The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner
The Next Big Thing is another Anita Brookner novel which provides a penetrating portrait of loneliness.
This time her subject is a 73-year-old man who has led a quiet and unremarkable life.
Julius Fitz fled Berlin with his parents and his brother, settling in London with the aid of a benefactor who provided a home and employment in his music shop. Now the shop has been sold, forcing Julius to retire and contemplate how to make use of this unexpected freedom.
Has this all come too late?
“He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it,” he reflects. And in fact he has nothing in place that will help him.
Though he’s comfortably well off he is alone. He was married once but his wife’s liveliness crumbled under the strain of cramped living conditions and the increasing neediness of Julius’ parents.
He has no friends, no-one to really talk to beyond mundane interactions in shops and on park benches. His only contacts are his solicitor and his ex-wife Josie, both of whom he meets occasionally for lunch and dinner.
Search for purpose
The plot revolves around Julius’ attempts to find some purpose in his life.
He considers various options: he could remarry, he could leave London and move to Paris. He imagines himself as a regular guest on a chat show during which he impresses the audience with his remarkable insights on art.
The plans all fizzle into nothing because Julius is a ditherer. He tries to fill his days but walks, excursions to buy the newspaper and a visit to the local park, don’t amount to much. His present existence he reflects is one “in which nothing happened nor could be expected to happen.”
He does take a brief holiday to Paris, hoping to revisit the places he once enjoyed as a young man. But of course the city has changed, as has Julius, so the trip is not a success. Feeling his age, and a strong sense of disappointment, he returns home earlier than planned.
Not until he receives an appeal for financial help from his cousin Fanny with whom he was once infatuated, does he find anything close to real purpose. He sees himself rushing to her aid.
Uncertainty and doubt
But then Julius, being Julius, having given up his flat and made his travel plans, begins to have doubts. Throughout his life he has adjusted his needs to suit the requirements of others , surrendering in the process “that part of himself that others could not and would not supply, and in so doing had forgone his right to respect.”
A reunion with Fanny he thinks, may be yet another case where he his good nature is in danger of being taken for granted. Her letters are full of self-pity and self-centred, he can’t expect much in the way of empathy. And yet wouldn’t a relationship with Fanny –– even if only as a companion for whom he has to foot the bill – be preferable to his current existence?
The Next Big Thing is a wholly introspective novel, delivered at a rather slow pace.
Whole chapters elapse between when Julius has an idea and when he puts it into action. It takes him ages to visit a doctor to discuss the ‘funny turn’ he had when at dinner with his solicitor. Even longer to get around to taking the medication he was prescribed.
It was difficult to feel a lot of empathy for him because he is so ponderous. Instead of being sympathetic towards his predicament I just ended up frustrated by his prevarications and passivity. Brookner’s narrative style is so matter of fact, it added even more distance.
The covers of some editions apparently proclaimed this novel to be Anita Brookner’s “funniest yet.”
I suppose they were thinking of a few scenes which show Julius completely misreading a situation. During the appointment with his doctor, for example, he begins pontificating on the similarity of his symptoms and the overwhelming feeling of strangeness experienced by Freud during a visit to the Acropolis. The doctor is more of a practical man, rather more keen in addressing problems of high blood pressure than having a philosophical discussion.
On another occasion Julius ogles a young woman who has moved into an adjacent flat, reaching out and stroking her arm, completely oblivious to the inappropriate nature of his action. In another context maybe – just maybe – one of these could be considered mildly amusing but the second just made me cringe.
The Next Big Thing is unfortunately not one of the best novels Anita Brookner has produced even though the Booker judges thought so highly of it that they included it on the 2002 longlist.