Nothing 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.