The Latecomers by Anita Brookner [book review]
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.
20 thoughts on “The Latecomers by Anita Brookner [book review]”
Based on the description of the cigarette and chocolate, it sounds like this is a detail-oriented, process-driven novel. You start by writing that nothing much happens in this, the author’s 8th novel. Does anything much happen in her other novels?
p.s. I think there was some cut-and-paste mishap in your second paragraph.
Thats for catching that cut and paste mash up. Now fixed… Yes it’s true that her books are not action oriented but this one seemed rather more inward than others I’ve read
I really enjoy Brookner, but it’s been a while since I’ve read her. I have to space out her books since they are often so melancholy. But I do think she’s a master of the interior life. This one sounds good, I’ll definitely read it sometime.
I do the same 🙂
I picked up The Latecomers about 4 months ago in a charity shop – but put it back and am now kicking myself!! I’d loved Hotel du Lac and Misalliance and Brief Lives but something on the blurb of Latecomers put me off! I’ll hope against hope it’s been ignored since then and is still on the shelves of the Oxfam Bookshop near me!!
I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you Col
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I remember making a note of this one after Andy Miller recommended it on Twitter a couple of years ago. It sounds a little different from some of her other novels with its focus on the two male characters. As you day, Brookner seemed more interested in feelings and emotions than narrative plot.
The fact it was slightly different to her other work is what appealed to me when I picked it up in a charity shop. I was curious whether she could get under the skin of male characters just as successfully as women. Short answer is YES
I haven’t read this one (but will look out for it) – I’m on a Brookner-break at the moment because I read two in quick succession and it was all getting a bit glum!
It’s good to space them out – I find that with any author really – so you appreciate them even more
I have this in my Brookner stack to read. I read several Brookner and then stopped as I wanted to eke the books out of a longer period of time.
I did more or less the same Guy. It’s a long time since I last read anything by her so delighted to find the appeal hadn’t faded
I don’t think I’ve got this one… I should read one of the ones I’ve got before too much longer, I really like her writing.
I have quite a back catalogue of hers to read also
I love Anita Brooker, and I am pretty sure I haven’t read this one, it’s familiar title might mean I have a copy somewhere on my tbr.
You do surprise me, I had a feeling you were a big Brookner fan Ali
I am, but not read them all yet.
I love Anita Brookner. One Christmas, a horrible Christmas, my horrid sister-in-law gave me Hotel du Lac and said it was one of her favorite books. I read it and wondered. You never know what really goes on inside of people. But it was a revelation to my 1990s self, a self who read lots of trashy fiction, that one could write, as you say, about how people feel rather than what they do.
Did you look more favourably on your sister after that?