Thursday, July 14, 2011

Leaving Home

The great thing about writing book reviews is it makes you think.  The great thing about reading Anita Brookner is she really makes you think...and then want to talk to someone about what you've read.

Thomas at My Porch and Simon of Savidge Reads are co-hosting International Anita Brookner Day this Saturday 16 July.  They remind us that "thirty years ago ...Anita Brookner had her first novel, the aptly titled A Start in Life (or The Debut in the U.S.) published at the tender age of 53."  They're encouraging everyone to read and review her work.

Well, thirty years ago I was twenty and probably about to read Anita Brookner for the first time...I had in fact just left home.  I haven't read Anita Brookner for yonks and welcomed the return.  Leaving Home is one of Brookner's more recent titles and how curious and spooky that I should choose it from the library shelf after all these years.

Thomas is quite correct.  There really is no excuse not to read an Anita Brookner - they are mostly under 200 pages and a relatively easy read.  I polished off Leaving Home in less than a week but was left with a slightly maudlin feeling - or one of deep melancholy.  Don't get me wrong - I tend to lean towards the melancholy in terms of taste, but this time I was feeling a bit impatient and disaffected with it.  "Where's the drama?" I wanted to scream - reminiscent of my colleagues' John and Billy - who won't mind being called old (in the nicest sense of the word) friends/screenwriting lecturers from AFTRS days.

Peta Mayer says there are ten things you should expect from an Anita Brookner novel - my review is probably a reflection of  Point Number 5 - Expect to see a reflection of yourself, not necessarily in the best light!

I was forced to reflect on my feelings...something which I think we should do more of....really critically analyse our responses to things.  Why was I so disaffected?  What is great writing after all?  Had perhaps Anita Brookner drawn a very accurate depiction of a character that was perhaps just a little too close to the bone for me?  What were my thoughts and feelings when I made the momentous decision to leave home? What was I hoping to achieve?  What had I made of my life?  Had I really rebelled or had I conformed in the end?  And was that a character fault or the way of all things?

My memory of Anita Brookner's work is that she really hones in on one character's experience.  It becomes at times somewhat claustrophobic - particularly if the characters don't do much or are great thinkers...which is the case in this instance.  Our main character in Leaving Home is Emma. Emma is a writer reflecting on her journey to this point.  The novel opens with her remembering a dream from her youth (there's another one of Peta's points no doubt - Point Number 9 - Freud).  The dream points to the necessity of Emma leaving home in order to carve out, she hopes, a less sad and lonely existence than that of her widowed mother.  

Emma is the epitome of Englishness.  What do I mean by that?  Well she is unfailingly polite, restrained, tactful, discrete.  Emma writes thank you letters.  Need I say more?  I do not think Brookner chose her name lightly - Jane Austen's Emma must be one of the most famous character's in English literature - and yet Brookner's Emma is, I think, very different.  Emma is anxious to leave home gracefully -  "It would have to be managed, and managed, if possible, without disloyalty, more or less invisibly, above all in good faith."

Emma is an only child and a daughter - which can bring the double handicap of being expected to be very good - and whilst she cares genuinely for her mother's feelings, she wrestles with the expectation of her uncle to be her mother's supporter and provider.  Emma in short needs to rebel.  But, dear reader, Emma is English. People who queue find it hard to rebel.  She settles on studying classical garden design, is offered a scholarship in France and away she goes, in search of "another source of authority, another agent of influence."  Where better to learn to rebel than to ensconce herself in Paris - the very home of revolution?

We then witness Emma's various attempts to seek out real and/or satisfying relationships both with members of the opposite sex and her own sex.  Of all the relationships, her friendship with the aptly named Francoise is the most complex and challenging.  Complex because Francoise is almost a reflection of herself but not quite.  Francoise is also an only child and a daughter.  But Francoise could almost be the French version of Jane Austen's Emma.  Whilst not beautiful, she is certainly striking and "electric with an energy that made her presence in the library dangerously welcome." Francoise is not a match-maker as such, but is certainly keen to see Emma "break out" and find an "amoreuse".  Francoise only handicap is her controlling mother, who is keen to marry her off to the local prize beau - "Jean-Charles - a pale, slightly corpulent man of indeterminate age."  The relationship is challenging because, whilst Francoise is an agent of influence and change, her authority becomes a threat to Emma's own self-determination.

It would spoil the book if I told you too much more.  There is drama - eventually - in Leaving Home.  Brookner saves it til the very end.  It wasn't til this passage that my heart fluttered in recognition of the Brookner of yore..."It takes a kind of genius to save one's own life, the sort of genius that I so signally lacked."  Now things were getting interesting!  What would happen next?

For me Brookner's strength is her great depiction of character.  Emma is by no stretch of the imagination a conventional hero.  She says as much about herself and I don't think it would take too much away to quote some of the novel's last few lines....

"Not everyone is born to fulfil an heroic role.  The only realistic ambition is to live in the present.  And sometimes, quite often in fact, this is more than enough to keep one busy."

What do you think?  Should we all be legends in our own lunchtime?  Is Emma a victim of her Englishness which she can never escape?  Or her cloistered upbringing?  Or her sex?  Is she a victim or a hero?  Is she Anita Brookner's alter ego wishing she had been Simone de Beauvoir but rather glad she wasn't?  And yes I know that is very naughty of me to say - I am being deliberately provocative, boys and girls!  Who else has read She came to Stay - funny how the heroine is called Francoise - non?  C'mon - what's your take on this slim but tardis-like novel? 


