success in 1984 gave her the financial freedom to go. How did the Courtauld react to having a famous novelist in their midst? 'They were very kind. They ignored it completely.'

Many of the competing strains in her life were inscribed in her face that night she won the Booker. She hadn't expected it ('I hope you win and I think you will,' she had written on a card to Julian Barnes a few days before), and her surprise and delight were palpable. But dread seemed to be there as well - an awareness, even in that moment, that she would never again be a private person, that from now on she would constantly be noticed. Look at Me is the title of one of her novels, and it's hard to judge which, in her mind, is the worse fate: to be looked at (a surrender of privacy) or not to be looked at (the fate of the unlucky and unattractive).

Now, it seems, people don't so much look at her as look to her. When she's out shopping or walking, strangers home in on and unburden themselves to her.

'I give out strong negative waves, on purpose. But people seem to see me coming. They say to themselves: 'There's that poor creature with nothing much to do: she'll be fascinated to hear my life story or how successful I am'. Between here and Peter Jones I meet 16 people I know vaguely and who would possibly like to know me better. I welcome it. There's nothing malicious in my interest. I'm amazed, that's all.'

Is she saying these people recognise her, that her fame is the spur? 'No, I live a completely anonymous life, I promise you. I'm a suburban matron now - I do nothing else but go to Peter Jones and Waitrose, or sit here reading. It's very easy to interrupt me.'

There is a gleam in Brookner's eye as she says this - the same playfulness you catch when she says that she goes out less and less, that she may never attend another dinner party or, come to that, write another novel. She likes finding aphorisms for her melancholy, a condition of poetry and gloomy pleasure. She struck her true note in the first sentence of her first novel - 'Dr Weiss, at 40, knew that her life had been ruined by literature' - and has never looked back.

Or rather, is always looking back. Whatever their settings, her novels seem increasingly to inhabit a London of the 1940s: a world of afternoon tea, and gloomy bourgeois interiors, and occasional shopping trips to Harrods - still life with biscuits. This is the world she knew as a child, and it's there, rather than in any adult trauma, that the sources of Brookner's distinctive view of the world can be found.

SHE WAS, she says, 'born into the purple of trade' in Herne Hill, a suburb near Dulwich, on 16 July 1928. Her maternal grandfather had come to England as a young man from Warsaw, and had set up as a tobacco importer, with a factory on Westminster Bridge Road. 'I didn't know him: he'd already died when I was born. My mother said that in his last illness he raised a Corona cigar to his lips, and drew on it. He supplied Edward VII with his cigarettes. There was an engraved cigarette case from the King, which vanished with one of the maids.'

Her grandfather had four children: 'It was quickly registered that, if you wanted to get on, you had to leave. So the elder daughter ran off with a Hungarian to America, and the elder son went to live in Spain. And my mother and uncle were left to look after my grandmother.'

Brookner's father, meanwhile, had come to England from Poland at 16: 'From Piotrokow Tribunalski; sorry, I can't even spell it. We couldn't pronounce his Christian name, either, and called him Newson.' He fought for the British army in the First World War, and joined and then married into her grandfather's tobacco firm.

So it was a bit like Room at the Top? Her father married the boss's daughter . . .

'. . .who was by then very beautiful and making a career as a singer. Yes. She'd just returned from a tour in America and Canada, and like many Victorian daughters she gave it all up when she married. And was, I think, a little unhappy ever after. She was called Maude Schiska, had a mezzo-soprano voice, and sang Lieder and ballads. Sentimental stuff - but there was enormous passion behind it. I remember she used to entertain her friends in the drawing room. And I used to cry, and would have to be removed by my father. Because I could sense some sort of hurt in that voice: nostalgia, longing - longing, that was it.

'But everything was kept under control. She was very well-behaved. They both were: silent, stoical and I think very unhappy. They made each other lonely, because they were ill- matched. But everyone remarked on their devotion to each other. And their loyalty and their piety are indeed object lessons. We all lived together in a sort of suburban villa: my grandmother, my father, my mother, my bachelor uncle - and there were European overtones to this suburban set-up because all my grandparents were Polish, and, of course, Jewish. When the family came together, they surrounded my grandmother like a court: no change of mood went unregistered.

'I thought it was ridiculous at the time. Now I think it's enviable, that sort of closeness - though it can also be imprisoning. It wasn't entirely harmonious, either. By the time the firm had been inherited by my bachelor uncle, he and my father hated each other. My father was a very good son-in-law, but his status in the firm was slightly subordinate, and my bachelor uncle was a horrible man: short-tempered, frustrated, very spoilt. And this created tensions in the family, of which, though they were invisible, I was very aware. And then the aunts, a sister-in-law and cousins, greedy, gossiping women, who visited frequently and whom I disliked. Yes, there was a lot of tension.'

