15 May 2010

Book Review: Providence by Anita Brookner

  

Providence
Anita Brookner

I thought I knew Anita Brookner. Before reading Providence I had read all but 3 of her 24 novels and was fairly confident in the knowledge of what I would find when opening any given Brookner. Without exception her novels are somewhat thin volumes with direct, spare language that focus more on internal thoughts than any external action. Her characters are usually financially secure, upper middle class, academically inclined loners, often without the need of work, who seem to drift from one emotional disappointment to another. Or more accurately, who drift around a single emotional disappointment for 200 or so pages. Her characters never really quite experience tragedy, but the entire arc of their lives could usually and fairly be characterized as tragic.

Describing her work as predictable and depressing could give one the idea that I don’t like Brookner’s work, which isn’t the case at all. And there are some who may think I overstate the case or am entirely off base. I know I am certainly oversimplifying, but to me, after reading 21 of her novels over the course of the past 15 years, I have never really thought much differently than what I describe here. Brilliant, powerful books, but also brilliantly and beautifully depressing. I often describe Brookner’s characters as people who never act but are rather acted upon. Usually solitary women who suffer from almost crippling emotional intertia. Joy or happiness are not words I would apply to Brookner’s work.

So I was more than a little surprised in this, Brookner’s second novel, to discover a world that seemed to me to be very different than any other Brookner I have read. All the emotional paralysis and sad, lonely characters are in place, but in Providence Brookner has created a character who actually attempts to make something happen in her life. Kitty Maule is a scholar of the Romantic period and is profoundly, and mostly unrequitedly, in love with a colleague and she is determined to seal the deal.

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand that despite Kitty actively trying to shape her future and develop some outward momentum, her emotional momentum doesn’t really keep up. Little of the external realities seem to impact her internal reality. So maybe this Brookner, at least at a fundamental level, is not really so different after all. But the details of Kitty’s daily life certainly feel different than most of Brookner’s other sad protagonists. At least in this one I’m wasn’t silently yelling at the character to take the bull by the horns. Well, at least not as much as usual.

Reading this, you might think that I don’t really like this (or any other) Brookner character, but there are at least two things that really make me enjoy them. The first is that I like reading about their solitary existence because it appeals to the OCD loner in me. Despite all their angst, their worlds are quite tidy and well ordered. But orderly lives can be lonely lives. The overweening need for peace and quiet and unruffled feathers can often lead to a detachment from others that is ultimately not terribly fulfilling. So the part of me that isn’t basking in the peace of solitude of a Brooknerian life is standing on a proverbial table shouting at the characters to engage life before it is too late. I think I love them because they are cautionary tales for my own life. A “there but for the grace of God go I” sort of thing.

I have no doubt that if Anita Brookner were to read this “review” she would probably sue me for malpractice. I am sure she didn’t write these brilliant, wonderfully nuanced books to have them reduced to “she writes about sad people”. But, there it is. I love her anyway. I guess when you are famous you don’t get to choose your fans.

(And speaking of sacrilegious literary exegesis, I read one analysis of this novel in a book called Understanding Anita Brookner by Cheryl Alexander Malcolm. I know that my analysis might be crap, but I sure didn’t agree with Ms. Malcolm’s take that the whole thing was just about Kitty trying to fit in and be English.)

So tell me, why you haven’t read any Anita Brookner yet? You will either love her or hate her, but you need to find out sometime.

14 comments:

  1. I own Look at Me, which was mentioned in the Guardian's 1000 books list and have read parts of it and it is my type of book (have you ever read any Elizabeth Bowen, her characters aren't perhaps as emotionally inert or lonely, although they don't seem to connect well and the overall tone is sad as well, but for some reason I am a bit... addicted? really into her books) but had been putting it aside for a more serious reading time. I've thought of reading some of her other books too, like Hotel du Lac.

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  2. Yes, why haven't I read any Anita Brookner yet? I own three titles by her including Leaving Home which is in one of my sidebars. No more procrastination!

