Wednesday, 25 August 2010

For those who enjoy Marmite on their ice cream

A friend hinted Anita Brookner as an inspiring literary figure for anyone planning to publish her first novel in middle age.

I may have once tried to read her novel, but found her writing style too dry (and arch-British?) and the characters too miserable to make it to the end.

Now I gave her a second try, and while still holding onto my initial observations, this time, at this point in life, I begin to understand her fans. Her novels are not the most common comfort food, but serve fantastically those who enjoy Marmite on their ice cream.

I started this time with Hotel du Lac (1984), the Booker prize winner and thinnest one of them all. Although Brookner published her first novel at 56, she has already written 24 novels – and I believe all of them deal at a certain level with existential solitude.

Hotel du Lac takes us to a well-established Swiss hotel, which does not have to advertise itself, as the clients have been returning there generation after generation. The hotel is a discreet hiding place for recent widows, too senile relatives, or people who for one reason or another have lost face in front of their nearest and dearest.

Edith Hope, an author of romantic fiction, is running from a wedding she cancelled at last minute. While moping in her cardigan in the lifeless village off holiday season, she writes letters to her true beloved David, who is happily married elsewhere and intends to remain so. She describes to David the everyday encounters with the odd hotel guests in painstaking detail, but never sends the letters. Another suitor appears on stage, offering her the kind of establishment a respectable woman writer would obviously need, in order to be taken seriously by her publisher and friends. It is an odd tale of love, written in such an ironic tone that one barely remembers the romance.

I have understood that most Anita Brookner protagonists are sexually inhibited, confessional and distant at the same time, and obsessed with self-analysis. They are happiest living their lives in the familiar quarters, greeting the same shopkeepers from thirty years back, and although they dream about escaping, somehow they don’t get it done. In the novels it rains too often, and the characters try to solve their problems by taking long walks.

From a postcolonial perspective, it is peculiar to read European novels, in which all characters are white Europeans. This is becoming rare even in today’s Finnish literature. Funnily enough, I find affinities in Anita B’s writing to two other Anitas: Anita Desai from India and Anita Konkka from Finland. The writing styles of all three women may differ, but their protagonists have something in common. Anita D. has a more positive view of humanity than Anita B., and Anita K. flirts more with alternative lifestyles and feminism, but all three Anitas offer the reader a world that has not been fully chewed and digested on her behalf.

Though Brookner is a contemporary author, writing of her own times, there are deep historical layers in the characters, as if they had been born to the wrong decade or century. There is something fascinatingly displaced in all of them, a “far out” psychology that allows interpretations sensitive to other times and places.
Now I am starting a second journey with Anita, through the novel Latecomers (1988). The third one waiting on my table is Family and Friends (1985). Let's wait and see if I come to the end of the famous Brookner walk one day.


Padma Priya said...

hai yours is a valuable writing regarding brookner. you have done a comparison between the three anitas. it was really useful.

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