Friday, 14 April 2017

Reports from the Front

Old age is the great unwritten subject. Let me specify. Novels about old age, written by old people, are rare. Great writers of the past either didn't write about old age, or included old people as peripheral figures, or were young themselves when they wrote about the old, or wrote about 'old' people we wouldn't now consider as such. To take a few disparate examples: Trollope's 'old man' in An Old Man's Love is only fifty; Lear was written by a man in his forties; Vita Sackville-West wrote All Passion Spent* when she was thirty-eight. Authentic depictions of old age in present-day literature are increasing, but remain novelties. One thinks of Diana Athill's memoirs or Clive James's late poems.

Then there is Anita Brookner. We had intimations in A Private View, Visitors and The Next Big Thing, but Strangers and, especially, 'At the Hairdresser's' are Brookner's plainest examples. The story of Elizabeth Warner, her fear and vulnerability, her memories and dreams, her routines, her submission to the chauffeur Chris's diabolical treatment of her, and her willingness almost to forgive him, to learn lessons from him, and to blame herself, make for frightening reading. One always, as I've said before, reads Brookner with one's heart in one's mouth, but, even on rereading, 'At the Hairdresser's' delivers a genuine sense of dread not found anywhere else in her oeuvre, nor elsewhere for that matter.

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*All Passion Spent has a couple of minor Brooknerian echoes. It is dedicated to Benedict and Nigel - Benedict who would become Brookner's early mentor, Nigel who would write a long-running column in the Spectator, 'Long Life'; and the protagonist Lady Slane has a house in Elm Park Gardens, Brookner's home for many years.

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