How To Rearrange The Past


How To Rearrange The Past Essay, Research Paper

How to rearrange the pastThe Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner247pp, PenguinFashion has not favoured Anita Brookner, whose 21st novel, published just over two decades after her first, continues a loyal aesthetic engagement with mourning and melancholy that frequently attracts criticism rather than praise. When Dame Gillian Beer’s Orange prize lecture praised the liberation of contemporary women’s writing from the straitjacket of romantic obsession, Brookner’s name came up – peculiarly, twinned with that of Jean Rhys – as typical of a kind of “anguished abasement”. It’s more than likely that we’ll never know what she made of that judgment, because Brookner’s authorial persona is one of restraint and detachment; none the less, “anguished” might have been expressly designed to irritate. It also strikes a false note. Brookner’s characters, wary of excessive displays of emotion, and governed by the constraints of gentility and decorum, don’t really do anguish; it verges on the vulgar. For the most part, these timid, inward creatures have been women, but in The Next Big Thing, the repository of Brookner’s meditations on solitude, memory, dreams and destiny is an elderly man. Julius Herz is 73 (roughly Brookner’s own age), has lived in London since his family’s flight from Berlin when he was 14, and now finds himself in a small flat in Marylebone, trying to perform “a semblance of gentlemanly old age which others might find acceptable”. He has a set of neatly formulated and intensely practical problems, which the reader fearfully apprehends are about to come to a head: the tiny lease on his flat is rapidly expiring, and his heart is beginning to fail. Whether it’s because the coincidence of these problems might cancel them out, or because his focus has shifted significantly to the past, Herz seems barely to consider these actual threats to his well-being. More probably, it’s because he has little sense of well-being at all. In old age, Herz becomes aware that he has spent a life ignoring “the spirit of improvidence, of subversion” that powers people – and, largely, men – to arrange their affairs to suit them, to act selfishly, and to chisel out a life that will sustain them, more or less, until the end. Instead, his impetus has been only to “make things better”; for his parents, whose emigration had propelled them into reduced circumstances and fragile dependence on a shaky network of exiles, and for his brother Freddy, the preferred son whose descent from musical genius into mental breakdown had completed the family’s wreckage. Freddy and his parents are now dead. Ostrovski, their shadowy protector, has retired to Spain, gifting Herz the unlikely inheritance that brings him to Marylebone. Bijou Frank, the family acquaintance who came to eat smoked-salmon canapés and drink cherry brandy every Saturday afternoon, never once removing her hat, is probably dead as well, although Herz, connected to the world of arrivals and departures only by the Times’s announcements, doesn’t know for sure. His ex-wife Josie, who represented a brief chance at happiness that crumbled before his parents’ demands, has marshalled dignity in the face of further romantic disappointment, and retreated to Maidstone. “Keeping one’s dignity is a lonely business,” Herz tells her fondly. “And how one longs to let it go.”Brookner depicts this emptied life, peopled almost entirely by reproachful ghosts and intransigent, unproductive innercity encounters, with a subtlety and scant, barely-there humour that belies her inexorable, grim subject matter and its dogged, doomed progress. When Herz’s harried solicitor remarks of his girlfriend that “She likes her freedom. Women do these days; they don’t seem to suffer”, one almost suspects her of making a joke at her own expense. And Herz too, despite his attenuated misery and useless stoicism, is not without an ability to tease, to prod his disaffected GP, keen to prescribe pills and tests, with thoughts of Freud’s epiphanic moment at the height of the Acropolis. Surrounded by an uncaring present, rebuffed and threatened by the pitiless beauty in the flat beneath him and menaced by the dreams that had once provided solace, Herz’s thoughts turn to a last chance – if not for love, then for company and support. It comes in the shape of his cousin Fanny, who, in another moment that verges on self-parody, finds his address “between pages 123 and 124 of Buddenbrooks “, and who beseeches him for help. She too has fallen on hard times, has found herself diminished and bereft; with her appeal comes the possibility not merely of beginning afresh, but of retrieving and rearranging the past. This low-intensity dilemma, and its slow, heart-wrenching conclusion, will not preoccupy everyone. But for those who recognise in Brookner not anguish but deep intelligence, and not demureness but an extraordinary, deceptive toughness, it will exceed expectations. In this beautifully written and beautifully thought novel, she has opened a world where freedom, and its recognition, may simply not be enough.


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