Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Review: Look At Me by Anita Brookner

Look At Me by Anita BrooknerLook At Me (1983) by Anita Brookner

Frances Hinton is an introspective woman, 'loyal and well-behaved and uncritical', with aspirations to become a successful writer. She works in a medical research library where she studies her colleagues and makes notes for short stories, perhaps a novel. Her mother has recently passed away, and every evening she returns to a vast, outdated Maida Vale flat where she is attended by the ageing family maid, Nancy. Of indeterminate age herself – she seems to feel both young and old – Frances is chronically lonely, constantly battling to convince herself that she is content, or at least that her stark existence is a choice.
Fortunately, I am not a hysterical person. I am used to being on my own and sometimes I doubt whether I could endure a lot of excitement. This remains an academic question, for I have never yet been tempted in this way. I am very orderly, and Spartan in my habits. I am famous for my control, which has seen me through many crises. By a supreme irony, my control is so great that these crises remain unknown to the rest of the world, and so I am thought to be unfeeling. And of course I never speak of them. That would be intolerable. If I ever suffer loneliness it is because I have settled for the harsh destiny of dealing with these matters by myself.
Until, that is, a carelessly glamorous couple, Dr Nick Fraser and his wife Alix, take an interest in her and involve her in their social life. (Said social life sounds rather dull – they're either going to the same restaurant night after night or watching films at home – but as far as Frances is concerned, she's hit the jackpot.) Alix in particular treats Frances like a child might treat a pet, displaying her to friends, openly mocking her in supposedly affectionate fashion, and forgetting her altogether when she's bored. But it is through her association (one can hardly call it friendship) with the Frasers that Frances meets James Anstey, and the love she has longed for seems, at last, a real possibility.

Naturally, that's not the end of it, but it wouldn't even matter if it was, for Look At Me is, regardless of its plot, at its strongest as a detailed analysis of the fascinating, tragic, endlessly quotable Frances. Her sensitivity is fathomless, yet her forced detachment verges on inhuman. She describes herself as an 'observer' seven times, and by the closing chapters she has reached the point of describing herself in third person. Despite her own situation, she is moved to horror by the loneliness of others, showing little sympathy. 'I hated every reminder that the world was old and shaky... that everyone was, more or less, dying.' In one particularly revealing scene she describes the effect of having seen a group of people in a launderette on Christmas Day. Imagining they have nowhere else to go to find companionship (though there is no evidence that this is really the case), she is aghast, and tells us so in the most melodramatic terms:
[I] saw inside the steamy window three men and one woman, quite well-dressed, reduced to spending their day like this, and finding what company the desperation of others afforded them. I never wanted to see that again... The day was ruined. I could not wait for Nancy to retire to her television, and I even went to my mother's bathroom cabinet and took two of her sleeping pills from the bottle. I did not need them; I simply wanted to kill the day.
Instead, she seeks the company of gilded extroverts like the Frasers – as though their personalities will rub off on her without any effort being made on her part; as though the isolation and dullness of fellow outcasts (such as former library employee Mrs Morpeth, who she visits monthly out of a sense of duty she can never quite banish) might, too, be catching. 'I do not seek out friends so that they will offer consolation: I have a horror of that.' Inevitably, she is an unreliable narrator, and even as Look At Me delves so astutely into Frances' inner life, some details remain obscure. Surrounding her obsession with the Frasers and James is the spectre of what she implies was a devastating love affair. She refers to it repeatedly as 'the time of which I never speak' – a falsehood, as she often narrates its effect on her, but the circumstances are never properly revealed.

As Alix seems cruel and dismissive towards Frances from her first appearance, it's painful to keep reading about the self-abasement Frances engages in to keep hold of her 'friendship'. Yet when Alix rhetorically asks Frances 'it's all self with you, isn't it?' it's hard not to agree. The title, 'look at me', is her constant internal refrain, both a cry for help and an infantile demand for attention. She maintains that she does not love James even as she builds an imagined future around him; insists that she doesn't mind, even likes, Alix's patronising habit of calling her 'Little Orphan Fanny', despite the fact that on the very first page of the book she baldly states 'I do not like to be called Fanny'; tries to play down her adoration of the Frasers by claiming that the time she spends with them is all simply research for her fiction.

There are indicators that the novel is set in the era of its publication, the early 1980s, but they are few and far between: a passing reference to 'horrible shops' selling, among other things, 'video cassettes' is one of the only clues. Otherwise, it could be set in the early 1930s or mid-1950s, and the book it most reminded me of was Claude Houghton's I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930). It, too, concerns a character who has accepted his lot as a lonely, quiet observer, only to find his life transformed when he is inducted into a circle of glamorous friends. Frances, however, lacks the often comic voice of Houghton's narrator (although there are some moments of dry humour – and I found it interesting that she so often insists her own stories are very funny).

Frances is also a clear precursor to the eponymous antiheroine of Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen, and has a similar effect on the reader – she is both heartbreaking and maddening. Like Eileen, Frances wants others to really SEE her, yet does nothing to make this happen; like Eileen, Frances is frustrating and offputting, yet I think many readers will recognise parts of themselves in her. Frances is nowhere near as candid or, frankly, as scatological as Eileen, but the two characters talk so nakedly of their own unhappiness, inner turmoil and longing for more that at some points they could be speaking with one voice. Where Eileen has her inscrutable 'death mask', Frances has her manners:
The trouble with good manners is that people are persuaded that you are all right, require no protection, are perfectly capable of looking after yourself. And some people take your impassivity as a calculated insult, as Alix seemed to be doing now. Still I smiled.
I found Look At Me so devastatingly incisive about loneliness, longing, having an acute awareness of how others see you, and the exquisite pain of dashed hope. It certainly won't be my last Brookner.

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1 comment:

  1. Sounds like Brookner. But somehow one cannot look away!