New Visions from Old:
Three Recent Novels by Anita Brookner
by George Soule
A few reviewers always greet the publication of a new Anita Brookner novel by calling it a reworking of familiar situations and themes. They have a point. Brookner usually presents a single woman (or as the author herself ages, an older single woman) who consents to a life of such lonely and passive frustration as to be pathological. Some hopes are raised when her life is entered by persons more energetic than she, but these promises come to little or nothing. One of her heroines (Edith Hope in Hotel du Lac) explains the situation by retelling the story of the hare and the tortoise. Although the romance novels Edith writes are popular because they show the passive tortoises-like women winning, in real life tortoises always lose, and the energetic and uninhibited hares always win. Hares are not offended by these stories, for they do not read them. They are too busy having fun. Brookner's own novels are not romances because they tell the truth about what it is like to be a tortoise.
Although this distinction can help us understand all her novels, attentive readers may detect that Brookner has recently been expanding and adding to her usual themes. In this article, I will discuss three of Brookner's most recent novels-Altered States (1996), Visitors (1997), and Falling Slowly (1998)-asking what are these variations and additions. I will treat Visitors first, for it is the least surprising. I will then discuss Altered States, in which the tortoise character has deeper problems than usual, and lastly Falling Slowly, in which I think Brookner leads her readers into new territory. (1)
My emphasis on Brookner's themes and characters has its dangers, for I suspect that themes may not be what really matters to her. Critics are always saying that, no matter what Brookner's "message" is, she writes very well. Indeed she does. The pleasure of entering Brookner's world is very much a matter of her style-both her elegant and lucid prose style, her quietly witty intellectual style, and her brilliant and often hilarious dramatic style. But this article will focus on the grounds where the battles of Brookner criticism have mainly been fought: her themes and her characters.
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In Visitors, Brookner does not disappoint her regular reader's expectations. Her central character (it is hard to call her a heroine) is Dorothea May, known to the reader as "Mrs. May." She is a thin, dignified, well turned-out elderly widow (the dust-jacket of the American edition makes her much too old-fashioned) who lives in London. She is the novel's tortoise, the personification of Sloth. She begins the novel in a situation that combines inertia and solitude to a degree which stretches the boundaries of realistic fiction. She is somewhat feeble; when she feels breathless, she takes pills. She lives on an almost deserted street in a moribund middle-class neighborhood in southwest London (actually much like Brookner's own). Her flat is decorated in muted blues and grays; two of its rooms are permanently closed because she associates them with her husband Henry, who died fifteen years ago. She has not had a guest since then. She goes out once a day to eat a solitary lunch in a nearby restaurant. Her only human contacts come from a daily word from the lonely old man who once managed the restaurant and from a weekly (Sunday night) phone call from one or the other of her late husband's cousins.
The reader senses from the beginning that her story, like that of other Brookner women, may be a variation on either Sleeping Beauty or the "Lady of Shallot"-the story of an awakening, perhaps happy, perhaps not. Mrs. May's awakening begins with a phone call from cousin Kitty Levinson, a rich and overbearing older woman addicted to long, tearful discussions of her own and her husband Austin's ailments. Kitty calls Mrs. May at an unusual hour to ask an unusual favor. Visitors are coming (hence the novel's title). Kitty's granddaughter Ann, the offspring of their estranged son Gerald, will be arriving from the United States in several days to stay with the Levinsons in Hampstead, and Ann expects Kitty to put on a wedding for her right away. Because Kitty is short on space, she asks Mrs. May to take into her flat--for only a few days--one of the wedding party, a man named Steve Best. Steve is a young Englishman who wandered to the United States to play his guitar in rock bands. Enter the energizing force.
Before she became Mrs. May, Dorothea Jackson had been a lonely girl and woman, given (tortoise-like) to reading and long walks. She met her husband years ago after she fell down on the street, and Henry had literally picked her up. He picked her up figuratively as well, raising her out of a lonely life into one of calm domestic comfort. Years after his death, the archetypal pattern recurs. Dorothea, now Mrs. May, almost falls again, getting dizzily out of a cab before her block of flats, and she is again rescued literally--this time by Steve Best. Steve helps her inside, she calms down, and they talk. It would be hard to imagine two creatures from such different worlds: she a lonely, insulated, apprehensive, static old woman, he an gregarious, itinerant, confident, young man. Yet Mrs. May enjoys his presence in her home. She coddles him and looks forward with girlish palpitations to going with him on a Sunday drive. At the same time, she judges him accurately as a cipher and yearns for him to go.
