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The Latecomers by Anita Brookner [book review]

the latecomersNothing much happens in Anita Brookner’s eighth novel The Latecomers. But then Brookner is almost always an author who is concerned with more how people feel than what they do.

This time her focus is on two men, Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich, both Jewish refugees on the Kindertransports from Germany who meet at an unpleasant boarding school in England. Despite very different personalities they develop a friendship that will last some 50 years.  and bond with each other in a wretched boarding school.

Fibich is a man of simple tastes, whose digestive system is fragile. Consequently dinners with Hartmann’s Aunt Marie and her famed dish of braised tongue à l’orientale are a torture for him. He’s a brooding figure who cannot leave the past behind him. So haunted is he by the loss of his parents in his childhood, tht he seeks the help of a psychoanalyst. In middle age he takes a spontaneous decision to return to Berlin, to the railway station where he last saw them. If he was hoping for peace and reconciliation he is sadly disappointed.

Where Fibich is timid, Hartmann is confident and bold. He lives for the present not the past which for him is another country. He has “consigned to the dust, or to the repository that can only be approached in dreams,” all troublesome memories, and is now “deliberately euphoric.” A man of the senses who loves luxury, he is captured perfectly in the opening sentence of the book :

Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.

From schooldays, this unlikely pair progress to become business partners in a greeting’s card company. So close is their bond that when they marry they end up living in the same apartment building.

Naturally Hartmann is the first to get married, to a woman who on the surface seems the perfect match for his appreciation of the finer things in life. Yvette loves to be the centre of attention. She knows how to make a comfortable home but is too self-centered to form a strong relationship with her daughter. Fibich does make it to the altar eventually but the match isn’t one of deep emotion or passion. He meets Christine when she visits Aunt Marie and the two find solace together when the older woman falls ill and dies.

Ironically the children of these two marriages seem to have been mixed up at birth.  It’s a shock to Fibich and his shy, plain wife Christine that their only son Toto turns out to be a force of nature, a dazzling creature so alien to their own reserved natures. They watch him and wonder why couldn’t they have had a child as docile as Yvette and Harmann’s daughter Marianne.   It’s the girl’s very docility however that irritates Yvette. Give her Toto any day in place of this child who always looks frumpy and has to be cojouled to get any social life.

The contrasts between these four make The Latecomers a delightful book. At times it’s humerous but never at the expense of either pair. Instead Brookner gives us a detailed and very warm portrait of friendship, marriage and parenthood.  There are no shocks in this book, no sudden revelations or disasters. Reading Brookner is often like putting on a favourite pair of shoes. You know they will never let you down.

 

 

WWWednesday 25 July 2018

It’s Wednesday and so time for WWWednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words  This week’s post comes to you from a balcony overlooking the River Dart in Devon where we are enjoying the delightful scenery and clotted cream teas (well I enjoy them though my arteries tell another story)

 

What are you currently reading?The Line of Beauty by Alun Hollinghurst

LineOfBeautyThis was the book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and is one of the few books remaining for me to read in my Booker Prize project. Almost a year ago I asked you all which of the winners still outstanding you would would recommend. The Line of Beauty came in as joint first with The True History of the Kelly Gang. Some of you described Hollinghurst’s book as very readable.

I have to say that so far I am finding it rather dull. It’s meant to be about class, politics and sexuality in 1980s Britain but so far there is a noticeable absence of the political dimension. Class does make an appearance but overwhelmingly the first 100 pages or so have been about sex. Our protagonist Nick Fadden is a middle class Oxford graduand who is lodging with an MP and his family. Nick feels very much the outsider in their midst but the book’s main tension revolves around his homosexual desires and his relationships with two men. My reaction to the book isn’t connected to prudish sensitivities on my part but just that so far this is all the book is about and its highly repetitive. Can someone please assure me that the next 400 pages will be rather more interesting?

