Longing for Company

Anita Brookner has published a new novel, Strangers. It is her first in several years and she says it’s her last. For a while she was publishing a novel with regularity every year. They were all pretty much the same and I enjoyed each one, even though at times I grew weary of their repetitiousness.

They uniformly tell the story of middle age to older, middle class, white, well-educated and well off English men and women who live alone. Solitude is their dilemma. Solitude is the subject Brookner confronts head on in each of her books. To avoid it all, her characters uniformly flee to France or Italy where they do little else but continue to ruminate about solitude. They return to their silent flat unchanged and no less unsettled.

Brookner's latest novel tells the same story, this time about a man, Paul Sturgis, 73 years of age, a retired banker trying to find a way to get through the day in his dark and dreary Kensington flat that we learn all too often he dislikes immensely.

“He lived alone in a flat which had one represented the pinnacle of attainment but which now depressed him beyond measure.”

He has no wife, was never married, is without family, friends, faith, hobbies, or as far as I can tell, any pleasures other than reading and walking. His only encounters occur during his walks and visits to local shops and restaurants. The strangers that he finds during these daily activities are his only companions.

“Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers.”

He does have three very different relationships that sputter on and off throughout the tale. He perfunctorily visits his sister in law once each week until she dies and leaves him her flat and her money. On a flight to Venice he starts talking to a woman who, after returning to London, pesters him with her restless needs and demands. And one day he chances upon a former lover who has aged drastically, is in ill health, and who continues to humiliate him.

All he yearns for is for a little company, a like-minded companion, or at the very least someone to talk to.

“…he longed for conversation, for some sort of exchange, for the sort of questioning he was able to lavish on others, not out of need but out of sheer curiosity.”

In an interview Brookner said, “I wanted to describe a life without work, which is a great problem, as a lot of people are finding out now.” It is also clear that she wants to describe a life lived alone, a condition which is increasing common today. The statistics are revealing. In 1998, 26.2 million individuals lived alone in the United States. This represented 25.6 percent of US households, up sharply from 13 percent in 1960.

The statistics take on even greater significance when broken down by age and gender. In 1998, 48 percent of adult women and 21 percent of adult men 65 years old and older lived alone. Taken together they comprised almost 10 million individuals. It appears that at least for elderly women, living alone is becoming the norm.

Brookner is one of the few contemporary novelists to tackle this problem directly. She writes about an almost taboo topic and other than Vivian Gornick (see her essay On Living Alone in Approaching Eye Level) she describes the state of solitude as honestly and as deeply as anyone I know. In Strangers, Brookner writes about Sturgis:

“Reality was very different, reality was solitude, a consciousness of being left out, of being uncared for.”

“Reality for him was absence, colleagues with whom he had been on good terms…friends who had moved away…”

“Fortunately there was no shortage of strangers; in fact everyone was a stranger.”

One day a young woman at the checkout counter smiles at him. That hasn’t happened in ages. He muses, “That a young person could smile in the face of such dereliction struck him as miraculous. He gazed at her retreating back, thanking her silently for this evidence of a life still being lived.”