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Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Next Big Thing

I have come to believe that there can be no adequate preparation for the sadness that comes at the end, the sheer regret that one's life is finished, that one's failures remain indelible and one's successes illusory. – Anita Brookner, The Rules of Engagement


 
 

The Next Big Thing, published in 2002, was Anita Brookner’s twenty-first novel. She, famously, began writing novels in 1981 at the age of fifty-three and, with the exception of 2000, had produced one a year like clockwork up until this point. The title of the American edition was changed to Making Things Better but I’m not sure that either title does the book justice. Had I been her publisher I might have suggested Dignity as an alternative; the word (or one of its derivatives) appears some thirty times in the book and that’s not counting any synonyms. It’s a word that doesn’t get used much these days. It’s not a word that slips easily into conversation although, perhaps, its antonyms do.

Julius Herz, the central character in The Next Big Thing, is seventy-three. He’s lived in London since, at the age of fourteen, he and his family were forced to flee Germany. They had little say in where they ended up and it was left to a friend of his father’s brother-in-law, a fellow exile named Ostrovski who took “on something of a god-fatherly role,” to provide them with both accommodation and employment and he continued as the family’s landlord and employer until there was only Julius left still running the business. Now Ostrovski’s eighty-one and has decided enough is enough; without warning he sells the record store and the flat that goes with it leaving Julius homeless and unemployed:

“I'm getting out,” he said bleakly. “I've had enough. All these years I've been wheeling and dealing I've never been happy. I always wondered why. And now I know. I'm not well, Julius.” He laid a tentative hand below his rib cage. “Tried to overlook it, as one does, but there's no doubt about it now. I'm looking at the end. The next big thing. […] I've got a place in Spain, as you know. Marbella. Might as well spend my days in the sun as in this perishing climate. I'm getting out, liquidating my assets. So you'll be on your own, dear boy, free, for the first time in your life. You've been a good son, I've never doubted that, too good, perhaps. Sorry your marriage broke down, but that was all part of it, wasn't it? Now you've got a chance to be your own man. I've seen to that.” [bold mine]

By “seen to that” he means he’s left Julius with enough money—“a sum that sounded unreal,” as Julius puts it—so he can buy a wee place of his own and enjoy his overdue retirement.

Hertz or Herz is a Jewish name meaning heart, at least in German—or gazelle if you go down the Yiddish route—and so a fairly obvious name for our hero. As Orwell points out in his Theory of Language during the Third Reich the name Einstein could not be used in physics lectures and the unit of measurement ‘Hertz’ could not be described by this Jewish name. When I reviewed Friends and Family I wrote a bit about the fact Brookner never mentions that the family she’s writing about are Jews and, similarly, there are only two minor nods in The Next Big Thing, a reference to a dark-eyed girl “whose looks were so suspect in the Germany of that time” and the fact their benefactor had changed his name from Abramsky—you don’t get much more Jewish than that—to the Russian Ostrovski. Brookner’s own parents were originally called Bruckner (the same as the composer) which isn’t at all Jewish but German surnames as you can imagine weren’t very popular in Britain after 1914. Brookner’s maternal grandfather immigrated to England at the end of the nineteenth century.

The American title is also taken from the book: “Making things better seemed to have been assigned to him as his life’s work.” Perhaps I can revise that sentence to make it more accurate: “Making things better for others seemed to have been assigned to him as his life’s work.” Ostrovski hits the nail on the head when he says, “You've been a good son,” but that doesn’t say it all. He’s been a good brother and a good husband; no, not merely “good”—devoted, so much an attribute of Brookner’s protagonists. In all his dealings he’s behaved impeccably and always in a dignified manner. He pays his bills on time and in full, tips well, looks out for others; were he a character in a novel by Dickens—one of Brookner’s favourite authors—he’d be described as “a proper gent”—civil, polite and responsible to a fault. He reminds me of the butler in The Remains of the Day a little; he’s subsumed his own needs and now, suddenly and unwelcomely, he finds himself free—freed—to do whatever he wants. But at seventy-three is it too late? The problem is, as Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith notes in an article in of all place the Catholic Herald:

Freedom, in the world of Anita Brookner, is a largely sterile concept. Perhaps future generations will wonder about us, and ask: having won their freedom, why did they do so little with it?

