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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Family and Friends


I write out of a sense of powerlessness and injustice, because I felt invisible and passive - Anita Brookner

When asked why she wrote, by Shusha Guppy in her 1987 interview with the author for The Paris Review, after first confirming that she initially began writing novels to see if she could – “It was literally trying my hand, as you put it. I wondered how it was done and the only way to find out seemed to be to try and do it.” – Brookner responded:

I agree with Cioran [who said, “Writing is the creature's revenge, and his answer to a botched Creation”], in so far as we all try to put some order into chaos. The truth I’m trying to convey is not a startling one, it is simply a peeling away of affectation. I use whatever gift I have to get behind the façade.[1]

At the time of writing Brookner was working fulltime at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Up until then all her writing had been done during her summer break, each novel taking about three or four months to complete and each completed in a single draft:

It is always the first draft. I may alter the last chapter; I may lengthen it. Only because I get very tired at the end of a book and tend to rush and go too quickly, so when I have finished it I go over the last chapter.[2]

Later she resigned and took up writing as a fulltime occupation despite the fact she clearly found the loneliness that traditionally goes with writing somewhat burdensome which is perhaps reflected in the fact her heroines follow “an inexorable progress toward further loneliness,” as she says of Kitty Maule in Providence. Not Family and Friendsonly her heroines but also in Family and Friends (with its – for her – unusually large cast), her heroes, not that there is anything especially heroic about any of the members of the Dorn family and their friends or, indeed, anything villainous.

It is an ensemble cast and all the major players are given fair time on the page. The core family consists of Sophia (generally known by the diminutive ‘Sofka’), a widow who is bringing up four children in a big house in London in the 1920s: Frederick, the eldest (“her pride and joy”), Alfred (the “sickly and favoured younger son”) – both named after kings – along with their sisters, Mireille and Babette (Mimi and Betty) – names out of “a musical comedy … The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt.” Impossible to read the name ‘Sofka’ and not think of Tolstoy’s wife; the fact is that the Dorns are of German extraction, not Russian.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator looking at an old photograph – Brookner has said that the book “was inspired by one of her grandmother’s wedding photos”[3] – identifying each party and saying a little something about them. What is clear is that whoever is talking now knows of all the events that lead up to the book’s final chapter:

None of these people seems to have as much right to be in the picture as Sofka does. It is as if she has given birth to the entire brood, but having done so, thinks little of them. This I know to be the case. She gazes out of the photograph, beyond the solicitations of the photographer, her eyes remote and unsmiling, as if contemplating some unique destiny. Compared with her timeless expression, her daughters’ pleading smiles already foretell their future. And those favoured sons, who clearly have their mother’s blessing, there is something there too that courts disaster.

In a poem I wrote once that I didn’t believe in destiny but I did in inevitability. Despite the fact she chooses to use the word ‘destiny’ Brookner holds a similar view regarding determinism:

I think one’s character and predisposition determine one’s fate […] I don’t believe that anyone is free. [E]xistentialism is about being a saint without God: being your own hero, without all the sanction and support of religion or society. Freedom in existentialist terms breeds anxiety, and you have to accept that anxiety as the price to pay. I think choice is a luxury most people can’t afford. I mean when you make a break for freedom you don’t necessarily find company on the way, you find loneliness. Life is a pilgrimage and if you don’t play by the rules you don’t find the Road to Damascus, you find the Crown of Thorns.[4]

There are disasters though and there are disasters. They begin with money, heirs to a successful business which Frederick is in charge of even though he has little interest in or aptitude for business; fortunately he has responsible, loyal and capable subordinates – in particular the devoted Lautner – although when he manages to hand over the reins to his little brother, even though the boy is only sixteen at the time, he is more than happy to do so. Arthur as it happens proves to be exactly the right man for the job, dedicated and resourceful, and within a few years the business is becoming an empire and no one ever has to go without.

Is it less of a disaster for an edifice to crumble than it would be for it to be destroyed overnight in, say, a huge fire? The end result will be much the same, rubble and/or ash. The Dorn family are all damaged individuals but I would be hard-pressed to point out the cataclysmic events in their lives that cause the damage. Rather it is an inevitable drift. They become the people they can be, as much as they can be these people within the confines of the society in which they grow up. What we get to witness over the 187 pages of this book is them crumble as individuals and break apart as a family. Again ‘break’ is too strong a word; its implications are of a sudden snap, a flare up, an angry interchange, and there is none of that. In fact the Dorns are so damned civilised it’s just not true.

