Anita Brookner won England’s prestigious Booker Prize for her fourth novel Hotel du Lac in 1984. I read that book at the time but, while I thought there was much to admire in it, did not find it sufficiently to my taste to want to follow the author’s subsequent development. I see with some dismay that The Bay of Angels is Ms. Brookner’s twentieth novel, which means that she has been turning out a pretty steady novel a year ever since Hotel du Lac. How time flies!
Having now read The Bay of Angels, and browsed among the novels I missed, I see that Ms. Brookner has been cultivating a single, small corner of the field of human experience. Nothing wrong with that, and it is of course always possible that she will stun us next year with a bodice-ripper set in old Carthage, or a contemporary tale about missionaries in the Congo. For the time being, however, we must take Ms. Brookner as we find her, chronicling the lives of lonely, passive women pursuing, without much vigor, desirable but distant and rather difficult men. Or, as a reviewer of her last novel but one put it, somewhat unkindly but not altogether inaccurately: “[Y]et another tale of spinsters doing not very much rather slowly.”
The spinster (a fine old word, which my National Review colleague Florence King is attempting to revivify) in The Bay of Angels is Zoë Cunningham, an Englishwoman of modest rentier origins, who has grown up with her mother in a London flat. Quite suddenly, as Zoë reaches college age, the mother marries a man named Simon and goes to live with him in Nice, from whence comes the book’s title. Then, while Zoë is still savoring her independence, Simon dies in a domestic accident. Zoë’s mother goes into a permanent state of shock and is institutionalized. Simon turns out not to have had as much money as he was thought to have, and there is a superior claim on the house in Nice by a relative from his previous marriage. Zoë is attracted, in that tepid, Brooknerish way, to one of the doctors responsible for her mother’s condition, a blunt-spoken man who lives with his shrewish sister.
I had better make it clear before proceeding that Ms. Brookner is not for me. Taoism distinguishes between the quality of yin, whose manifestations are shade, inwardness, passivity, the Moon, concavity and the female principle, and yang, which generates all the opposite things. There is too much yin here for my enjoyment, and not enough yang.
If you like this sort of thing, though, Anita Brookner does it as well as it can be done. She writes beautifully, with many memorable throw-away lines to keep one’s interest: “the slightly ribald atmosphere of a wedding,” “the despair of one whose life is lacking in several essential components,” and so on. She is especially good on cruelty, humiliation and ugliness. One of the few things I still recall from Hotel du Lac is that room which was “the color of over-cooked veal.” Zoë is at one point confronted with the couple (English, of course) who by — as they loudly remind her — perfectly legal right have taken over the house in Nice following Simon’s death. These creatures of quite breath-taking crassness introduce themselves as Tony and Tina:
Names from a television game show. Like most contestants for large prizes they had the insistent smiles that would assure them victory, and behind the smiles the naked gaze of acquisitiveness.
On the schoolboy principle that every significant literary creation can be summed up in a single word (Hamlet — “revenge,” Macbeth — “ambition,” and so on), what word would be appropriate for Ms. Brookner’s œuvre? The closest I can get is “freedom.” Like some other female novelists of our time — Iris Murdoch comes to mind (and yes, I do think this is an exclusively female preoccupation) — Ms. Brookner’s characters are fascinated, baffled, and quite a bit frightened by freedom. Not in the political sense: she is one of that dwindling but blessed company of novelists whose fictions leave you with no clue about how they vote, or what they do behind closed doors. Not even, really, in the metaphysical sense so fretted over by those heavy-breathing French novelists of the middle 20th century, who are now so unreadable. This is a straightforward, quite practical concern with the management of life. Says Zoë near the end of The Bay of Angels:
I have that terrible freedom of which others are justifiably afraid. I now recognize its deep seriousness. I am free to live my life without restraint … This is not always a joyous procedure.
I find that I myself can enter into these kinds of cogitations only with difficulty. It depends on your threshhold of tolerance for yin, I suppose.