Anita Brookner, Look At Me. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published 1983
Friendship is the antidote to loneliness. Reciprocated love is an even more effective one. Frances is lonely, and craves the friendship and love she feels she deserves. After a humiliating, debasing affair with a married man – she’s naïve in some ways, but not ‘innocent’ – she ‘wanted contentment…the chance to be simple again.’ She thinks she’s found the stimulating acceptance she longs for when she’s taken up by the superficially charming, glamorous Fraser couple.
Nick Fraser is a doctor, ‘distinguished by that grace and confidence of manner that assures success’. He’s a specialist in depression, who frequents the medical reference library where Frances works. Oddly, this library specialises in the cataloguing of images and texts about the ‘problems of human behaviour’. Frances ponders the disturbing visual representations (Dürer’s seems to be one of them) of melancholy (a condition with which Frances is acquainted) and madness.
There’s a good account of the novel in Jacqui’s review and the Backlisted podcast (links at the end). Frances is another of Brookner’s quietly spirited but diffident, lonely spinsters (‘well behaved and rather observant – a bad combination’ she remarks about herself, with characteristically shrewd deprecation), whose hopes for fulfilment are raised by the opportunities life seems to offer, only to have them dashed.
Frances is a writer, and Look At Me is as much a novel about ‘the business of writing’ as it is about the frustrations and bitterness of the lonely. She confides that she writes stories based on the eccentric characters she observes fastidiously at her library in ‘an attempt to reach others and to make them love you’. Only when she writes does she feel she has a voice.
But does she write also as a consequence of all the solitary days and hours she has to fill somehow? Or does the occupation of a writer require solitude?
It’s a dilemma that reminds me of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. This poem can be interpreted as a representation of the writer’s dilemma. The Lady is cursed to live alone and remote in a tower, doomed never to be able even to look directly at the living world outside her window, which she longs to participate in. Instead she has to resort to gazing at the reflection of life in her mirror. When she defies the curse and looks lovingly on the dazzling knight Lancelot, she inevitably dies, unloved.
The writer, then, is condemned (cursed) to live in a solitary panopticon, observing and anatomising the teeming life outside, but doomed never to participate fully in it. She can’t have it both ways. ‘Claustration’ is a key word in Frances’ vocabulary about her life.
If Look At Me were a Barbara Pym novel – for it shares many of the features of Pym’s fictional world, including the beautifully written prose and the wit and humour – there wouldn’t be such dire consequences of the protagonist’s misreadings and misunderstandings of her experiences with other people.
Alix, Nick’s ‘equally dazzling’ wife, is the crueller and more selfish of the manipulative, parasitic Fraser couple. They use people to create an audience that envies and thus validates their ersatz lives. Alix engineers a relationship between Frances and another of the doctors from the library, mostly it seems to amuse herself in watching two eager to please people she’s pushed into a budding romance in ways they barely comprehend or have the emotional equipment to cope with. She then destroys what she created, like a wanton boy with a fly.
In a scene late in the novel, when Frances realises that this possibility of love has been ruined for her by Alix’s cruel intervention, she’s torn between despair at the bleak, lonely prospect of her future life, now made worse by the sense of what might have been, and the self-destructive, childish desire to get herself back into Alix’s favour. Her walk home from the climactic disaster across a menacing London at night is described with terrifying force.
It’s the narrative voice that’s the most compelling aspect of this fine novel. Frances is a perceptive, critical observer of other people’s foibles, and gifted in turning them into the kind of witty, diverting fiction that ‘donnish’ types would enjoy. She acknowledges more than once that she has a ‘sharp tongue’ and a ‘moral stuffiness’, and seems proud of being considered ‘famous for my control’ – hinting at passion beneath this prim, austere surface. ‘I am thought to be unfeeling,’ she admits at one point, indicating those depths of feeling she conceals so well. But she’s hopeless at analysing or acknowledging her own feelings, or those of people who have most influence over her.I found this novel disturbing. This is because I think it dramatizes something we’ve surely all experienced: the desire to be liked, to be taken seriously, noticed (that touch of arrogance often found in undemonstrative people), to be looked at. Attention must be paid to your father, says Willy Loman’s wife at the end of Death of a Salesman to his sons, who despise what they see as his futile, thwarted life). Ironically, we all feel we deserve such attention, but are acutely aware of our deficiencies or inadequacies when it comes to inspiring it in other people. Frances doesn’t like being invisible.
Frances is a cleverer, more arrogant version of Prufrock, full of romantic impulses and desires, but lacking the self-confidence and self-esteem to bring them to life – to make friends, find love and hold on to it.
To read her half-aware, half-denying examination of how the events in the novel develop, and of their impact on her, is an emotionally bruising experience. It’s brilliantly done by Anita Brookner.
I’ll finish with a final quotation that reminded me chillingly of Britain’s current PM and his strange influence on the electorate. This is Frances early in the novel on her first impressions of doctor Nick, one of those shallow, shameless, dangerous charmers who attracts self-effacing, observant types like her:
…one’s instinctive reaction is one of admiration, indulgence, and, no doubt, if one is not very careful indeed, of supplication.
Jacquiwine’s post – she’s the one who recommended this for me to buy for Mrs TD – HERE
Backlisted podcast of Sept. 2017 HERE