Why Anita Brookner's funny, sharp novels got under your skin

The late Anita Brookner in 1987
The late Anita Brookner in 1987 Credit: Mike Abrahams/Telegraph/General Cost Library 

When I heard the news earlier this week that Anita Brookner had died at the age of 87, I sharply drew in my breath, and then let out a deep sigh. It was with a sense of loss for someone who had lived longer than many, and one of finality that there would be no more books. She was the writer of short, devastating novels about life’s limitations, loneliness, women who love and for whom there are no happy endings. Like Jean Rhys, she was the novelist of the single woman. She wrote elegant prose about the brutal truths concealed in the hearts of meek people. There was nothing consoling in Brookner. She should be compared with Samuel Beckett rather than Jane Austen.

Many readers never picked up any of her books, wrongly pigeonholing her as the author of the Hampstead Novel, a narrow literary genre concerned with middle-class married life: adultery among polenta-eating academics, media types. But Hampstead was not Brookner’s territory at all, nor was marriage, and her characters, though with jobs or private incomes, were marginal individuals slipping in and out of the general tumult of the crowd unnoticed and overlooked. Unlike Barbara Pym’s spinsters of the parish with a role for them in the church, Brookner’s women were Londoners. The city was her terrain; she once said she would hate to live in the countryside. She liked to be surrounded by people, and people like herself, clever and well educated.

Anita Brookner Credit: UPPA/Photoshot 

I first came to her in the Eighties without any of those preconceptions and found a world of Jewish immigrants living in over-furnished and overheated flats in the anonymous apartment blocks of St Johns Wood. Like the suburban Wasp commuter communities of John Cheever’s short stories, this was unfamiliar territory to me, but it was located on streets I could walk along, staring up at discreet fifth-floor net curtains or venetian blinds evidently hiding something from the world. I came to believe I knew those I didn’t, yet I felt some fellow feeling for outsiders perpetually at the mercy of those more robust and able to take advantage.

Brookner had already made a considerable reputation in the academic world as an art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s. There is no apprentice work, only late style; she seemed to come to literature fully formed with a lifetime’s observation as material. Her intelligence, like Jane Austen’s, was sharp with noticing and hearing, but her intense privacy kept her from the company of the time-wasting chattering classes.

Perhaps because she was never hot, young or new, never eligible to be on one of those “best under-40” lists, and wore her hair swept tidily upwards above a face appearing from a neck swathed in pearls as if in an 18th-century portrait, it was her fate to be underestimated and dismissed. Her fictional milieu was regarded as too narrow. As ever when anyone wins the Booker, as she did in 1984 with Hotel du Lac, someone else is deemed to have been robbed, and that year it was J G Ballard’s wartime Shanghai novel, Empire of the Sun. Young female critics wanting to lay down a marker would write cruel critical reviews, impatient with the restricted, narrow world in which she set her fiction, regarding it as shallow, complacent. It is true that she never strayed from her own territory, and one literary editor had difficulty finding reviewers who could think of something new to say about the novels which arrived punctually each year.

Anita Brookner in 1984, the year in which she won the Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac Credit: PA

At the end of A Friend from England, the narrator has a vision of herself as the lifelong single woman, a life in which she would “always eat too early, the first guest in empty restaurants, after which I would go to bed too early and get up too early, anxious to begin another day in order that it might soon be ended”. For she lacks the confidence to “invent a life for myself”. Her heroines (though could one call them that when they lacked agency?) seem always at the mercy of someone stronger, more ruthless, more willing to compromise their morals to succeed. An exquisite moral sensibility is the preserve of those who will go through life being disappointed.

Does this sound depressing? I have never found her novels so, because they are so insistent on the delicate scraping away of the inessential to arrive at the truths which allow one to penetrate fully another life. And she is funny and she is sharp. Where there is self-deception, Brookner reveals it.

Photographs of her show a woman who cared a great deal about how she dressed. Her last published work was a novella about going to the hairdresser’s. One of her shopping lists apparently contained only two items: Marmite and slimming biscuits, a weird dieting aid of yesteryear.

The period when she might have married was the Fifties. She failed to do so for some reason, but instead waited 30 years before creating a new type of literary woman, solitary, isolated from family life, secure enough in means to travel. She gets under your skin. She is a knife, those large eyes seeing everything, ruthless in her depiction of life’s cruelties, expressed, as in Hotel du Lac, in the opening and closing of a door.

Linda Grant's latest novel is Upstairs at the Party (Virago)