* Anita Brookner, Look At Me (1983)
* Philip Larkin, A Girl In Winter (1957)
I have become a fan of the ‘Backlisted’ podcast (website here), where the discussion of books is entertaining, informed, and substantial. What I like most is the time taken to express appreciation and admiration: they like to read out long passages and just enjoy how well-crafted the prose is. It has become a source of reading suggestions for me: they have guided me to several absolute gems that I wouldn’t have dredged up in my usual searches. One was R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, which I wrote about here. Another was Anita Brookner’s Look At Me, which I thought was superb: so well-written and so unhurriedly compelling.
Reading further into Brookner, I realised I was having thoughts related to one of this blog’s most persistent interests, what I could call the ‘Kidd and Castano Thread’ (as here). That is, some believe that literature tells us things about other minds and makes us better at empathy (as in a much-discussed experiment by K and C). Others, myself included, think this is probably an over-simplification, and that literature may do quite different things in relation to our understanding of others. For example, it might make us more aware of what we don’t know (which would be quite a beneficial realisation in its own right).
Brookner, for example, gives us characters who don’t reveal all that much about themselves. Frances in Look At Me is in some ways entirely exposed by what happens to her, but she also refuses to say anything more than the minimum about a previous love-affair, and is interestingly reticent, and/or unperceptive, and/or discreet, and/or… it’s very intriguing. Thanks to Backlisted I heard about a very interesting thing she said in an interview with Blake Morrison, when confronted with the possibility that she often focused on characters rather like herself:
I am interested in people who live on their own, people who get left behind, who drop through the net, but who survive. They seem to me quite heroic characters sometimes, but no one inquires about them because they’re people who do without much conversation, whose loudest moments are internal. If such characters persist through my novels that’s because I don’t know much about them, not because I know them too well. I write to find out what makes them tick.
You can find the intervew here but I would also recommend the Brooknerian blog (http://brooknerian.blogspot.co.uk/), where this quotation can be found among many other good things. Anyway, Brookner is of course playing a part here, and not necessarily offering the key to her fiction. However, I like this idea that she thinks of fiction as a means of approaching the opaque.
I also like the way that the characters seem to become external things (‘them’) that one might come to know, even though they are always being constructed by the fiction. ‘To find out what makes them tick’… what she is portraying here is a sort of experiment, I would say, not really an act of discovery or diagnosis. And so I think that Brookner had a shrewd understanding of the psychological richness of literature; it isn’t going to solve the mysteries of other people, but it might make us realise where our knowledge comes to an end, and what good questions about others might look like.
Last year I wrote about Philip Larkin’s Jill in a somewhat similar way (here). I liked the way that novel explored its central character’s mind without revealing that much about it. And having read Look At Me I picked up another Larkin novel, A Girl In Winter, because I remembered that it too featured an inscrutable librarian as its central character. Sure enough, here too were unanswered questions, an array of figures who remained significantly unreachable. After reading Brookner, I didn’t find Larkin’s style so subtly relentless, but there were some memorably bleak moments. This bit — ‘Looking at her, still hearing the unexpected sentence, she glimpsed the undertow of peoples’ relations, two-thirds of which is without face, with only begging and lonely hands’ (pp. 199-200) — well I am not even sure it counts as well-written, but it certainly made me try to count my blessings (which seemed temporarily far away).
And then there was this bit, which comes when the central figure is confronting the reality of the only relationship in her life that might mean something:
She did not think she was at fault; it was not as if she disliked him. What abstract kindliness she could command was at his service, but it was no more than she might show to a fellow-traveller in a railway-carriage or on board a steamer. Indeed, that was the strongest bond she felt between them, that they were journeying together, with the snow, the discomfort, the food they shared, the beds that were not warm enough. In this situation she need know nothing more about him: there was a fire, that he paid to keep burning; she had hot coffee she could give him; there was so much laconic mutual help, while outside lay the plains, the absence of the moon, the complete enmity of darkness. (p. 237)
Here she has the chance to define herself in relation to others, to discover mutual ground, but instead there is just parallel travel, ‘laconic’ at best. I think Brookner and Larkin, in their different ways, would have given short shrift to the idea that by reading their novels we can all work out how to get along together. That’s how their novels seem, anyway. Of course, they may not be right.