Family and Friends by Anita Brookner was published in 1985 and it’s a slim volume at only 187 pages – but my god – what a slog I found it to be.
For me this book reads more like a collection of notes and jottings about a family, which has never been worked up into a satisfying read. The whole thing is written in a curiously detached style which makes it impossible for me to to care about any of the characters who are all fairly unlikeable, not that that is really the problem.
The family of the title belongs to Sofka the widow of a successful businessman. She has two sons and two daughters and the book is about them, but as they are all quite remote from each other, it’s just an account of what they did – at the beginning we’re looking at a photograph, and it felt like we never got away from a photo, it’s flat and static. There’s absolutely no dialogue.
It is exactly what my mother used to do when she was alive. She went into great detail telling you all about people that you didn’t know, would never meet and never wanted to meet. I think she did it to fill a void, she didn’t like any breaks in conversation and a companionable silence was alien to her. I suspect that if anyone other than Anita Brookner had submitted this book to a publisher it wouldn’t have got far, but those magical words ‘Winner of the Booker Prize’ go a long way.
However, I seem to be in the minority with this one as many others seem to have loved it, or maybe they were dazzled by the author’s name. I’m not the only one who thought this was a dud though.
Look At Me by Anita Brookner which was first published in 1983 is only the second book by the author that I’ve read – the other one being Hotel du Lac of course.
This isn’t a comfortable read and indeed there were many times when I wanted to give Frances – who is telling the story – a right good shaking! Frances has ambitions to be a writer but meanwhile she works in the reference library of a medical institute which is of course frequented by medics. One of them Nick – is your typical entitled type, tall and handsome, he’s untidy and leaves everything for others to clean up after him and generally treat him as the something special that he believes he is, and Frances is happy to pander to him. He’s married to Alix who is a very similar type, except she’s always moaning about how she has ‘come down in the world’. Her father had been bankrupted.
Alix and Nick end up taking Frances up, much to her delight and she ends up spending a lot of time with them. Nick and Alix are the type of couple who need to have an audience rather than just being in their own company – always a danger. They’re also very jealous of the very large central London flat and money that Frances has inherited from her very wealthy parents.
Alix doesn’t work and she’s obviously bored, she enjoys manufacturing arguments with friends, particularly Maria and eventually Alix is thrilled when she realises that Frances has taken up with Nick’s friend James as she had planned. But Alix wants to know all the ins and outs of the relationship, something that Frances isn’t willing to talk about. Alix isn’t happy that she’s being kept out of that relationship and doesn’t have much scope for her manipulative nonsense. It’s inevitable that she’s going to throw a spanner in the works – just to get back at Frances. Frances seems to think that all of her experiences are good copy for any subsequent writing that she’ll publish.
This is a frustrating read as Frances is so slow to see what is going on, and even when she does realise she still isn’t enraged as she should be. This is similar to Barbara Pym’s writing – sad and lonely people abound – and of course it features a library.
The Times Literary Supplement said about it: ‘Very sophisticated extremely clever, and brilliantly polished’.
I really dislike the cover of my edition. It’s a detail from a 1928 painting called Portrait de Madame Rita van Leer by Andre Derain.
I hadn’t heard anything about it on the news so it was only when I turned to the Guardian’s obituary page that I realised that Anita Brookner had died on the 10th of March. You can read it here.
Apparently she wasn’t too keen on writing fiction, it was just something she was more or less addicted to, writing one book a year on average.
I must admit that I only read Hotel du Lac when everyone was reading it way back in 1984 after it had won the Booker prize. I recall it was quite enjoyable but nothing astonishing as far as I was concerned.
Apparently Brookner’s favourite novel was Oblomov by Goncharov which happens to be the book I got in the Classics Club spin. I’m now really looking forward to reading that one.