Lewis Percy by Anita Brookner

I always open a Brookner novel with a sense of foreboding: I fear that the young protagonist, for all her or his intellectual gifts and glimpse of a wider alternative (usually through the lens of Paris), is ultimately doomed to a narrowed, comfortable existence in a quiet London flat. Brookner has her cruel fun by deciding what her characters will study.

The same with Lewis Percy: “He was, he thought, destined to become a ruminant, a haunter of libraries and maybe also to live out his life in quiet streets, to look after his mother, as had always been intended, and thus to do his duty as a man.” Lewis is at this point writing his thesis on “the concept of heroism in the nineteenth-century novel”.

So, a book about an inner life formed by books whose protagonist is a librarian author of a thesis on books.

Lewis’s heroism comprises a virtuous and chivalrous acceptance of a lifeless marriage entered into through loneliness after the death of his mother. Honestly, he should have read “The Age of Innocence” more carefully after his future wife had stamped it out for him. And “Ethan Frome” for heaven’s sake! There are whole paragraphs that weigh on your spirits in the same way that the marriage weighs on his; you are caught between depression at the stunted lives and admiration for Brookner’s knife-twisting, carefully worded phrases like “. . . a furious dissatisfaction with the life he had been called on to live, and which might, if he exerted the requisite vigilance, pass for normal”. Halfway through my hopes were raised that his fate might resemble Dorothea Brooke’s . . . but feared that it would actually be Lydgate’s. In the end, Newland Archer ran off with the countess to a risky future that hopefully would offer some more joyous moments to think back on when/if it went awry.

London here is a safe haven in which to drag out a dull half-life – although it does have some interesting flâneuring moments. I couldn’t help but compare it to Dickens’s London, which – for all its squalor – is full of life.

Also interesting were the handful of very short departures in the narrative from Lewis’s point of view – all involving kindly comments from his best friend. Why? Was this to remind the reader that Lewis was actually loved by someone else? Or a hint that Lewis was mistaken in his penultimate-page re-evaluation of his friendship?

Perhaps I need to re-read “A Kind of Loving” as a down-to-earth antidote. I certainly can’t face another Brookner, brilliant as she is, for a while.

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