Wednesday 29 November 2017

Providence: A Strange Exoticism

The scene had, for her, a strange exoticism: the hideous room, the north light, the dull atmosphere, compounded by the smells of cigarette smoke and sheets of photocopied paper, the muted and rumpled appearance of everyone except Maurice and herself, the enormous amount of luggage they managed to bring in - bags, briefcases, mackintoshes - the ceremonial plate of chocolate biscuits handed round by Jennifer's assistant, all this seemed to her stranger and more desirable than the home life of her grandparents with their variants on normal dress and erratic impromptu meals.
Anita Brookner, Providence, ch. 3

Anyone who has ever, in a British educational setting, sat through a staff meeting or committee meeting will recognise and enjoy the description above. But it isn't just the precision of the detail, and the period detail at that - the pungent photostats, the smoke. It is also the exoticism of the scene that gives it its savour and makes us see it afresh. Brookner's is the eye of an outsider, or else she occupies the fascinating position of being both outsider and insider. Either way, it's a novelist's ideal.

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