At some point, she said, a wariness sets in, an understanding of other people’s motives – of men’s motives, the agendas of men. She didn’t want to be someone else’s prop. She said she never came close to marrying, because she never wanted to be married to the men who asked her. But she would have liked companionship and she would have liked children. Six sons, she said. One of her favourite pictures was David’s Oath of the Horatii in the Louvre, an image of three heroic brothers willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of Rome.
Her parents wanted her to marry. When she didn’t marry, they wanted her to nurse them. If she had married she wouldn’t have been so accessible – an irony that wasn’t lost on her.
And if she had married, she wouldn’t have been able to write. Or have wanted to, or needed to. But how does one spend the time in marriage? – the years and the months and the days and the hours? The novels of the past, ostensibly novels of marriage, are in fact concerned only with courtship and provide little instruction on what comes afterwards. Or indeed on what follows a failed courtship.
Brookner was as clear-eyed here as everywhere. She didn’t think she’d have been a good wife, a good mother. She was, she said, too self-absorbed, too inward. But she still valued the idea of marriage, and in her later, more reckless interviews she said she wished she had married several times. You should, she more than once said, play Russian roulette with your own life.
And marriage is a major theme in Brookner’s fiction. From the middle period onwards many of her protagonists are married. A Misalliance, Latecomers, Lewis Percy, Brief Lives, A Closed Eye, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Altered States, Visitors, Falling Slowly, The Next Big Thing, The Rules of Engagement and ‘At the Hairdresser’s’ all feature heroes and heroines who are married, widowed or divorced. So much for Brookner’s novels being only about lonely spinsters.
But in Brookner the ending of a marriage is only a matter of time. You can come across the most shocking scenes, especially in the later novels, where the iron has entered the soul, and the screw is turned and turned. Take Altered States: the decline and suicide of the narrator’s wife Angela. I read it aghast, my heart in my mouth. One’s heart is often in one’s mouth when one reads these later works, such is the atmosphere of dread.
A third of the way through The Rules of Engagement, as another example, the heroine’s heavy but inoffensive husband dies: the experienced Brookner reader has probably already suspected Digby’s time will soon be up. But the manner of his going is appalling. He is brought home by his secretary, having obviously suffered a stroke, though this isn’t named. No medical attention has been sought, and none is enlisted by his wife, the narrator, who maintains a vigil over him through the few dark days and nights that follow. Then he dies. These scenes are set, at a guess, in the 1970s, in an age perhaps less medicalised than today. But would you really not at the very least have called a doctor? The narrator doesn’t, and there’s no further comment on this. In Brookner we’re beguiled into such acceptances. Why? Is there a reason? Or is it just a part of the true weirdness and uniqueness of the Brookner world, the enigma that keeps us reading and kept her writing?