EVER SINCE her first novel appeared in 1980, Anita Brookner has produced a new book for publication in the last week of August every year. Small, but perfectly formed, her novels usually chart the melancholy lives of middle-aged, middle-class women (and occasionally men). As she wrote in the Independent two years ago: 'my main concern is with ruminative introspective characters . . . I perceive worlds in the view through a suburban window.'
Fraud, her 12th novel in 12 years, apparently conforms to everything that one has learnt to expect. The heroine, Anna Durrant, is a 50-year-old spinster who lives alone after devoting her life to the care of her widowed mother. When her mother dies, she tries to remain cheerful; she performs good deeds and still lives in hope of finding a husband. But she exists in an uncaring world, a 'mean dirty London' where the air is damp and autumn leaves float through silent, empty streets.
Very few people know her; even fewer seem to care. Like Jane Austen, Anita Brookner creates apparently unloved heroines who can then be loved by large numbers of kindly readers. Mrs Marsh, an elderly widow and friend of Anna's mother, believes Anna has 'a plain girl's faith in a happy ending' and sees 'that this was both her salvation and her undoing.'
But Mrs Marsh does not befriend Anna; indeed, she tries to avoid her, for 'she had neither the capacity nor the desire to penetrate what she divined as Anna's carapace of artifice. She was aware of a complicated existence behind the sunny face which Anna so determinedly prepared to meet the world, aware of enormous frustration, possibly of anger, certainly of resentment. She did not want the task of dismantling this structure which, after all, must have been built up consciously and with some care.'
Other people are less observant. Mrs Marsh's daughter, Philippa, regards Anna as no more than a useful person to run errands for her mother. And when Mrs Marsh introduces Anna to her divorced son, Nick, he is equally disinterested. Anna 'knew that he found her ridiculous, with her flushed face and her careful clothes.' He drives her home from a Christmas drinks party, and kisses her: an insulting dismissal.
Lawrence Halliday, the family doctor and the man Anna's mother had hoped her daughter would marry, sees Anna as fragile and untouchably virtuous. 'Something about that pristine remoteness attracted him, as might a temperate climate, or a serious book.' But instead he chooses a silly, flirtatious wife who then patronises Anna, treating her like a pathetic spinster.
Anna herself is aware that she has spent so long cultivating an obliging exterior that she no longer knows the truth about herself. She also acknowledges that she presents a fraudulent exterior to the outside world. Over the years, she has become accustomed to this. 'She had grown up with the knowledge that she must protect her mother from hurt, and that meant from the truth. They had lived in a pleasant collaboration of unrealities . . .'
This 'fictive' way of life became firmly entrenched years ago, when her mother fell in love with a man who turned out to be a different kind of fraud: a scoundrel who stole Mrs Durrant's money and then disappeared. Mother and daughter bury the unhappy episode and present 'a facade of optimism to the last'.
Anna's only confidante is her French friend, Marie-France, a similarly dutiful unmarried daughter. Yet the artifice is also kept in place for Marie-France's benefit: their relationship is based on a determinedly light-hearted correspondence. Anna's letter about the ghastly encounter with Nick Marsh, for example, does not admit to her sense of humiliating failure; instead, she keeps the tone playful, cool, high-spirited, 'with that faint distortion in the presentation of events at which she had become so expert'.
Finally, Anna loses one of her few remaining solaces: Marie- France announces her engagement, and their relationship is shattered when Anna visits Paris and meets her friend's future husband. He is 'entirely venal', she decides, a man of dubious character, just like her mother's fraudulent lover. And it means, she realises sadly, that there will be no more 'brave civilised letters' between Marie-France and herself.
Winter comes, and Anna becomes paler and thinner. She visits Dr Halliday, and admits to sometimes feeling that she cannot go on. Even her work - a piece of research to do with the French salons of the 19th century that has periodically engaged her ever since she left university - is, she tells the doctor, nothing more than 'a fiction'.
Dr Halliday worries that she might be suicidal: 'Her composure struck him as frightening, almost grotesque: he feared for her.' Mrs Halliday invites Anna to dinner; the evening is so disastrous that it seems quite possible that Anna will go home and kill herself, and finally put an end to all that quiet suffering.
But instead Anita Brookner, like the novel's heroine, subverts our expectations of a conventionally unhappy ending. Anna, having survived the evening, feels oddly strengthened, and decides to go abroad: 'she wondered how and where she was to go. The difference between fantasy and reality had never seemed so difficult to bridge.' She disappears in the early summer. Dr Halliday calls the police, but no trace can be found of the missing woman.
As summer turns to autumn, one might expect the novel's mood to darken again. Mrs Marsh is already preparing herself for 'the long winter siege', as the days grow shorter and the nights colder. But then Anna turns up again, 'in the blessed blue dusk' of a Paris evening, in a chance encounter with Philippa Marsh.
Anna says that she has decided not to be the person that other people expected her to be. She has stopped being a fraud. 'Fraud was what was perpetuated on me by the expectations of others. They fashioned me in their own image, according to their needs . . . In the end I decided to escape.'
The final scene could, very easily, have taken place in a melancholy twilight. But Anna simply disappears again, into the Paris rush-hour, meeting an unknown fate with courage and resolution. Philippa, in turn, follows Anna 'out into the bright, dark, dangerous and infinitely welcoming street'. This may, of course, be read as another 'faint distortion in the presentation of events', in the same manner that Anna rewrote her life in letters to Marie- France. But as a surprising and defiant response to conventional assumptions about the way respectable women are supposed to behave, it feels like a brave happy ending.
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