20 March 2018

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

Several years ago a colleague at the library, performing a bit of collection maintenance (weeding), handed me a copy of The Closed Eye.  What followed was a statement along the lines of...you might enjoy this but don't read too many, they're depressing.  Perhaps some people may find a bit of brutally honest introspection to be depressing, but I've come to enjoy the fact that not all stories end happily or the way I would like them to.  If you've never ready anything by Anita Brookner, this is an excellent place to start.  Contrary to the opinion of how some people view Brookner's novels, this book made me laugh out loud several times.  Well, during the first half.

'Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.   In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.'

But this is not a story about Dr Weiss the academic, it's about a young woman who reaches the level of Ph.D against the odds.  As Brookner takes the reader back to the setting of Ruth's childhood, it's clear that parts of the story are autobiographical.  Ruth is an only child whose grandmother (Mrs Weiss) has left her 'sad European past'  behind in Berlin.  She cooks and cleans for her son and his family despite being less than approving of her English-born daughter-in-law Helen, the stage actress.  It is apparent that both Helen and George are happy to leave Ruth's upbringing to her grandmother.

George Weiss owns a small bookshop on Mount Street in Mayfair.  His assistant Miss Moss, is also his confidant.  George panders to Helen's whims while hoping other women will pander to his.  When George's mother dies, Mrs Cutler is hired to perform the housekeeping duties.  Quite quickly, formality is cast aside and Maggie (as she's now known) is serving up drinks to George, Helen....and herself.  Simple cooking and very light housekeeping is performed while a cigarette dangles between her lips.  Ruth watches from the periphery....

    'She did not like Mrs Cutler.  She knew, without understanding, that Mrs Cutler was one of those louche women who thrive on the intimacy of couples, who are the cold-eyed recipients of many a confidence, who then repeat it to the other party in the interests of both....'

While at school, Ruth becomes friends with Anthea.  Edgy and wise to the ways of the world she is Ruth's polar opposite.  Inviting Anthea to dinner is the setting for comic brilliance...Helen dons '...a caftan, gold earrings and a great deal of scent.'  George buys a cake from Fortnum's and the tea is ready half an hour before Anthea's scheduled arrival.  The reader is very aware that this is the most excitement the Weiss's flat has seen in some time.  Once Anthea leaves, Ruth's parents comment...

    'What a delightful girl,' said George, when Ruth returned to the drawing room.    'Quite pretty,' said Helen, blowing smoke down her chiselled nostrils, 'but not your type, darling.  She has the soul of an air hostess.'

The relentless complacency, selfishness and lack of support from her parents threatens to quell Ruth's ability to seek the higher learning she craves.  She must strike out if she ever hopes to achieve something of a normal life.  An opportunity to stay with acquaintances of her parents leads her to Balzac's Paris where she can immerse herself in study.  Her path to personal growth has a few pitfalls that had me cheering her on or a bit disappointed in turns.  The point being that Brookner has written these characters in such a rich and skillful way as to make me care.  Ruth's journey from naivety to awareness and the choices she's faced with are ones that most people will, in part, will have encountered at some point in their lives.   

A Start in Life is the perfect introduction to Anita Brookner's writing.  It will make you laugh (a lot) and wince, but you will thoroughly enjoy it.  I loved it.

Reading Woman on a Couch by Isaac Israels

7 comments:

  1. This is on my shelf in a row of Anita Brookners that I devoured when I was probably too young to appreciate them; I'm so torn between the piles of unread books and returning to those that I can't remember reading!

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    1. What about one of the Brookner titles for your book group, Mary? The nice thing about having far too many books (is there such a thing?) is that there's something to read for every mood. It's the same agony when choosing ice cream flavours...it's all good!

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  2. I have just ordered the book from Awesome Books, thank you for the nudge.

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    1. That's wonderful! Half of my shelves are filled with books I never would have known about were it not for readers sharing on blogs. You're in for a treat, Toffeeapple!

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  3. Good review, loved those extracts you posted. I've only read Hotel Du Lac, so I think I might try this.

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  4. The characters have stayed with me and I still laugh when remembering the 'soul of an air hostess' line. Hotel Du Lac is a title I always look for but never find while in second-hand bookshops. If needs must, I'll buy a new copy but the hunt is half the fun!

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  5. I think I must read this again, it seems to have left a very light impression on me. I shall try again when in Scotland later on.

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