Authors: Anita Brookner
“One of her best novels since her Booker Prize-winning
Hotel du Lac
… a novel to savor.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Subtle and wise … Brookner is a writer with enormous intelligence.”
s elements together with enormous skill.”
“The central character—Dolly—may be the one most worthy of interest that this prolific author has yet described.”
—The New Yorker
“Imagine the emotional and psychological texture of a 19th-century novel by Austen, Brontë or George Eliot. Now infuse this writing with a razor-sharp late-20th-century sensitivity to the underlying dynamics of family life. But even such a formula does not approach the achievement of Anita Brookner’s
… a riveting family portrait.”
“Sharp, impressive … nearly perfect.”
Anita Brookner is the author of eleven novels, including
A Closed Eye
. She won the Booker Prize in 1986 for
Hotel du Lac
. An international authority on eighteenth-century painting, she became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University in 1968. She lives in London.
A Start in Life
Look at Me
Hotel du Lac
Family and Friends
A Friend from England
A Closed Eye
by Anita Brookner
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape, Ltd., in 1993, as
A Family Romance
First published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, in 1994.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Random House edition
Dolly / Anita Brookner
1. Women—Fiction. 2. Family—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6052.R5816D65 1994 823′.914—dc20 93-14537
thought of her as the aunt rather than as my aunt, for anything more intimate would have implied appropriation, or attachment. Attachment came later, in a form that was wistful, almost painful. At the same time it is only fair to say that I never felt for her that simple affection which is unreflecting, almost a background to one’s emotional existence, something one takes for granted, as if it had been born with one, or rather as if it had come complete at one’s birth, part of the panoply of family life. I liked to read about this sort of thing, even as a child, as if I were missing it, longing for it, when all the time I was perfectly happy, at home and at peace with my mother and father.
In these contexts, both real and imaginary, Dolly—the aunt—was a misfit. It was without surprise that I learned that Dolly was not her real name, though I doubt whether in the long run this has much significance. She was a presence, or rather an absence, which seemed to give rise to a certain anxiety, at least on the part of my mother, who was her sister-in-law,
and whose beloved brother Hugo Dolly had married, in circumstances of great romance, or so they seemed to me when I first came to know their story. It was a favourite story, recounted when I was very young, again by my mother, who was present at their first meeting. Dolly’s absence I took for granted, for in the manner of fairy stories I assumed that after the apotheosis it was natural for people to vanish. In fact Dolly lived abroad, in Brussels, with my uncle Hugo, whom I thought of as my uncle, and was encouraged to do so by my mother who loved him dearly. He was a hero in her eyes, although even at a young age I sensed that my father felt less warmly towards him. Given their remote degree of affiliation this was allowed, and consequently did not seem to matter.
Dolly was the wife my uncle had acquired before my birth: I knew neither of them. A brief family visit to Brussels, when I was four or five, did not bring us any closer. My mother was concerned about her brother’s health, and I was aware of anxious discussions behind closed doors. For that reason I was taken out on long walks by my father, and of that visit I remember Dolly as part of the general discomfort, no more important than the wearisome length of the Rue de la Loi, where their flat was situated, and the, to me, menacing arch of the Cinquantenaire, which I thought marked the limit of the known world.
Images of discomfort abound from that brief visit. My uncle was in bed, and every now and then I heard the tinkling of a bell which signified that he was awake or that he was hungry. He seemed lively enough for an invalid, was certainly exigent, ringing the bell at half-hourly intervals.
The bell was answered by the maid, Annie Verkade, a grim silent woman of whom I was vaguely frightened, although she paid no attention to me. I thought that Dolly and Hugo must be very poor, for there was no carpet on their shiny creaking wooden floors, and the bed I was put into was in a room so bare that the only distraction was to watch the squares of light from the windows of the houses opposite, and to calculate who lived there and what they were doing. I liked to make up stories in which children featured, and as far as I could see there was not another child in the whole of Brussels. I was clearly an embarrassment on that visit, when urgent family matters were being discussed. Because I had no idea what these could be I was fretful, aware only of disquiet, of long anxious colloquies between Dolly and my mother. I sensed that my mother was upset and that Dolly was the cause of her unhappiness. I know now that Dolly had to bear the brunt of these discussions because my uncle had removed himself from them, but at the time I registered Dolly as an active agitated presence who abruptly stopped talking when I entered the room and aimed a dazzling artificial smile in my direction, as if expecting me to be impressed by her gallantry.
