Anita Brookner

Anitia Brookner died the other day. Brookner was an English art historian and novelist. I think I’ve read almost all of her many novels.

At times they grow tedious, but she wrote well and her themes captured my interest. In 1984 she won the Booker Prize for her novel, Hotel du Lac--a tale of a lonely woman coming to terms with her solitary life during a visit to a hotel by a Swiss lake.

At the Hairdressers was her last novel and the first to be published as an e-book. It is the only one I wrote about on this blog. Her others were written before I started blogging. The following post was written four years ago.

…we are all alone, that no reciprocity is to be sought between people formed by different outlooks, and not only outlooks but different environments, both mental and physical. Anita Brookner

There are several firsts in Anita Brookner’s latest novel, At the Hairdressers. It is her first e-book; in fact, it is only available as Penguin Short e-book. It is her first novel after a lapse of several years. For a while, she was publishing a new novel each year like clockwork, most of which I read. Now they appear intermittently and since she is almost 84, I don’t imagine there will be many more.

It is also the first Kindle e-book I have read from start to finish. After many tedious criticisms of e-books in general, I have finally mastered the fine art of highlighting passages and then copying them into my commonplace book. As readers of this blog have been reminded all too often, these steps are essential to my way of reading.

At the Hairdressers is similar to her other novels. There is a lonely woman (occasionally a lonely man), usually educated and reasonably well off, emotionally reserved, and finished with their professional life. They long for friendship or perhaps a lover, a happiness that is never fulfilled, without hope or expectation that anything will happen to them other than yet another blank day.

Solitude is the familiar burden for Elizabeth Warner in At the Hairdressers. She lives in a basement flat in London and leaves the house only to go shopping and have her hair done. Her only “friends” are the people she sees on the streets, the market, or the women at her salon. Mostly, what the 80 year-old Elizabeth longs for is youth.

…a brooding and no doubt disagreeable old woman to whom memories of youth come unbidden, and unwelcome, now that youth is out of reach.

Sometimes the young do nothing for one’s dignity.

At the Hairdressers opens on this theme as Elizabeth recounts a dream. In it she recalls the small group of friends she had as a student in college, imagines what course their lives have taken, and how much she would enjoy seeing them again. Of course it was youth that was being celebrated.

When she chances upon one of these friends, she is immediately disappointed by the wide social gap between them and the comparative inadequacy and failures of her own life. She concludes that the dream only brought back feelings that are gone forever now.

Again, like most of the other books Brookner has written, this short novel is infused with inwardness, continual reflection by the protagonist of their life, their life unlived, and the only life that one can expect now.

I rather hope I shall die at the hairdresser's, for they are bound to know what to do. At least that is what I tell myself.

You have to like this kind of internal dialogue to enjoy Anita Brookner’s novels. And yet it spite of their repetitiveness, self-centeredness and absence of any action, I find it hard to put one down once I start. I may not read it all at once, but I do eventually finish, knowing full well that the next one, if there is to be one, will not be any different.


Dom said...

The passage in the blog that I found to be most thought-provoking, and upon which I reflected the most, was:

“…we are all alone, that no reciprocity is to be sought between people formed by different outlooks, and not only outlooks but different environments, both mental and physical.” Anita Brookner

This passage caused me to wonder about the extent to which this passage is true for people in general, and elderly people in particular.

It is my perception from my observations that for many, if not most, elderly people the passage is probably pretty much true. However, I perceive that there are exceptions. My perception is that there are some people who need, attract and enter into reciprocal relationships easily with people regardless of whether those other people have different outlooks and environments, both mental and physical.

The reference to “solitude” in your blog also caused me to think back to the following podcast and article:

1. “The Philosophy of Solitude” podcast of BBC Radio 4, where Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the philosophy of solitude.

2. “The End of Solitude” article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Somewhere I read that there are five basic categories of rewards to be reaped from unlearning our culturally conditioned fear of aloneness and learning how to “do” solitude well:

1. A deeper consciousness of oneself
2. A deeper attunement to nature
3. A deeper relationship with the transcendent (the divine, the spiritual, etc.)
4. Increased creativity
5. An increased sense of freedom

I wonder how much of what Anita Brookner wrote about solitude and aloneness was autobiographical, especially after reading that part of the blog that stated that “… Like most of the other books Brookner has written, this short novel is infused with inwardness…”

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: Very thoughtful comment, as usual. You are a blogger's delight. There are always exceptions to any observation, research results or principles. That's why current research in the behavioral sciences is so frustrating for me. Solitude has always been on my mind since I lived alone during the winters several years ago. Yes, I imagine Brookner's novels were drawn from her own experience. I don't think she was ever married, but that can be checked. Thank you for your two references to solitude and speculations about fears of being alone. You have a strong empirical disposition. Richard

Linda said...

