Saturday 17 November 2018

On Thinness

Somebody once saw one of Anita Brookner’s shopping lists. She lent a student a book; the list fell out. It was for only two items: slimming biscuits and a small pot of Marmite. Evidently, concluded the speaker, she was very keen to be very thin. She was indeed thin, though perhaps she didn’t want to be. Speaking of the other positive things that had accrued to her from her entry into the life of a writer of fiction she said she even put on a little weight. At first writing had been, as it is for Frances in Look at Me, penitential, a penance for not being lucky, but later Anita Brookner had only good things to say. Her second career, if not perhaps as involving as her first, brought its rewards, made her well.

What were slimming biscuits? Evidently some healthful preparation, now obsolete. She was, when I met her, very thin, almost brittle. As thin and as brittle – one might ask – as her fiction?

In her fiction, in 1992’s Fraud in particular, there are themes of food anxiety. Anna Durrant is very probably anorexic. Her doctor worries about her. She dreams of sweet food, a vast sugary cake that breaks apart to reveal… a wedding ring. Freud would have had a field day with that one.

A huge disgusting pudding features in the disastrous climactic scene of Look at Me. Terrible truths are revealed, and everyone is enjoined to eat – eat – eat!

At the close of A Private View, his adventure at an end, his illusions dismantled, George Bland, in the act of biting into a biscuit, doubles up with grief.

The form of Brookner’s novels – their briefness, their thinness – led to accusations of slightness. Certainly there was a lack of full engagement or commitment to the notion of creation, a suggestion that such activity – such storytelling – was somehow a little vulgar. She said once she wasn’t imaginative; she could only invent. And yet there was a hunger to write, an almost pathological desire. And yet there was also a longing to finish and have done.


  1. The slimming biscuits I remember were called Limmits (I think) - they were quite expensive and I never actually bought any, but on the wrapper they looked like the kind of wafer biscuits that were then popular, with a sort of paste filling. I imagine that they were extremely small and made with some kind of sugar substitute. There was a whole range of such products around in the 1970s - slimming chocolate, slimming soup, and that awful bread for which the advert had a woman in a hot air balloon with the soundtrack ‘She flies like a bird in the sky’ ie because the bread (?Nimble) was so light. Marmite, of course, has virtually no calories. It does sound to me as though Brookner was at least a little bit anorexic.

  2. I think you may be right. The scenes in Fraud with the doctor have the air of authenticity. (I'm guessing she was a regular at the doctor's. On the one occasion I met her she had just come from there.) Thanks for the detail on the biscuits - an interesting piece of Brookneriana.


Questions and comments are always welcome. (Please note: there will be a short delay before publication, as comments are moderated.)