I was not impressed: I was if anything insulted, for I knew that there were secrets, and that these were secrets in which I could have no part. I resented Dolly even then for invading my parents’ peaceful world, and for removing me from Prince of Wales Drive to this unfriendly town. I was parcelled out between my father and Annie Verkade, who was no more fond of me than I was of her. In the event the visit was hasty, rushed, confined to a mere long weekend, for my
father had to get back to his office, to which he was exceedingly loyal. My impression of Dolly, on that occasion, was of a stranger in a black and white dress, which I thought was too tight. She did not fondle me or take me on her lap, as I smugly expected her to do, but simply smiled those vivid and meaningless smiles at me, and adjured me, in a heightened voice, to be a good girl and not to upset my mother. I had an impression of blackness and of whiteness: black eyes and white teeth, and the white handkerchief which dashed away her tears. The tears were followed by a particularly public smile. ‘I keep going,’ she said, to my troubled mother. ‘I don’t let him see how worried I am. I carry on; I hide my misgivings. That’s what one has to do in this world, Jane.’ (This last was for my benefit.) ‘Let them think of you as always singing and dancing.’ At four, or possibly five, I thought this advice negligeable.
After our return to London, myself tired and disturbed, a strange conversation took place between my mother and father.
‘He has always been delicate,’ my mother said.
‘But you can’t look after him,’ my father replied. ‘That’s her business now. She seems to manage well enough.’
‘I don’t understand why she feels so poor. After all, Hugo has his job, and it seems to be rather important.’
‘I dare say she exaggerates.’
‘Of course they go out a great deal, or seem to.’
‘There you are then. He can’t be so delicate. Or so badly off, for that matter.’
‘I hate to think of him so far away. I keep hearing the sound of that bell from the bedroom.’
‘It was only the flu. They take it so much more seriously on the Continent. In France, for example. In Belgium too, I expect.’
‘They said something about coming over next year. To see Mother. And us, of course. Perhaps we should do something to entertain them.’
‘They won’t stay here,’ said my father calmly. It was not a question, merely a statement.
‘Oh no,’ said my innocent mother. ‘They will want to stay in Maresfield Gardens.’ This was the home of my grandmother, my mother’s mother, to whom, now that I come to think of it, Dolly bore a distinct resemblance. They were both Europeans, vain. My mother had escaped the influence entirely.
After I had been put to bed in my own room I forgot Dolly completely, and was glad to do so. I had identified her with that creaking flat in the Rue de la Loi and its various discomforts, with Annie and the Cinquantenaire and with the ballpoint pen which my father had bought for me in a curiously shaped department store which he said was almost a historical monument. The pen spluttered and leaked when it was suggested that I write a postcard to my grandmother. Both pen and postcard were abandoned.
‘That’s right,’ said Dolly, passing through. ‘Keep busy. I always keep busy. Annie will give you your
This foreign word was another sign that I was far from home, a feeling I attached to Dolly herself. To be with Dolly was to feel far from home. This was the interesting and valuable insight which I brought back with me from that visit. It is not true that children do not understand adult feelings.
They understand them all too well, but they are powerless to deal with them. I knew then, as I was to relearn later, that Dolly signified a sad estrangement from everything which I assumed to be rightfully mine: my family, my friends, my school, my peaceful English life. My father, I think, felt the same, and for this reason was anxious to distance my mother from her brother and sister-in-law. And in this, for as long as he could keep my mother under his benevolent and somewhat hypnotic gaze, he was successful. He worried over her, thinking her as frail as the bedridden Hugo, who only had the flu. She had had a heart murmur as a child, although this had disappeared. To me they were both invincible. The look of care on my mother’s face I attributed to Dolly, the aunt. It must have been at that time that I cast her as the aunt, a generic form of life, rather than as my aunt, a member of my family.