The young Anita, an only child, grew up with a nanny, a nursemaid, a housemaid, a daily woman, a gardener and a gardener's boy. 'Middle-class people did live like that, then. I was more or less taken care of by others. The nanny wore a veil and uniform and all the rest of it, and slept in the room next door to mine. Her name was Iris, and she wasn't educated but she was very kind, which is what small children want. I remember my parents as being in another room. Or in the garden with friends.

'I had no sense of these servants as having a different status. They were always very well treated, as part of the family, or as more than part of the family, because they were deferred to. When I was rude once, to a maid whose name was Margaret, my father took me on one side and said: 'Margaret is a guest in the house, and we do not behave like that to guests.'

'There was the added complication that in the 1930s the house filled up with Jewish refugees, who could come if they found a sponsor, I think, and if they went into domestic service. In the war, again, there were refugees living in the house, until such time as the police turned up to take them off to the Isle of Man and they went to be interned and were never seen again: history does not relate what happened to them. There was a tragic element in childhood. My parents weren't religious, but you couldn't help but be conscious of being Jewish at that time. I knew terrible things were going on, and were coming close, and I suppose that couldn't help but seem menacing.'

Was she unhappy as a child, then? 'No, it was so Chekhovian, really.' Her father loved walking round London, a habit she has inherited, and took her to the National Gallery. And there were books: 'My parents read idiosyncratically, for comfort, which I still do. And I loved books because you can metaphorically shut your ears when reading.' Books were also there to provide information about social conditions: 'It was a fairly socialist household. Bernard Shaw's Prefaces were discussed - as was Dickens. My father thought that Dickens would uncover the mysteries of English life. Instead, I grew up thinking that everyone had a funny name. Life was really rather a relief after this panorama of social injustice.'

At 11, Brookner moved from the local primary school to James Allen's Girls' School, in Dulwich. School was a liberation: 'It was sweetness and light out there. Everyone was so normal. They behaved so predictably. They were so good-humoured and friendly. I had to rearrange myself after a day at school, before I went in. My parents were very nice people: it was just that they were unhappy.'

Weren't they interested in her progress there? And as an undergraduate at King's College, London? And as a postgraduate at the Courtauld? And in Paris and beyond, where she went on a French government scholarship to study the paintings of Jean Baptiste Greuze?

'Not at all. I was not being groomed for stardom, I promise you. It was thought I'd do something trivial for a couple of years and then get married, you see. In fact it was my duty to do that. So I did the other thing. And had to pay for it. When I was in Paris I was literally starving because my parents wouldn't allow me any money: I had no allowance of any kind. They held out for a long time. Because I'd deserted them, you see.

'It was the beginning of the world for me, leaving behind this contentious atmosphere at home and discovering a great city. But also a tremendous wrench. My mother wept. It was decided I was ungrateful and all the rest of it. There was that awful jealous longing: Please Come Home. And every time my mother got ill after that, it was blamed on my having gone away. They were relentless in that respect.'

It seems a courageous thing for her to have pushed off like that - into a career, moreover, in which few women were to be found: 'Well, it's an instinct, you see, to save your own life at some point. I think I knew I'd be unhappy if I stayed at home. And then it was a matter of motive and opportunity, as in a detective story. It felt like a death-sentence of course. Everything I did, I thought: 'Is this allowed? What would they think at home?' I still have a feeling of failure, that I didn't live up to their expectations, that I didn't justify them, or vindicate them in some way with a brilliant marriage, by marrying a millionaire, so that they could have retired, emotionally. That was all that was required. Happiness didn't come into it.

'After Paris I taught at Reading for a bit, and then got a regular job at the Courtauld, which was marvellous. (She later, in 1967, became the first woman to be Slade Professor at Cambridge.) And at that point my father expressed relief: because although I was disgraced, and unmarried, I was salaried, and in effect I'd done something right. A sort of minimal appreciation then became possible: someone must have thought I was all right, you see.

'My mother was fairly ill by this point: she'd had rheumatic fever as a child, which affects the heart muscles. My father looked after her devotedly, but when he predeceased her my duties became more concentrated. I knew my mother didn't want anyone with her - just as I, now, getting near her age, don't want anyone near me. She had loved my father but it was a sort of relief to be on her own. I got her a flat near me, but she didn't want anything to do with it. So I had to go back.' Did she resent having to nurse her mother? 'I felt a terrible sadness at seeing a life winding down and being unable to do anything about it.' Her mother eventually died in 1969, aged 74.

