2 May 2020

Brief Lives by Anita Brookner

There are a few folded up notes tucked into a pocket in my purse.  One note lists general titles to be on the lookout for, the second note lists my collection of works by Virginia Woolf, and the third (just a scrap of paper really) has a few titles by Anita Brookner that come highly recommended.  Just before stores started to close during this pandemic I found a $2 copy of this book in a thrift shop.  It was at the top of my list....result!  

While reading the obituaries in The Times Fay Langdon discovers that someone from her past has died.  To use the term 'friend' would be overstating things; complicated would be nearer the mark.  To paint a picture of Julia, a former actress......

'That element of condescension in her performances commanded respect, but not in every quarter:  when she tried to entertain women in factories in the war years her manner was found to be too snobbish for popular taste.  She looked anachronistic in her long dresses, with the chiffon handkerchief tied to the little finger of her left hand:  this was an affectation of hers, but it did not go down well when the fashion was for sausage curls shoved under a turban and overalls that tied round the waist.'

Fay and Julia are worlds apart in personality but meet socially because their husbands are connected by their workplace, a law firm.  Fay has always felt as though she was on the outside looking in.  She  can't quite believe that Owen, rich and popular, would find her attractive much less a partner for life.  Julia, on the other hand, has always thought highly of herself and anyone who comes near is fair game for servant duty.  Her demands are usually proposed in a non-offensive manner and begin with 'you might'....as in 'you might make me a cup of tea'. 

At the beginning of the story, Fay is worried about her aging mother.  She notes the neglected state of the modest home she grew up in and her mother's dwindling appetite.  Fay avoids showing her husband the modest surroundings she grew up in but rather than expressing a level of embarrassment, she portrays it as shielding Owen from a displeasure.  Neither situation is very endearing.  

Told in a first person narrative I was slightly suspicious of Fay's version of things....could Julia be THAT demanding, were Julia's stable of caregivers as sycophantic as they seemed, why was Fay so frustratingly complacent about her life?  At first I felt somewhat sorry for Fay.  But then my patience wore thin....

'What I loved and prized was the steadiness of a man's affection, his indulgence, his company.  I had known this in childhood, and even during my brief career, when the boys in the band had looked after me as if I were their little sister.  In adult life, unfortunately, this affection had been fitful, limited, doled out in unpredictable instalments.  Even so it struck me as the greater prize, greater by far than the intimacy of women.'

Oh Fay, we could not be friends.  Once widowed, Fay slowly begins to distance herself from Julia, and I can understand why....Julia is selfish and demanding with a sprinkling of manipulation.  After selling the marital home, Fay buys a beautiful flat in South Kensington, has it refurbished and buys all new furnishings.  Financially independent with a whole world to discover I thought Fay would finally strike out on an adventure, but what does she do?  She watches children play from her window....the children she never had, she imagines husbands coming home from work to enjoy dinner with their wives.  Fay enters into an affair but it's with a married man.  When she realizes that she'll never be the most important woman in his life, Fay sees him as an 'opportunist' rather than a lover.  

Towards the end of the story, Fay tells herself that she never looks back.  There are far too many pages of retrospection for that to be true, and she's done very little to forge a new path.  At only sixty, our narrator has labelled herself as elderly and taking quite a bath in self-pity.

Anita Brookner wrote with an extremely comprehensive talent for examining the human psyche.  There's sentence after sentence of absolutely brilliant insight into the world of an aging woman, but the moments of cutting wit that I love most about Brookner's writing were barely to be found.  At the end of the day, Brief Lives is incredibly well-crafted but the characters drove me batty.  They say you should never judge someone unless you've walked a mile in their shoes, but I can say with confidence that if I reread this book in my sixties I'll still want to give Fay a shake and suggest a zumba class.

Girl by a Window - Henri Matisse (1921)


  1. I had a phase of reading Brookner many years ago until the lonely lives of her characters got too much for me. But this is one I didn't read. If I come across it now I might be tempted. Just to see if I agree about that zumba class!

    1. Hi Sandra! Have you read A Start in Life? It's the Brookner novel that made me laugh out loud and couldn't be more different from Brief Lives. As much as I enjoy her writing I don't think I've ever been compelled to read two of her books in a row.
      If you decide to read Brief Lives one day, please let me know how you got on!

  2. That one is new to me. I've just looked it up and see that it's her first published novel. It would be fascinating to read it and compare it with some of her later ones. Thank you!

  3. Zumba rules! (missing my classes during lockdown) I really liked Hotel Du Lac but that's the only Brookner I've read.

    1. Hi Nicola! Sorry that you're missing your zumba classes...it must be especially trying because if ever there was a time for something that benefits mind, body and soul....it's now. I've found a great dumbbell workout online to keep my upper body strength up. When the library opens again I don't want to be done in by massive coffee table books!
      Glad you enjoyed Hotel Du Lac, so did I! Take care and I hope you're back at your classes soon....