The Next Big Thing presents a hero shaken by lust after a lifetime of humbly 'making things better'. Seventysomething Julius Herz, the third male protagonist in recent novels, is a self-effacing childhood émigré from Germany. Late in life, he finds release from the family ties that bound him to a solitary stoicism. Passive, obedient, too keen to please, Julius shares more than his Mitteleuropa background with some of his female forerunners. As I list his traits, Brookner breaks in: 'He's me, really. You were longing to say that, weren't you? And I thought I was making him up. That's what happens. That's where Freud is right.'
'He's me, really.' The Next Big Thing - Anita Brookner's Madame Bovary 'C'est moi!' novel? It's a tempting notion. The novel is probably my favourite Brookner, though when I first read it, in 2002, I thought it a reheating of several previous works, A Private View in particular. I see it differently now. I see it in the context of what would prove to be a late flowering, a late phase. We now see The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl as a magnificent whole, but they probably read differently as they came out: inaccessible, odd, the product of a talent on the skids.
Observer: Where do you think your ideas come from?
Brookner: I wish I knew. I'd tap into them straight away. I think it's mostly dreams and memories, isn't it, as with all novelists? And a certain amount of observation, obviously.
'Herz had a dream': it's a forthright beginning - not wholly elegant, but it does the job. Interesting that two later works - Leaving Home and 'At the Hairdresser's' - also begin with dreams. Would she have considered doing that in earlier novels? Would she have cited dreams so highly? Those early works, one feels, were written in the white heat of experience, or something close to it. The later works - the works of the 2000s - are no less arresting, but they are different, and should be recognised as such: strange, difficult at times, but representing for Brookner a kind of Indian summer. Or winter, perhaps.
|UK first edn. paperback:
note the low perspective,
as if Herz were a child, or
Sophie Clay's inferior.