THE HEROINE of Anita Brookner's second novel catalogues images in a medical library--images of melancholy, of madness, of nightmare, of disease and affliction. Pictures by G,ericault, El Greco, Durer, Goya, a gallery of morbid visions, pass through her hands daily ("our collection is rather naturally weighted towards the incalculable or the undiagnosed"). Her function in the world, as she defines it, is to maintain her files: to nod, to smile politely, to fetch and carry, to observe, to record, to be one of the "watchers at the feast."
Not a very promising heroine. But Look at Me is a nearly impossible achievement, a novel about emptiness and vacancy, about the shambling tread of the aged and the emotionelly rigid, about the sort of apparently dull person whose idea of chic is "a pale grey dress with a white puritan collar and a black bow at the neck." Brookner makes that person riveting in her ragged self- knowledge, her ability to look in a mirror, see precisely what others see, and know the image to be false.
Frances Hinton, this guardian of images who vehemently dislikes being called Fanny but seems unable to prevent people from so hailing her, lives in a vast and inappropriate flat surrounded by a hideous collection of inherited Victorian bric-a-brac: terrible cut-glass mirrors, white wrought-iron trellises, an aviary of china and glass birds, a green malachite ashtray with a green malachite cockatoo perched on its rim, an astonishing decor "which looks like something sprung direct from the brain of an ambitious provincial tart."
Frances Hinton writes. She has to write--to banish the heaviness of her dull life, to tamp down her restlessness, to rend the veil of her obscurity, to say, "Look at me." She filters the eccentrics who people the library--a rowdily lonely old woman who drinks too much, an expatriate Polish professor, her fellow archivists--through the store of images they examine each day. Writing, Frances believes, "is your penance for not being lucky."
A flamboyant couple adopts Frances and introduces her to a handsome man whose innocence and reticence apparently match her own. But the seductive excitement and possibility of an alternative existence are short-lived, and she loses all three of these new friends to companions who are louder of voice and demeanor. Look at Me chronicles this cautious foray into passionate presence. And always in Frances' past, like a shadow character never named, lingers an experience of cruelty, frustration, impatience, and loss, a period she refers to only as "that time of which I never speak."
That past tracks Frances: "I know about love and its traps. How it starts well, how mistakes are made, how, in moments of confidence or unbearable pain, things are said which can never be unsaid. How caution intervenes, and you behave like a polite friend, aching with the need to renounce that caution, if only to say intolerable things again. How those intolerable things seem to contain the essence of your knowledge of each other, of intimacy. How cruelty comes into it. And terror. Suspicion. How you are bound by those rules of politeness, self-imposed, once again, never to seek out the vital information. How not knowing becomes worse than knowing. How your life becomes devoted to finding out. And how you find out. I knew all that. I never speak of it."
Frances considers composing a major work of fiction and, of course, Look at Me is that work. To write a novel about writing a novel is hardly new. But Brookner alters the frame slightly, so that her subject is not the writing but the gathering and absorbing and sifting of quotidian detail, meals and disappointments, through the sieve of language and into the moiling cauldron of the imagination. Her novel is not so much self-reflexive as self-digesting, its material imaged and converted into prose even as it unfolds in Frances' life.
In Look at Me, Anita Brookner has accomplished what Flaubert once set out to do: to write "a book about nothing," which is to say a book about language, a Bouvard et P,ecuchet of the soul. Look at Me is simultaneously a tragedy of solitude and loss, and a triumph of the sharp-tongued controlling self. Brookner's first novel, The Debut, marked off some of this territory, but with a sulkier and a more tentative hand. In Look at Me, Brookner unveils a portrait of the melancholic woman, "overpowered by her inability to take the world's measure . . . a garland in her tangled hair," as she unveils a narrative voice in full sail.