Observer Review: The Next Big Thing By Anita Brookner Essay, Research Paper
Death of strong feelingsThe Next Big Thingby Anita BrooknerViking £16.99, pp244It’s a shock to come across a novel of Anita Brookner’s with as jaunty a title as The Next Big Thing, but the jaunty mood is confined to the title. The ‘next big thing’ expected by the characters in the book is what Henry James called ‘the distinguished thing’ – death.Brookner’s fiction of the 1980s was an odd mixture of astringency and wallowing: reading Hotel du Lac, for instance, for which she won the Booker Prize, was like taking an ice-cold bubblebath. The main development in her work since then has been the disappearance of the astringent element. In earlier books, there was usually a token meat-eater, a creature of instinct and selfishness, to balance the withdrawn herbivore she favoured as her protagonist.In The Next Big Thing, 73-year-old Julius Herz, a cultivated shopkeeper in retirement, duly anatomises every impulse and overexamines the little life he has left, but the figures he sees as enviably greedy for life are only a pulse-beat or two more vital than him. There’s Josie, his ex-wife, who couldn’t cope with the demands of living in restricted quarters with his family; then there’s Fanny, his long-ago first love and first cousin, whose parents didn’t see him as a suitable prospect.As he tries to fill his days, coming and going from his flat in Chiltern Street, he passes through a London that hardly registers. In a more dynamic novel, the absence of observation wouldn’t matter, but here, in a narrative virtually denuded of incident (Herz makes modest perambulations and rambling peregrinations, he remembers, he surmises, he envisages), the thinness of texture is damaging. The West End restaurant Sheekey’s often has fishcakes on the menu. Cecil Court is full of secondhand bookshops. Claudes and Turners may be seen in the city’s art galleries. That’s about as specific as the book gets.The author, an eminent art historian, opens her hero’s eyes, or her own, when there is a picture in front of them. Herz has moments of understanding in Paris, seeing Delacroix’s painting of Jacob wrestling with the Angel, and later, in the National Gallery, in front of a Bacchus and Ariadne. The shutters come down again when Herz leaves the precincts sacred to art.By his filial obedience and willingness to assume responsibility, he has forfeited the joys of impulse. His life has ‘failed to yield the ultimate satisfaction’, whatever that is. ‘Clearly, supreme selfishness was the recipe for a successful life,’ he reflects, and seems sure that he has not chosen that path.Brookner takes passive, conscience-bound people very much at face value, never acknowledging that martyrdom and masochism can be highly effective manipulative systems. Herz, wanting company without liking people, sees himself as a stoic, when, in fact, he floats in an admittedly dilute solution of self-pity from the first page to the last. The problem with the psychology on offer is not that it’s negative, but that it’s dull.Halfway through the book, Herz succumbs to the futile passion without which an Anita Brookner novel would be unthinkable (though it’s a bit much to give her chilly, timid hero a name that means heart in German). He has read enough to know that ‘infinite longing was the stuff not merely of romance but of the most rigorous of classical fictions’, but Brookner’s writing about sex strikes a note, not of classical control, but muffled panic. Squeamishness is fatal in a book about the value of impulse over judgment.Brookner’s fiction to date has been a footnote to a famous speech in The Ambassadors (a footnote by now perhaps 5,000 pages long): ‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to’ – a call for passionate engagement emerging from the depths of an armchair.Her sensibility, too, keeps life at a distance. The only sign of an awareness of contemporary language in The Next Big Thing is an unconscious one: for all her fastidiousness she succumbs to the confusion about ‘may’ and ‘might’. He knew that he may have lost his head. He saw that she may have known. If her prose is to be lifeless, let it at least be correct.Brookner describes Herz’s sexual partners in earlier life as ‘co-signatories to a brief truce in the eternal conflict of everyday circumstances’, the pretentious register reliably signalling her embarrassment.When Herz becomes obsessed with a new neighbour, things get worse: ‘Unsuitable images presented themselves, and were briefly but furtively enjoyed.’ Just when a person is (face it) laying hands on his own person, the sentence takes refuge in impersonality. ‘It was the morning that found him in disarray, as if he were still young and in thrall to his body, or as if he were still younger and dismayed by that body’s evidence.’ Who can say what detonation of semen, what savage engorgement, is swathed in vagueness here?Brookner once remarked, quoting Freud, that art was a way of turning strong feelings into weak ones. Judge her on that basis, and her success is remarkable. Every trace of urgency has been effaced.