Danny Abacahin said...

Hello, Luvvie!

This is Danilo (Danny) Abacahin from IABD ( Thank you very much for the kind words you posted there. I’ve been trying to post my reply to your comments, but I can’t seem to keep it there. (I get the message “Your comment was published,” but the next time I visit the IABD site, it’s gone. This has happened four times. Thrice I used my Google account, and once I even signed up for a blog just to have a Wordpress account. But none of those attempts worked. I’m such a klutz at online writing.) So I just want to test now if I can send you this message through your blog. Perhaps later I can post my complete reply (here or on IABD).

I recently bought a clean used hardcover edition of "Leaving Home." Thanks to your insightful review, I won’t feel so lost on my second Brookner trip. You ask: “Should we all be legends in our own lunchtime?” Hmm . . . For now, I’ll hang on to the line you quoted from the novel: “The only realistic ambition is to live in the present.” That’s not always an easy goal, but (thanks especially to you and the other sensitive, generous bloggers and reviewers on IABD) I realize there is indeed so much to be grateful for in the here and now.

Danny (

Luvvie said...

Dear Danny

It worked. Your comment has been published - hooray!!! I too fumble and bumble my way around in the blogosphere and indeed any other social networking space :)

IABD was a lot of fun wasn't it? It was just lovely to meet everyone and hear their thoughts. Let me know if you keep bloging won't you so I can follow you or subscribe to your feeds. I want to see more!!

Danny Abacahin said...

[PART 1 of 3]

[Hi, Luvvie! I’m sending my “comment” in 3 parts – just to make sure you get the whole thing. :)]

Yes, indeed, IABD was a lot of fun. And – hooray! – just this afternoon, I finally got my reply posted on IABD! It appears as my “thank you” note to Thomas’ July 22 recap – with a little something for you, too. I realized it must be the length of my original response that had been rejecting. (Ha! Smart anti-babbling system!) So I tried a shorter version and – voila! – I’m back in business.

Still, I’m pretty hardheaded about these “rules.” So below I’m sending you the original (complete) version. I just feel I owe you this much.

If you think my rambling below is worth posting on your blog, that will be fine with me. If you decide otherwise, that’s OK too. I’m just glad that through IABD and Luvvie’s Musings, I got to say hello to some fellow “musers.” Thanks for letting me consider that as a “friendly wave to [and from] the universe.” :)



Thank you very much, Luvvie, for your insights. Did you find any of Dennett’s books? Some of his ideas (e.g., those on religion) can be controversial, but I like the way he explores alternative viewpoints. In case you’re having any difficulty searching his works, please let me know. I’d be glad to send you PDFs of his essay “Why Everyone Is a Novelist” and his book “Consciousness Explained” or other resources you might find useful for your class in knowledge/narrative management.

Danny Abacahin said...

[PART 2 of 3]

I’m so glad you highlighted one purpose of storytelling that I couldn’t squeeze into my book review. Yes, telling stories (or whatever incomplete, imperfect version of the truth – and of ourselves – that we can grasp) is our “attempt to connect to one another.” Some might think that’s trite or sappy, but as I get older and read more, I begin to appreciate what those attempts really mean. And yes, we also try to fulfill what you so aptly call “the promise of self-knowledge” amid those glimpses of “our inevitable uniqueness and alone-ness.”

C. S. Lewis wrote: “We read to know we are not alone.” Jonathan Franzen and his friend David Foster Wallace, before the latter’s tragic death, agreed on the function of fiction: “A way out of loneliness” ( Joan Didion has a nonfiction anthology entitled “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.” And recently, through a link that Thomas provided on one of his heartfelt posts on the poet and novelist May Sarton (, I found Art Durkee’s blog, Dragoncave. I often envy people like Art Durkee and Anita Brookner who are free of self-delusion and self-pity. So when I read his recent essay on why he writes poems and makes other forms of art, I felt privileged again to be a reader and beneficiary of such comfort and clarity.

Danny Abacahin said...

[PART 3 of 3]

On July 19, 2011 (, he wrote:

“Art is meant to connect with its audience: at its best, art connects with us on many levels, changes the way we see the world, and gives us an opportunity to open and expand our consciousness beyond its usual worn-in grooves.”

“Art is inherently not a supply-side commodity. Mostly, no one cares whether or not I make art. I care more than anyone else that I make art. (And I do make for more than one reason. Some days, recovering from chronic illness, surgery, or the dark night of the soul, it's the best way to cope with and overcome my immediate circumstances. Making art has more than once literally kept me alive and sane.)”

Thanks to Thomas at My Porch and Simon at Savidge Reads – and thanks to sensitive, generous bloggers like you, Art Durkee, and all the others who have shared their reviews and musings on IABD – people like me (and those like Claire Pitt) are kept alive and sane by the promise of human connections. Yes, Luvvie, you’re right: through storytelling, we do get our share of “dire warnings or a bit of fun.” With this community of bloggers, story-sharers, and art-makers, I’m grateful I’ve made a few connections and had A LOT of fun.

Luvvie said...

Dear Danny

Thank you for your very eloquent and heartfelt response. I've got the Dennett book on religion waiting for me at the library. I fear I shall be fighting with my son to read it once I bring it home. I'll let you know what I think of it and if I want more. That was the only book BCC library had. Am wrestling still with a big assignment due tomorrow night - I'll be very glad when I submit it and my brain can stop hurting !!

Farchan said...

thx nice post....


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