What did you recently finish reading? The Latecomers by Anita Brookner

the latecomersFew authors can get into the skin of the “outsider” as well as Brookner.  The Latecomers features two delightfully conceived men of this ilk: Thomas Hartmann and his friend Thomas Fibich. The men are both Jewish and sent to London as refugees in the war. They go into business together and, once married, have apartments in the same building.  We follow them from their youth, into marriage with women who seem to reflect their idiosyncratic traits and the puzzling world of fatherhood. It may not be Brookner’s strongest novel but still highly engaging.

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

Shall I continue on my Booker trail with How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman? It may be however that by the time I’m finished with Hollinghurst one of the Booker 2018 longlisted titles will have come through from the library.  I’m not planning to read all the longlist since some of them hold no appeal for me but I would like to read two or three if possible before the shortlist is announced.

Topping up my library

Some of the smaller libraries in my area are being converted to ‘community libraries’ which means that local people have to fund them. It’s a trend that’s happening all over the UK sadly. It’s meant to be a way of helping the local authorities to meet their budget targets but in effect it means that I, as a local contributor to their funds, end up paying twice. Once through what in the UK we call council tax (a yearly payment to fund local services, the level of which is determined by the size of your home) and then through local fundraising. The library in my village is one of those targeted to be a community library and despite significant opposition from local residents and two court cases, it’s likely to be in place within a month.

It’s going to be a big challenge to get the money needed for even basic things like heating and lighting of the libraries. In the interests of seeing what other community libraries are doing to raise funds, I toddled off to a book sale run by one of them yesterday. All in the interests of market research you understand – I had no intention of buying anything 🙂

Well of course you all know what happens in these events. It was inevitable I came away with something. It was all in a good cause anyway – the new library gets a much needed boost to its coffers and I get to enrich my private library. A win-win…  Here’s what I bought.

book-purchases

I’ve never read anything by George Meredith so this rather pristine copy of The Egoist called to me as a way of enhancing my knowledge of Victorian writers.  Looking at the back cover I see it’s considered “the most dazzlingly intellectual of all his novels” in which he turns the spotlight on the pretentiousness of a powerful social class. Virginia Woolf rated him highly apparently.  Maybe the fact that this copy looks as if its hardly been opened tells me that the previous owner was not of a mind with dear Virginia.

Elizabeth von Arnim is someone whose name has cropped up recently as a result of HeavenAli’s review of her novel Love which triggered many comments recommending another of her works – The Enchanted April. The copy I snaffled is a Virago modern classic, number 222, though sadly not in the green livery of other Viragos I have on my shelf. I guess I have to live with the fact that this new purchase spoils the colour scheme of my bookshelf.

Molly Keane is a newish discovery for me though not for people who are avid Virago readers. This summer I read Devoted Ladies which she wrote under her other pen name of M.J. Farrell and while not wowed by it, I enjoyed it enough to want to try her again. Good Behaviour is the first novel published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

What can I say about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours other than I don’t know why its taken me so long to get a copy. The film adaptation starring Meryl Streep is superb but I’m told by those who know such things, that the book itself is even better.

How could I resist anything by Anita Brookner, especially a hardback in such good condition as A Private View. Its focus is George Bland, a 65-year-old bachelor who has just retired from a worthy job in a dull office. Into his rather lacklustre life storms Katy, a young squatter who takes up residence in a flat opposite. She’s abrasive, self-assured and into crystal therapy and other New Agey kinds of things. She awakens some strange sensations in George.

And finally, one I needed to buy to help me reach the finishing line in my Booker Prize project. Vernon God Little by D. C Pierre caused a hoopla when it won the Booker in 2003 because it contains a high proportion of profanities and because the author is a former drug addict. Neither of those are showstoppers for me – if the profanities are an integral part of the story and how it needs to be told I can live with that, its the gratuitous use by authors who think they are being ‘hip’ that irritates me. As for the author’s background, I don’t see how that has a bearing on whether he is a good writer.  Will Vernon Good Little be worth reading? Only time will tell..