When Alfred starts work at the firm, although doing a man’s work, he only receives a boy’s salary:

This is thought to be good for him, for, unknown to himself, Alfred has been entered on a long course of character training by those who know better than he does. In this way his character will be trained – by privation, of course – beyond those of any whose friendship he is likely to seek. His character, in fact, will be a burden to him rather than an asset. But that is the way with good characters.

A very similar phrase is used when talking about Mimi towards the end of the book:

Sometimes Mimi thinks, if only I had been bolder, had tried again sooner, had pushed my claims. But she never thought she had any claims, had only waited, and waited, had been found. And, after all, honour had been saved. She was married, she had conceived. And if the outcome has not been all that she had wished, well, that is occasionally the way with outcomes.

Alfred and Mimi are the ‘good’ kids. Betty and Frederick are too keen to give in to, to use Brookner’s own word, “ludic” impulses. It was a new word for me:

Ludic derives from Latin ludus, "play," and is an adjective meaning "playful." The term is used in philosophy to describe play as an act of self-definition; in literary studies, the term may apply to works written in the spirit of festival. The concept of the ludic self as fundamentally defining human beings can be expressed by the Latin phrase Homo ludens, "the human who plays" (compare Homo sapiens, the human being defined by its ability to think). – Wikipedia

Frederick (Freddy) is a charmer. He has practiced on his mother for years:

red roseSometimes Frederick will present his mother with one red rose. There are roses in the garden, of course, but they are the province of the gardeners. Frederick’s rose will be placed in a vase and taken up to Sofka’s bed-table. As she lies back on the square pillows that her mother gave her when she married, Sofka will look at the rose and smile.

Don’t read too much into that. Although Sofka is so civilised it’s not true she harbours a soft spot for rebels. As long as all critical roles have been filled by someone (Alfred to take care of the business and Mimi to take care of Sofka in her dotage) then she is content to see her other two children enjoy their freedom:

Betty and Frederick form a natural pair, and … [Alfred] and Mimi form another, quite different alliance. Together and apart, Mimi and Alfred stand for those stolid and perhaps little regarded virtues of loyalty and fidelity and a scrupulous attention paid to the word or promise given or received.

Betty is the first to move out. She relocates to Paris (Brookner herself lived there for three years) with plans of becoming a dancer along with Frank Cariani, the son of Mimi’s piano instructor, whom Betty has charmed away from her sister despite the fact Frank prefers Mimi and Betty knows this. Alfred and her Mimi are dispatched to bring her back but Mimi makes very little effort and Alfred none at all annoyed to find himself turning seventeen alone in a foreign country, expecting Betty to return in a week after she got this out of her system, in fact he even returns on an earlier train alone confident that all is in hand; Mimi is not so naïve, she realises her sister is lost to them. In one other regard she is just as immature as her brother: she imagines her presence in Paris might give Frank cause to pause and she might win him back but she does not. She waits for him to come to her hotel room but he does not. Betty doesn’t return home. She quickly adapts to the Bohemian lifestyle and finds “she never misses her family [although] she does occasionally think about her mother.” She soon has her eye fixed on a film career and Frank, having served his purpose, is discarded with a shrug.

What is interesting here again is how Brookner describes subsequent phone calls:

There have been telephone calls to Betty every Friday evening, and when she comes away from the telephone Sofka allows a small smile to play around her lips. Does she secretly rejoice in this outrageous daughter who has the courage to break with the conventions? Does Sofka like the bad rather than the good in her children?

Another smile.

In the meantime Frederick has been besieged by the eminently viable – Brookner’s word – Evie:

…extraordinarily noisy and [with] the ability to displace any object in her vicinity. She conveys an idea of power which has nothing to do with charm [and] is in effect little more than restlessness. […] Evie gives an impression, greatly exaggerated, of size. Sofka is somehow persuaded that Evie has huge primeval hands and thighs, the teeth of a shark, the braced back of a giant-killer.

Despite the size of her personality – which has to compensate for her lack of good looks and social graces – she proves to be exactly what Frederick needs, a strong woman from a rich family (“her papa owns several hotels on the blistering strip of coast between Nice and La Spezia”) who will afford him his escape: following their marriage the newlyweds take up residence in the Hotel Windsor in Bordighera with Frederick ensconced as general manager if only in name which suits him to a T.

This is where the second photograph in the book appears, on page 82, their wedding. I have to say I was expecting there to be more photos referred to, perhaps one per chapter, but that’s not the case. Since the book is often described as photofiction this surprised me a little.

