FEBRUARY 9, 2004
The Rules of Engagement
By Anita Brookner
(Random House, 273 pp., $23.95)
ANITA BROOKNER IS THE great chronicler of a particular sort of female loneliness. Her typical heroine spends most of her novel exhausted “with the tiredness of one who has too little rather than too much to do.” Someone has left her money, and so she does not work, or she works at something mostly solitary, such as translating or archiving. Her few friends are scattered, and during her rare moments among them she usually feels uncomfortable and unworthy, “like a humble petitioner, seeking an hour of their time, in wine bars and restaurants near their place of work.” She attempts to fill her days with long walks, baths, and novels. Then she drinks a tisane and goes early to bed.
Sometimes she keeps busy caring for an invalid relative; or, terrified of loneliness, she marries a man whom she does not love. But the invalid dies or the husband divorces, and she is left alone again. She times her outings to the grocery store (“buying the food I should be obliged to eat alone”) so as to see children on their way to school. She stares at other women’s babies whenever she encounters them on her walks through London. If she can manage it, she takes an old family friend as a lover, a married man who dotes on his wife and children but still keeps a secret flat. He grows tired of her. She tries again, with a man who is good but “dull, even subservient, a schoolmaster out of some improving nineteenth-century novel, one of those undervalued heroes despised even by the reader.” (One Brookner novel appositely calls this character Rivers, after Charlotte Bronte’s self-denying missionary.) And the heroine eventually realizes that there is perhaps nothing lonelier than being with the wrong person.
So she considers leaving London altogether, to make a new life for herself in Paris or the Riviera. And here the novels sunder. In some of them the heroine is too depressed to muster the effort to leave. Sometimes she discovers that travel does indeed avoid despair, that she is free to make a new life, and so the novel ends hopefully. Other times she arrives in France still trapped beneath the bell jar, stifling in her own juices. But the cause of her suffering is always the same: her misguided belief that the meek will inherit the earth, that good behavior will always be rewarded by good fortune. And so, in Brookner’s novel Falling Slowly, Beatrice suffers because she “had sought to ally herself with the heroines of novels rather than with the practical business of finding a partner, still preferred stories in which a long ordeal is crowned with a happy outcome.” In The Bay of Angels, Zoe suffers because “I accepted as part of nature’s plan that after a lifetime of sweeping the kitchen floor I would go to the ball, that the slipper would fit, and that I would marry the prince.” In Brookner’s new novel, her twenty-second, Elizabeth Wetherall “comes back to nineteenth-century novels again and again, largely because of the sheer beauty of the reasoning: happiness at last, achieved through the exercise of faithfulness and right thinking.” The poor girl is doomed, of course. If only she had read Brookner instead.
In Fraud, Brookner’s omniscient narrator declares that the heroine, Anna Durrant, is “eternally unprepared for the rules of engagement between the sexes in the least predictable and sentimental of games.” Now, in The Rules of Engagement, Elizabeth is no more prepared. The problem, she feels, is generational. Born in 1948, she finds herself “too old for the Fifties, too young for the Sixties.” The rule book that she inherited from her mother is obsolete: “all around me women were having adventures, taking lovers, running corporations.” She is repulsed by them as much as she is jealous.
Elizabeth narrates the story of her own life, as well as that of her childhood friend Betsy, with the novel structured around descriptions of their encounters with each other throughout their lives. Brookner has concerned most of her novels with the plights of similar pairs, women (and, in a few cases, not-quite realized men) who have only a single bond in common. Usually they are sisters, or their husbands are business partners, or as is the case with this novel, they were thrown together when they started school on the same day, and are conscious of being alter egos since, as in Brookner’s novel Latecomers, they share the same first name. In keeping with most of Brookner’s other novels, one of the women is colder and sharper than the other, who seems possessed only of soft sympathy. While Elizabeth is serious, Betsy is “lighthearted, skimming the surface, responding always with a smile.” Early orphaned, Betsy suffers from the widespread affliction in Brookner’s fiction of craving a lover less than she does a family, “someone else’s if necessary, where she would have various roles and would do her best to perfect them.” There is something true about such a character; she is certainly more prevalent in real life than she has been in fiction, and one understands why Brookner returns to her again and again.
As a child, Elizabeth is both envious of Betsy’s innocence and protective of it, as “one respects those qualities one does not possess oneself.” Rather than tell Betsy of her parents’ marital difficulties, Elizabeth persists in allowing her friend to idolize her family life, ominously telling us “had I known what was to follow I think I should have behaved differently.” The girls temporarily part after secondary school—Betsy to university, Elizabeth to a sojourn in Paris and then marriage to a widower twenty-seven years her senior, whose gentleness she appreciates in hopes that her marriage will be less acrimonious than her parents’. (As for sexual attraction, Elizabeth only “hazily acknowledged the fact that I would not object to his love-making.”) The difference in their ages all but ensures that Elizabeth will not be coupled forever.
