Book Review: Anita Brookner – Strangers

Ellie Stedall 9 June 2009

Oddly enough there are no strangers in Strangers, only four characters who become oppressively familiar. Its protagonist, Paul Sturgis, has three women in his life, one of whom has the good grace to die at an early juncture, relieving the reader of one quarter of Brookner’s un-illuminating characterisation. This woman, Paul’s sole relative, has established pretence of popularity which Paul, a man of ‘empty days and ritualistic excursions’, both pities and admires. At her death, Paul inherits her flat.

Affluent, retired and in good health, it is not his material situation that causes his ‘intimate dissatisfaction’ with life. Instead he laments the decline of hope and initiative. Brookner refers to his ‘habitual sense of loss’, but never attempts to delineate the nature of that loss. This is a book that constantly tells but never describes. At one point she writes that Paul’s memories of childhood holidays consist of: ‘a jumbled impression of museums, pine forests, and Baroque staircases.’ Age and fallible memory should not be confused with hapless authorship, and nor should the deficiencies of Paul’s unfulfilled life entail a prose style that is equally delimited. This is Brookner’s twenty-fourth novel, and one suspects that, like Paul, she is running low on ideas of ‘how to proceed’.

The book’s action consists of drinking vast quantities of coffee, several painfully realised telephone conversations, tea at the Ritz, lunch at the Caprice and trips abroad (these you will have to imagine: the locations are not evoked), as well as Paul’s attempts to ‘forge an alliance with a woman’. Unsurprisingly his options are few: there’s Mrs Gardner, an exasperating divorcee who turns up every now and then to solicit help, and an ex-girlfriend, Sarah, with whom he struggles to renew the improbable intimacy which once existed between them. Both women are repelled by what they perceive as Paul’s ‘searching questions’, or what Brookner terms his ‘gift’ for ‘private cerebration’.
If only. Perhaps, as there is little else to distract the attention, one develops a certain solicitude for this kind, dull and ill-drawn man, yet, nevertheless, this uneventful book reads like the overwrought premise of an unrealised, fuller narrative.

Ellie Stedall