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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, April 1st, 2003


Making Things Better


A review by Elizabeth Judd

Anita Brookner has purged her novels of nearly all incident, creating a kind of anti-plot (the story line of Making Things Better is almost willfully inert), and yet her fiercely observant prose radiates dramatic energy. For the first 243 of these 275 pages nothing much happens to Julius Herz, an elderly, dutiful Londoner who questions his right to the most basic improvements in his life, such as moving to a new flat. "Home was such an emotive concept that he doubted whether he would be able to live up to it, to make a place for himself in a world where people exercised choices." Herz's circumscribed existence consists of nursing a ridiculous crush on an entirely indifferent young neighbor and reminiscing about his anxious, uneventful childhood. Only during the last thirty pages do his idle ruminations translate into decisive, unexpected action. Surprised by this turn, I recalled that long before publishing her first book of fiction, in her early fifties, Brookner had an entirely different career, as an authority on eighteenth-century painting -- proof that it's possible to reinvent oneself at any time.

The secret animating Brookner's outwardly sensible protagonists is that they're hopelessly smitten with the charming, complacent, and largely oblivious relatives and acquaintances to whom they feel, often justifiably, superior. Her novels are ambivalent love songs to the world's victors, the kind of people who "appeared always on the verge of giving a party." One Brookner heroine "followed a girl in the street simply because she looked so lucky that I could not tear myself away from her." Herz also loves unwisely, finding the "utter selfishness" of his pampered cousin Fanny irresistible. Usually compared to Austen or James, Brookner, a more mild-mannered chronicler of displaced ambition and unrequited desire, is really Britain's answer to Chekhov. Herz's ardor for Fanny is akin to Vanya's restless passion for the tantalizing Yelena, just fussier and on a smaller scale.

Brookner's early novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac, are frothy and girlishly confessional, but the tone of her fiction has darkened. For those who, like me, prefer the fizzier Brookner, Making Things Better offers plenty of compensations. Always an elegant stylist, she has grown steadily more refined in her writing; she artfully captures ideas that change in the course of a single, unhurried sentence. Her vocabulary, too, has evolved, metamorphosing into something frumpish and exacting, even inbred, and the fastidiousness suits her hermetic world. Herz's childhood apartment is "subfusc and dim," his great fear "inanition." Making Things Better is too lengthy (the middle drags), but the final pages gallop along as Herz finally claims a modicum of happiness for himself.

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