MAKING THINGS BETTER
By Anita Brookner
Random House. 275 pp. $23.95
In this as in several of her 20 previous novels, Anita Brookner blatantly and willfully violates one of the basic rules of fiction: Show, don't tell. Rather than allowing the story of Julius Herz and the various people in his life to emerge through incident and dialogue -- to show his life and leave it to the reader to fathom its deeper themes -- she tells it in a leisurely, expository way, peeling back layer after layer as she reaches ever deeper into Herz's heart and mind, rather as if she were a lecturer delivering a case study in Freudian analysis.
The thing of it is, she brings it off. Making Things Better is a novel in which little happens, and what does happen is more psychological than eventful. The reader is drawn in not by the usual dramatic stratagems but by the quiet elegance of Brookner's prose, her equally quiet wit, and by the grace and compassion with which she addresses the psychological crises and decisions that her protagonist confronts. Since Herz himself is an amateur devotee of Freud, this is appropriate and to the point.
Herz is 73 years old, "a somber thin-faced man who could no longer be confused with his younger self, his eager smile eclipsed, more by solitude than by experience." He is living alone in a flat on Chiltern Street in London, for which he has purchased an eight-year lease of which three years remain. Formerly he ran a music shop, first with his father and then by himself, but now his immediate family is all dead -- his father, his mother, his older brother, all of them Jews who got out of Germany before the worst of it began -- and his own days are winding down:
"Now, retired himself, he almost wished he still had the shop to go to, so that he could take his place in the early-morning streets with fellow workers. Instead he would go out to buy his newspaper, would read it carefully over breakfast, and then go out again to buy something for his lunch. He was no cook; there was nothing to prevent him eating out, but he felt conspicuous on his own and preferred to return home until he could think of a further excursion to occupy the afternoon. A gallery would do, a bookshop in the centre of town. It was a laborious life, lived with caution."
Readers who are familiar with Brookner's work will have recognized by now that we are in familiar territory. Like so many of her other protagonists, Herz is a quiet, decent, gentle person for whom the "solitary way of life was the only one that suited his temperament." He is haunted by the sense "that he had wasted his life," which up to now has been turned over almost entirely to the service of others. This seems admirably self-sacrificial, but he fears that "his own need to make things better, the task to which he still gave his loyalty, would be exposed for what it was: a wish, a vain wish that his efforts would be crowned, if not with glory, at least with a sense of honour."
For a couple of years, a long time ago, he was married, but Josie, his wife, soon enough wearied of the demands placed on her by the hermetic Herz household and asked for a divorce. It was granted, amicably, and she and Herz remain friends; they see each other for lunch or dinner several times a year and know they can call upon each other if needed, but the passion they once felt for each other died long ago. Indeed Josie says she now, at age 66, cannot imagine undressing for any man. Occasionally Herz dreams of his cousin, the beautiful, pampered Fanny Bauer, for whom he nursed a secret boyhood passion, but she is somewhere on the continent -- the last time he saw her was at the Beau Rivage, in Switzerland -- and she too, in any event, is old.
So he spins his wheels, "enveloped in dream and memory," living "like a recluse, for that was how he thought he must," contenting himself with "artificial outings" in which little is accomplished beyond the passage of time. Then, imperceptibly at first, things begin to change. He visits a doctor whose "curious air of distraction . . . displeased him to the extent of inspiring a certain anger." Not merely that, "he felt his politeness threatening to desert him." Slowly, it dawns on him: "After a lifetime of fidelity he glimpsed the ravishing possibility of abandoning his high standards and surrendering to the spirit of improvidence, of subversion, the spirit which he supposed moved most men and which, he now saw, he had been unwise to ignore."
The crucial event occurs when the tenant in the flat below leaves and a young woman named Sophie Clay moves in. She is somewhere in her twenties, "an attractive girl in the contemporary mold, cool, businesslike, independent, indifferent to compliments and favors, making her own choices, clear as to her rights, shrugging off obligations, making use of unsolicited offers, seeing her future as uncomplicated, a straight process towards whatever goal she had set herself." Not exactly someone likely to catch the attention of this quiet man nearly half a century older than she, but there you have it:
"He felt as if for the first time a longing for love such as he knew should only be felt by the young. He shied away from the evidence of his own physical decline, his tall sparse body, his large red hands, the thick veins that marked his dry sapless arms. The presence of a young creature, so nearly under his roof, kept his thoughts chaste, yet when he went out into the street he was amused to find himself entertaining notions that were almost lubricious. These were not confined to the person of Sophie Clay: he saw women everywhere who offered some almost forgotten possibility of pleasure. This was a welcome reaction; this was when he most felt like a man. . . . Only occasionally did he become aware of the absurdity of the situation. It was then that he lambasted himself: an old man trying to be flirtatious was as ridiculous as the cuckold in the cruel dramas he had studied at school and which he remembered with uncomfortable vividness."
Predictably, he embarrasses himself. At first he is certain that "a lifetime of good behavior had precipitated him into a folly from which he might not recover." But recover he does. He makes decisions about the rest of his life and sets about implementing them. It is an imperfect world and he is an old man, so what he sees as reasonable to hope for is a long way short of perfection, but it offers the possibility not merely of making things better for someone else but also -- this for the first time in his life -- for himself as well. He accepts the stirrings within himself, thinks "of the permanence of such feelings, of the longing for love that persisted beyond the canonical age, of those other appetites which made their inconvenient voices heard until death put an end to all feeling, all appetite."
Had Kate Chopin not already laid such vigorous claim to the title, Brookner could well have called this slender, intense novel The Awakening, for that is precisely what it is about. It is also about peaceful reconciliation to life's disappointments and acceptance of its compromised pleasures. It is beautiful, wise and utterly true. Herself the same age as Julius Herz, Anita Brookner shows not the slightest sign of flagging powers, instead grows more confident with each book and digs ever deeper into the human heart. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.