The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of (Blaise Pascal).
Not so fast, young Blaise. Anita Brookner knows a lot about those hidden reasons. It’s her material.
And the brilliance of Look At Me is in the way Frances Hinton is at the same time utterly seduced by the passion of the heart and able to see exactly what’s happening to her. Frances is a narrator we often meet in Brookner: a young single woman who appears to others conventional, old-fashioned, not the sort of person to be carried away by anything. Since her mother’s death she’s gone on living in the stodgy upper-class apartment block where she grew up, the only young resident, alone but for her mother’s housekeeper Nancy. She doesn’t need to work but she does, just to have something to fill her days, in a medical reference library dedicated to the study of problems of human behaviour.
Problems of human behaviour still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed. (5)
Still waters run very deep in Frances. We know that her mother’s death was harrowing, and we learn later in the book that she has had a love affair that was unendurable… baffling, in which she was humiliated. But she doesn’t tell us any more than that. Here she tells us the story of her involvement with the golden, charming doctor Nick Francis and his fascinating wife Alix. Nick is actually a handsome piece of stage scenery with nothing behind it, and Alix is an appalling woman, casually cruel, a supreme egotist. Frances sees this; but she is swept away by their aura of immense reserves of appetite and pleasure (47)
This is our first sight of Alix:
She was not beautiful, but she had such an aura of power that she claimed one’s entire attention. She was tall and fair, with rough streaky hair and rather small grey eyes which disappeared when her magnificent mouth opened in one of those laughs that I came to know so well. The mouth and everything about it, was her most important feature: the long thin lips, the flawless teeth, the high carrying voice. We saw and understood Nick’s delight when he inspired her to laughter and the head went back and the mouth stretched and the sound, which was in fact rather swallowed and restrained, rewarded him. The brilliance of that laughing face, with the careless hair and the rapacious teeth… (47)
Frances doesn’t miss a thing; even in the lightning strike of her infatuation with Alix her mind says rapacious. Nick and Alix take her up and become her whole world. Mostly she’s a silent observer in this world, knowing that she’s there in the role of an admiring audience and a kind of erotic stimulus to Nick and Alix:
I soon learned to keep a pleasant noncommittal smile on my face when they looked into each other’s eyes, or even caressed each other; I felt lonely and excited. I was there because some element in that perfect marriage was deficient, because ritual demonstrations were needed to maintain a level of arousal which they were too complacent, perhaps too spoilt even too lazy, to supply for themselves (57)
Frances sees all this, and she doesn’t care. The life force the two represent is like a great bonfire; in its light her own life seems even lonelier and more pallid. She’s prepared to sacrifice the writing that is so important to her (writing is my way of piping up) because Alix is scornful of it, even when (perhaps particularly when) Frances has a short story accepted by a prestigious magazine. And her developing relationship with James Anstey is also at Alix’s mercy.
Another writer can only sigh at Brookner’s skill in manipulating the pace of events and the changing aspects from which Frances sees them. Though she’s telling a retrospective story and the relationship has all but finished, she glides in and out of the present tense, as if she still comes alive at the magnetic force of the Frasers. It feels like the blood rising, the heart beating faster, and it has the reader seeing from multiple points of view simultaneously.
There’s so much that’s good in this book: the regular users of the library, Mrs Halloran, a wild looking lady with a misleading air of authority and Dr Simek, an extremely reticent Czech or Pole, and the undeclared war between them over library materials, and Frances’ monthly visits to Miss Morpeth, a retired staff member, agonisingly choreographed visits that both of them hate. These are people at the mercy of the world. Anita Brookner is an art historian, and I couldn’t help thinking of W.H. Auden’s famous Musée Des Beaux Arts:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
I’m a Brookner fan from way back, but I have to thank Jacqui of JacquiWine for directing me to this one when she recommended a podcast called Backlisted. One of the podcasters said Look At Me was the best of the 137 books he read in 2016. It’s a cracking good start to my 2017.