“Dr. Weiss, at forty,” Anita Brookner wrote, “knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”
The point she was aiming to make, through that first line of her first novel — published as “A Start in Life” in England and “The Debut” in America — was one she would return to frequently in her early works: in the words of an interviewer speaking to her for an article in the Paris Review, “we are deceived by literature into believing that virtue is rewarded.”
The paradox, of course, was that for Brookner — who published “A Start in Life” at 53 — subsequent decades of literary endeavors would come to enrich, rather than ruin, her own life.
Those decades came to a close last Thursday March 10, when Brookner passed away at the age of 87.
The author and art historian, described by that same interviewer, Shusha Guppy, in 1987 as “petite, slim, and casually but most elegantly dressed,” was born to a Jewish family of Polish immigrants in London in 1928. Asked by the Paris Review about her Jewish background, she professed her sadness at having never learned Hebrew – “I regret it, because I would like to be able to join in fully” – and displayed a wistful longing for faith: “not that I am a believer, but I would like to be.”
After completing an undergraduate degree in French, history and art history at King’s College London, Brookner pursued graduate studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she would later teach. Her academic career also took her Reading University and to Cambridge, where she was the first woman to occupy the Slade chair of fine art. She focused on nineteenth-century French artists, particularly Jean-Baptiste Greuze, attracted by the “loss of a certain innocence” that resulted from the spectacular failure of the French Revolution.
That penchant for the dark and desperate was reflected in her second career as a novelist, during which she was frequently labeled “the mistress of gloom.” Her novels focused almost entirely on the lives of women, with some wretchedness; Michael McNay, writing her obituary in the Guardian, commented that “her novels tend to describe a gray milieu of enervated, stranded and tentatively hopeless women.”
She started to write, she told the Paris Review, when she felt her life “drifting in predictable channels…I wanted to know how I deserved such a fate.” Having published several books on art history, novels intrigued her. “I wondered how it was done,” she said, “and the only way to find out seemed to be to try and do it.”
Brookner’s fourth novel, “Hotel du Lac,” won the 1984 Man Booker prize in an upset over J.G. Ballard, whose “Empire of the Sun” had been the strong favorite. She continued to write a book a year for much of the rest of her life. Her last, the novella “At the Hairdressers” was released as an ebook in 2011.
While her characters, like the disillusioned Dr. Weiss, faced grim realities and grim prospects, as a writer Brookner found her own reality made somewhat brighter.
“Writing has freed me from the despair of living,” she told the Paris Review. “I feel well when I am writing; I even put on a little weight!”
Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture intern. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @TalyaZax