"Great writers are the saints for the godless." - Anita Brookner
"Kitty Maule was difficult to place. She had a family, that was known, and she disappeared every weekend, so it was assumed that she lived in the country, although her careful appearance belonged to the town." - Anita Brookner (Providence)
If you have not read Anita Brookner Providence is a wonderful novel with which to start. I daresay you will not look back as you traverse some of her many (too numerous to count) novels of romance and the social difficulties of young women - and sometimes not so young - in love. In this one the protagonist, Kitty Maule, longs to be "totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful." She is instead clever, reticent, self-possessed, and striking. For years Kitty has been tactfully courting her colleague Maurice Bishop, a detached, elegant English professor. Now, running out of patience, Kitty's amorous pursuit takes her from rancorous academic committee rooms and lecture halls to French cathedrals and Parisian rooming houses, from sittings with her dress-making grandmother to seances with a grandmotherly psychic. Touching, funny, and stylistically breathtaking, Providence is a brightly polished gem of romantic comedy. My favorite moments are the many literary references which are more important than they may seem to be at first reading. For example, at one point Kitty is thinking about Adolphe by Benjamin Constant and shares this comment about literature, "Such a refusal to give the story its usual complement of detail turns it into a sort of parable, makes one search for universal meanings which may not be there." Of course those meanings are there and the reader suddenly finds himself wondering if this is an opinion that the author/narrator agrees with. Certainly it is ironic to criticize an iconic Romantic novel for lack of detail which is more likely to be present in a post-Flaubertian novel like those written by Anita Brookner. It is the subtlety of references like these that warms the heart of this inveterate bibliophile. The best of Brookner's novels that I have read is Hotel du Lac for which she was awarded the Booker Prize. However, if you do not want to start at the deep end you should try reading Providence first.
Hotel Du Lac
"My idea of absolute happiness is to sit in a hot garden all, reading, or writing, utterly safe in the knowledge that the person I love will come home to me in the evening. Every evening.'
'You are a romantic, Edith,' repeated Mr Neville, with a smile.
'It is you who are wrong,' she replied. 'I have been listening to that particular accusation for most of my life. I am not a romantic. I am a domestic animal. I do not sigh and yearn for extravagant displays of passion, for the grand affair, the world well lost for love. I know all that, and know that it leaves you lonely. No, what I crave is the simplicity of routine. An evening walk, arm in arm, in fine weather. A game of cards. Time for idle talk. Preparing a meal together." — Anita Brookner (Hotel Du Lac)
Reading this novel was my introduction to the world of Anita Brookner. Having started with Hotel du Lac, her Booker prize-winning novel, I moved on to others including Providence and Incidents in the Rue Laugier and Look at Me. But it was experiencing her distinctive prose style and characters with complicated emotional lives that drew me in. Hotel is written mostly in the form of musings of the protagonist and has very little overt activity. But her life is changing, partly at the suggestion of her friends and partly through her own meditations on her situation. The developments of these small changes, of her reactions to loneliness and the stigma of being unattached, are the stuff that moves a reader to think about her condition as a woman and a human being. Her choices lead to a reinvigorated self-reliance that may be difficult, but it is being true to herself. Anita Brookner's novels are short but they pack a powerful punch.
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