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Anita Brookner, Leaving Home (London: Viking, 2005, £12.99, 168 pages, ISBN 0-670-91568-8)—Aileen La Tourette, Liverpool John Moores University



Somewhere, sometime, the popular Australian broadcaster Clive James (who lives and broadcasts here in England) said of the poems of Philip Larkin that they make him want to race down onto the Central Line (underground) platform and bite the back of a train. I am quite certain it was James who said it, and I am absolutely certain it was said of Larkin. I understand the sentiment entirely, because it roughly describes my initial reaction to reading Anita Brookner.


To hit upon similarities in the emotional landscapes of Brookner and Larkin is obvious and therefore suspect. It is probably more unfair to Brookner than Larkin, who did appear, as his life went on, to rather relish the bleakness he seemed determined to experience. Not to flinch from the bleakness of experience is one thing; to refuse or refute the possibility of anything else begins to seem almost comfortable, after a time.


But I doubt that Larkin was comfortable. And I am meant to be talking about Brookner, who seems to be a great deal more comfortable; twenty-three novels is an impressive output, and her muse has not deserted her as, apparently, his did in the end.


It may seem perverse to compare poet and novelist in this rather offhand way. But Brookner is an unusual novelist in that her stories are totally centred in interiority. Her interest is not the sweep of the world and its many diversions. She tracks one character’s small journey, minutely and obsessively. It could be said that this character is the same throughout the twenty-three works, and the journeys differ very slightly from one another, in detail rather than substance.


I would have said all of the above, before reading this novel—actually, before reading it twice. But either I have missed something in her previous novels, or this one is a bit different. The heroine—the central consciousness is always female—is lonely and solitary, both by nature and circumstance. The way in which these two inform each other is a prime concern of the author. There is a silent, isolated childhood, and a shaky maturity. The only manifestation of femininity lies in an odd passivity, particularly when it come to taking up any kind of emotional reins. Brookner’s women wait for something to change their spectacularly chilly environment, to enter the enormous void they carry as other women might carry babies, or shopping, or work.


Work. These women invariably work. They are independent and intelligent. They work at interesting occupations. They are usually writers of one sort of another, or scholars, or scholar-writers. But something about their work fails to engage them, just as everything else fails to strike any real spark. Emma is embarked on a study of classical gardens, a subject with obvious symbolic overtones. But she is ambivalent towards her own chosen field, often bored by it, suspicious of it as if it, too, is a symptom of restriction, which the reader feels that it is.


Passion is what Emma, like all Brookner heroines, lacks, and she, like the others, feels, laments but cannot make good the lack. In Leaving Home as elsewhere in Brookner-land, the first-person monologues of which the novel consists is a kind of sustained apology for a perceived emotional and/or spiritual inadequacy. In Leaving Home, the apology is particularly poignant, because Emma—quintessential English name—tries so hard to make up for her own sense of emotional incapacity.


And yet, and yet. She also does not try hard enough, and there are points in the book when one wants to shake her. She goes to France to avoid staying with her lonely mother and, in essence, becoming her. Once there, she meets a self-absorbed friend whose vitality, not least sexual vitality, attracts her; but only by contrast and from a distance. This friend remains, though they never actually get down to a discussion of her more exploitative and outrageous behaviour. At the end of the day—and the book—Brookner seems to be saying that restraint and even constraint are the best emotional pathways, after all, that they protect and conserve one’s relationships even while they limit them.


Two male figures come and go in Emma’s life. Michael is a friend with whom she cites, without comment or embellishment, an abortive physical encounter. They then settle into a rather opaque form of chaste coupledom. He is kind to her when her mother dies. That would seem to be the emotional high point of their relationship, and Brookner would probably say it is not nothing, after all.


Which, of course, it isn’t. But even Emma wants more. She meets Philip, incompletely separated from his wife, in London (Michael was a French acquaintance), and when his rapprochement with his wife fails, Emma seems to win him more or less by default. At the book’s end, we are left with a sense that things will take their course, and the course will be, unlike that of true love, smooth, unruffled and un-troubled by rapids unless, as Emma herself comments, things change and she actively, rather than passively, desires more.


Brookner resolutely refuses to engage with the life of the body in a sexual sense, though she describes sensations of pleasure with regard to beauty, comfort, food; the senses are not missing, simply, somehow, rather childlike and undeveloped. Perhaps that is the hallmark of her characters. Certainly in Leaving Home, part of her point is that the process of disentanglement from childhood patterns and presences which hold one back from entering into one’s life is itself a lifelong process.


Her reticence with regard to sexual experience reflects the reticence of her characters. A kind of tact, a kind of dignity, is their, and her, identifying characteristic. I think it’s important to say that this reticence includes all biological aspects of female experience. Brookner’s characters deal with the various demands of female biology offstage. There are no periods, no pregnancies, no childbirths and no menopauses in her pages. There is sensual pleasure when, for example, sunlight touches skin; there is fatigue. There is no mess, which seems significant. Bodies do not insist, they do not leak or spill over any more than emotions do. There is one emotional exception in the entire book, when Emma expresses resentment because Peter informs her he is going back to his wife. She regrets her outburst—her word. It would not be mine or, I suspect, most people’s, for a rather veiled and costive protest at being unceremoniously dumped, though what she is being dumped from, exactly, is a rather moot point.


Yet Emma does reach for something more. Following a visit to her friend Françoise’s family home, she wakes from

a dream of bliss so rare that I knew it was unconnected to anything I had ever experienced. The details immediately escaped me when I woke, but I knew, simply and conclusively, that I was loved. I was left with an impression of golden light, but this light had nothing supernatural about it, almost the opposite; it was the light of the sun in mid-heaven. [52]

Throughout the book, weather—literal weather—stands in for moods and emotions. The sun is gloried in. It represents human warmth, which Emma finds more of in Paris than London—the simple greetings people exchange on the streets and in restaurants and hotels, the way conversations are conducted, hold more of this warmth than they do across the Channel. But she does not find a French lover and settle down to a hearty Gallic life—no easy clichés here, only difficult ones. Indeed, the fate of Françoise, sacrificed to family interests, seems to indicate that in the end France is no more promising as a setting for a life of enhanced and liberated feeling than England. Though Emma does reflect ruefully on her own invincible Englishness, we are not in the territory of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. There is no sense that a Latin climate or a Latin lover would change things. It is Emma’s self-awareness and sensitivity which make the novel poignant, and by the end she accepts full responsibility for what holds her back:

[M]y life was circumscribed because I accepted that it should be. Occasional visits from a part-time lover were perhaps all that I could tolerate. Even those distant Sunday excursions with Michael were cherished because they were within safe limits, and those gardens I so faithfully studied were valued because they existed within a finite space and a time that could not be replicated. [159]

Leaving Home is not without wisdom, though it is a rather exasperating wisdom. The phrase "leaving home" is taken to mean a kind of lifelong task or mandate to keep on learning, by grappling with the unknown. There is wisdom in that. In a similar vein, on the last page of the book Emma comments that the "only realistic ambition is to live in the present." It is very hard to argue with, as is the closing statement in behalf of Emma and, the reader feels, the author as well, that: "Time, which was once squandered, must now be given over to the actual, the possible, and perhaps to that evanescent hope of a good outcome which never deserts one, and which should never be abandoned" [168]. There is a nobility here, as well as a kind of rebuke to romanticism which made at least this reader pause, re-read, and emerge feeling both somewhat chastened and somewhat illumined.

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