This novel is an example of what Brent MacLame calls "family album novels," a "recognizable" sub-genre of "photofiction" which he defines as a type of fiction positioning itself at the frontier of two distinct semiological codes, text and image, and exploring "the tension between the simultaneously factual and interpretative qualities of photographs."[5]

So what befalls Alfred and Mimi?

Mimi’s never quite the same after her return from Paris. The irony is that of the two sisters “Mimi, the good daughter, [had] been the one most ready, most willing, to defect.” If only Frank had come to her hotel that night even though she made no firm appointment and relied purely on “the full force of her passive dreaming nature” to work its magic, things might have been very different; he did not and it did not. On her return her mother worries about her:

She now looks older, a little gaunt at times; one is aware, as one never was before, that she is the sort of woman who loses her looks with her innocence. […] Sofka knows something has happened, but will never permit herself to ask, lest her questions bruise the girl too much.

Alfred, in the meantime, devotes his time to work and has little time for anything else … including romance. The family moves house, to Bryanston Square, Alfred buys a country retreat, Wren House, and the years slip by like days. A whole world war passes by without anyone hardly noticing, not even Frederick whose charm – and wine cellar – proves quite enough to ensure he has as comfortable a time as possible under the circumstances. Alfred by then is starting to grow further and further apart from his family:

Bryanston Square

Sofka tries to reconcile herself to the fact that Alfred no longer tells her everything. Like most mothers, she has forgotten that he never did tell her everything; what she means is that she is excluded from a part of his emotional life about which she would like to ask him many questions.

Betty marries Max, a filmmaker, but, apart from a single spectacularly unsuccessful screen test, she never steps in front of a camera. Mimi marries Lautner eventually despite the fact he is almost sixty when he finally proposes, settling for what she can get; it’s him or eternal spinsterhood. Interestingly, in much the same way as Evie proves to be the ideal wife for Frederick, Max and Lautner prove perfect matches for their respective spouses. So a happy ending then?

No, not really. Which means when you get to the end of the book you might want to go right back to the start to try to work out just why such a rich, successful and not-really-all-that-dysfunctional family ends up so miserable, comfortably miserable it has to be said, but miserable nevertheless.

Family and Friends is a chronicle of shadows. Let me explain what I mean by that. On the first page we are introduced to Sofka and her family but even though it’s a wedding photo that the narrator is looking at it is Sofka who is the focal point:

Here is Sofka, in a wedding photograph; at least, I assume it is a wedding, although the bride and groom are absent. Sofka stands straight and stern, her shoulders braced, her head erect in the manner of two generations earlier. She wears a beautiful beaded dress and an egret feather in her hair.

Her family, as I mentioned above (literally standing behind her), are all a bit faded by comparison: she is robust and regal whereas Alfred is “sickly”, the girls, tubercular in appearance and even handsome Frederick is described as a “lazy conqueror” and it is these four that Brookner concentrates on, the four constantly in their mother’s shadow. Two escape to sunnier climbs – Italy and California, which is where Betty ends up – but the other two move even further into the shadows: the new house at Bryanston Square is dark:

[I]n addition to the brown drawing-room, there is a red dining-room, rather like the mouth of hell. […] The common parts of the flat are dark green. All the bedrooms have a dull but expensive wallpaper, as if to signal that a lighter aspect of life might be enacted within their walls.

On the surface the devotion that Mimi and Alfred show to their mother looks commendable but really it is only evidence of their submissiveness, their lack of backbone. Alfred, for example, plays the English gent but at his core he is not English and knows it. This is evidenced by a simple act: on the death of his mother he covers the mirror in his mother’s room when, at the end of the book, she passes quietly:

Obeying some ancestral impulse, Alfred takes a silk shawl and covers his mother’s looking-glass. Then he turns and takes up his position at the foot of her bed, where he will remain all night.

This is a Jewish tradition. Brookner is Jewish – her parents’ surname was originally Bruckner (the same as the composer) but they changed it in response to anti-German feeling in Britain – although she downplays it and prefers to be referred to charles-dickensas an English writer. But the fact is that she is has a strong affinity with displaced persons and so most of her characters, certainly in this book, feel out of place. Alfred, for example, “wants to be as English as Dickens and roast beef” but he’s more like something Dostoevsky might have thought up. He finds a country house but sells it after a few years and never manages to settle on another. He was too well aware when at Wren House walking with his “imaginary dogs at his heels” that he was a pretender to the throne. And just as Mimi didn’t have the gumption to snag Frank Cariani the same goes for Alfred who loses the love of his life, Dolly, to one of his friends and spends years imagining he’ll do something about it but never does until his passion grows cold within him. Would it be too harsh to equate Alfred’s unsettledness with the wandering Jew?

