There is such a thing as a bookish book, and Anita Brookner's "The Debut" is one. By this I mean a work, more specifically a novel, in which the characters' lives are linked with literary pursuits, a fact which the author then uses, by frequent reference to other writers and their books and characters, to illuminate aspects of his own characters' experience. Brookner's heroine, Ruth Weiss, is a professor of literature who views herself almost as if she were living anthology of volumes checked out of the library.
In this case, the library shelf that is Ruth contains books by one author only, Balzac, whose female characters are the subject of a scholarly study Ruth is publishing. Once intrigued by the self-destructive but satisfying passionate figures of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenian, Ruth soon ascertained that her own situation would be better served by practicing the survival habits of those ingenious orphans in Dickens who made their way to some safety in groups of benevolent and not-so-benevolent eccentrics. The latter being her parents, Ruth passes to adulthood, isolated by sturdy, and there discovers Balzac.
What Brookner does with this device, in her creation of Ruth Weiss, is to distill Balzac's "La Comedie Humaine" and spray some of its essence on her story. That is to say, "The Debut" is permeated with Balzacian allusion, and Ruth views the world through Balzac-tinted glasses. However, rather than making it forbidding, this academic layering is so skillfully handled by Brookner that it enhances the novel's charms.
We first meet Ruth, aged 40, as she ponders the wrong turns her life has taken. "Why had her nurse not read her a translation of 'Eugenie Grandet'? The whole of life might have been different." Then she, a plain woman, would have known to aim her efforts in the direction of becoming physically attractive rather than morally strong. Her childhood really had not prepared Ruth for much of anything except survival (through a sort of virginal self-sufficiency), and the techniques for that, developed in a bizarre household, have left her vulnerable and odd-seeming to the world beyond its bounderies.
In the flashback which progresses forward to Ruth's 40th year, we see her mother, once a moderately successful stage comedian, grow old ungracefully, preferring to stay in bed in the family's London flat rather than venture outside in the unflattering daylight. An icon of triviality, Helen Weiss is surrounded by dirty cups, cigarette stubs and interchangeable romantic potboilers. Attended by a raffish nurse-companion called Mrs. Cutler, she has been gradually growing estranged from her husband, George, a good-tempered, vain and somewhat dim rare-book dealer.
To her relief, Ruth is pretty much ignored by this trio, so she is able to grow up yet remain at home, absorbed by her passion for French literature. A late bloomer, one might suppose, though actually Ruth is a stunted bud who only acknowledges the possibility of flowering just as she is about to lose any chance of every doing so. Receiving a grant to study in France, Ruth departs for Paris over the protests of the menage at home. They know they need her, but aren't sure for what.
Once ensconced in a dreadful garret arranged by her parents ("She still could not believe that anyone had consigned her to this place when she had committed no crime"), Ruth gradually learns to let a little air into her life and is practically on the verge of becoming uncloistered altogether when a phone call summons her back across the Channel. Helen has discovered George has a mistress.
Earlier, when George had chastised Ruth for planning the trip abroad, he reminded her that she had a duty to her mother. "This was the first Ruth had heard of her duty, which she had imagined was confined to the characters of Balzac." Now, like any bird whose wings are pinioned by an indifferent Fate, like any literary creation stifled by convention and whose rescue looks possible only from the outside, Ruth is captured by that duty. Unprepared for the demands, she has no ready skills to fight them off.
Afterward, as her youth trickles away, Ruth feels a mild annoyance that there is no one interested in her drama and, of course, she feels even more strongly the wrongness of it actually having been someone else's drama -- that is, her parents' -- that she had been cast in. She, who so well could have appreciated having a more central role.
Thus, her sadness for Eugenie Grandet's wasted life is "the only permissible grief she allows herself. Beyond the imposed limits it hovered, threatening, enormous, unending, and inevitable." Nothing will change for Ruth who, with fond irony, knows that her life has "been ruined by literature" and that it has, in fact, been more akin to literature than life. Unfortunately, she "had never met anyone, man or woman, friend or colleague, who could stand literature when not on the page."
As novelist and critic Diane Johnson remarked in a recent essay, "women readers . . . do like to read stories in which the women succeed in being unconventional." But Ruth Weiss is denied her chance at it. Yet it's one of those rare times when I, who usually follow Johnson's rule, don't mind. Brookner's impeccable prose and sly wit make this a seamless comedy; there's no room for maneuvering, no space in which to project one's own ideas of what Ruth should do.
It is Brookner's debut novel, but the title, I think, refers both to Ruth's perennial debutante-ness and to the fact that her first role, that of daughter, looks to be her last. Since "Eugenie Grandet" also ends with its heroine at 40, one hopes that Brookner will proceed with her own "Human Comedy."