Anita Brookner: 'You should play Russian roulette with your life'

In our age of sentimental uplift, the dark art of Anita Brookner grows more scandalous and subversive with each book. She talks exclusively to Boyd Tonkin about faith, fiction, death - and why you should marry several times

Saturday 29 June 2002 00:00 BST

Fans of Samuel Beckett may remember a story told about that great prophet of grimly comic doom. Beckett and a friend are walking across a park on a glorious summer day. The sun shines. The birds sing. Nature blooms and burgeons. "It makes you feel glad to be alive," sighs the friend. Sombre Sam demurs. "Well, I wouldn't go quite so far as that."

Outside, in the gardens behind Anita Brookner's modern flat in Chelsea, the sun shines. The birds sing. Nature blooms and burgeons. Inside, amid the neutral, muted décor of a place where she has lived for "far too long", this most rigorous of novelists balances the necessity of hope against the certainty of loss. "There will always be signposts to the good life," she says. "These can be immensely attractive and one should espouse them as far as one can, subject to disillusionment – the defection of friends, of lovers, death. All these disappointments will attack what beliefs you have."

Next month Anita Brookner will be 74. This week, she publishes The Next Big Thing (Viking, £16.99), the 21st in a sequence of increasingly challenging novels which dramatise small, tight lives of iron control with an extravagant intensity of language and nuance. Luxuriant in detail, ascetic in design, her books stage orgies of inhibition, and riots of repression. With phenomenal consistency, they have flowered every summer since 1981, when the then reader in art history at the Courtauld Institute made – at the age of 53 – her own fresh start with A Start in Life.

The stories arrive, she says, ready-cooked: "encoded" from some unconscious source. Could she reduce her staggering productivity? "I hope so." And will she ever decide to resign from her extraordinary second career? "I won't make a definite decision. But it'll be made for me."

Small, intense, dressed in a neatly tailored suit, with luminous piercing eyes, Brookner sits at her dining-room table and answers questions with a frankness and exactitude that make most of her literary juniors seem like evasive wafflers. As befits an eminent scholar and teacher, she is direct, precise, forensic. A bone-dry wit lurks behind her thrillingly cheerless obiter dicta on morality and mortality. With marriage, for instance, this celebrated singleton believes that once should never be enough. "I think that one should marry several times, just to find out" about the nature of the beast. Would one, eventually, strike lucky? "There's no guarantee. I think it's a worthy line of enquiry, shall we say." Eat your trousseau, Bridget Jones.

Did she, seriously, wish for marriage? "Of course. All the time. I wanted children." So the right person failed to show up at the right time? "There's been more than one right person, I'm afraid. I made bad choices, and ignored what was probably near to hand." Yet in the Brookner orbit, character fixes destiny. If she had married, "I doubt if things would have been very different. I think I should have been a very poor wife, and a terrible mother. Full of anxiety. I just think children are so entertaining."

As for mortality: "I think we should promote euthanasia: as quickly as possible, as universally as possible". Does she fear a disabling prelude to the final act? "That's the terror. The stroke that's going to deprive you of one faculty or other. It's unimaginable. It'll come." Neither can this self-described "pagan" turn to faith for consolation. As a child, she read the Bible "from cover to cover" but decided, about the age of seven, that "there were going to be a lot of questions and no answers". Yet she still hankers after belief: "I yearn for the whole package. But I've been disqualified in some way. Also God's doing, no doubt." Her gloom – irradiated by the odd flash of sheer mischief – is exhilarating, a dose of salts in a literary landscape soaked with schmaltz.

Over the past decade, Brookner's zestfully melancholy art has outpaced her detractors. Especially after Hotel du Lac won the Booker in 1984, smug and lazy put-downs branded her as fiction's cracked record, a one-trick turn who snuck back over and over to the airless apartments of forlorn spinsters, left alone with their heartaches and their Harrods accounts.

There was always something facile, even hysterical, about these reviews (I should know; I wrote one). The annual Brookner offered a cheap shot to young critics, eager to savage a scandalous bearer of bad tidings about ageing and loneliness. Yet now she agrees with those snapping puppies. "I hate those early novels. I think they're crap. Maybe I needed to write them. I far prefer what I'm doing now." Yes, she does use the Ratner word. It's like hearing a duchess cuss. Why are they crap? "They're morbid, they're introspective and they lead to no revelations." Has she a favourite among her works? "I don't like any of them very much."

A host of others – among them, the most exigent of judges – do. During the Nineties, Brookner pulled remorselessly ahead of the brat-pack. Her books lost any taint of provincial self-pity; instead, they began to read like chastely eloquent studies of "internal exile" (her phrase) and historical dispossession in the most classical of European moulds. Bereft of false hope, yet indulgent to all the rash acts that may make or break a life, she now begins to sound a far more subversive voice of our time than Irvine Welsh, Will Self, or any other house-trained titillator of the literary bourgeoisie.

"I think you should play Russian roulette with your life, frankly," she says, "because there's so little time." As for her pitiless dissections of love and desire as a blood- and tear-stained arena of power, deceit and surrender, they have more in common with the Marquis de Sade than with the sentimental fatuities of Lad- or ChickLit.

