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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