A retired bachelor’s life of quiet comic desperation

By Matthew Peters
Globe Correspondent / August 30, 2009

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In Anita Brookner’s latest novel, the protagonist, Paul Sturgis, a retired London bachelor in his early 70s, reflects on the feelings of loneliness his flat instills in him. His bedroom, the scene of romantic disappointments and troubled dreams, is a symbol of his unsatisfying, solitary life. It was, the narrator asserts, “once clamorous with denunciation, now lethally silent.’’ The language is characteristically Brooknerian: at once tense and highly controlled, and distinctly comic.

This humorous element in Brookner’s writing does not diminish the pain and sadness of her characters’ predicaments. Rather, it highlights how closely their unhappiness is bound up with their sense of inadequacy. A character in “Strangers’’ is described as providing matter “for comedy rather than for tragedy: that was the essence of her attraction.’’ But the attraction of Brookner’s characters for the reader lies in their providing matter for tragedy and comedy at the same time.

Brookner’s narrative voice has remained remarkably consistent throughout her novels. What we might call its eager, comic despondency is found in telling moments in “Strangers’’: “His cousin, Roland, was his, and his parents’, icon of masculinity, though Roland was to let the side down by dying relatively young. This at least provided a topic of conversation . . .’’; the narrator suggests that “those who believed in their own destiny usually proved something of a burden for others.’’

Brookner’s protagonists rarely prove something of a burden for others, though this is not to say that they do not believe in their own destinies. But these destinies commonly involve thwarted attachments, elaborate loneliness, and contorted indecision. Sturgis’s unhappiness derives from his knowledge that so little has happened in his life that he is not even affected by the drama of seeking to forget painful moments from his past.

Sturgis tries to throw off the boredom and inactivity of his life by making a trip to Venice. There he meets Vicky, an impulsive, rootless divorcee some years younger than him. They become friends and meet again in London, where Sturgis resists her attempts to make their relationship more intimate. She shows no interest at all in his past, but he questions her constantly about her life. The difference in their temperaments is amusingly shown in Vicky’s reaction to Sturgis’s showing her a house in London once inhabited by Henry James (of whom Sturgis is an avid reader): “She gave Henry James a passing glance.’’ To Sturgis’s mind, one feels, such incuriosity about the Master represents a grave flaw in her character.

Midway through the novel, Sturgis encounters a former lover, Sarah - the most clamorous of his past denouncers. He was once deeply in love with her but is conscious that his steady, reliable temperament failed to excite her. Their meetings enable Brookner skillfully to juxtapose their tender recognition of the changes that age has wrought on each other with Sarah’s capacity for unsparing judgments. (“You’re not boring exactly,’’ she assures Sturgis. “Just something of a problem.’’ Brookner has always been good at mordant dialogue of this nature.)

“Strangers’’ is not without limitations and weaknesses. At points the language veers too closely toward the quaint without any discernible dramatic or comic purpose, and Sturgis’s capacity for inaction, though central to his character, is at times tediously delineated, especially in the descriptions of his solitary walks throughout London.

Much of the novel’s real force, however, derives from Brookner’s capacity to represent the poignant disjunction between Sturgis’s desire “for disclosure, for total knowledge of the other’’ - and his inability to provoke similar feelings in other people:

“He longed to have lived in one of those confessional novels he had read as a young man - “The Sorrows of Young Werther,’’ “Adolphe’’ - in which whole lives were vouchsafed to the reader, with all their shame, yet as if there were no shame in the telling. Here, now, one was consciously checked by a sort of willed obliquity, a social niceness that stalled one’s attempts to make real contact. . . . It seemed as though the resources he had always sought in others were no longer available, perhaps never had been, and all that was left to him was another kind of exploration.’’

One somehow doubts that Sturgis wishes entirely to overcome this “willed obliquity.’’ But it is a testament to Brookner’s powers as a novelist that so much is disclosed about him, so much is ultimately felt for him by the reader, in a fictional world in which the resources for sympathy and attachment are so scarce. And it is to Brookner’s great credit that the final kind of exploration that her careful, unheroic, aging protagonist embarks on as the novel closes should seem so moving and decisive.

Matthew Peters is a freelance critic who lives in Cambridge, England.

By Anita Brookner
Random House, pp. 256, $26

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