The Next Big Thing presents a hero shaken by lust after a lifetime of humbly "making things better". Seventysomething Julius Herz, the third male protagonist in recent novels, is a self-effacing childhood émigré from Germany. Late in life, he finds release from the family ties that bound him to a solitary stoicism. Passive, obedient, too keen to please, Julius shares more than his Mitteleuropa background with some of his female forerunners. As I list his traits, Brookner breaks in: "He's me, really. You were longing to say that, weren't you? And I thought I was making him up. That's what happens. That's where Freud is right."

Julius plans a twilight reunion with his coquettish cousin Fanny, the heartbreaker he failed to seize while a teenager in Berlin. Meanwhile, the arrival of a pretty City slicker in the flat downstairs re-awakens our hero's dormant sexuality. This young woman, Sophie, showcases all of Brookner's pointillist brilliance with minor characters. We grasp her in sound effects: the orgasmic squeals that rise from the floor below, her clippy-cloppy heels on the pavement going to work. Brookner treats Julius's December yearning with no censure or contempt: "I don't think sexuality ever goes away," she says. But a more suitable swain muscles in, and Julius grasps that his chief role must be to cede the field to the reckless young and pursue the fated "next big thing".

Just as much as WG Sebald's sad exiles, Julius acts and thinks like a traumatised victim of enforced emigration. Brookner neither overstresses nor disguises this refugee psychology. "He saw that he had lived his life as if it were under threat," runs one sentence, "as if he still bore the marks of that original menace and of the enormity of the fate that might have been his." That "enormity" is, of course, the Holocaust. The tumult of the European Jewish past runs like a connective tissue through much of Brookner's oeuvre. She herself was born, in 1928, into a family that combined Jewish immigrants and the children of immigrants.

Her Warsaw-raised grandfather had set up a tobacco-import business, supplying Edward VII with cigarettes. His wife ruled the roost at their home at Herne Hill in south London, a capricious matriarch. Brookner's father Newson was born in southern Poland, and as a young migrant joined the family firm – in both marital and commercial senses. Her mother Maude had sung as a mezzo-soprano, touring North America, but settled back uneasily into the Herne Hill court. Although Brookner has called her parents "ill-matched", they forged a stable setting for what their only child now recalls as "an ordinary middle-class, suburban upbringing, with a comfortable house and a good school. You would say that there was nothing to disturb me there ... I don't know where the melancholia came from; it was probably genetic." Yet into this solid household surged refugees from Germany, employed as maids: "They broke down from time to time, and this was terrifying to a child."

This dutiful daughter discovered art on inspirational day-trips to the National Gallery, finally studying at the Courtauld Institute. After a spell at Reading, she would return there as a teacher (with the help of the connoisseur-spy Anthony Blunt). She stayed until retirement age, publishing acclaimed monographs on the French artists of her beloved Enlightenment. The life-shaping break with Herne Hill had come when Brookner won a scholarship to Paris. There she spent enriching years in defiance of her parents: "I felt cut off from them, and I was very unhappy about that. I just knew I wanted to do it. There, you see, it's the original conflict – what you want and what you're told to do are two different things. And that's what's wrong with religion."

Faith, with its impossible precepts, has escaped her: "whether with faith or without, you're going to be knocked for six". The secular anchor of home remains elusive: "This isn't home. This is where I live." She has no patience for the spiritual bromides of can-do, self-help psychology: "Very lucrative professions. Fallacious." Freud, however, she reveres: "I think all his conclusions are correct, frankly. One does look to one's parents; one does look to infantile sexuality. These are foundation elements."

And art, always, remains. She still finds illumination among fellow "pilgrims" at the National Gallery: "Images have a striking power to crystallise certain moments, certain feelings: a sort of immanence". In the new novel, Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne crystallises for Julius the god-like impact of passion on a frail mortal frame. As for the written word, this disciple of Marcel Proust and Henry James re-reads the classics, but scorns the "negligible" fiction of today. Nabokov – dandy, émigré, melancholy wit – is the last great novelist for her. What of Beckett himself? "More like opera than literature. I love the choral sense of it. Yes, the bleakness I admire; but there are superior bleaknesses, frankly."

The birds twitter merrily in the summer garden. "I'd love to be included somewhere," Anita Brookner reflects. "It would be lovely to be cosy, to be an insider rather than an outsider. I'm afraid it's not permitted – to me, anyway." A sort of dark glamour – even swagger – underlies these avowals of exclusion and solitude. In the age of compulsory togetherness and bonhomie, the effect is strangely uplifting. Sole Sister outsmarts Big Brother. And, yes, that does make you feel glad to be alive.

Anita Brookner: Biography

Born in 1928, Dr Anita Brookner CBE grew up in Herne Hill, south London. She attended James Allen's School for Girls, Dulwich, and studied at King's College, London and the Courtauld Institute, specialising in the French art of the Enlightenment. She lived in Paris on a postgraduate scholarship, taught at Reading University and, in 1964, became lecturer, then reader, at the Courtauld. She retired in 1988. Her works of art history include Watteau (1968), The Genius of the Future (1971), Greuze (1972), Jacques-Louis David (1980), and the essays of Soundings (1997) and Romanticism and its Discontents (2000). She published her first novel, A Start in Life, in 1981; her fourth, Hotel du Lac, won the 1984 Booker Prize. Her 21st – The Next Big Thing – is published this week by Viking. Anita Brookner lives in Chelsea, west London.

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