Anita Brookner, on the privacy of inhibition

January 12, 2003|By Merle Rubin | By Merle Rubin,Special to the Sun

Making Things Better, by Anita Brookner. Random House. 272 pages. $23.95.

The mild-mannered, elderly hero of Anita Brookner's 21st novel leads a quiet life in London. Julius Herz is courteous to his neighbors and generous toward his ex-wife, Josie. He cannot find it in himself to blame her for decamping years ago when they were forced to move in with his querulous parents. Having devoted the best years of his life to looking after them and his emotionally disabled, institutionalized brother, he is free at last to do as he pleases. He no longer has to be the dutiful son "making things better" for other people. The trouble is, he is unused to freedom.

Even now, at age 73, Herz (whose last name is German for "heart") feels he is still a boy: uncertain and inexperienced on the one hand, but filled with eager, foolish hopes and desires. Beneath his calm facade and obliging smile, Herz is a man determined to somehow enjoy "a last moment of blitheness before consciousness [is] finally extinguished." The Herzes were Jewish refugees from Hitler's Germany who never quite felt at home in England. Julius' mother was also burdened by a sense of inferiority to her more worldly sister, Anna, who married a German gentile.

All his life Julius has been hopelessly in love with Anna's daughter, his spoiled, pretty cousin Fanny. The last time he saw her was 30 years ago, when he (newly divorced) gathered up his courage to propose to her (at that point recently widowed), only to be politely rejected. Far from idealizing Fanny, Julius considers her fickle, shallow, and arrogant. This, however, is what makes her desirable in his eyes. And now, at this late stage of his life, he may even prefer to focus his desire on an unobtainable object to avoid the disappointment of reality.

There is something almost Kafkaesque in the way that Brookner conceives her hero's predicament: Hedged round by walls of equivocation and inertia, he allows his mind to roam freely, feeding his febrile imagination on a diet of endless longing. Not content to concentrate only on his dreams of Fanny, he also cultivates an even more hopeless infatuation for a tough young woman who lives in his building. But at some point, his private fantasies begin to intersect with realities that, in the words of T.S. Eliot's diffident spokesman J. Alfred Prufrock, "force the moment to its crisis."

Over the course of her distinguished two decades as a novelist, Brookner has maintained a high standard of artistic accomplishment, as she painstakingly, almost obsessively, explores the claustrophobic interior worlds of sensitive, inhibited, secretly romantic souls trying to break through their solitude.

Each time, she manages somehow to make it all seem fresh and new. In this latest novel, she trains her sights on mortality itself, with a hero who is very conscious that whatever decisions he takes will shape the remainder of his life. At times, Brookner's prose, usually so lucid, turns turgid with the strain of conveying Julius' complicated thoughts and motives. But the reader with a taste for Henry Jamesian nuances and the patience to persist will be rewarded by a somber yet illuminating portrait of a timid man making a valiant effort to make the best of the time he has left.

Merle Rubin has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia and studied English as an undergraduate at Smith College and Yale University. She writes for The Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among others.

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