Was the errant daughter forgiven by then?

'Yes. I think my mother came to realise that, had I been married, I wouldn't have been so available. There was an irony there. Though there was still a degree of thinking this was a ludicrous way for a woman to behave - the shadows of spinster, schoolteacher: they all thought in those stereotyped terms, I'm afraid. Thank God that's all changed.'

She retains enormous gratitude to Anthony Blunt, at the Courtauld, for encouraging her career and 'conferring a sort of enlightened patronage' - an affection that survives despite evidence in Peter Wright's Spycatcher that he used her as a stooge or 'cutout': 'He was too good and kind for me to harbour any ill feeling. But it was a pernicious episode. It was treachery. I'm too innocent, that's my fault. I've never known. And what I'm doing now is the equivalent of cultivating my garden.'

PERHAPS it's too pat to say that Anita Brookner inherited from her parents two contradictory ideas - you have to marry, and marriage will make you unhappy - and that out of that contradiction she has made her fiction. But her desire for an ordered and unobtrusive life is readily understood as a retreat from that tense, overcrowded house in Herne Hill. Fiction may have served a similar purpose. She speaks of it as 'a sort of antidote to raw action. The writing is a beautiful stillness: that's the only way I can describe it. I was idling away one hot sunny day, in the early 1980s, and almost automatically began to start. I'd always read a lot of fiction, admired people who wrote fiction, and I just wondered if I could. I wrote A Start in Life in three months, over the long vacation. And I wrote the following three or four books like that, too: out of idleness. It's got more difficult since then, of course.'

She had been a late starter - she was 53 - but 'I couldn't have done it at 30. There were things I didn't know were there, that had lain in the unconscious for a very long time.' Now she writes in the winter, 'when it's oppressive and there's no incentive to go out. It's never mapped out. I've no more than a half-page of notes, and though I know how it's going to end I don't know how I'm going to get there.' She has described the process of writing fiction, wonderfully, as 'trying very hard to remember something which has not yet taken place.'

In her fiction's miniature moral universe, there are, I suggest, two inflexible rules. Rule No 1: virtue is not rewarded. 'No, never: no good deed goes unpunished, I'm convinced of that. Every action is gratuitous.' So what's the point of virtue? 'It's preferable to vice, that's all I can say in its favour: it hurts fewer people.' But it's important to her that people seek to be virtuous? 'Yes, definitely. Morality is only a recognition of limits, after all. That seems to be a rational proposition: that there are limits and that you recognise them.'

Rule No 2: love doesn't do people any good. 'I wouldn't say that. It sometimes settles on unworthy recipients. It's random, you see,

isn't it? It can be very selfish and destructive - though I've never met anyone whom it actually destroyed.'

Her next novel - which, her annual cycle working as it does, she has already finished - is 'about a passionate love affair', she says, and 'very sexy, though the act itself is never described. Physical description is never necessary. It's reductive. These matters are secret. Or should be. It's a matter of truth, too. Much sexual description is boasting, self-promotion, display. I would want sex to remain unknown by those to whom it's not relevant. I don't know why I have to go out with a placard.'

She admits to having periodically suffered from depression. That might have made some people seek an analyst. But friends speak of Brookner's 'rich interior life'. And she doesn't find depression a thing to feel depressed by.

'Depression can be quite fruitful if it leads to thoughtfulness, inwardness. Certainly my parents' deaths, certainly disappointments in love have led to periods, yes, quite long periods of depression - but they haven't been entirely defeating, you see, they've been quite nourishing. Because you're very receptive when you're in that state: in fact, it's invaluable.'

Depression - or inwardness - has made Anita Brookner wise, and though she may be less newsy now than she was 10 years ago, she is one of the few contemporary novelists likely still to be read in the next century. What seems musty in the 1990s will seem less so in the future, as the dust blows off to reveal the perennial nature of Brookner's themes - love, marriage, work, age, solitude, loyalty and innocence; the inevitability of failure; what we owe to others and what we owe to ourselves.

She would not pretend to be a writer on the scale of the writers she loves - Proust, James, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Stendhal - but it doesn't seem rash to include her alongside Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, women novelists who, as time passes, look less like 'women novelists'.

Above all, beyond the irreproachability, there is a playfulness, wit and strength about Anita Brookner. Her public persona may be that of mortuary attendant, or party pooper, but this is only part of the story: 'It pleases me to play the old lady card. It's quite useful at times. But if it were true, it wouldn't be a card, would it? I'd be a poor thing. I'd feel sorry for myself. Which I don't think I do.'

'A Private View' is published by Cape at pounds 14.99

(Photograph omitted)

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