Anita Brookner's first novel's first line is rightly celebrated. Her debut, A Start in Life, begins, "Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature." It is a glorious, show-stopping opener, a one-line paragraph which resounds, epigrammatically, throughout the whole of her novel. It is, however, judging by its reception and repetition, perhaps too cute. When Brookner comes up in literary conversation -- not enough, in my book -- the line is often quoted. Its irony is plain to see, but it has a great melancholy weight that it is too easy easily to sidestep. Brookner is a fine comic writer, but the brutal truth is that, for Dr Weiss, that line is brutally true. Dr Weiss is an academic, the author of Women in Balzac's Novels, and her life really has been ruined by literature. She has read and read, but she has hardly lived; and the life that she has lived as been lived according to a moral code she has, quite unwisely, gleaned from fiction. Of course, we are reading about her, and she is merely the creation of a writer, so this hall of mirrors incorporates us too, and nor can we ever be out of it. The irony, then, is that when we read it ironically we miss the both the self-reflectivity and accusatory potency of Brookner's opening line.
I was introduced to Anita Brookner 12 or more years ago by a friend who suggested to me that she was seen by some as the embodiment of all that was wrong in British letters, but that he found something profoundly moving in her work. Her crime, he thought, was in producing novels that were so buttoned-up that they almost immediately seemed like a parody of themselves (and, presumably too, a parody of the certain class of English women of a certain age who populate her novels). I was undeterred: what others saw as a one-trick pony, I quickly warmed to. I saw something troubled and troubling in Brookner's pathological repetitions. Yes, all her books are the same, I thought, that's the bloody point! Brookner has never been fashionable (the Booker win for Hotel du Lac, not her best work, did little subsequently to push her on to the bestseller lists) and I know of only a few people who share my enthusiasm for her writing. A Start in Life, A Friend from England and Lewis Percy are distinct in my mind, but distinct is the wrong word here. Those books are, simply, a little fuller in mind than her other writings, like a bas relief in a room of trompe l'oeil. Distinctiveness is not, I'd argue, the point. Or, better, what distinguishes Brookner from her many contemporaries is far more important to me than what distinguishes any one of her books from the rest.
Brookner was interviewed earlier in the year by Mick Brown for the Telegraph newspaper. The occassion was her latest novel, Strangers. A Start in Life had appeared in 1981 when Brookner was 53. For more than a decade she published a book a year, but her pace is slowing now and, at 80, it is anyone's guess how long she will keep writing for. Brown's interview with her is startling -- and, for me, strangely reassuring -- because Brookner proves, I think, by what she says, that she is as singular and strange as I'd always held her to be.
Witness this exchange:
"The first sentence is easy, and so is the last. What comes between is 'terrifying'.
'It is actually quite a dynamic process, and very absorbing when you're doing it. But when you've done it, you're rather disgusted.'
'Yes. Because it's all over, and you must do it all over again.'"
No sense of exhiliration, no triumphalism here. Brookner knows that she has, by writing another book, achieved nothing. Surely, those are the words of an artist? A genre writer would have, for certain, achieved something: another commodity, another object, another notch on the bedpost. But, with Brookner, it is Beckett's "I can't go on. I'll go on" that is in the air. The attitude is akin to what Eliot writes, despondently, in The Waste Land: "Well now that's done, and I'm glad its over." (And this recall, in the poem, after a sexual encounter; Brookner's word -- disgust -- is, it is worth noting, extremely visceral.)
A Start in Life has a famous opening; it's last line is never quoted. Dr Weiss's Women in Balzac's Novels is a multi-volume affair, a life's work. (Balzac's La Comédie humaine was his own life's work, so it makes perfect sense for any critical work, to do that encyclopedic oeuvre any justice, to be an equally committed business.) She writes to her publisher: "The section [in the forthcoming volume] on Eugénie Grandet has turned out rather longer than expected. Do you think anyone will notice?" The comic touch is as light and assured and pleasing as ever, but for a writer who, following A Start in Life, kept knocking novels out on an annual basis, despite the disgust, despite the lack of consolation felt, and merely because of a monomaniacal need to keep on keeping on, it is bracingly honest too. The critics noticed that she went on producing books, year after year, presumably longer and more often than anyone expected her too, but even here, in her first novel, she intuited not only the lack of fulfillment in that startling productivity (one wonders if, for instance, Joyce Carol Oates has ever paused to pause?) but the idea that such could ever come by writing. Dr Weiss knew that her life had been ruined by literature because, for too long, she misunderstood the relationship of one to the other. Laughing at her innocence is surely a very comforting way of not realising that that same mistake is so often our very own.