Herz has no friends bar his ex-wife. The couple parted on good terms after a couple of years—her idea—but have kept in touch meeting for lunch three or four times a year. During the course of the novel he develops something of a friendship with his solicitor—a man who also benefitted from Ostrovski’s generosity—but, again, they only meet occasionally for lunch and if business is discussed then Herz insists he be charged for the man’s time. This is how one such lunch ends:

They parted on the usual good terms, Herz waiting on the pavement until Simmonds's car drove off. Then he walked to the bus stop, remembering, in spite of himself, Bijou Frank [a friend of his mother’s] and his first experience of servitude. He smiled. How had she lived, poor Bijou? And when had she died? There had been no notice in the Deaths column of The Times, although there was no reason why there should have been. It had been an obscure life, dignified by a sort of loyalty. That was what he missed, the sort of loyalty observed by people who had little in common but their origins, but who understood each other in a more rooted way than the rootless young could ever understand. He understood it now, almost wished those lost connections back again. He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it. He had done nothing more than glimpse it. The irony was that he now possessed freedom in abundance, but did not quite know how to accommodate it. And it was, it seemed, too late for him to learn.

Finding a new flat proves far easier than he expected—he says yes to the first one he’s shown even though the lease is only for eight years (he’s not sure he’ll need longer)—and the transition is seamless:

By the end of the week Ostrovski's mother's table and two chairs looked well against the sunlit wall of the sitting-room. Flushed with success, he went to John Lewis and bought two more chairs, a television, a bedside cabinet, and three lamps. At home, as he now thought of it, he made up the bed which he had bullied the shop into removing from the window, and hung his clothes in the small cupboard. As far as he could see he needed nothing more. He was almost disappointed that the process had been so speedily accomplished.

Now what? Julius finds his days hard to fill:

Though he did not exactly miss his former routine, he regretted that he had so little to do. His days were composed of artificial outings: a newspaper and the supermarket in the morning, and in the afternoon a bookshop or a gallery. He told himself that many were in the same boat, but pitied them, thought wistfully of families, of ideal families, with gardens to occupy them and grandchildren to cherish.

For several chapters we follow his dreary life and bit by bit we build up a picture of how he got to this stage. We learn about his family and especially his big brother, Freddy, a musical genius doted on by his parents while his talents were flourishing but neglected following a mental breakdown and left to Julius to attend to. We lean of his cousin, the self-centred Fanny, Julius’s first and one true love, about whom he dreams even as an old man. We learn of Julius’s short-lived marriage to Josie who, although not quite as bad as Fanny, had always been careful to keep her interests to the fore. In the following extract where Julius describes their current relationship you get a better picture of him than you do of her:

Late in the afternoon Herz telephoned the garden centre where his former wife now worked and asked for Mrs Burns. Josie had reverted to her maiden name after the divorce but had kept the married style. He found this perfectly acceptable; he could appreciate that marriage, even a defunct marriage, conferred a certain dignity on a woman, and women nowadays were, or seemed to be, rather anxious to define their status. Besides, she was to all intents and purposes a married woman, comfortable with her condition, perhaps even more so than she had ever been as a wife. And she was of an age when dignity counted: the single state, despite all propaganda to the contrary, still had something sad about it. Widows were in a different category. He suspected that Josie would have been quite contented as a widow, but was still sufficiently attached to him to have alighted on what she saw as an ideal definition.

But even what he has with Josie isn’t going to last. Her mother has fallen ill and so she’s decided to move in with her—the old woman lives in Maidstone in Kent—and the best Julius can hope for from now on will be the odd phone call. Josie, it turns out, is also strapped for cash and so Julius being Julius makes arrangements for her to get a regular sum for as long as she might need it. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly knowing that his author is lurking within him, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. As Brooker said in her last interview in 2009:

Do you feel that life has been unfair to you? “Not at all.” She reflects a moment. “I think I've made a hash of it. But that's my responsibility.”

What next? Two things. The first is the arrival of an attractive and young—young enough to be his granddaughter—neighbour called Sophie Clay who becomes the focus of his attention and who—unwittingly—leads him down some undignified paths:

The presence of a young creature, so nearly under his roof, kept his thoughts chaste, yet when he went out into the street he was amused to find himself entertaining notions that were almost lubricious. These were not confined to the person of Sophie Clay: he saw women everywhere who offered some almost forgotten possibility of pleasure.

