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"Shut up!" - Part 3

In “Shut up!” Part 1, I argue that people should be allowed a voice even if they have nothing to say. In Part 2, I change my mind and hint that even the likes of Anita Brookner, winner of the Booker Prize for fiction, critic, art historian and CBE, might best be advised to shut her proverbial cakehole. Why?


The answer is simple – to stop me reading her books. Anita Brookner has written 22 novels. I discovered them around ten years ago, and have read 21 of them. Each raises expectations and each disappoints. But like a serial romantic, I go on reading them because I hope the next one will be different. As Ms Brookner herself put it, “The essence of romantic love is that wonderful beginning, after which sadness and impossibility may become the rule.”


Wonderful beginning is right. Anita Brookner’s prose style draws you in – she has been compared to Henry James – and she is expert at introducing characters and setting the scene. The problem is that they are the same characters, particularly the central character, and, after the scene has been set, nothing happens. So you read the next novel, hoping that something will happen, and nothing ever does.


Of course, her novels are not meant to be action-packed thrillers. The central character is solitary, spinsterish, virginal – even if we are asked to believe, improbably, that she has had an active sex life – and above all, passive. This passivity, it is suggested, is a virtue, and is favourably contrasted with the greed and selfishness of the active and impulsive.


Adam Mars-Jones put it well in his review of “The Next Big Thing”:


Brookner's fiction of the 1980s was an odd mixture of astringency and wallowing: reading Hotel du Lac, for instance, for which she won the Booker Prize, was like taking an ice-cold bubble bath. The main development in her work since then has been the disappearance of the astringent element. In earlier books, there was usually a token meat-eater, a creature of instinct and selfishness, to balance the withdrawn herbivore she favoured as her protagonist.

“Herbivore” is perhaps unfair to vegetarians, many of whom love life and embrace it. Brookner’s protagonist is more like one of those irritating dinner party guests with a – possibly fictitious - food allergy, who you wish had stayed at home. And as Mars-Jones correctly says, later in his review:


Brookner takes passive, conscience-bound people very much at face value, never acknowledging that martyrdom and masochism can be highly effective manipulative systems.


Brookner is not the first to write about manipulative people, “passive aggressive” in current jargon, and there is nothing wrong with this; what grates is that we are asked to admire it and to disapprove of its opposite.


The novels are meant to be realistic; indeed they have been praised for their unflinching lack of sentimentality. But how realistic are they? Their heroine never has to work for a living, always having conveniently inherited wealth. She spends her days in solitary walks round strangely depopulated streets of London or Paris. She has no friends, or at least no real ones, just the odd "carnivore" whom we are asked to look down on. She is usually young, around 25 or 26, occasionally older. Yet, considering that the novels are meant to be set in the present day, she bears no resemblance to any 25 or 26 year old that you would ever encounter in real life. She does not possess a mobile phone, she does not send text messages, email or surf the internet, but has not taken a deliberate stance against these modern-day inventions, which alone would explain their absence. This old-fashioned maid, old-fashioned, perhaps, even by the standards of 26 year olds of Brookner’s own youth, now and again does something implausibly modern, like buying a Marks & Spencer Ready Meal, a cod mornay, no less, or watching Coronation Street. But it never rings true.


Anita Brookner is now 77. She has been writing the same novel for twenty years and is not going to change. Her non-fiction is admirable, but when it comes to novels – well, I don’t want to be rude and say “shut up”, but, in the words of a much better novelist, whose heroines, all those years ago, had far more spirit, “You have delighted us long enough”.