Fifty-three years of age at the time of her first novel, Anita Brookner was wise enough to know that writing was a lonely and painful life. Yet, it seems to me, after one novel down, (and like many of her novels this was a re-read for me) that this journey will neither be lonely nor painful for me the reader as Brookner seems to be the sharpest and most insightful companion with whom to ride out a pandemic.
The Debut centers on Ruth Weiss, a brilliant young British academic, as her professional life begins to take shape. The novel, steeped in issues of generational pain, selfish parenting, unrequited love and mortality itself, seems to spend most of its time dealing with the consequences of a woman whose talent and intellectual acuity turns her into a “prisoner in her own cell” engaged in a “routine as destructive of liberty and impulse as if it had been imposed on her by a police state.”
Ruth, who in her early twenties published a book on the subject of women in the novels of Balzac, is a precocious talent but is seemingly unable to experience this vocation as anything but a punishment. “She knew that she was capable of being alone and doing her work—that that might, in fact, be her true path in life, or perhaps the one for which she was best fitted—but was she not allowed to have a little more?” Brookner writes.
In Anita Brookner ’s heterosexual setup, men require an extraordinary amount of attention and often seem to require the demonstration of some degree of helplessness from the women they choose. Ruth can provide neither, and thus, is alone. Thankfully for us, this state of loneliness gives Ruth (and Brookner it would seem) a uniquely sharp perspective to peer in on the enviable mess that is romantic commitment amongst the primates. In particular, the marriage of her vain and self-absorbed parents.
One of the most toxic but captivating relationships is between Ruth’s mother Helen and her live-in housekeeper (who does very little housekeeping) Maggie Cutler. Mrs. Cutler, as she’s known, has a kind of savage parasitic charm, that I found to be strangely resonant to my own life. Her arc, while very entertaining, also seems to call into question Ruth’s inclinations to valorize (in others) the selfish pursuit of being loved
I think any close reading of even marginally good literature leaves us with a lot to ponder. When one trusts that there is a specific purpose in each word deployed, the novel suddenly becomes intensely rich — too rich even. Too many unsolicited insights to friends and loved ones, too much time on the net reading up on each and every reference — and too many handwritten notes, way too many notes. But, of course, for those of us who love to read this is as good as it gets. The Debut clearly sets out a road map for many of the themes to ponder in Brookner’s next 24 novels. On its own, it is a substantial work with heartbreaking sections not only on the disorientation and obsessiveness of unrequited love but on the confusion and despair of aging as well as the devastating effects of loving and caring for those who are doing the aging. It is also an utterly delicious piece of writing, offering up gems like: “Ruth avoided sentiment, knowing how easy it was to come by” or, describing her upbringing as, “[a] superficial veil of amusement over a deep well of disappointment,” to keep you feeling like you’re smarter than you actually are.
As I’ve mentioned in my original post, I’m not interested in pretending that I have much to say of merit about these works — I do however welcome anyone who feels they do. And, of course, anyone who distinctly does not have anything at all to share but simply feels up to the task regardless.