Anita Brookner died at the age of 87 on 10 March, 2016 – impossible date. She experienced her own next big thing just days after the centenary of Henry James’s death. The conjunction remained unlauded in the many obituaries I examined, most of which seemed to be culled from one another and thick with clichés, the usual tired stuff about this most misunderstood and, by then, all but forgotten writer. But her passing gave her a moment of publicity. For a while, if you typed ‘Anita’ into Google, her name appeared in the list of suggestions. She was suddenly everywhere. ‘Oh, Anita!’ tweeted one friend, as if she had committed some sort of faux pas. Indeed, during the week that followed, I was aware of the vulgarity of most death notices, and of much such comment. How she would have hated some of the pieces. How she would have squirmed at the freedom with which people now spoke of her. She lost dignity, was fair game – an historical figure now, her reputation up for grabs.
In fact I read about her death not in The Times but on a website. For I lived in modern times. I had been conducting one of my regular searches of Brookner-related material, though there had been nothing for some time. One wondered about her last years, imagined the horror of being old and incapacitated in a hospital ward, and of dying among strangers.
There were two notable essays in the British papers, one by A. N. Wilson in the Mail, the other in the Guardian by Julian Barnes. Barnes’s was the meatiest, including details I never knew – her brand of cigarettes (Sovereign, an oddly low-rent variety for such a stylish woman); her fondness for the Crillon, when in Paris; her speech at the Booker (‘I usually go on for fifty minutes – with slides’). He wrote of the way she invented her own life, after the deaths of her parents lent her that freedom. He wrote of her guardedness, and of how she politely but firmly curbed any too enthusiastic or adolescent suggestions he might have made. Would she like to come with him to the NFI to see early films of Paris? ‘I don’t think so...’ But he had last seen her in 2010. Again one wondered about her last years.
The piece by Wilson was altogether more disappointing. She never married. She wished she had. She once said she could get the record as the world’s loneliest woman. All that. The Anthony Blunt affair was described in some detail. (Wilson plainly had a certain Spectator article, ‘A Stooge of the Spycatcher’, open before him as he wrote.) But there was one revelation, not that it redounded too greatly to Wilson’s credit either as a gentleman or as a friend. It was the late Eighties, early Nineties. She was in her sixties and attending a party given by a publisher some years her junior. She was, wrote Wilson, hopelessly in love with this man. Wilson hadn’t known she was at the party till he went to the man’s bedroom to collect his coat. There he found Anita Brookner staring miserably ahead, having been there for perhaps more than an hour. ‘It was clear this was the only chance she would get of being near this man’s bed,’ Wilson concluded.
The vulgarity, the intrusiveness, the humiliation of death was complete.