Monday, July 27, 2009

Strangers by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner won the Booker prize in 1984 for Hotel du Lac. As with many of her books, the main character runs (in that case, to Switzerland) to escape and struggle with demons in the present or past. I have read all but six of her 24 novels. Her is Strangers.

Now, this might seem boring – mining the same plot line over and over, but she draws her characters as finely as a detailed, realistic painting. Not surprisingly, Brookner spent years teaching art history in England. Furthermore, each of these characters deals with the escape and resolution in an entirely different manner.

Paul Sturgis has retired from a responsible position at a bank, and gradually, he is shucking off all his old associations. Several women inhabit his real and imagined world at the moment. Brookner writes, “The illusion once again, proved superior to the reality” (214). This sums up Paul’s problems with indecisiveness and an inability to put his foot down when he knows he should and, in fact, planned to do so. “Air was his element, weightlessness his ideal condition” (173).

Reflecting on the memory of a childhood friend, Paul recalls waving to a woman every day as he passed her father’s shop, “they had lost touch, had lost sight of each other, and would never meet again, never raise their hands in acknowledgement as they passed each other on the street. That was what growing up did to some friendships, and growing older failed to redeem them. But somehow the memory persisted, in the strangest of ways, and she would appear to him in dreams, unaltered, much as she had been when first encountered, on her way to school” (51).

Paul enjoys reading and mentions Henry James on numerous occasions. That connection carries a lot of weight, since I could not help thinking of James’ story, “The Beast in the Jungle.” In this long, marvelous story, John Marcher has difficulty communicating his feelings, and loses an opportunity for a relationship with a woman who loved him. Finally, late in life, he has a chance to make amends, but he reverts to his old behavior and loses her again. Brookner delves as deeply into Paul Sturgis’s psyche as James does Marcher’s -- only she composes her sentences to a much more manageable length.

I have been a long time away from Brookner, but I have remedied that situation. Now I need to find those missing six novels and fill in the gaps. If you have never read Brookner, or never heard of her, start with Hotel du Lac. If you like psychological fiction and interesting characters in absorbing situations, you will be hooked. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/2/09

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