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The Painful Freedom of Old Age

By Donna Rifkind
Special to the Washington Post
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

STRANGERS

By Anita Brookner

Random House. 235 pp. $26

Paul Sturgis, the hero of Anita Brookner's new novel, is a quiet fellow -- even, by his own admission, pretty dull. In decent health at 72, he lives alone in a well-situated London flat, bolstered by a comfortable pension from the bank where he spent his working life. He has exactly one social acquaintance, his cousin's widow, to whom he pays polite Sunday visits with a sense of mutually resigned obligation. Otherwise, during the course of Paul's stripped-down life, very little happens.

Or does it?

Any reader who has visited the worlds of Brookner's two dozen novels knows that most of the action takes place beneath the surface of everyday activity. Beginning with "The Debut" in 1981, published when the author was 53, through the Booker Prize-winning "Hotel du Lac" in 1984 and continuing with the novels that have followed, Brookner has offered adventure stories of an idiosyncratic, inside-out kind, where quests and conflicts take place not so much in the physical universe as in the psyche.

A familiar complaint about Brookner is that she tells the same story over and over. Not true at all, as I see it, except for her uniform interest in exploring interior states of being. "Strangers" provides a good example of how distinctive her fiction can be, without sacrificing any of her usual depth.

Brookner has featured male protagonists before, notably in "Lewis Percy" and "Latecomers," but in Paul Sturgis she has created an especially convincing specimen. The dire predicament in which Paul finds himself is much like that of Shakespeare's Lear or Philip Roth's Everyman: Isolated and marginalized by old age, he is tormented by the likelihood that he will be left to die among strangers.

The big difference between Paul and Lear, however, is that Paul never had a kingdom, or even much of a family, to lose. His polite associations with banking colleagues having faded away, he feels loneliness laced with regret. "He was free, with a freedom he did not value," writes Brookner, and this unmooring causes no small amount of panic, often sending him fleeing from his claustrophobic flat into the wintry London streets for relief.

Only a stylist with such prudence and steely humor could create forward movement from such grim circumstances. Brookner has both. When Paul finds himself entangled in a mildly irritating alliance with a self-consumed, 50-ish divorcee named Mrs. Gardner, he notes: "The trouble was that those who believed in their own destiny usually proved something of a burden for others." When Mrs. Gardner makes an offhand sexual overture to Paul, Brookner turns the scene into a small tour de force of comic excruciation.

With economical prose that mimics Paul's unfurnished existence, and with an effective use of repetition that echoes the garrulousness of old age, Brookner creates an affecting and unexpectedly dynamic portrait of an ordinary man in extremis, for whom "only the fantasy of choice remained."

Rifkind is a critic in Los Angeles.

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