Understanding other people is one of Brookner's concerns in this novel. The story is told from a third-person limited omniscient point-of-view; as readers live through almost everything from inside Mrs. May's attentive sensibility, they begin to understand her intimately. They become aware that Mrs. May has an aptitude for sympathetic understanding. Others around her--Henry's cousins in particular--may fail to understand her, but she understands them very well. At one point Brookner attributes this talent to Mrs. May's reading novels: they have taught her to understand what other lives are like. Readers of Brookner will note a development here. In Brookner's early writings, reading novels gave her tortoise-like heroines only false ideas that their lives could have happy endings.
Mrs. May finds she needs all her talents for understanding once the other Visitors arrive, bringing with them unexpected complications. The young visitors are unattractive. They are by turns cold, charmless, rude, fretful, crude, and graceless. They are without wit. Although Ann, a large and impolite woman, demanded her grandmother give her a wedding, she scorns Kitty's values and way of life. The insolent Ann resists Kitty's attempts to make the wedding a lavish one, for she is getting married only because she is poor and pregnant. Kitty tires herself out in making elaborate preparations, only to be thrown into despair when Ann tries to back out of the marriage. Austin, a loving and indulgent husband, is evicted from his usual chair and frets about his beloved Kitty.
The other visitors are no better. Ann's intended husband David is a teacher of religion and sport in a school in Massachusetts. His cheerful religiosity wears on almost everybody, though he converts a cousin to a health food regimen. Steve announces that he is gay and complains that his parents do not understand him. Though Steve is not a difficult guest, Mrs. May feels she has lost control of her home. All of these activities lay bare the shallow selfishness of the young people (called aliens by the older people), and open up old wounds. In particular, Kitty and Austin are reminded of how their son Gerald has rejected them.
Forced out of her usual routine, Mrs. May is stimulated to meditate on many things: her girlhood, her marriage, her life as a widow, her dead husband's family, the nature of youth. Many chapters of this novel are filled--for some readers, perhaps too filled--with reminiscences of this kind. Mrs. May cultivates and enjoys an active dream-life. Readers also discover that (a surprising thing for a woman who is so tortoise-like) before her marriage Mrs. May had a brief, passionate, and humiliating love affair with a disreputable man. Her marriage, by comparison, was amiable rather than passionate.
Her thoughts wander back and forth between the poles of youth and age, past and present, passion and restraint, activity and stasis. Over and over, she returns to her own condition: she has always been a diffident and private person, as opposed to others (such as her husband) who are exuberant and out-going. Her constant fear from girlhood to old age has been of a faceless Intruder who will dispossess her of her home. Henry was an Intruder; she avoids doctors, because they are Intruders. Now that she is old and alone, Steve seems to take on the Intruder role. The most she can hope for is to calm her fears and to do her duty by putting on a false and brave face to the world.
The picture painted by the novel itself is not quite so bleak as Mrs. May's usual assessment. At times, the author herself intrudes to suggest that Mrs. May's understanding is not complete, and Mrs. May occasionally reaches out and accomplishes something. She has many brief moments of exhilarating activity. In one of the novel's most brilliant scenes, she talks masterfully to Ann when Ann threatens to call off the wedding. Mrs. May is frank, yet she asks just the right questions to goad Ann into the marriage, thus saving Kitty from a grave disappointment. (Kitty calls it a miracle.) She also manages to get rid of Steve, politely but firmly.
The wedding takes place. The son Gerald even appears. When the confusions have a happy ending, Mrs. May reflects that even though Kitty does not read fiction, she has demanded that other people provide her with the happy illusions of fiction in real life. Kitty generally get what she asks for.
The wedding has shaken Mrs. May into greater self-knowledge. Mrs. May realizes that Steve, albeit without knowing it, has rescued her for a second time, figuratively as well as literally. She learns what the reader learns: that in many ways she has never grown up. She yearns still for the security of childhood when, though she feared The Intruder, she never doubted the protection and love of her parents. Later substitutes for her parents have been just that, substitutes.
Then she learns more. By the end of the novel, she acknowledges her sympathy and affection for many people who are not blood relations, for Ann and even David, for Kitty and Austin. (The novel's portrait of that unlovely, flawed marriage is memorable.) Mrs. May can sketch out a future that gives a reasonable degree of hope for Ann and David's marriage. Although she entertains several visions of a new life for herself, she soon realizes that they are not true visions, that she wants to stay close to home, supporting Kitty and Austin. She will be more open to joy, less fatalistic. She now knows that she exists in other people's minds as they do in hers and that being old makes such relations, even if not ideal, necessary and important. She ends the novel "refreshed, grateful."