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  3. I can read Brookner at about the rate of two books a year-they kind of close in on you

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  4. I've only read Hotel Du Lac but I did enjoy it. What would you recommend next?

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  5. I've only read one Brookner, Look At Me, which I enjoyed very much but it was also kind of strange and sad. I really should pick up another Brookner soon.

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  6. I've been wanting to read Brookner for years and have a copy of Hotel du Lac, but, as so often happens, other books keep intervening. Her work really appeals to me because of her focus on solitary women. I have a feeling I'll relate to her characters, much as you say you do. I'll be interested to see if I end up wanting to shake them or wanting to be them.

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  7. Oh I have read her (only two titles to date but have a healthy stack of her work in the house) and I am so far a fan. I love the way she writes and indeed the characters. So far though havent noticed the loneliness r the sadness, maybe a hint of melancholy here or there and some sardonic and subtle witt. If would second you in saying if people haven't read her they should.

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  8. Carolyn: By the time I read my first Bowen in 1999 (The Death of the Heart) I had read four Brookner. Until you mentioned it, I forgot that I thought they were similar in some ways as well.

    Frances: Well, I hope I have helped move her up your TBR.

    Mel: I like to space them out so I can savor them.

    Overdue: Oddly enough, Hotel du Lac is one of my least favorite. I would say read whichever one you come across next. Used copies are kind of ubiquitous--leave it to chance.

    Mrs. B: If Brookner is anything, she is consistent. So if you liked one, you will probably like them all.

    Teresa: You might end up feeling both ways.

    Simon: One of the reasons I need to go back and do some re-reading is that I am not sure I have ever noticed the sardonic wit yoiu mention. And you aren't alone, many of the blurbs on her books say similar things.

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  9. I have to admit that I've never read any Brookner because I simply didn't know about her before now. You convinced me that she deserves a chance however.

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  10. Interesting that this book was different from her other works. I'll have to give her a try and let you know if I love her or hate her.

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  11. Hmmmm. Its that English thing. I never saw the humor/sarcasm/irony in Austen, which another friend delighted in. I was always the one standing on the table shouting. The English accept the sadness and solitude I think and use the sarcasm and wit as a cover and a consolation. It must be fairly individual. Some see that as a strength - in the U.S. we call it a coping mechanism...but a practice that we'd like to move past needing. While we reinvent ourselves. The English are still inclined to think that its "character, fortitude and stiff upper lip".

    On the other hand, I just read "Gate at the Stairs" by Lorrie Moore. She mostly writes about hopelessnes and solitude in the smartest ways. I love her writing. But is loving it because she's so real and rich in that reality a satisfying enough reading experience? Maybe it's reassuring because it validates a certain kind of reality we all encounter but are constantly fighting against. Hers is not about acceptance of the struggle. It just describes struggle. Not so cozy. I guess I always read her though because she kind of keeps me at attention - after I walk away from the book. I think that does make for good art.

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  12. Iris: I am glad I was able to raise some Brookner awareness.

    Books Sliced and Diced: Maybe you will surprise us both and end up somewhere between love and hate.

    Mlle: Well you may have opened a can of worms. :) Recently there was a rather incendiary blog post on another blog about the differences between British and American book bloggers. The whole thing turned out kind of nasty with all the comments etc. And while I certainly don't want to start up that kind of fued I think there is somethinig in what you say. I guess if we can make generalizations about the good parts of English character (and fiction) then we should be allowed to comment on an aspect that might not be seen by all as positive? Then again it might only be our American point of view that leads us to think that stiff upper lip might be a bit repressive. But god knows I am often a little nonplussed at the need in this country for public displays of, well, you name it. I think we could benefit at times from a little more restraint. A little less "hey look at me, validate my feelings..." kind of thing. On the other hand, I am one to talk. Whenever I am in Britain I always feel a bit like a bull in a china shop. So self conscious about my brash, flat footed American ways...But hey it takes all of us to make the world go 'round.

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  13. Great to read your take on this as I want to try some more of her books!

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  14. Why haven't I read any Brookner? Well I will now, that's for sure! :)

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