Look At Me – Anita Brookner

You may remember that Thomas of ‘My Porch’ and myself are having a special day celebrating all things Anita Brookner. I decided I should get a few read in the lead up, and the first of those was ‘Look At Me’. It’s always interesting when you have decided you are going to do a challenge, and the same applies to some Daphne Du Maurier reading I will be doing for another venture, you become rather worried that the next book you read by that author will put you off, especially when all the ones you have read so far have been a real joy.

Well, I admit that after a great first paragraph, with the brilliant first sentence ‘once a thing is known, it can never be unknown’, I was actually seriously worried that I was going to loathe ‘Look At Me’ from its first five or so pages. The term wading through treacle springs to mind, endless paragraphs on depression, melancholy, death and lunacy. It wasn’t looking good. Thank heavens then that I decided I would give it a first chapter then, because in a single page I was rewarded by some of the types of prose and characters that I have experienced and loved in Brookner’s work before.

‘That’, says Mrs Halloran heavily, after every other one of Nick’s disruptive visits to the Library, ‘is one hell of a man’, at which point Olivia asks her to be quiet and observe the rule of silence, and Mrs Halloran says, ‘Miss Benedict, why don’t you get a hold of that sodding offprint I’ve been asking for every day for the last month instead of telling me what to do? I don’t tell you what to do, do I?’
 ‘You just have’, says Olivia, who is never less than totally composed , and after that they subside for an hour or two, until dissension breaks out again over the matter of whether Mrs Halloran gets a cup of tea or not. Oddly enough, Olivia quite likes her, although I suspect that she finds her life in the Library rather painful at times. But she never says anything. How could she? Apart from her unspoken love for Nick, there is her unspoken dislike of his behaviour. Neither, of course, will ever register with him. It is when I think about this that I congratulate myself on not being in love with anyone. I am not in love with Nick. I am not in love with Dr Leventhal (difficult to imagine) or Dr Simek (even more difficult) or even with James Anstey, even though he is tall and ferocious-looking and presentable and not married and undoubtedly what Mrs Halloran would call a bit of a handful.’    

So what is the subject of ‘Look At Me’? It is interesting that the initial part of the book that bored me with the descriptions of depression and melancholy are in a way what this book is about. In fact I think the best way to describe, our narrator, Frances Hinton’s life is a solitary one, and one that Brookner can do so well. Frances admits that her life is one lived very much alone, where she lives is ‘for old people’, and really for the main the most interaction she has is with her colleagues and that’s how she befriends Nick and his beautiful wife Alix and then becomes adopted as their ‘pet project’.

That’s all I am going to give you in terms of plot because really with a slim volume of 192 pages, if I said too much I would give everything away and you wouldn’t then be put through the emotional (both high and low) wringer that Brookner has in store for you and that would very much be to the detriment of ‘Look At Me’. It’s a book you need to read in order to actually experience it.

I don’t know if that’s enough to satisfy you and ponder giving it a read but I do advise that you do. Brookner is on fine form (well after the initial hurdle) in this book and everything after the awkward start makes up for it without question. Frances is one of Brookner’s wonderful heroines who starts out a little acidic and brittle and yet slowly wins you over. It’s also interesting to watch a character like that unfold, and possibly even unravel.  I don’t know why but I think the fact that she is writer made me like Frances all the more. I did wonder if there was an autobiographical note to this book, maybe that’s just clutching at straws though. I also loved Nancy, Francis’ maid, who it seems loved Francis’ mother, who hired her, and far more than Francis did and won’t let her forget it. The background characters are always vivid and fully formed another thing I love about Brookner.

I know it’s not the longest review, but its not the longest of books – which makes it even more of an ideal read for giving Brookner a try if you haven’t already, or to take a tentative step. I am trying to think of the last time I started a book thinking ‘oh I don’t want to read this’ and ending up thinking ‘oh I don’t want this to end’. That is exactly the effect that ‘Look At Me’ had on this reader. It is such a shame it is out of print. I am only hoping that my further reading of Anita Brookner carries on in the same way. 9/10

This book is one I bought second hand many moons ago.

I am hoping that has wet your appetite, or wet it further for ‘International Anita Brookner Day’ which is now mere weeks away. If the selection of her prose above wasn’t enough, pop to the post below and you will see that there are some other incentives to read-a-long on July 16th! There is of course the possiblility you have read this, if so what did you think? Can any of you recommend which direction I go next with Brookner? I am sure it will be a joy whichever path it takes me down. Oh and who is joining in with International Anita Brookner Day, do let me know.

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11 Comments

Filed under Anita Brookner, International Anita Brookner Day, Penguin Books, Review

11 responses to “Look At Me – Anita Brookner

  1. Simon, I suggest you read Hotel du Lac which I think was a most deserving winner of the Booker Prize. Lac leman (of the title) I know very well indeed and that might slightly colour my enthusiasm for the book, so you have fair warning!

    • Hotel du Lac was the first Brookner that I read. I bought it because it was short and would be a good taster of her work, I didn’t know that all her books are shortish. I have used this taster idea for a new way of trying more authors again recently.

  2. Simon, I know exactly how you feel. Being prone to hyperbole I worry that I oversell things. But then last night I just finished re-reading The Debut (A Start in Life) and I realized that our IABD is a great idea and more people should be reading her.

  3. I loved this book. Read it a while back. I actually haven’t read any other Brookner novel maybe because I’m expecting they won’t be as good as this one. I’m looking forward to reading the Brookner reviews and finally choosing my next novel by her. However, you’ve definitely made me want to reread Look at Me.

    • I have loved both the ones that I have read since Hotel du Lac. I want to say that this is luck but actually I just think she’s a great author. I’m not sure what of hers to read next though and oddly ( it’s taken me so long to respond) I fancy another of her books. Or have I read another since. Oh dear too long between comments.

  4. I have a copy of The Rules of Engagement which Thomas sent me which will be my first Brookner novel. Should be good, I have no idea what the book is about or anything about Brookner herself which is nice sometimes.

  5. Edward Malone

    I enjoyed Look at Me, in spite of it’s claustrophobic atmosphere and painful depiction of the (I suspect) self-inflicted degradations of loneliness. Brookner’s character Frances is clever and constantly telling us how mordantly observant she is yet she lacks the imaginative sympathy of others that she condemns Nick and Alix for. Her actions, of course, are impeccable, but her inner commentary repeatedly undercuts the sincerity of them. Not that contradictory thoughts should ever prevent one from doing the right thing but frances’ refusal to challenge or rethink more sympathetically the situation of those pushed to the margins of society and consciousness strike a hollow, hypocritical note when she accuses (through her writing) the novels powerful centre of only responding to or attending to the plight of the already fortunate. Though Frances never descends into self-pity, I couldn’t help but think that she has a lot to be grateful for, and that that gratitude wouldn’t be provoked into being by spending time with the constantly dissatisfied Nick and Alix. Frances (or Brookner) is very good at giving reasonable shape to the fundamentally irrational which is why that the novel, despite a slight pomposity of style, is ultimately successful. Olivia is of course the only good character, symbolically disabled, mostly silent, and whose absence yet constant evoking remind us that Frances is not entirely in control or sole sovereign of her writing.

  6. Hi Simon; have u read “Bay of Angels”?Of course, in Broookner’s oevre, there is not much variety in tone/mood:decay, unachieved wishes, belatedness,beknightedness(love those 2 words lol). But sublimely statuesque style and poignant characters. I might suggest “Look at Me” for our book group(is my favourite one, but not quite to extent I would be upset if anyone criticised it !);

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