Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Where to Start

Anita Brookner acquired a forbidding reputation during her writing career. Critical reception was strongly divided. So - where to start? It was possibly easier then, while she was still writing. If you had never read her, and wanted to, you could read her latest. Now that she's gone, and her body of work is complete, the uninitiated can be daunted by her sheer fecundity, the sheer volume of her fiction: twenty-four novels and a novella over thirty years. Where to start?

It is a difficult question. There's no obvious stand-out novel, by which I mean one that stands out in terms of, say, length or critical appreciation. The obvious answer is Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize in 1984. But Brookner herself didn't think it should have won. Her surprise or shock is clear in a press picture from the Booker event.

She thought Latecomers (1988) should have got the prize - a book with a serious and indeed Booker-friendly theme: the lifelong effects of surviving the Holocaust.

Both Latecomers and Hotel du Lac hail from the Eighties, often cited as Brookner's best decade. You can divide up your Brookners by decade. The Eighties novels are certainly sprightlier in tone and style. Here you'll find the stylistic experimentation of Family and Friends (1985) or the basic and uncompromising Brookner manifesto that is Look at Me (1983).

The Nineties offer different pleasures. You'll find fuller character portraits: the fading actress Julia in Brief Lives (1990), or the monstrous aunt, Dolly, in A Family Romance (1993). You'll find denser, darker novels, with less incident but greater analysis. I say less incident, but there are moments of real horror: the deaths in Altered States (1996) or the ending of Undue Influence (1999). If you don't read Brookner with your heart in your mouth then you must be reading someone else.

Brookner's final five novels, plus one novella, were published in the 2000s. This last phase presents us with fresh challenges. These are Brookner's most raw and least predictable books. Her last novel, Strangers (2009), gives us a portrait of old age that's both terrifying and uncomfortably relevant. The Next Big Thing (2002), another of Brookner's 'guy' novels (Brookner didn't just write about lonely spinsters, as all those lazy critics liked to sneer), a tense and intense drama of consciousness, a novel with a strong European dimension - salutary too, in its way, in these latter days of ours.

So - where to start? I look back at my old 'Recommendations' post, and I find I haven't mentioned several. 'Where to start?' is, of course, a slightly different question. I'd say start with something recent, and something that belies Brookner's reputation. Start with The Next Big Thing. I come back to it again and again. A novel that tells us how to live.

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