'Look at Me': Words Torn From the Heart

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In the closing paragraphs of "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald passes final judgment on Tom and Daisy Buchanan, those spoiled, willful rich people who leave a string of deaths in their wake. "It was all very careless and confused," Fitzgerald writes. "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Since those are among the more notable lines of 20th-century literature, obviously it is possible that Anita Brookner had them in mind when, in the early 1980s, she wrote her third novel, "Look at Me." Certainly they could serve as an epigraph for the novel, which tells in chilling detail how Nick and Alix Fraser -- who could just as well be Tom and Daisy's British cousins -- casually break the heart of Frances Hinton, a "well-behaved and rather observant" young woman who works "in the reference library of a medical research laboratory dedicated to the study of problems of human behaviour" and who yearns, in her quiet way, for love.

I first read "Look at Me" two decades ago. By 1985 Brookner had published four novels, the most recent of which, "Hotel du Lac," had won the Booker Prize the previous year. I had not read her work but wanted to review her forthcoming "Family and Friends," so I read two or three of her previous books in preparation. Precisely where "Look at Me" (1983) fell in this process I do not recall, but I remember with utter clarity that I was bowled over by it. Personal experience gives me no particular affinity for the recurrent motif in this and many other of her novels -- intelligent but lonely women disappointed in love -- but it seemed to me that she had taken the theme of "careless people" and had wrought her own distinct, powerfully moving changes on it.

In the years since, I have read and occasionally reviewed most of Brookner's other novels -- by now there are about two dozen -- and have taken a certain satisfaction in seeing her broaden her canvas, as in, for example, "Dolly," "Incidents in the Rue Laugier" and "Making Things Better," but I have always harked back to "Look at Me" as the one that most deeply impressed me, as, indeed, one of the best novels I'd read over the past quarter-century. So it was with a certain trepidation that I turned to it for a second reading: Was memory playing tricks on me? Was it really as good -- even half as good -- as I remembered it being?

The answer? It is, if anything, even better. Most of the nearly four dozen books that have been reconsidered in this series have held up well, but few have actually grown -- in my own mind if nowhere else -- even larger. "Look at Me" most certainly has. Like all of Brookner's novels, it is short -- under 200 pages -- but for that matter so is "The Great Gatsby." In measuring literary accomplishment, size is irrelevant. "Look at Me" takes on large themes and deals with them with subtlety, sensitivity and clarity.

It is, though such matters in the end are utterly unimportant, a novel with roots -- perhaps deep ones -- in Brookner's own experience. Like Frances Hinton, she has spent much of her adult life in intellectual cloisters. Born in 1928, she was trained in art history, was the first woman to be awarded the Slade Professorship at Cambridge University, and has a long association with the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. In addition to her novels, she has published several well-regarded works of art criticism. She has never married. Twenty years ago, she told an interviewer that her success as a novelist and art historian was not what she really wanted: "Those two activities . . . are outside the natural order. I only ever wanted children, six sons."

There are words in "Look at Me" that echo those so precisely as to border on heartbreaking. Frances Hinton has been disappointed in love -- "I knew about love and its traps. . . . I never speak of it" -- and has turned to writing as a form of therapy and escape, as a way to reorder her world. She does it well, and manages to sell a story to a prestigious magazine in America, but she views it harshly:

"I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me. It is your penance for not being lucky. It is an attempt to reach others and to make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find you have no voice at the world's tribunals, and that no one will speak for you. I would give my entire output of words, past, present, and to come, in exchange for easier access to the world, for permission to state 'I hurt' or 'I hate' or 'I want.' Or, indeed, 'Look at me.' And I do not go back on this. For once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And writing is the enemy of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory."

That passage, which seems to me very close to a summation of Brookner's most essential themes, occurs at a point in the novel at which Frances has had "the happiest night of my life" with James Anstey, one of the doctors at the laboratory. Something started that night -- "Beginnings are so beautiful" -- and though she insists that "I was not falling in love," the possibility beckons in the near distance: "The worst thing that a man can do to a woman is to make her feel unimportant. James never did that. That whole late autumn, which was exceptionally cold and exceptionally dry, favouring our walks, was for me a time of assurance and comfort and anticipation. There were no images in my head. I did not write. I was happy."

But there are snakes in the grass: the handsome Nick Fraser and his beautiful wife, Alix. He, too, is a doctor at the lab, "tall and fair, an athlete, a socialite, well-connected, good-looking, charming: everything you could wish for in a man." Alix is "one of those fortunate women who create circles of friends wherever she goes, so that being with her is like belonging to a club." Their marriage is, or appears to be, sublimely happy -- "Of course, the spectacle of two people's happiness is always something of a magnet for the unclaimed" -- so Frances is enchanted, and seduced, when they welcome her into their circle:

"What interested me . . . was their intimacy as a married couple. I sensed that it was in this respect that they found my company necessary: they exhibited their marriage to me, while sharing it only with each other. I soon learned to keep a pleasant noncommittal smile on my face when they looked into each other's eyes, or even caressed each other; I felt lonely and excited. I was there because some element in that perfect marriage was deficient, because ritual demonstrations were needed to maintain a level of arousal which they were too complacent, perhaps too spoilt, even too lazy, to supply for themselves, out of their own imaginations. I was the beggar at their feast, reassuring them by my very presence that they were richer than I was. Or indeed could ever hope to be."

She is caught in their web. She understands that "extremely handsome men and extremely beautiful women exercise a power over others," and she succumbs to it even as she sees it with a measure of clarity: "I recognize that they might have no intrinsic merit, and yet I will find myself trying to please them, to attract their attention. 'Look at me,' I want to say. 'Look at me.' " The web, though, is a trap. As matters develop with James, Frances comes to understand that she is not a friend to Nick and Alix but a puppet: "I had wanted the company of my friends to sustain my golden enjoyment and my new future, but those friends had turned into spectators, demanding their money's worth, urging their right to be entertained." Soon enough even that no longer interests them. Alix is bored. At last, having paid a terrible price, Frances realizes that "those people were innocent of everything except greed, that, like children or animals, they simply took what they wanted. That this was the law."

For a while Frances had thought that Nick and Alix offered her a ticket into the real world, but at the end she is left in her lonely apartment with pen and paper for company. She remembers that "something had happened" -- something terrible -- and she realizes that her task must be to write about it: "The details escaped me, although I knew that they were all stored somewhere, and could, at some future date, be retrieved, intact. It would be my wearisome task to retrieve them with gusto, to make my readers smile wryly at the accuracy of my detail. No mercy given, none received. And the purpose of it all distinctly questionable. Perhaps to lighten the burden of things unsaid. For those who put pen to paper do so because they rarely trust their own voices, and, indeed, in society, have very little to say. They are, as I now knew, the least entertaining of guests."

As these several quotations from "Look at Me" make plain, Brookner persistently and (I suspect) deliberately violates one of fiction's allegedly inviolable rules: Show, don't tell. It is, generally, a rule I prefer to see enforced: Let character and theme emerge from plot and event rather than from exposition. Yet Brookner's style of narrative -- reflective, measured, expository -- is, in her hands, exactly right; her prose alone is, quite simply, exquisite. I cherish her novels almost without reservation, and I cherish "Look at Me" above all.

"Look at Me" is available in a Vintage paperback ($13).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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