Friday, 14 April 2017

A Fair Exchange

Just why and how does 'At the Hairdresser's' generate in the reader such a sense of unease and alarm? Elizabeth Warner may be Brookner's most vulnerable protagonist - and it isn't just that she's physically dependent, but there's a moral vulnerability too, a disposability 'to make-believe affections' (Ch. 7), a dangerous openness to suggestions. She is, quite simply, only too happy to fall in with Chris's plans. All the while she has her suspicions, knows that what is being presented to her is very probably a performance, a fiction, knows that the nature of the relationship cannot bear too close a level of scrutiny. Indeed Brookner goes further, setting out in provocative terms the compromises being entered into:
I was wasting money, I knew that, but his presence was agreeable, and it seemed a fair exchange. I knew perfectly well that I was paying for his company, as I had never in my life done before... (Ch. 6) 
And I had nothing to read. But there comes a time when books let you down. Surely that time had not arrived? But in comparison with a living presence there is no contest. That I knew and had always known. Ideally that living presence should be of one's own choosing. The default presence was that of a stranger, whose goodwill must be paid for, and who may or may not be willing. (Ibid.)
Were Elizabeth a man - were we dealing here with Paul Sturgis or Julius Herz - and were Chris an itinerant young woman, how differently might we read their story?

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