Sunday, 6 November 2016

A Fraudulent Encounter

I met Anita Brookner only once. I was in a London street with my French friend Marie Delemotte. It was August 1992, and I was nineteen. Marie was much older - ours was a cross-generational friendship - and when I excitedly told her the identity of the rather elderly-looking woman tottering towards us on the pavement, my friend, unimpressed, said, with what I probably would have called Gallic insouciance, 'Oh, go to her! Why not?'

But my heart was thumping. Here was my heroine, my favourite author - here in a London street, at two o'clock on a summer's afternoon - here, in the flesh, or the somewhat exiguous flesh, for the woman approaching us was very thin and seemed frail. She walked with a stick. But Brookner would only have been in her sixties in 1992, and was to live another twenty years and more. She wore a white blouse, a white skirt and a red blazer with large shoulders. Her hair, bright auburn, looked newly coiffed.

The street was Elm Park Gardens, Brookner's home for many years. High banks of mansion flats rose about us, muffling the sounds of the city. Brookner entered one of these blocks, and on an impulse I left Marie and followed the author. I found myself in a vestibule, subfusc, dim; Brookner was talking to a neighbour who had just issued from a bronze-coloured lift. The conversation was about doctors.

The neighbour eventually departed, and I spoke. 'Dr Brookner? I just wanted to say I'm an enormous fan of your books. I've read Fraud.'

'Fraud? Already?' said Dr Brookner of the novel that had only just been published.

'Yes, yes,' I gushed, 'and it's very good!'

'Well, I'm ... most ... gratified,' replied Dr Brookner slowly, in her rich alto, and in what seemed to me pure Brooknerese. 'Are you going up?'

She meant in the lift.

'No, no,' I said, gulping now, and the poor lady escaped, and I exited into the dazzling street, where an amused Marie Delemotte met me.

'Interesting. So that was why we came down this particular street, eh?'
Back view of novelist Anita Brookner by her Chelsea neighbour R. B. Kitaj
R. B. Kitaj, The novelist, 1993

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