Wednesday 31 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: The Present and the Past

That world no longer existed, or if it did would have undergone a change...
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 6

With almost Nabokovian ardour Brookner conjures Herz's past, that ride down the Lichtenthalerallee in Baden-Baden, coffee in the Kurhaus gardens. A remarkably similar scene occurs in Falling Slowly, suggesting perhaps an autobiographical origin. Baden-Baden is indeed different now: a resort for the super-rich, no longer for the merely bourgeois. The bourgeois past, Herz finds, is to be found only in his reading: in Thomas Mann's short stories or in Buddenbrooks. Elsewhere in The Next Big Thing the modern world intrudes. Mobile phones, email. Globalisation. People trafficking? The seamstresses who work in a neighbouring flat at the start of the novel appear to be illegal immigrants. Their employer, Mrs Beddington, admits as much to Herz. He notices the girls' absence during the summer: perhaps they've gone home ('to homes he had difficulty in imagining' (ch. 6)) or on holiday, though later the repellent Mrs Beddington tells him, laughing, 'Girls like that don't go on holiday'. In fact she's shut up shop: 'they're on their own' (ch. 9).

The past in The Next Big Thing has a 'refulgence' (ch. 5), but Brookner is a realist too, especially in this, one of her later novels, into which a cheerless and subtly horrifying new world impinges more and more.

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