An Introduction to Anita Brookner’s Prose

Let me introduce you to one of my favourite writers, Anita Brookner (1928 – 2016) 

Anita Brookner was an English novelist and art historian, born into the Polish – Jewish family in North London. She was appointed as Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cambridge in 1967 and was the first woman to hold this position. Anita became a laureate of the 1984 Man Booker Prize (then the Booker-McConnel Prize) for her novel Hotel du Lac which was also beautifully adapted into a 1986 TV movie featuring Anna Massey in the leading role.

Brookner spent most of the 1950’s living in Paris and completing her doctoral studies at the Ecole du Louvre on the French government scholarship.  She never married and cared for her parents as they aged. In one of her interviews, Anita famously called herself “the loneliest woman in London”.

 Anita started writing considerably late in life. Her first book “A Start in Life” was published in 1981 when she was 53. She wrote a total of twenty-seven novels and I have given myself a task to read all of them. 

Loneliness, solitude, the position of single women and men in the society as they get older, complex, and multi-layered family relationships, including the ones between older children and their elderly parents are the recurring themes in Brookner’s novels.  

Anita was a meticulous observer of human nature and it is reflected in her writing; all her novels are detailed studies of a human character; they are never plot driven. The ordinariness of Brookner’s protagonists is another aspect typical for her writing – these are not heroes; these are everyday people trying to make the best out of their existence. Anita often limns in her novels a nuanced view on the mundanity of human life and the expectations that the family and the society impose on an individual

Brookner’s style is beautiful as well as strangely elegant, she is very careful with her words; every sentence, every punctuation mark has its meaning or preferably many meanings.  

If you love BEAUTIFUL, MULTI-LAYERED and GENTLE prose filled with musings on the mundanity of life, I do highly recommend you read a few books by Anita Brookner. Her writing will bring you a sense of solace, peacefulness, as well as an understanding that you are not alone in your everyday struggles through the ordinariness of your daily existence.  

“A Start in Life”

“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature” – this is probably the most compelling first sentence in a book that I have ever read.  

“A Start in Life” evolves around the story of 40-year-old Ruth Weiss whom we follow in London, Oxford, and Paris.  She looks back at her life in order to understand why she feels so unhappy with her existence. She analyses her childhood, her relationship with her parents and people she has chosen to surround herself with and her career. The theme of how the external circumstances might shape one’s existence and if an individual can do anything to change it prevails here. Even when given a chance to change the course of her life, Ruth is unable to do so – as life is not simple; it is nuanced and multifaceted.

To me, this is a very life-affirming  novel depicting a mature, independent woman reflecting on her life and understanding that there is no perfect existence; there are regrets in life but it does not mean that the life does not have a value.  

“Fraud”

“I believed my mother, who told me that the best things in life are worth waiting for. And I waited. That was the fraud….I blame myself….I shouldn’t have been so credulous.”  

This is a story of a 50-year-old woman, Anna Durrant who dedicated most of her life to care for her elderly mother. When her mother dies, Anna, similarly like Ruth Weiss in “A Start in Life”, is unable to make changes easily in life and putting herself first. This is the story about the expectations that others have of us, how they can affect our life. However, in the end, Anna makes the choice of returning to “the bright, dark, dangerous and infinitely welcoming street'[s[‘ of Paris where she had lived as a young woman and where she felt as she belonged to. Anna understood that her life as the younger self was a fraud – she did not live up to fulfill her own dreams; she did what others expected of her. “Fraud” is a wonderful character study of a mature woman who comes to realisation of her own desires and her own worth.  

“Making Things Better” (also published under the title “The Next Best Thing”)

“Making Things Better” tells a story of a 73-yer old, retired shopkeeper, Julius Herz. It is a story about loneliness experienced at an older age when making life-changing decisions is no longer easy and often impossible. Julius feels as if he did not live his life as he should have wanted to. It is also a story about love, longing, fulfillment, and obligations that we have towards others, or do we? 

The depiction of London bustling streets is a literary treat for the reader; however, these streets are not recognisable to Julius at the time we meet him in the novel.  

Again, this is a profound character study of a mature individual faced with the mundanity of his own existence.  

I hope you have enjoyed this short introduction to Anita Brookner’s prose and you are encouraged to get a copy of one of her books.  

3 thoughts on “An Introduction to Anita Brookner’s Prose

    1. Oh, I hope you will enjoy her books as much as I do. Good starting points are: Hotel Du Lac, A Start in Life, Look at Me or Latecomers.

      Also, BBC has recently posted on their BBC Archive Twitter account a short interview from 1984 with Anita Brookner. There is not much footage of Anita so this footage is a gem. You can watch it on BBC Archive and the post was made on 19 October 2020. I attach a link here – not sure if it is working. Anyway, it is worth checking:

      Liked by 1 person

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