By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 26, 2015
When I looked at the indicia of the Anita Brookner novel Strangers, I was startled to see that the book had only been published in 2009. It seemed to me that I had had the slim brown volume lingering on one bookcase or another for forever, accompanying me to a variety of different homes.
That wasn’t quite the case. But it felt that way because Brookner’s tales have long struck me as claustrophobic and stultifying. Her characters are so boxed in — mainly by their own neuroses, with societal norms filling whatever gaps remain — that growth or action of any kind is virtually impossible.
(A quick aside, confessional in nature: Brookner has written more than two dozen novels, but I’m not certain whether I’ve read more than one of them. At any rate…)
I started reading Strangers sometime late this summer, and, after some delays, I finished it earlier this month. The novel is beautifully written, but it’s frustrating for all the reasons that I recall from whatever earlier encounters with Brookner’s work that I’ve either had or somehow imagined.
Brookner’s protagonist, if that’s the right word, is Paul Sturgis, a retired London banker who has spent virtually his entire adult life inhabiting the same dreary apartment. Once, his home filled him with pride of ownership; now, it only inspires a certain ennui. As Strangers begins, is almost entirely without family or friends. His only relationship is with the widow of his cousin, a fussy woman about his age whom he visits regularly due to a sense of familial obligation.
In order to escape a tedious Christmas with Helena, Sturgis vacations in Venice. On the flight to Italy, he meets Vicky Gardner, a vivacious but flaky divorcée. A chance encounter between the two in a piazza shortly before he is set to return to England sparks a friendship, although this connection is prone to the same sorts of disappointments that Sturgis finds in all his socializing.
Subsequently, another chance encounter, this time while strolling through a London neighborhood, rekindles a friendship with Sarah, his girlfriend in the sole remarkable romantic liaison of his entire life. Unlike the never-married Sturgis, she is now a widow; like him, she is childless and virtually without close associates. This relationship, too, offers its own rewards and disappointments:
Waking each morning in the bleak light and gazing round his small bedroom he was filled with a longing for the sun, for which he felt he had waited too long. Getting up, preparing for the day, he felt nothing but resignation. Even this morning, with the prospect of seeing Sarah, there had been no lightening of his mood. He had not actively missed her, or even very much looked forward to seeing her. She awakened demeaning truths. Nor did he welcome her no less demeaning confessions. There should be an embargo on the sort of conversation they had just had. The desire for transparency was not always rewarded. And he had been aware of the changes in her. It was as if she no longer cared for his opinion, or about the opinion of any man. What persisted was the feeling each might have had for an old friend, one known since childhood, fixed in the memory. He supposed that he would visit her in France, if the invitation were to be repeated, but for the time being he would, he knew, be better off on his own, or in the company of those strangers who were the unwitting inhabitants of his everyday life.
For the moment, however, there were more practical considerations. He was wet; rain trickled down from his hair into his collar. There was comfort of a sort in the prospect of getting home, of changing his clothes, or settling in for the rest of the day. He had the beginnings of a headache, one of the severe headaches that had affected him in his youth and from which he had been free for some time. It was a day for invalidism, for cosseting.
Strangers tracks Sturgis over the course of about a year. The book concludes on a note of triumph — an ever-so-slight one, but it feels authentic and earned, given the main character’s limited circumstances.
I enjoyed the ending of Brookner’s novel, and I admired her writing throughout, but the book is so mannered that getting from the start to the end was something of a slog. Patient readers with delicate sensibilities may enjoy Strangers; others would do better to delve into another volume.