Look At Me: Reading Anita Brookner

‘Once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten.’

My friend Kate Rodenhurst and I both read Anita Brookner’s ‘Look At Me’ in the same month, in the same city, long after it had been published and independently of each other. Having discovered this coincidence and both been strongly affected by the book, we decided to think about doing this writing together. To help others discover the beauty of a piece of work that had so long eluded both of us.

I’m starting the writing then to get this written version of our long conversation going. And Kate will reflect and respond where she likes along the way. Reflecting our actual conversation round at Kate’s house. One that was no more a review or a detailed critique than this is likely to be, but more an appreciation of what so fascinated us both. Here goes.

Kate’s in italics from now on.

First, a summing up of what we both agreed was a ‘nothing much actually happens but in a very interesting way’ kind of book. 

Frances Hinton works in the library of a medical research institute and  lives a lonely kind of life where her limited social life is occasional visits to the home of the other young woman who works in the library. She writes short stories in her long evenings alone, all containing caricatures of the few people who use the library. Over a memorable few weeks these evenings of writing mostly stop as she is encouraged into the social life of a couple of these people, where…

There’s lots of unexpressed emotion, in a very English sort of a way. And the sense of place, if I can steal a phrase from Ronnie, is beautifully observed, from the library in which you can almost taste the stewed tea, to the streets of staid West London.

We’ll leave the plot there in case you decide to read the book yourself. Because in the end, easily summed up as the book is, we think it might make you think, about a number of things.

Like melancholy.

After as strong a start to the book as any I remember, the opening sentences quoted at the start of here seemed, to me, to get lost in a long discussion of the art and photographs they catalogue in their medical library. Describing the various works Frances says she ‘could almost write a treatise on melancholy.’ Only after the story got moving  and pulled me right through to the end of the book did I go straight back to its start and realise that ‘a treatise on melancholy’ is one of the things the book definitely is. With ‘madness’ next to it in the library’s own filing system.

Not many laughs then? Well no but you probably wouldn’t come to Anita Brookner for the jokes. 

Her world is one of acute observations and well observed characters and situations.

Although there is the darkest of dark humour in there if you look.

I first read her when she first became popular, some time late in the 1970s.  But I soon gave up, thinking her world too quiet and small for me then. Now I recognise the melancholy, the silences and the lonely Sunday afternoons in museums because I’ve been there. And I can recognise Frances, locked inside a life she can’t quite break out of and depression she returns to like a friend.

Ronnie is right that the book is a treatise on melancholy. But what struck me more was that it is about loneliness, and what happens to you when you can’t make real connections with other people. It reminded me of the occasional intense loneliness I felt when I lived in London in my twenties, and why I decided to move back to Liverpool, a city where no one stops talking. 

The thing that fascinated me about this book was how, as a reader, you are entirely reliant on Frances’ view of the people around her. You only have her interpretation. And the further you get into the book, the more you doubt her judgement.. Frances can’t have meaningful conversations with the people around her. She guesses at what they’re thinking, and she doesn’t reveal much of herself to them either. It made me wonder whether we all do this, and everyone is creating a work of fiction in their head whenever they interact with other people.

For much of the book Frances is doing exactly this. Lightly fictionalising real people and events from her library and sending them off in hope they might be published as short stories. This habit subsides in the central dramas of the book, but returns along with the loneliness and sorrow of her opening phrases as the book fades, closer to its quiet end.

‘For once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And, in a way that bends time, once it is remembered, it indicates the future.’

When I’d read the book, I posted about it on twitter because I’d found it was one of those books where the intensity of the mood and tone of voice build and build, and then stay with you for a while after you’ve finished. As a character, Frances is completely real, contradictory, vulnerable yet infuriating. I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

I almost put Ronnie off reading it, and had to reassure him it was worth it, so I’m glad it’s turned out so well. He has much more Brookner experience than me, and on his recommendation I’m going with Hotel du Lac next. But maybe not for a while. 

Weeks later I’m glad of Kate’s encouragement and have gone on and read two more Anita Brookner novels since. But if you’ve not read her yet then I’d recommend starting with ‘Look At Me.’

It’s perfect.

More writing about reading here at A Book in Your Bag.

One Reply to “Look At Me: Reading Anita Brookner”

  1. Anita Brookner is one of my all time favorite authors. It’s an amazing talent that, as you say, can write a book where not much happens but one where you are gripped from cover to cover. Her characterization is second to none. All her books a shot through with genteel despair, repressed feelings and a rigid adherence to the customs of polite society, whatever the personal cost. She is sheer brilliance.

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