Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Strangers / by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner is one of those writers which few people know about and even fewer will understand. But her genius won't be lost on those who commit to her work. Successfully completing her Art History Ph.D. in 1949, she worked as a fellow and a scholar in the profession for the next few decades, ultimately becoming the first woman to be awarded the Slade professorship at Cambridge and later receiving a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). Brookner didn't start writing until 1981 when at the age of 53 she published A Start in Life; three years later her novel Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize. In the time since, she's churned out 24 books with Strangers, her latest, successfully incorporating all of the intuition and high comedy she's come to be known for.

"Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers." (p. 1)

Londoner Paul Sturgis is 74, comfortably retired and alone. He's always been alone. And he's learned to accept it. Never having married, though not for want of trying (his only two serious liasons ended because both women felt he wasn't exciting enough), Paul's routine existence steadily plods along, revolving around morning coffee, visits to the library and Sunday trips across town to see his only other relation, Helena, who's not even a blood relative, only the widow of a cousin. He's keen on how he fits in to society, conscious of his effect on people, knows he can sometimes come off as too eager, too polite. An always internally recurring "You're too nice", a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion by a former girlfriend promptly before she left him, is the opinion firmly imbedded in his mind as too how others receive him. He's gotten used to it. A particularly emotionally cold upbringing, he knows, has committed to this life of obligatory inoffensive behavior. But he can always postulate (repeatedly) on the personal inadequacies post-childhood which may have contributed to his current disposition, chief among them his steady though decidedly non-essential career as a bank manager, a job he worked dutifully at until retiring early to avoid the humiliation of being replaced by "the new man with new ideas".

But even amidst his introspective, settled manner, Paul is no invalid; he's not a recluse or confirmed loner who won't approach even the idea of an active life or companionship and, inevitably, he can always begin to sense the restlessness of his station. Trying to shed his melancholy by changing his atmosphere, Paul suddenly jettisons off to Venice for the Christmas holiday where he hopes the sights and scenes, revisiting the same museums and restaurants he's been to before and staying at the same hotel with the same beds, will refresh his outlook. It doesn't work. He returns from his little vacation as desultory as when he left. But something which happened on the trip, an encounter on the plane and later reacquaintance at a restaurant with a fifty-ish divorcee, has ruffled his routine enough to take his mind off himself, if only for a little while. Or so he thinks.

What may seem another boring tale of elderly incapacity and despair upon first appearance (a sentiment parlayed by more than a few dour reviews) is actually something else entirely. Look closer. Take the time to let Brookner's words seep in and discover that Strangers is a truly poignant novel by an astoundingly gifted author. The book is in no way a sad novel; neither does it offer false hope. Rather it captures the condition of solitude in a staggeringly accurate, almost infallible way, unmistakeable in its manner of exacting a life lived inside the mind, from waking to sleeping, walking to sitting, almost on a moment to moment basis. And yet, at the same time, it's as charmingly candid an exposition of subject matter as anything could ever be, the author's manner and style a pleasant discovery at every turn. With Strangers, seemingly even the most mundane, the most pitiful and pathetic of lives becomes as engendering (and more so) as the youthful exuberance of more well-connected characters. No one who attempts to read Brookner with willing attention will be disappointed. (FIC BROOKNER)

No comments: