Monday, July 18, 2011

The Next Big Thing


Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Eugene Delacroix
Saint Sulpice Church Paris - France
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License
http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48070


Isn't this rather beautiful? This painting features in Making Things Better aka The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner.

It was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2002.

I was a bit excited about reading it as this is the first Anita Brookner I've read that features a male in the lead role, so to speak.

Julius Herz is retired and reflecting on his life to date. It could be argued that he is in his dotage. He is ailing physically and mourning the lack of someone to look after him in his old age.

Julius did marry once - to a cheerful, practical sort of woman - Josie - but cramped living conditions, which included his demanding and morose parents, spelled the death-knell for any hope of proper intimacy.

Brookner's novels may be slim but they're never an easy read. She seems to delight in tackling the difficult subjects like old age and loneliness that other writers might choose to give a wide berth.

Not our Ms Brookner. She plunges in where angels fear to tread and paints a sobering picture of something that most of us will face - decline and decay - and possibly regret. As my father regularly intones in lines attributed to Bette Davis I think - "Old age isn't for sissies."

Like many of Brookner's characters, Julius was an obedient offspring. Not necessarily the favoured son by any stretch of the imagination...but the one that tidied up and tried to make things better. When his brother Freddy, a promising concert violinist starts to lose the plot, Julius is the only one who visits him in the Sanitorium and witnesses his decline.

Late in life, Julius is given a chance at freedom. His parents having passed on, a distant acquaintance, who helped the family re-settle in London from war-torn Europe, bequeaths a significant proportion of his estate to Julius which frees him from the necessity to work or worry about a roof over his head.

But is it too late? "He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it." Poor Julius feels so overcome with the challenge of freedom he suffers "a feeling of unreality, so enveloping as to constitute a genuine malaise." A quite amusing dialogue ensues during an appointment with his doctor where Julius earnestly asks if he could be suffering a similar experience to Freud's on the Acropolis. The Doctor ignores the question of existentialism and pursues a comfortable line of enquiry - blood pressure.

Friends and acquaintances suggest that what Julius needs is a holiday. In his obliging manner, he attempts to re-visit the joys of his youth, when he sampled the delights of brief getaways in Paris with obliging young women. It doesn't take long to get to Paris from Waterloo...but the people have changed and of course Julius has too. He feels his age and decides to return home earlier than planned. Before he leaves, he pops into Saint Sulpice to check out Delacroix's painting. I'll leave you to read the book and find out the epiphany or new reading that Julius takes away with him from the viewing.

I always feel a wee bit more edu-muckated after I've read Brookner. I learn new words - this book brought me meretricious, which I always forget means "befitting a harlot - or showily attractive" - a most useful word - must use it more often. Then of course there is fiacre - which you might think is something to do with a fiasco - but no, it is a French four-wheeled cab - never enough cabs I say. Finally inanition.- emptiness esp of nourishment i.e. how I felt earlier this week after a particularly nasty tummy bug.

In conclusion I have to say that on the whole I found The Next Big Thing a bit of struggle - rather like Jacob wrestling with the Angel. There is a very telling line early on when Julius forms a friendship with a younger man - a co-beneficiary of the estate bequeathed to them. They dine together on a regular basis "Herz had little experience of dealing with younger people but understood instinctively that one kept out of their lives as much as possible but was curious and indulgent towards them....It was a matter of discretion not to talk about oneself. To do so would be to shock Simmonds with the prospect of what awaited him."

I guess I'm not shocked. More gloomily depressed. One doesn't want to shoot the messenger of course, but it has to be said that Brookner fair puts you off old age, so she does.


2 comments:

Frances said...

Interesting, but I see your point about the subject material and cannot say that the despair of old age has much appeal for me at the moment as a summer read. But as someone else alluded to yesterday, Brookner is a depths of winter type of writer, isn't she? :)

Luvvie said...

Thank you Frances....just realised I said this was short-listed for the Booker when in fact it was long-listed.....aaaargh.