These are not revolutionary changes, but they are moving ones. Visitors is recognizably a novel about a Brookner tortoise. Like other of her later novels, this story's time-span is longer, and the tortoise here is older, older and wiser. Though it may strike some readers as being characteristically bleak, it ends on a more positive note than many of Brookner's other novels. Mrs. May, through action, sympathy, and introspection, has achieved something.
* * * * *
Altered States also has its tortoise and hare. In this case, Alan Sherwood, a London lawyer, is a tortoise, and his cousin Sarah Miller is the hare. Sarah is flashy and charismatic. She has abundant red hair and wears very short skirts; she is vain and unreliable and likely to disappear at any time. Hare-like, she bounds after the pleasures of the moment, indifferent to consequences. Alan is her tortoise: a conventional lawyer of orderly habits, good to his mother, unlucky in marriage, yet besotted with Sarah. This novel is the story of an obsession. Brookner has added this element to her portrait of a tortoise.
The novel differs from Brookner's early stories in other ways. As we saw in Visitors, Brookner's vision has deepened over the years. In this novel, her tortoises are not just life's losers, but life's exiles. Here Alan's distant relation Jenny, who was born in Poland, is the only literal exile, but Alan realizes that from childhood on he has been an exile too. Moreover, in her later novels Brookner has often lengthened her time frame and broadened her canvas; they often span generations, and they center, not on single women, but on families and even on men. Altered States describes complicated family relationships; its action extends over thirty years. The novel's point-of-view is also a departure. Though most Brookner novels are told in the third person centering on one female consciousness, she has written several novels with first-person female narrators and several novels which center on male characters. Altered States marks a first for Brookner, a novel told by a man in the first-person.
The novel is the story of Alan's obsession with Sarah. All other characters serve to emphasize this relationship and to explore its particular significance. Alan's loving mother exists to give wise opinions about his problems, as does the older man she marries. Alan's distant relation Jenny has needs which are as violent as his own, but quite different; she exhibits her grief in a un-English way that contrasts with his stiff upper lip. His friend Brian has a casual way with women that is very different from Alan's. On the rebound from Sarah, Alan is wheedled into marrying the childish and immature Angela, who in many ways is Sarah's opposite.
Despite the its convolutions and despite Sarah's being present only about fifteen percent of the time, the story of Altered States never strays far from Alan's obsession and its consequences. The novel begins in the present with Alan, the 55-year-old narrator, in Switzerland. When he sees a woman who reminds him of Sarah, he tells his story. It begins thirty years earlier in London when he meets Sarah and has a brief, sexually explosive affair with her. The story then shows Alan trapped into marriage by Angela, a woman who by virtue of what she is not reminds him of Sarah at every turn. His obsession with Sarah impels him to desert Angela at a critical moment in her pregnancy, with the result that she loses their baby and kills herself soon thereafter. Even though as the years go by Alan seems more and more like a conventional London lawyer, he is tormented by his guilt and by his memory of Sarah. When many years later he sees Sarah after her uncle's funeral, they talk. He is as fascinated as ever, but he firmly makes Sarah give the flat she has inherited to her aunt, the impoverished Jenny. Even though he never sees Sarah again, the novel ends with Alan back in Switzerland reflecting on the central role Sarah has played in his life.
By telling Alan's story in the first person, Brookner runs some risks. Because readers do not have an authorial voice directing their thoughts, they do not know how to judge Alan. Brookner is often good at rendering male friendships, and here the details of the relationship of Alan and Brian are particularly well done: their tacit understandings, their reproaches, their comments on women. Because of these comments and because of Alan's treatment of Angela, some readers will think he is a monster. Other readers will find him sympathetic.
As a realistic story of men and women in the last half of the Twentieth Century, this novel has its virtues and flaws. Its supporting cast is as marvelous as usual; Brookner is seldom given credit for the memorable gallery of varied characters she creates. But the plot may sometimes creak. One reviewer complained that Sarah is hardly realized as a character; her popping up at the appropriate times in Alan's story is obviously contrived.
