Solitary Refinement: A Journey Through Anita Brookner’s Anthology

Anita Brookner’s Look at Me follows Providence as the next novel in the chronicle of Brookner’s work.
By: Neil Donahue

“For once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And, in a way that bends time, once it is remembered, it indicates the future. I realize now that although I sit in this room, growing older, alone, and very sadly, I must live by that knowledge.”

Anita Brookner's Look at Me_ Luminary

Anita Brookner’s Look at Me and Social Cost

Frances Hinton works as a librarian in the images department of a medical research library in London. Each night after walking home to her West London apartment and eating a light and unappetizing dinner prepared by her family’s aging Irish housekeeper, she sits in quiet and diligent contemplation recording all of the day’s observations and imaginings in her notebook. Frances is planning to write a novel. And so goes the opening of Look at Me, Anita Brookner’s third novel, published in 1983; a novel about the profound social cost one pays to pursue the life of a writer.

The Power of Social Magnetism

Having no real social life of her own save overly civilized gatherings with her co-worker Olivia and her generous and loving family, Frances derives a vicarious thrill from those that have mastered being the center of attention. Dr. Nick Fraser, one of the two research doctors at the library is one such specimen. As handsome and charming as he is—like many of the desired men in Brookner’s world—he is unfettered by any kind of social or moral obligation to please others because he literally doesn’t need to.

As Frances explains, “People like Nick attract admirers, adherents, followers. They also attract people like me: observers. One is never totally at ease with such people, for they are like sovereigns and ones’ duty is to divert them…I find such people—and I have met one or two—quite fascinating. I find myself respecting them, as I would respect some natural phenomenon: a rainbow, a mountain, a sunset.

Brookner nails it here.  Who amongst us, unless we are lucky enough to be one of them, has not found themselves in the rotating court of people with such physical and social magnetism?.  Have you never found yourself remembering just one too many details about someone who more than likely doesn’t remember your first name?  And it is deeper than simply wanting to just be around such people, as Brookner explains:

“I recognize that they might have no intrinsic merit, and yet I will find myself trying to please them, or attract their attention…And I am also intrigued by their destinies, which could, or should, be marvelous. I will exert myself for such people, and I will miss them when they leave. I will always want to know about them and I tend to be in love with their entire lives. That is a measure of the power they exert.” 

A Worthy Recluse

Through a stroke of good fortune Nick and his deeply self-absorbed but equally socially gifted wife Alix, suddenly and swiftly wrest Frances from her life of regimented sadness and introspection and invite her to join in their “marvelous” destiny.   Nick and Alix become once-in-a-lifetime friends. Alix despite her overbearing need for attention seems to thrive on rescue cases like Frances, (dubbed “Little Orphan Fannie”) and even plays matchmaker by teaming Frances up with Nick’s colleague at the museum, James Antsey. James is also a social recluse but, like Frances, deemed a worthy project for the ambitious Alix.

Frances revels in her newfound social status: “I slipped into the routine of dining with the Frasers, scarcely believing my good fortune.”  The incessant smoking, drinking and gossiping rupture her cloistered routine of dutifully filling her notebook with daily observances. These more indulgent ministrations become a tonic to a life that she recognizes has left her “deficient in vices with which to withstand the world… I was only too glad to be relieved of the burden of my solitude—which was what my writing represented…”

Frances, instead of relying on memories of the past as a salve to impending old age and death, seeks to eradicate memories of an isolated and joyless first half of her life by avidly pursuing a joyful and deeply distracting second half. Frances sees an opportunity in Alix and Nick to cut all emotional and social ties with her lonely past.  Unfortunately Alix is wedded to the melancholy and nostalgia of her rose colored past is less invested in the future. As Frances notes: “The difference between us was that she clung to her memories and allowed them to overshadow the present, whereas I tried hard to disown mine and looked forward to a time when they would not trouble me. Then I would shed my surroundings, like a butterfly sheds a chrysalis, and I would fly towards a future which was not lumbered with other people’s relics.” Ultimately Alix’s half-hearted connection to any lasting social outcome makes her an unreliable shepherd of Frances’ fortunes.

To be Outclassed

Anita Brookner’s Look at Me, unlike Providence or The Debut, allows us to actually spend some time enjoying, along with Frances, the warm embrace of social status and romantic possibility. In this respect, it may actually be crueler than her prior efforts in that we get to experience Frances chatting away and laughing at the smoke-filled restaurants with friends as well as her deeply contented late night walks home with James, and we even get lured into thinking that happiness is within her reach.  However, after discovering that Frances is not in proper love with James, Alix, the architect of Frances’ social bliss, becomes its undoing. The fact that Frances does not adequately reciprocate James’ feelings, is a slight to Alix and the temperature changes dramatically, icing out Frances. 

In a heartbreaking passage, Frances recounts her last supper: “And indeed it seemed as if there were only the three of them present, and as I followed them down the stairs, I felt, in a curious way, outclassed. …This made me very silent, but as no one addressed a question or even a remark, to me, my silence was not noticed.  Or perhaps there was a tacit agreement not to notice me at all.  In this way, still smiling, but as alert and wary as an animal, I sat down with them at their favourite table.”   

So despite the urgency and directness of the appeal to “look at me,” Frances is left unseen.  Lacking either the guile or the stomach for conflict she gracefully withdraws and resigns herself to a life devoid of such edifying and distracting social arrangements. The entire dalliance teaches her she is here not to participate in life but simply to record the smallest and most banal of its details, the small print of life. The writer gets back to work. 

The Authority and Integrity Over Visibility

Despite such an authoritative and articulate narrator in Frances, I question whether or not we fully get the whole story here. There are clues throughout that while enamored with the dissolute life Frances is always on the outside looking in, she is innately an observer, after all, so one wonders if she ever could have really convinced herself to give up writing in exchange for the chance to be seen. Isn’t it possible that the authority and integrity of her true calling sustain her more than she’s willing to admit to the reader?  The question of reliability and whether or not we get the entirety of facts motivating psychological disposition—and more importantly, behavior—will continue to come up in Brookner’s work. 

Surely there is a lot of literature out there about the price of the writer’s life. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Woolf all spring to mind as some of the more famous writers writing about writing. I’m sure there are many, many others and I’d be interested to hear from those who have suggestions on great works in that ilk. I’m also curious to see how those authors stack up to Brookner and her conclusion that the writer’s life is one more akin to that of a penitent than a full participant.  Personally, I’ve come to a number of crossroads in my life, mainly through academic studies, where the option of becoming a writer seemed to present itself and it just felt too dark, too lonely, so, this work not only resonates but seems to affirm my choice to not go down that path. Yet, what to make of the contradiction that such devotion to these tedious details provides such solace and genuine joy to the reader — well at least this reader.   

Onwards to Hotel Du Lac.

Anita Brookner Hotel Du Lac The Luminary Agency


Solitary Refinement: A Journey Through Anita Brookner’s Anthology. In this time of social isolation, we are eager to explore the perils and pleasure of aloneness, a theme that Brookner made her life’s work. Our community will celebrate the unsung author by exploring her work in-depth, beginning with “The Debut” (UK title, A Start in Life). Luminary Lit’s Neil Donahue will lead us in exploring all 25 of Brookner’s novels in chronological order while prompting a collective conversation around relevant themes, her style and her singular place in the literary canon. You can read and follow along as Luminary Lit releases commentary on each book and contribute your own thoughts on the titles as they are released through our google group here.  We are thrilled to be celebrating artists that provide valuable and critical insights into our world as a community!