Sad that she is gone. I have always liked Anita Brookner - I think because her bleak outlook resonates with my own. It's a comfort.

I just read her obituary in the NYT and her quote printed therein caught my eye and tugged at my heart:

“My life seemed to be drifting in predictable channels, and I wanted to know how I deserved such a fate,” she said. “I thought if I could write about it I would be able to impose some structure on my experience. It gave me a feeling of being at least in control. It was an exercise in self-analysis, and I tried to make it as objective as possible — no self-pity and no self-justification. But what is interesting about self-analysis is that it leads nowhere — it is an art form in itself.”

How right she was. I am going to re-visit some of her works, and especially read the last, the e-book.

Thanks to Dom for the links to the BBC podcast and the article on solitude. And thank you for this post - I did not know she was gone.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: I'm glad you are familiar with Brookner and yes her novels are much like a dark, winter day. But they do resonate as you say. After I replied to Dom, I did learn that she never married and spent much of her life caring for her parents. Your view of her novels would make an excellent topic for your blog. Richard

Dom said...

The following quotation, attributed to Anita Brookner, in Linda’s comment, caught my eye: “My life seemed to be drifting in predictable channels, and I wanted to know how I deserved such a fate.”

I assume from the context of that quoted phrase that “drifting in predictable channels” was viewed by Anita Brookner as a negative, and not something positive, since the context of the quoted statement also included her stating “It gave me a feeling of being at least in control” and “… I tried to make it as objective as possible — no self-pity…”

That caused me to wonder:

1. How predictable do most people want their lives to be?
2. Would a completely unpredictable life be an undesirable life? I assume so.
3. With a completely predictable life be an undesirable life? I assume so.
4. If the idea life would be somewhere between being completely predictable and completely unpredictable, then what criteria do people use, consciously or unconsciously, to determine when their life is “just right” with respect to a balance between predictability and unpredictability?
5. Over the course of the average person’s life does that desirable balance of predictability and unpredictability change and trend in a particular direction, such as by people increasingly favoring predictability as they get older?

As I have gotten older myself, I have found that I favored more predictability, and less unpredictability, than I did when I was younger.

I have heard the saying that “older people get set in their ways”. I interpret that saying to mean that the lives of older people become more predictable, and less unpredictable.

So perhaps Anita Brookner was an exception to the often stated rule that “older people get set in their ways”.

Or perhaps she just reached the point in her life when she made that negative statement about “drifting in predictable channels” that even though “predictability” can be something good and desirable, that she believed that she had just “too much of a good thing”.

Lastly, what is the URL to Linda’s blog that Richard referred to in his comment?

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: I have sent your comment to Linda West. She is busy, but perhaps will have time to post a reply here. Further, I am of the opinion that all behavior, every behavior is predictable. We may not know all the variables that make it so. If fact, we know only a few of them. And I wouldn't want it to be any different. That doesn't mean we don't have choices. Of course we do. But any decision we end up making is entirely lawful. That is, predictable, if we knew all the factors involved. I am not a young man, anymore. But I don't think my life is any more or less predictable than it always has been. Positive or negative outcome is not an issue for me, other than as I age, an increasing number of infirmities inevitably come my way. Finally, I'm sorry I don't recall the URL to Linda's blog at this moment. If I find it, I'll email it to you directly, unless Linda has a chance to chime in. Thanks for your important questions. Richard

Linda said...

Thank you, Richard,

To Dom: Yes, I read Anita Brookner's quote regarding a life drifting in predictable channels as being perhaps not undesirable so much as something to be resisted, and I also think that her perspective in that quote was from a point later in life rather than earlier. Looking back at my own life, it seems that life is very unpredictable when we are young - so many life decisions to make, so many forks in the roads we take, with unexpected consequences. For me, and I suspect for most people, the unpredictability in youth was a good thing, energizing, even hopeful. Beyond youth, though, predictability can become depressing, as we see our options narrow, unrealized dreams no longer possible. Like a habit, it also becomes comfortable, safe, and ultimately, predictability becomes inevitability. Writing about it, from what she said, gave her a feeling of being in control of that. That is exactly what writing does for me - shapes my experience, puts me back in control. We stare down the inevitable.