But even the most realistic novels must be contrived, and only very literal readers object if contrivances work to some purpose. Altered States is best read as a somewhat abstract story in which, beneath a polite and realistic surface, civilized behavior is at war with the forces of anarchy, especially sexual anarchy. Sarah personifies anarchy, and Alan seems to personify civilization. He is well-bred by a sophisticated and wise mother; he is well educated and follows a profession dedicated to civil order. He is usually moderate in his tastes, polite, and charitable. He does not read escapist novels. He is aware of the consequences of his actions; he plans for the future and, when it is appropriate, feels guilt and remorse. His conventional Englishness is symbolized by his heavy clothing, especially the raincoat he always wears.
Yet Alan is more than a symbol. Not only is he somewhat dull, he is aware of his dullness. And his dull exterior hides a passionate soul. His lack of experience with the fantasies of fiction leave him open to the full force of the fantasies--and the real experiences--that Sarah brings to him.
Sarah is not conventionally beautiful, but she embodies exactly the forces that Alan has repressed. She is selfish, cruel, prone to anger, and sexy. Brookner identifies her with the figure of Luxuria: excess, dissipation, riotous living. She embodies five of the seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, and sloth. She omits envy because she envies nobody and gluttony, perhaps because eating might make her seem more warmly human. She dresses flamboyantly; Alan senses her presence by a whiff of expensive perfume. She makes few plans, but lives by her selfish whims entirely in the present. She has no roots or sense of community; she reviles her relatives; she has few friends and hardly thinks of other people.
Most important to Alan, she is supremely sexual. In the course of their brief affair, Alan experiences what to him is ideal sex: uninhibited, energetic, and wordless, a meeting of independent equals. He remembers that during their sexual encounters, her face would be without expression. The sex Alan remembers is pure, without consequences; significantly, Sarah cannot have children. These experiences, so much different from his love-making with his wife, are the root of Alan's very special kind of obsession. Because such ideal experiences are short-lived, he is left alone, tortured by his memories and his fantasies. Here is the significance of the long absences Sarah is noted for. In the realistic story, they are the mark of an irresponsible and selfish person; in the more abstract plot, they reflect Alan's being tortured by an absence of fulfillment, by unrealizable fantasies. Such torture can occur anywhere to any character; hints of it are beneath the surface of much of Brookner's fiction. In this novel, Brookner seems to think it can be best rendered through first-person male narration.
But Altered States is a novel, not a Renaissance allegory. To the principles of order and sexual anarchy Brookner gives a local habitation and a name. In the figure of Sarah, Brookner provides, not a symbol, but a representation of what lust, vanity, anger, sloth, and covetousness look like in the world. And she gives Sarah an existence outside of the figure she cuts in other people's eyes. Sarah hints that she might have married Alan if he had only been more persistent (though this hint could be simply a refinement of his torture). At the end, when she is older and her luxuriant red hair has been bobbed, Sarah is convinced by Alan to step outside her image and be generous to Jenny. In their last interview, Sarah seems to acknowledge a certain human bond with Alan by a small, involuntary smile.
Alan is a fully rounded character. As he is aware he is dull, he also know that he stands for civilization and order. In the grips of his obsession, he feels the passions that are always at war with civilized behavior, and he is aware of this side of his nature as well. Alan's awareness makes it possible for him to change somewhat. By the end of the novel, readers know from his first-person narration that he has come through his ordeal by the fire of obsession to a greater understanding of himself--and of the people he has known. Brookner's final chapters after Sarah leaves may seem anti-climactic, but in them Alan reflects with sensitivity, intelligence, and real insight into the other people who have played roles in his story: his mother, her second husband, Jenny, and especially poor Angela.
Brookner's novel is not a simple variation on old themes. It recombines many of Brookner's special ingredients and, in rendering Alan's obsession with a first-person point-of-view, achieves a new depth.
* * * * *
Like the rest of Brookner's other novels, Falling Slowly is short on action and long on reflection. The story is simple: after an unhappy childhood, two tortoise-like sisters, Miriam and Beatrice, move to London and live uneventful lives. One sister has a brief marriage and a discreet love affair; one sister dies. The story moves forward at a glacial pace, and the sisters' thoughts are explored in minute detail. As in other Brookner novels, readers live at the core of its characters' lives and know both their vulnerabilities and their desires.
The sisters grew up in a London suburb. Their parents were ill-suited, friendless, and full of complaints. During long Sunday afternoon walks, the girls tried to imagine the more convivial lives that went on behind the fronts of the houses they passed. After their parents died, they moved to a comfortable apartment in a good London neighborhood. Beatrice, the older, was a pianist and worked as a professional accompanist. In her youth, she possessed a languid and stately beauty. She lived then and lives later on in a world of romantic fantasy. Miriam, on the other hand, is conventionally intelligent, university-educated, and more practical. She works as a translator, spending her days at the London Library. The two sisters get along moderately well, bickering yet loving one another.