While Elizabeth spends her time in Paris with only her landlady for occasional company, walking the streets from one end of the city to the other, dining and watching movies alone, Betsy finds a family of sorts in a group of bohemians, returning permanently to London only with the death of her lover. Betsy holds little interest for Brookner, because she does what young people are supposed to do in Paris; her goings-on are related only in quick summaries. It is Elizabeth’s lonely walks that hold the novel’s attention, her awareness “of myself, a spectator, sitting in the audience, while outside the sun shone down on a Paris I had never known.” Back in London, we return to the Brookner plots of old—the taking of the lover with a flat, the death of the husband, the new lover who is “rather like one of those upright heroes in my favorite nineteenth-century novels.” And then the excruciating loneliness, the days filled only with novels and tea, long baths and early bedtimes, the moment when Elizabeth must decide whether she will leave London and go to the south of France, the frustration that “the fragmentation of present-day society had meant a loss of hope, so that those who harbored traditional leanings were largely disappointed,” the realization that “even books can let you down.”
THERE ARE GREAT WRITERS who seem to fill novel after novel with the same characters under different names. The most distinguished of this company is Henry James, with his troupe of New World innocents and polymathic piano-playing seducers. Yet there is never a doubt in James’s later novels that we are observing an artist constantly in the process of re-configuring his old characters, having them sort out new moral problems. This used to be the case with Brookner: however superficially her plots resembled each other, subtle differences between them would lead her to ask new questions of her characters, and she would come to new conclusions. She could take a neckline from one book, a bodice and a skirt from another, and make a work that both was new and seemed new.
But in The Rules of Engagement Brookner knows her characters’ plights so well that the novel seems to lack any sensation of urgency. The prose is confident, at times elegant, but too often it feels rigged, and exasperatingly fatalistic. Elizabeth is never allowed to be an unreliable narrator; she is, on the contrary, relentlessly reliable, perfectly analyzing her situations before too briefly describing them. So she tells us (in language that betrays Brookner’s academic origins) that she is “dominated by the pathetic fallacy; the declining year mirrored my situation.” This is introduced by a quick description of winter, followed by a few lines on depression, and then we are off to the next revelation. When Elizabeth learns that Betsy is probably involved with her ex-lover, Elizabeth declares that she “feels a sadness which had nothing to do with jealousy but was both more intimate and more universal.” She is less a character in the novel than an exegete of the novel. The effect is that the narrative seems almost bored by its own heroine, as though her experiences are less interesting than what can be said about them.
Brookner has devoured James, and she drops what she has learned from him wholesale into her books. She is overly fond of mimicking his qualifying phrases (“I liked to know, or to think I knew”; “I could see, or thought I could see”), although in this novel she finally seems to have stopped over-using the terms “mesalliance” and “hang fire.” But her characters still come to Jamesian revelations without fully earning them. Their “recognitions” and “renunciations” arrive so quickly, so inexorably, that they can seem bathetic. Moral truths are thrown into characters’ mouths even when such truths are in conflict with what else they seem to know, or think they know.
And so Elizabeth, in the best Jamesian tradition, declares herself to the reader as opposed to cloistered virtue: ”Being good has no virtue if it is grounded in ignorance,” she incants. But it becomes important in the novel that Elizabeth’s generous husband, Digby, be considered “good,” and that Elizabeth’s late comprehension of his goodness leads her to re-consider her life. ”I had learned about goodness from him,” Elizabeth says of Digby. ”And that, I hoped, would be his legacy to me.” Indeed, for the rest of the novel we hear much about Digby’s “goodness,” and are forced to take it as a given; but he is also consistently characterized as a man who “cited routine as a principle,” who is of “settled habits” and “obeyed the rules” only because his “attitudes and affections were uncomplicated.” Digby’s “goodness,” his seemingly unquestioning obeisance of norms, does not at all square with the heroine’s explicit conception of virtue, but neither she nor the novel seems to recognize the disjuncture. The sentence “being good has no virtue if it is grounded in ignorance” becomes only an undigested bromide.
BROOKNER frequently suggests a parallel between her heroines and James’s Strether, the man of the imagination who convinces us by the end of The Ambassadors that he has lived more than all the seemingly more active people around him because he has thought more. Strether’s famous exhortation to little Bilham to “live all you can; it’s a mistake not to” becomes, in the mouth of the heroine in Falling Slowly, “live while you can. It will all be taken away when you least expect it. You too, young lady, make the most of your life.” In The Rules of Engagement, there is something more than a little Strether-like about Elizabeth’s Parisian experiences, and like all of Brookner’s heroines she seems created in the image of the man who feels “tired ...without having a great deal to show for it; disenchanted without having known any great enchantments.” We are guided to feel that Elizabeth should find solace similar to Strether’s in her life’s choices. She tells us that she is
ruminative, attentive to change, to
those alterations in the light, to tiny
inconsequential happenings and acci-
dents: that dead pigeon, a mess of
dirty feathers, lying in the gutter, the
warmer wind, a familiar shop being
refurbished by its owner, the smell of
coffee from the open door of a café. I
often wished that I could do some-
thing with these impressions, that I
were a writer of some sort....
It is an odd passage, because otherwise the novel never concerns itself with Elizabeth’s “impressions”—only with her pronouncements. While Elizabeth may tell us that she is ruminative, the novel that she tells in spite of herself does not ruminate enough. And while Brookner may be right to spare us the dead pigeon, one wishes for a novel that were more attentive to change and alterations, to tiny inconsequential happenings and accidents. Instead, The Rules of Engagement knows too well where it is going to stop along the way. It does not live all it can.