I have not been able to post to my blog lately, but Richard and Anita Brookner have re-inspired me to get back to it. Thank you for inquiring. Link to my blog: http://commonplacefortheuncommon.com/

Dom said...

To Richard: You made the following statements in your latest comment on March 17, 2016 at 11:21 AM:

“… every behavior is predictable… We may not know all the variables that make it so…”

Your comment caused me to think of ideas that I believe have been attributed to German philosopher Immanuel Kant and historian Arnold Toynbee – that there is an order or design in history

Question – Do you believe that there is any similarity, or comparability, between:

(X) your view quoted above about predictable behavior, and

(Y) the idea of an order or design in history, that I believe has been attributed to Kant and Toynbee?

Dom said...

Linda: I have the following questions as a follow-up to your March 17, 2016 12:36 PM comment:

1. You stated “…I suspect for most people, the unpredictability in youth was a good thing…” Question – do you believe that such “unpredictability in youth” is viewed as “a good thing” (X) by individuals during their youth, or (Y) by individuals later in life looking back upon the years of their youth, but not during the course of their youth?

2. You stated “… what writing does for me - shapes my experience, puts me back in control.” From my personal perspective, I often find that writing out my thoughts and reflections enables me to better integrate and understand my past experiences. In a way, at times I do not believe that I have as clear and understanding of my past experiences as I do after I attempt to write out, and I write out, my understanding of those past experiences. Question – when you referred to writing shaping your experience and putting you back in control, do you mean something different than you getting a better understanding of your past experiences? In essence, is there a difference between (X) understanding prior experiences, and (Y) the shaping and controlling of prior experiences? If there is a difference, then what is that difference?

3. Thank you for providing me with the URL of your blog. I took a quick look at it, and I find it quite interesting, and plan to further review your prior blog entries. Question – is there a way to “subscribe” to your blog, so that each time you make a new blog entry, I will automatically be sent an email notification of the new entry, so that I can be sure of not missing a new entry? Perhaps there is someplace on your blog site that enables me to provide my email address and then for me to be placed on the automatic mailing list, but I could not find that feature on your blog site. Perhaps I have overlooked it.

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: I don't thing there is an order or design in history, as you put it. That is, I don't believe history is ordained in any particular way. I do believe history is predictable in the same sense individual behavior is. But as in the case of individuals, we are in the dark about all the variables. Further, historical events are probably more complex than is true for individuals, so our task of predicting historical events is made even more difficult. And most of our understanding is based on an ad hoc, after the fact analysis. Once we have done that, however, it may help us to repeat whatever mistakes have been made. As Santayana said, "Those who do not know history's mistakes are doomed to repeat them." Ditto for the individual. Richard

Linda said...

Well said, Richard. We are indeed all in the dark.

To Dom:
1. I can only speak for myself, and perhaps what I have observed in others, but I believe that the unpredictability in youth may be something we are not so consciously aware of at the time, but we look back at later in life, at least I do, and I see that all the unexpected changes that came at me ultimately benefited me. So yes, it is a positive perspective gained in later life.
2. Yes, I think gaining understanding of past experiences long after the emotions have settled is a way of psychologically shaping experience, which is also a measure of control. And like you, I find that writing is the way for me to get that perspective and understanding. It is the only way to learn. I believe that one cannot fully understand a thought, an idea, an experience, unless he can articulate it. The written word is that articulation - the process of writing is the revelation.
3. Thank you for visiting my blog. I'm new to the technicalities of blogging and have been experimenting with the layout. There should now be a "Follow" button at the bottom of the Category list. Try it, please, and leave a comment to my most recent post if it does not work. I will get an automatic e-mail notifying me of your comment. Thank you.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: The notion that we reshape past experiences over time is interesting, also I think testable, which for me is the true measure of an idea's worth. Perhaps we continue to reshape experiences as we age, so that the original experience becomes quite different from what it was in the beginning. Richard