As in most of Brookner's later novels, the time scheme of Falling Slowly is convoluted and sometimes confusing; readers discover what happens only through the wandering thoughts of its ruminative characters. Although the novel opens with Miriam after Beatrice's recent funeral, it soon focuses on the years leading up to that death. Simon Haggard, who has replaced Max Gruber as Beatrice's agent, visits to tell her that he can get her no more jobs. Simon is an extremely handsome, brazen-haired younger man, and as he leaves the apartment, he and Miriam make an assignation that begins a long affair. Miriam also meets an understanding man named Tom Rivers. The main action of the story ends with three events: Simon rejects Miriam, Beatrice dies, and Tom is killed in an airplane crash. Along the way, flashbacks tell more about the sister's unsatisfactory childhood, and Miriam is at the center of a significant coda.
Falling Slowly is more complicated than this summary suggests. Although most the novel is told from Miriam's point of view, several chapters are seen from Beatrice's eyes. Then, unexpectedly, one chapter takes place in Max's mind, and one alternates between his thoughts and Beatrice's. Miriam may be the most important character in Falling Slowly, but the novel shows more perspectives than hers.
Brookner has always rendered well the inner lives of adults. Although Beatrice is unique, she is like other Brookner women in suffering from a paralysis of nerve. While she was young she went through the motions of being a professional musician, had love affairs that did not touch her heart, and flirted with elderly men. But from girlhood she lived in a world of romance, waiting for an ideal hero to appear. She became passive, impractical, wistful, and faint-hearted. Men found her attractive but distant. The men she met came nowhere near her heroic ideal. After her career ends, she knows her romantic dreams will not come true. In a very funny chapter, Beatrice spars with her old and ugly admirer Max Gruber, who has returned from France to try to get hold of her flat--by marrying her if necessary. Beatrice is tempted. She relishes the status she would achieve, and she fantasizes about married life on the Riviera. These selfish illusions are terminated by an unsettling vision in an art gallery. In her new mood of "terminal clairvoyance" (146), she contemplates a modest future with Max, but even these lowered expectations will not be realized. Her health has been failing, and in her weakened condition she becomes confused while crossing a street and is killed by a car.
Max Gruber's thoughts are the most unlikely element in Falling Slowly. They are funny, but not pretty. Even though his cheerfulness and his energy are attractive, readers will wince when he tries to get Beatrice's flat and when, after she suffers a slight stroke, he abandons her. Readers do not enter the minds of the novel's younger men: Simon, Tom, or Jonathan, Miriam's ex-husband. (Tom's thoughts may inform a sentence or two.)
Most of the novel is told from Miriam's point of view. She is an intelligent and reasonable person. She is conscientious worker; she worries about her sister; she is not a romantic. She does not try to escape her traumatic childhood by dreaming of an ideal lover, and unlike other characters, she changes. Miriam's dreams are ones of community and of belonging, as when she imagined what went on behind suburban facades. She once married for some sort of family life, but got only a childish and quizzical husband, a man of "sophomoric harmlessness" (30). She envies office-workers their homey workplaces. The image that torments her is a joyous family cavorting on holiday or relaxing in a happy home. (Dreams of kinship pervade this novel. Beatrice hopes her heroic lover will take her to his ideal family. Even Max becomes more lovable when he yearns for the old days with his brother and sister.)
Miriam's world changes when she meets the beautiful, unserious, effervescent Simon. They meet frequently for sex in his London flat; his wife and children are safely away in Oxford. Almost like Alan in Altered States, Miriam congratulates herself on how they both can enjoy sex without strings attached. In this regard, Miriam assumes that both she and Simon "read, or were both reading, from the same text" (46).
Then things change. For the first time in her life, Miriam is not detached. She is transformed. She is not so much in love with Simon's character as in thrall to his magnificent naked male presence. He is the love of her life, an almost legendary figure. She takes more and more effort in preparing little picnics for them to eat after intercourse. She is disturbed by his other women. She discovers too that she is in love, not only with Simon's presence, but with his family. She conjures up several different visions of Simon enjoying himself with his wife and joyful children and with an extended family of relations and friends. Her kinship dream has taken on a new form.