Is it any wonder than when Sofka finally lies on her deathbed the overriding feeling she feels is indifference?

A sense of being a part of two cultures – but also apart – was clearly the legacy of Brookner’s family. She described her maternal grandfather as having “adopted every English mode that he could find” but for whom “European habits of thought – melancholy, introspection – persisted.” The combination according to Brookner was anything but a positive one. Even Brookner’s father, who set her to reading Dickens from the age of seven, “remained very Polish” to her.[6]

You have to do a lot of reading in between the lines with this book. Like I said, a whole world war takes place and you hardly notice it. On the eve of the family’s move to Bryanston Square Sofka, on being disturbed by the sound of voices at the front door, goes to investigate and discovers a woman selling “some pieces of exquisite lace: collars, handkerchiefs, a shawl.” Sofka recognises her as Irma Beck, clearly a refugee, but this how Brookner handles the war:

Of the past, by common consent, they do not speak. It is too dangerous, too painful. Collapses might take place, youthful hopes might be remembered, wave after wave of reminiscence might be activated, and the woman gives Sofka to understand that nothing now must be cherished; only a dry appraisal of the possible is to be allowed. At last, and fearfully, Sofka enquires, ‘Your children?’ For the first time the woman relaxes, and smiles. ‘Safe,’ she says. ‘Here.’

Louise Sylvester in Troping the Other: Anita Brookner’s Jews “laments Brookner’s shyness in addressing the Jewish question in her novels, to the point of bringing up the word ‘betrayal.’ Sylvester suggests that Brookner disguises Jewishness and historical reference in her novels to accommodate her writing to British reading tastes.”[7] I’m not sure I would necessarily agree. It’s like saying that a Jewish writer has an obligation to write about what it means to be a Jew and has let down the side if he or she doesn’t. If there were a dearth of books on the subject one might sympathise with Sylvester. Claire Tylee actually sees Family and Friends as “a celebration”[8] of Jewishness. I don’t think I would go that far but she certainly doesn’t avoid the issue. Furthermore, when Lili and Ursie, two orphaned refugee girls who work for them, are described as “crying out of control … all night” as they “relive their history, their earlier losses,” the Holocaust is firmly if elliptically evoked.

I just don’t see Brookner as that kind of writer. She writes to her strengths and her interests. The point I'm making here is that this is a very focussed novel. Yes, there are other things going on in the world but Brookner is interested in the Dorns and only the Dorns whose lives she examines in minute detail.

In France, Brookner has been called incomparable for her mastery of minutie cruelle, cruel detail.[9]

Her novels “may be traced to the French moraliste tradition of analytical, unsentimental novels.”[10] Brookner earned a bachelor’s degree in French literature at the University of London. “Brookner herself has fuelled this kind of reaction in declaring her favourite authors to be Dickens, Henry James, ‘and all the great moralists.’”[11]

Brookner prefers discretion to disclosure. She says of Jane Austen what could as well be applied to her own writing: “I think she made a tremendous far-reaching decision to leave certain things out.” The words “Jew” or “Jewish” rarely occur in Brookner’s writing (any more than they do in Kafka’s), but it is time that she was recognized as being a quintessentially Anglo-Jewish writer.[12]

The plot, if the book could even be said to have a plot, is simple. There is little action and hardly any dialogue. Narration dominates. The writing is very descriptive but selectively so. She’s more interested in the internal landscapes of her characters than their physiognomies or dress sense and there are no long, drawn-out descriptions of rooms, buildings or landscapes. And if she is describing something, like the rooms in the new house, you can be sure she’s saying more about the observer than the observed. For example, when Betty is in Paris she finds she enjoys looking out at the pâtisserie opposite:

This sight heartens her for some reason: she finds the idea of women eating cakes infinitely reassuring. Perhaps this vignette impresses her as being one of woman’s true destiny, although she might have questioned this. […] Perhaps she finds some echo, some familial reminiscence, in the warm pink lights and the aroma of vanilla that sometimes wafts across to her.

Years later, settled in California, overweight and lonely, “eternally toying with something coloured in a long glass” or “eating concoctions that might have been devised for a child’s party,” we have to wonder if she did not foresee the future all those years before from her window on the Rue Jouffroy.

Food is particularly important to Betty and Alfred, as mentioned above, and also Frederick who puts on quite a bit of weight too over the years:

As Geneen Roth has noted in When Food is Love (20), those who do not receive sufficient love in childhood learn to compensate in other ways and since nurturing is close to nutrition, the two often become indissolubly linked on both and emotional and a physical level.[13]

Only sickly Mimi turns away from food as a source of comfort.