The second is a letter out of the blue from Fanny and, again, his dignity—more specifically his self-respect—is under fire. He had last seen her thirty years earlier in Nyon in Switzerland which is where her family fled to from Germany. He’d sought her out after his divorce and her first husband’s death with every intention of asking her to marry him even though she was no longer the girl he had first desired but it didn’t matter; his proposal was swiftly—although not unkindly—rejected. Now her second marriage has ended, her controlling mother has passed and Fanny finds herself in a similar position to Julius… only—predictably (why else is she making contact now?)—nowhere as well off and without her looks to use as a bargaining chip; she’s a year older than him.

What’s a man to do? Second chances are rarely handed out to Brookner’s protagonists.

Loneliness is a terrible thing for most people. Is it worse for someone whose life has been, as Julius puts it, “unlived”? “I feel I could get into The Guinness Book of Records as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman,” Brookner remarked in the year she won the Booker for Hotel du Lac. That was in 1984. In the 2009 interview she has adjusted that view slightly:

She is lonely, she says, for “ideal company” – which is not quite the same as being lonely. “I'm very good on my own. And I manage, I think, pretty well. But it takes courage.”

If, like me, you’ve read a few books by Brookner you’ll be familiar with her themes and that is what keeps us coming back for more; she’s predictable but in a good way. That said she can repeat herself. This is how Emma Hagestadt, writing for The Independent, described her 2009 novel, Strangers:

Now aged 73, and living alone in a neat South Kensington flat, he dreams of coming home. Within the space of a couple of months, two women arrive on the scene: Vicky, a pretty fifty-year-old divorcée, whom he quickly decides he doesn't actually like, and Sarah, the love of his life who walked out on him years earlier for being "too nice." To which brand of humiliation will Sturgis surrender himself? Brookner at her forensic best.

I reviewed the book on Goodreads here and there are definite similarities. Perhaps Brookner thought she didn’t quite get it right with Julius. The title’s better, that’s for sure. Everyone in this book is a stranger, at least one step removed from everyone else. This is also true to a great extent with The Next Big Thing. But Dignity would’ve been a better title and I submit as evidence this passage:

     “What is it, Josie?” he asked quietly.
She smiled sadly. “It never goes away, does it?”
     “I'm sorry.”
“That longing to be with another person.”
     “Not with me, I take it.”
     “No, no, not with you. Not even with Tom. There's a man who comes into the office. We have a drink from time to time. Married of course. Yet we get on so well...” She broke off. “You don't want to hear this.”
     “Why not stand your ground? See what comes of it?”
     “Look at me, Julius. I'm old. I might as well accept it. What surprises me is that I could still feel hope, look forward to seeing him, perhaps no more than that. I couldn't undress for any man now. As I say, I accept it. Mother's illness may have been the jolt I needed. Once the decision was made I realized that it had saved me from a lot of uncertainty. Humiliation, perhaps. I still have my dignity.”
     “I admire you for it. I know how unwelcome one's dignity can be.”
     “So you think I'm right?”
     “Probably. I also know what you mean. Keeping one's dignity is a lonely business. And how one longs to let it go.”

This chimes with something Cheryl Alexander Malcolm says in her book Understanding Anita Brookner. Published in 2002 it obviously doesn’t include any references to The Next Big Thing but had she known about it it would only underline the following comment:

Without exception, Brookner’s novels chronicle her protagonists’ realization that life is not what they expected it to be and, in her later novels particularly, how they maintain their dignity in spite of their disappointments.

She specifically highlights Visitors and Altered States of which she says, “How they travel to this end with dignity is very much the subject of these novels.”

The only real problem I had with this book is with the ending. In his review Thomas Hogglestock called it, “a little high school” and I have to agree with him. Like him I saw it coming about halfway through the novel but in her defence it was probably the right ending; sometimes things do turn out the way you expect them to. One odd thing to finish with: in a review on Amazon Ralph Blumenau happens to mention that the dustjacket of his copy promotes this is her “funniest novel to date”. Like him I think this is a very strange thing for a publisher to do. Yes, the book has its humorous moments but Tom Shape she is not.

You can read an extract from the book here.

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