Enter Tom Rivers, a writer on international politics. Tom is understanding and attentive as he repeatedly asks Miriam to have dinner with him. Miriam, who desires only Simon, puts Tom off and will see him only infrequently. Many readers will see Tom as an appropriate man for Miriam, and that is Beatrice's opinion. Taking an analogy from her favorite novel, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, she hopes that Miriam will abandon Simon (who resembles the demonic Rochester) for the unexciting Tom (who is like the pallid St. John Rivers). Miriam herself acknowledges what a fine person Tom is but cannot love him. Even after her affair with Simon is ended, she is still in thrall.
As we have seen, the novels Brookner wrote just before Falling Slowly take a central character through a crisis to some sort of positive but bland resolution. In Altered States, Alan Sherwood gains a peace though self-knowledge and an understanding of others. At the end of Visitors, Thea May is stronger, more open to joy and kinship. But the title of this novel suggests a bleaker ending. "Falling very slowly" (65) are words Beatrice hears in the shipping forecast on the radio. The phrase may or may not suggest Alice's slow descent down the rabbit-hole in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865), for both sisters do fall into fantasy worlds. It certainly does suggest Beatrice's mature attitude toward her existence, an idea held by many Brookner characters that life is a constant and slow descent into death.
Miriam has more to experience than that. After Beatrice's death, Miriam wakes "easily and calmly" (188) to new life. She spends a whole summer at peace. In her daily ritual, she buys a sandwich for lunch and eats it in a park. There she reads, drinks in the sun's power, and makes friends with a few other people who sit there. This taste of kinship leads her think of Tom as a friend, the brother she never had. Even though Tom has moved on to another woman, they begin to establish a working friendship. She sees him off at Heathrow before he flies off from England and dies in a crash.
Falling Slowly's final chapter returns to the time of the novel's opening--some months after Beatrice's death, a few months after Tom's. Miriam does not retreat into a romantic fantasy. Instead, her imagination transforms her memories into a vision of a world in which men and women love one another without the complications of sex. She could live harmoniously in this world, which is defined by two antithetical figures: Tom, full of energy, striding off to his plane; and Beatrice, stationary at her piano, smiling graciously. Simon does not appear in this vision. He is irrelevant; sex is irrelevant. Miriam is energized, feeling regret for the passing of Tom and Beatrice, but no guilt or shame.
Her calm is broken by her ex-husband Jon. He is nastier and sillier in person than he was in memory. When he proposes to move in, she speaks a significant new truth aloud--that she knows now that she has loved, both with the love of desire and the love of esteem. She also knows that she has truly been loved in different ways by both Simon and Tom. Even though Simon is still alive, he and Tom now are both symbols. She has experienced both their loves--the erotic and the fraternal. In her mind, they now form parts of a new single vision that will continue to sustain her. Jane Eyre's antithesis no longer applies. Miriam's new vision presumably does not replace her earlier one, so that Tom, Simon, and Beatrice seem to become Miriam's personal trinity, a kinship of three. Miriam sends Jon packing. The next morning, she too hears the shipping forecast. Now "falling very slowly" (215) falls pleasantly on her ears as she prepares to live on alone. (2)
Critics have always praised Brookner's style: agile, witty, full of nuance. Some readers may find that her tone suits oddly with her character's unhappiness, as do this novel's comic moments. The most striking of these moments occur when Max and Jon are on stage, both angling to take over the sisters' flat. Brookner's dialogue in these scenes, as Miriam and Beatrice spar with the men, is funny indeed. This mixture of wit and hilarity with the gloom of real despair helps Brookner prepare her moderately happy ending.
And a happy ending it is. Miriam is not a typical early Brookner heroine, a tortoise-like loser. Nor is she like Thea May, an old woman who learns to venture forth slightly from her isolated flat. Like Alan of Altered States, she experiences sexual obsession. Unlike other Brookner protagonists, she does not require a literal happy ending-that is, a union with a beloved-to have an effective happy ending. Her final equilibrium of erotic, fraternal, and sisterly love is something new for Brookner.
March 21, 2000
(1) This essay is based on material that first appeared in the Magill's Literary Annual, 1998, Magill's Literary Annual, 1999, and Magill's Literary Annual, 2000. All were published in Pasadena, CA, by the Salem Press. Quotations from the Brookner novels are from the London editions, The Visitors and Altered States published by Jonathan Cape, Falling Slowly by Viking.
(2) Perhaps readers should not be so easily satisfied. The novel's treatment of time is so confusing that it is just possible that we should think that the bored Miriam of the opening pages exist at a later date than the peaceful Miriam of the last chapter.