The lack of action will bother some readers. Although photographs don’t appear as much as I expected it’s almost as if every chapter is a snapshot that is explained to us.

Anita BooknerBrookner argues that an absence of action can actually lend drama to a text. Delays, especially when repeated, can be the “stuff of nightmare,” that which make a situation Kafkaesque. […] What does not happen underscores what does thereby making momentous even the most seemingly unmomentous scene.[14]

Brookner says that Family and Friends is “the only one of my books I truly like.”[15] It is the only one I have read and so I have nothing to compare it to but had I written it then I think I would have been rightly pleased with the results. I would certainly have no problem reading her again and look forward to doing so.


[1] Shusha Guppy, ‘Anita Brookner, The Art of Fiction No. 98’, The Paris Review, Fall 1987, No.104

[2] Shusha Guppy, ‘Anita Brookner, The Art of Fiction No. 98’, The Paris Review, Fall 1987, No.104

[3] George Stade, Encyclopaedia of British Writers, 1800 to the Present, Volume 1, p.77

[4] Shusha Guppy, ‘Anita Brookner, The Art of Fiction No. 98’, The Paris Review, Fall 1987, No.104

[5] Laurence Petit, ‘Deceit and anamorphic images in Anita Brookner's Family and Friends’, West Virginia University Philological Papers, 22 September 2001

[6] Cheryl Alexander Malcolm, Understanding Anita Brookner, p.1

[7] Claire M. Tylee, "In The Open": Jewish Women Writers and British Culture, p.111

[8] Claire M. Tylee, "In The Open": Jewish Women Writers and British Culture, p.116

[9] Cheryl Alexander Malcolm, Understanding Anita Brookner, p.10

[10] Christine L. Krueger, Encyclopaedia of British Writers, p. 56

[11] Deborah Bowen, ‘Preserving Appearances: Photography and the Postmodern Realism of Anita Brookner’, Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 28, 1995

[12] Sorrel Kerbel, ‘Anita Brookner’, Jewish Women’s Archive

[13] David Galef, ‘You Aren’t What You Eat: Anita Brookner’s Dilemma’, The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 28, Issue 3, pages 1–7, Winter 1994

[14] Cheryl Alexander Malcolm, Understanding Anita Brookner, p.17

[15] George Stade, Encyclopaedia of British Writers, 1800 to the Present, Volume 1, p.77


Elisabeth said...

Well of course your quotes here from Brookner about writing and revenge resonate with me. Otherwise I find less with which to connect, but that might just be me.

Yours is high praise indeed. I've yet to read Brookner, but I'm taken with the degree to which she takes on the subtleties of cultural and personal experience, and especially impressed by your description of her leap over the war.

It sounds like a strange family indeed but from what you say here well worth reading about. Thanks Jim.

Art Durkee said...

Disasters are in the eye of the beholder. It's how you interpret the event that makes it either a disaster or a blessing.

The existentialist viewpoint is not only about living with the anxiety that freedom brings. It's also about being able to make the choice to create meaning where there is none. Which is what freedom is: choosing how you respond to and interpret events.

Jim Murdoch said...

Despite the period setting, Lis, I do think that this is a novel you would get something from. Like me you are a people-watcher and despite her style of writing (which, on the surface, might seem to work against her intended purpose) this is an incisive dissection of a family and I quite like it’s blinkered vision; yes, there’s a war on and, yes, they’re Jewish but we’re here to talk about family not world or cultural events. If they do this International Anita Brookner Day next year I’ll be happy to have a crack at a later novel.

And, Art, oh, no, no matter how you look at this family it is a disaster. They may not be throwing their desserts across the table at each other but that’s just because the damn British reserve is more important to them than anything else: as long as things look fine they must be fine. Keeping up appearances is everything. It’s not even an upper class thing. I’ve heard Billy Connolly wax on about the front his mother used to put on when the vicar came to tea and they had nothing, he knew they had nothing but it wasn’t the done thing to be seen to have nothing.

Anonymous said...

A well-written, well-researched post, Jim. I still can't get over her ability to write a novel in three or four months, completed in a single draft!

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing is, Milo that's how long it took me to write my first two novels. So I know it can be done. I pottered around with them for five years afterwards but essentially they were done.

The Boss said...

Lili and Ursie intrigued me and so I found the explanation here of why two servants were so well loved and embraced by this family and were also to become 'maitresses de maison'
Thank you.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Boss. Always pleased when I see a new reader's found me.

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