I’m not sure if you’re supposed to do this really. Include whole paragraphs as quotations on a blog post about a particular book. But they’re such a perfect bookends to everything in between them that I’m going to go ahead and do just that anyway.
Since Kate Rodenhurst and I wrote our joint piece, about a different Anita Brookner novel in this ‘books’ corner of the blog I’ve been having trouble settling into novels by anyone else. Hence picking up her ‘Brief Lives’ before setting out on my Sunday walk this week. Yet another book having been abandoned in disinterest the day before.
I don’t entirely blame the authors of this failed sequence. In recent weeks I’ve been doing a lot of reading, but of academic books, so perhaps that’s put me off my fictional stride? Maybe so but either way I was happy and confident to set off early in the afternoon with an Anita Brookner in my bag, on a grey and quiet Sunday that would have suited so many of her characters and their situations.
I walked in the opposite direction to my more usual city routes. Knowing there would be giant puppets and their attendant crowds towards the city centre and a Liverpool FC and Manchester City game further north I walked up Mossley Hill and down the other side, along mostly empty streets.
Reaching Sefton Park at the Aigburth end I bought some coffee from the café by the lake, sat down to read and by page 16 I’d found this perfect paragraph about a Sunday afternoon in the main character’s childhood.
‘I grew up thinking that the world could be won with a pair of dancing feet or a pretty singing voice, and that all one had to do was keep one’s white collars pressed and one’s hair regularly shampooed. And so it proved for me. But that came later; later too came information of a more unwelcome kind. What I remember, and what influenced me for so long, was the ritual that was enacted on Sunday afternoons in that narrow house, which now, I suppose, belongs to someone far wealthier than my parents ever dreamed of being. On Sundays, in the dying afternoon, we were at peace. Mother would have changed into one of her nice dresses – she was always well dressed – and Father would fold up his newspaper and lay it aside with a sigh of contentment. ‘My girls,’ he would say. ‘My two beauties.’ Mother would briefly smile, her irritations forgotten. When I went to Paris on my honeymoon I saw that Mother was one of nature’s Frenchwomen, restless and active, with high social aspirations and a sense of style, both available and potential, and not much given to relaxation. But on Sunday afternoons we seemed to blend into one another, to form one dreaming unit, while the light faded outside and the fire shifted in the grate. I would sit on a stool at Father’s feet: Mother would be knitting. Or we would be reading, the simple honest stories which Mother brought home from Boots Lending Library and which for us were a source of endless pleasure, an integral part of Sunday, with nothing harsh or disturbing to tell us, and always a happy ending. Few people nowadays would be content with such diversions, yet that interval before it got dark seemed to me – and still seems to me – magical. I could not recreate it now, no matter how hard I tried, and part of the desolation of my last days will stem from the knowledge that I have never managed to replace it with anything of equal weight. But I was never destined for a happy ending, although I was so very happy at the beginning. I still wonder how this came about, though I am now in full possession of the facts.’
Completing the paragraph and appreciating how good it was, I read it again, twice. Then sat back and contemplated the words and the lake. Happy to know I was now in a story where things would certainly not go well, but confident I’d finish the book and be sad when I did, so perfect as it now seemed.
Within two paragraphs the idyll had moved on, and twenty pages later life had stopped being an innocent story from a Boots Lending Library. But that felt as it should in an Anita Brookner novel, where lives are not endless pleasures but are always perfectly observed.
An ideal Sunday afternoon’s reading followed. Until the light faded.
Later in the week and much later in the book, after a largely blameless life for which Fay, the central character, nevertheless blames herself, there comes this, another perfect paragraph. Summing up her older self, together with the story and the life now approaching its end.
‘I too was glad that she was there. One returns to the company of women when any blow falls, when the lump in the breast or the unexplained smear of blood are discovered, when the threats which are peculiar to a woman’s life come uncomfortably close. Then, only one’s own kind will do. After that one turns with weary tolerance to the problems of men, and the problems that men cause, as if they are unimportant, as perhaps they are. Perhaps one needs a viewpoint of such terminal exactitude in order to get it all right in the first place. This, however, is rarely available. Before me Pearl, her pebble-dash coat open onto a dress printed with red and purple flowers, breathed the satisfaction of one who has come through. She had the innocence of a nun, or of someone who no longer has any truck with men, who finds men to be irrelevant, unless they happen to be sons. I remembered how she had always been a little uneasy in Charlie’s presence, as if he were an intruder, a foreigner of some sort whose language she did not speak. Her loving attitude to women was that of a girl, before the unity with her friends is destroyed by love, marriage and other defections.’
Love, marriage and other defections.
I loved this book, bookended as it is by these two perfect paragraphs.