The Next Big Thing
Rules of Engagement
Critics of Anita Brookner’s novels often refer to the anti-La Fontaine tortoise vs. hare analogy promoted by Edith Hope, the romantic novelist in Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Hotel du Lac (1984): “The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie […] In real life, it is the hare who wins […] Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.” Yet tortoises rather than hares are center stage in Brookner-world, where loneliness, exile, failed love affairs, collapsed relationships, excessive timidity, and opportunities not taken are business as usual. Brookner’s people, like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, frequently ask, “Do I dare/disturb the universe,” and quite often the answer is “no.”
Brookner’s writing has always been lucid, subtle, and witty, and her insights revelatory. She is a respected art historian and critic, and her novels, or at least specific scenes in her novels, are often beautifully rendered miniatures, artfully crafted. And while some of Brookner’s characters may at times seem unaccountably diffident, somewhat anachronistic, even occasionally boring, she is generally sympathetic toward all of her people. But with the publication of The Next Big Thing and The Rules of Engagement, her twenty-first and twenty-second novels, respectively, it is quite clear that while the familiar themes of Brookner’s novels are in place, her palette has deepened along the way. On the surface, these two novels are quite different in plot, context, and characterization. The protagonists are also over twenty years apart in age, yet there is a similar sense of melancholy, a stripping away of any comforting illusions, and an apparent inevitability that underlies both books.
With a few exceptions such as the eponymous Lewis Percy in Lewis Percy (1989) and now Julius Herz, the protagonist of The Next Big Thing, Brookner’s main characters have been women. Whether this relatively consistent approach by Brookner implies greater understanding of women—of their concerns, motivations, and issues—is an open question. Brookner’s portrait of the 73-year old Herz, however, is persuasive, even resolute, as he confronts old age, illness, and death, here referred to by a character in the novel as “the next big thing.” Like many of Brookner’s characters, Herz is an exile. He was born in Germany, and his family fled the Nazis, settling in London when he was fourteen. The family’s hopes were centered on his brother, Freddy, a promising musician, whose career was cut short by mental problems. Much of Herz’s adult life has been spent looking after his family, and his relatively short marriage to Josie ended when she could no longer handle living with them.
Herz’s long-time employer, Ostrovski, sells the business, and unexpectedly gives him a sizable chunk of funds, which allows him to purchase his own place for the first time. Herz is also faced for the first time with figuring out how he is going to spend the rest of what he views as his unfulfilled life. A brief euphoria is followed by a measure of reality: “He had not been trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it.” Strong memories of his unrequited love for his cousin, Fanny, are reignited when he receives a letter from her after many years. Life has not worked out for Fanny, a twice-married self-absorbed woman, and she now expects Julius to help her (perhaps financially). At this stage, Julius harbors no illusions about Fanny, or about himself. But he is guided by the need for companionship, if not for love, perhaps by “the need for a rash act,” and he considers traveling to Europe to meet her. But while Herz’s actions may seem out of character, even deliberately “rash,” Brookner suggests that nothing will change:
Emotional exile is the fate (some would say choice) of Elizabeth Wetherall, the protagonist of The Rules of Engagement. Both Elizabeth and her childhood friend Betsy were born in 1948, and she considers that they were somewhat displaced, unable to respond appropriately to the times:
Elizabeth, the daughter of incompatible parents who later divorced, and Betsy, an orphan raised by an aunt, are both only children. Still, while Betsy is open, vulnerable, with an “obstinate aura of goodness,” Elizabeth is something of a throwback, marrying the much older Digby, essentially because “she felt for him […] the gratitude that unmarried women in Jane Austen feel for a prospect that might, if fortune favored them, bring about the sort of resolution considered appropriate.”
Elizabeth and later Betsy have affairs with the “worldly,” and very married Edmund Fairlie, and while Elizabeth’s passions are rekindled, she knows the “rules.” The title of the book, in fact, is central to not only understanding this novel, but to many of Brookner’s other works. The implication is that there are “rules of engagement,” appropriate ways of being in the world, which, if discerned, might offer some measure of protection. Being a widow, and her affair being ended, Elizabeth concludes: “I should have to obey the rules, observe the social norms, not those whose pleasure it was to defy them. I saw the rules as safeguards.” Betsy doesn’t understand the rules, particularly in relation to Edmund Fairlie and his family, and the outcome is disastrous. For Edmund Fairlie and his wife, Constance, operate with their own chilling “rules of engagement;” they are more calculating then the “careless” Daisy and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, but like them, look to another to “clean up their messes.”
Brookner’s overriding view in these beautifully structured novels offers little consolation. The “rules” may provide some effective guideposts, but the lessons imparted may be incorrect, unusable for the recipients, even destructive. “I had been born a little too soon,” says Elizabeth. “I had been given the wrong instructions, by teachers, by novels.” Alone again, Elizabeth could marry the predictable Nigel Ward, but in a moment of insight, realizes that while she might live a “dull […] more or less contented” life with him, that he “might be proof against further bad dreams,” but that to “indulge in the very indulgence I might call forth would seem a sin against all forms of creative energy.” Brookner’s approach to her characters in both of these novels is understanding, compassionate, and she recognizes that ultimate sadness that governs their lives. Elizabeth looks to the past, when she was young, at home with her parents, “my face alight with joy, as it must have been, at the beginning of the world.” Yet this is a momentary, romanticized vision of childhood innocence. The reality is that in different ways, Elizabeth, Betsy, and Julius Herz were “damaged” in childhood, and as adults are unable to “engage” fully in the world around them. Readers might criticize the actions (or inaction) of the characters, but Brookner suggests that they cannot act otherwise. Passion and love may be illusory, but Brookner’s darker implication is that free will and choice may also be illusions.