Given the low prices I think I was remarkably restrained with this little collection. Have you read any of these or plan to in the future?

Hotel du Lac: Book Review

Unknown-1” I am not a fascinating woman,”  reflects Edith Hope as she sits in an out-of-season Swiss hotel trying to decide how she should make her way through life.  But there is something about this quiet, plain woman who wears comfy cardigans and prefers the quietude of her garden to drinks parties and social gatherings, that makes her fellow guests gravitate towards her.

Perhaps it’s because, like her, they are all adrift; washed up at a lakeside hotel that provides solace to those in need by sticking stolidly to its traditions.

Edith is a romantic novelist who’s been exiled to the hotel after an indiscretion that outraged her friends.  The other guests include the beautiful Monica; a young woman with an eating disorder who’s been sent to the hotel by her husband along with an ultimatum — sort herself out and produce a son and heir otherwise she’ll be history. Then there’s Madame de Bonnueil,  an elderly widow who is despatched to the hotel every summer by a daughter in law who considers her a nuisance.  And finally the overbearing, self-indulgent Mrs Pusey and her curiously clinging daughter who spend their lives flitting around the shopping capitals of the world in pursuit of exquisite hand embroidered lingerie thanks to the generosity of the long-dead but not lamented Mr Pusey.

They confide in Edith and use her as a fresh audience for anecdotes told repeatedly to anyone who will listen. Edith observes them all, as she drifts around the hotel and its environs, trying but failing to write her newest novel and all the while writing to the mysterious ‘David’.  Brookner teases her readers with suggestions that a secret affair with this married man was the  ‘unfortunate lapse’ that landed Edith in Switzerland. It’s not until the last few chapters that we learn the truth.

This is a novel that’s written in a clean and unadorned form of prose which yet manages to captures the atmosphere of this retreat and the foibles of its guests. Nothing much happens for most of the book. Only the arrival of the single, wealthy businessman Mr Neville disturbs the Edith’s routine of solitary walks along the lake shake, much partaking of cake in the one and only cafe in town, and then dinner in the hotel.

Mr Neville succeeds in penetrating Edith’s facade, challenging her presumption that her only options for the future are spinsterhood or a marriage based on the romantic ideal of love that feature in her novels. What he offers her is  a third way. He needs the kind of wife who will never cause a scandal and take great of his home and especially his collection of famille rose dishes. In return she will gain a recognised social position giving her the freedom to behave as she wishes, protected from castigation and recrimination.

“You will find that you can behave as badly as you like. As badly as everybody else like too. ….And you will be respected for it. People  will at last feel comfortable with you,” he tells her.

As the basis of a relationship, it sounds more like a business transaction than a declaration of affection. Whether it’s one that Edith decides to buy into is something I’m not going to reveal.  At the heart of the decision however is an interesting question about the way society views single women of a certain age and whether they can only achieve social acceptance by virtue of marriage.

The book isn’t long enough to do full justice to this theme unfortunately, nor is the resolution of Edith’s dilemma fully convincing. Are these flaws sufficient grounds for the vocal criticism which greeted the announcement that Hotel du Lac was the winner of the Booker Prize for 1984? Malcolm Bradbury called the novel  “parochial”, and absolutely not the sort of book that should have won the prize while  The New Statesman called Brookner’s novel “pretentious”. Both seem unfair criticism – while Hotel du Lac doesn’t have the same depth as winners by Michael Ondaatje or Thomas Keneally or the scale of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but it’s still a well written novel that poses challenging questions and holds the attention long after the pages are closed.

EndNotes

  • It was impossible to read this novel without remembering the wonderful portrayal of Edith in the film version released in 1986. Anna Massey was exactly how I imagined Edith to be.
  • Thanks to Ali at HeavenAli for initiating the Reading Brookner in July month and also letting me win this copy of Hotel du Lac in her recent giveaway.

 

 

 

 

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