One of several passages from Look at Me that I copied into my notebook:
“I could not, somehow, make contact with any familiar emotion. As I lingered in front of a lighted window, apparently beguiled by a pair of burgundy leather shoes, I could only identify a feeling of exclusion. I felt as if the laws of the universe no longer applied to me, since I was outside the normal frames of reference. A biological nonentity, to be phased out. And somewhere, intruding helplessly and to no avail into my consciousness, the anger of the underdog, plotting bloody revolution, plotting revenge.”
“Look at Me (1983)
Not by any means a perfect Brookner, but an essential one. Here we get our first full view of the battle between Brookner’s insiders and outsiders. Just whose side is she on?”
Anita Brookner published her first book at the age of 53, writing 24 novels in total. More by luck than judgement, I’m pleased that I begun with the ‘essential’ Look at Me. I enjoyed it very much and intend to read The Bay of Angels soon, which I’m told is Brookner’s bleakest novel, so quite my sort of thing. This list of recommendations is helpful in guiding further exploration of Brookner’s work.
Anita Brookner’s Look at Me, my first of her books, rewards persistence, though occasional sentences, very infrequent, just clang: “In any event, he was, as the police say, helping them with their enquiries.” Often such a sentence is enough for me to add a book to the bag I keep by the door, ready to go, when full, to my local charity shop.
I was in ruthless mood after persisting with a Fleur Jaeggy book that proved unrewarding. Testing my deflated reaction after finishing the Jaeggy, one review described it as “entirely sufferable“, another commented on the tiresomeness of its “vague profundity“. Both reviews seem broadly on target though entirely is an overstatement. I found the last Jaeggy I read equally insipid.
But Brookner is more interesting, capturing the casual cruelty between people exceptionally well. Unlike Rachel Cusk one senses Brookner as participant in her story of loneliness and love rather than voyeur. It is an utterly English story, wrapped in the hesitancy and froideur of its people.
I’m much more familiar with Iliad than The Odyssey. As a teenager, with the help of a magnifying glass and Liddell and Scott’s ancient Greek lexicon, I learnt to write the first line of Iliad in Greek from memory, a silly party trick.
Robert Fagles’ verse translation of Odyssey succeeds at turning the poem into fathomable vernacular, though there are times when one feels he must have strayed reasonably far from the nuances of the original Greek. On balance I probably prefer the prose translation of E. V. Rieu, revised by D. C. H. Rieu, philistine though that might appear. I intend to read George Chapman’s Homer sometime soon. Fagles‘ Odyssey has been a fine companion though and despite knowing the story am still not immune to the heightening tension as it progresses toward the slaughter of the suitors.
This summer I plan a second attempt at Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, joining Richard and Francis for the 1130 pages—or 1770 with From the Posthumous Papers edition—translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. I am hoping this more modern translation keeps my interest longer than that of Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser.
As a side project I’m slowly collecting and reading a series of little books on modern European literary figures, published in the fifties by Bowes and Bowes of Cambridge. The first four I have are on Sartre, Kleist, Jacques Riviere and Valery. They caught my eye when watching the video of Duncan Fallowell’s library. They look wonderful and may number fifty or so in number.
Other reading plans, always subjects to whimsy, include dipping into Anita Brookner’s oeuvre, exploring whether William Gerhardie’s work still stands up, undoubtedly more Schmidt and Redonnet, and more ancient Greeks.