Brookner's second novel, Providence, published in 1982, has several extended scenes set in Kitty Maule's tutorial room. For Kitty Maule read Anita Brookner, a lazy but inevitable parallel. The tutorials focus on a nineteenth-century French novel, Adolphe by Benjamin Constant, about a young man's affair with an older woman.
Now in 2022 we add to the mix a third slim volume, Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes. Elizabeth Finch is a tutor, not in French literature (like Kitty Maule) or art history (Brookner) but in 'Culture and Civilisation'. The viewpoint in the tutorial room isn't Elizabeth/Kitty/Anita's, but rather a Julian Barnes substitute, a student named Neil who soon becomes fascinated by his inspirational teacher.
Finch shares many of Brookner's peculiarities: her appearance, her clothes, her big eyes, her hair, her smoking, her voice, her diction, her handwriting, her high seriousness, her lunch habits (seventy-five minutes max.). Or rather she shares almost all of the idiosyncrasies Julian Barnes set out in his Guardian obituary piece about his friend in 2016: 'There was no one remotely like her'. It was a fine tribute, as is Elizabeth Finch, but our representations of others can sometimes become caricatures; at all events they're more often than not more about ourselves than anything approaching a truth.
But Barnes knows this, knows Finch will always remain 'exotic and opaque'. She dies less than a third of the way through the novel, which then becomes a sort of Aspern Papers, as Neil inherits her private notebooks. A lengthy investigation into one of Finch's pet projects, the life of Julian the Apostate, follows. Brookner celebrates paganism throughout her novels, notably in A Misalliance. But Finch is perhaps a Brookner who never, so unexpectedly, and so late in her life, wrote fiction:
'Perhaps she'd even tried to write a novel,' I ended.'I very much doubt that.''No, you're right.'
Elizabeth Finch is a mainstreaming of the Brookner myth, and a bonne bouche for Brooknerians, all the more for the fact that Anita Brookner herself isn't referenced once. But she's there on every page.