The Debut by Anita Brookner

Who would pick her up? Such a dull background, such a drabbled and muddy cover that I was unable to find a single online image to share. Treating it simply as an object, I stared at the book for a while in the library before deciding to check out The Debut. This 1981 Linden Press edition of Anita Brookner’s first novel, known in the United Kingdom as A Start in Life, did not fill me with anything close to anticipation. I toyed more than once with the notion of throwing it back into the curbside return box, a speedy, shallow drive-by rejection of all that the cover implies.

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Here she is, a dowdy woman ill served by muted wallpaper background and an equally dated hairstyle and countenance, deserving no attention from the world, to say nothing of a self-respecting reader. There has to be some chemistry, right? Some pizazz, a faint frisson, must come into play during such important choices, should it not? I could not be blamed for passing her by. Doubtless I probably would, had I not read John Self’s review of the new Brookner novel, Strangers.

This brown paper bag edition of The Debut disguises a novel which left me deeply impressed and eager to rummage through all of Brookner’s catalog, looking for the sort of treasures often hidden in subtlety, riches and jewels that are only for the reader, the ultimate discoverer. The Debut is the story of Ruth Weiss,  a woman who takes a mid-life retrospective to find “that her life had been ruined by literature.”

Ruth is an academic, at work on a never-ending study entitled Women in Balzac’s Novels. “Dr. Weiss, who preferred men, was an authority on women.” Brookner introduces us to her at the tender age of forty, then  scampers through the highlights of Ruth’s life, both the one she has lived and the one she has correlated as fiction. Dr. Weiss’ story is  common. The daughter of petty, selfish individuals who grab and take what they need with no thought to the needs of others, Ruth learns early that “moral fortitude…was quite irrelevant in the conduct of one’s life: it was better, or in any event, easier, to be engaging. And attractive.” The teenage Ruth knows her score and finds safety within the pages of fiction.

In her room Ruth read of cottages blasted by northern winds, of country mansions with spacious lawns, of Parisian lodging houses teeming with intrigue and activity, of miners’ back-to-backs vibrating with the heat of banked-up coal fire, of home farms and rectories, of villas and castles, of gardens and pièces d’eau, of journeys and sojourns abroad. Was real life always so untenanted? Or was real life a distillation from ordinary mundane disappointment?

A young Ruth studies hard and fills the role of obedient only child, a strategy which brings her academic success and, for a long while, personal loneliness. She struggles ineptly through an infatuation, then suddenly seizes upon an invitation to move to Paris and study Balzac at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Ruth blossoms in her new setting, and she begins “to think of the world in terms of Balzacian opportunism”.

There was no doubt that her looks improved. She put on weight and brushed her hair and learned the difficult Parisian art of being immaculately turned out…Her heels clipped along the corridor with authority these days, and she was no longer afraid of having time on her hands.

Ruth begins to aspire to a life of her own, far and free from the tug of her aging parents and their bottomless need. She begins to breathe her own oxygen, even while immersing herself in the cautions of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet.

What she tended to ignore these days (and her work suffered as a result of it) was Balzac’s strange sense of the unfinished, the sudden unforeseen deaths, the endless and unexpected remorse, the mutation of one grand lady into someone else’s grander wife, the ruthless pursuit of ambition…What she did understand, and this is not difficult, is Balzac’s sense of cosmic energy, in which all the characters are submerged until thrown up again, like atoms, to dance on the surface of one particular story, to disappear, to reappear in another guise, in another novel.

What impressed me so deeply about Brookner’s first novel is the ease with which such difficult truths as Ruth discovers floated through Brookner’s prose and settled into this reader. In her hands there is a sensitive portrayal of one person’s attempt to beat a desperation which, for anyone, might be only one illness, one failed relationship, one enormous loss away. And it is this delicate reinforcement- not of any harsh ending- but of the noble attempt, which unloads oomph aplenty in Brookner’s writing, maybe more than I can take most days. I’ll be reading more of Anita Brookner’s novels, but never disguised in brown paper.

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Imagine with me for a moment a greatly leveling experience, aside from that which is our shared first and last. Find an airport for the departure of your reverie, any old major metropolitan will do. Hop a mind’s flight to London,  from there jump the train up to Cambridge. Then mosey your way, in a crowd if you must (but better if you can go it alone or with just a few imaginary others), into the nave of the King’s College Chapel. Stand for a while under the fan vaulting and let the weight of 500 years wash over you. That should begin to do it. Are you feeling a smidgen of insignificance?

Now, take it just a bit further. Close your eyes, standing still where you are, or perhaps closer into the chancel with its woodwork and candles, and imagine that you are an English commoner of those 500 years past,  someone with neither rank nor lineage to boost your way in this world. You work hard, have your family and your likes and dislikes. You have a trade that sustains your living and you’re doing well as can be expected. Keep those eyes closed tightly. Now, take a deep breath and let yourself feel the main event, a faintest brush of the largest, finest velvet sleeve imaginable, come up against your bare hand and, contained within that sleeve, the magnificence known as His Majesty, Henry VIII. Tell me you don’t feel a little shiver.

This feeble exercise in pretense can’t fully encompass the deep sense of inadequacy which I felt two weeks ago upon opening Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker shortlisted novel. Invited to such a romping, sprawling imaginative event as that which is the fictionalized life of Thomas Cromwell, what could I possibly bring to the party as a common reader? I almost gave up. One hundred pages in, I was nervously trying to sort the novel’s sundry  references to the titled life when I hit upon this:

Try always, the cardinal says, to learn what people wear under their clothes, for it’s not just their skin. Turn the king inside out, and you will find his scaly ancestors: his warm, solid, serpentine flesh.

Mantel’s style thus unleashes the reader and leaves the wannabe Tudor historian behind. Wolf Hall is historical fiction at its finest and gives the reader permission to slip off whatever limitations might be carried into the opening pages. This is a novel in which to sink your teeth.

The story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power is ultimately one  familiar to us all. It is the story of a friendship, born under unlikely circumstance and driven for varying reasons to unique  consequence. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who leaves home at the age of fifteen to find his rough-and- tumble way, inhabits Mantel’s novel as a middle aged man who relishes the comforts and fellowship of family life, a man whose success as a brilliant lawyer affords him ample opportunity to share his wealth amongst his kindred and other common folk. He is also a man who wears his hard scrabble raising beneath his clothing, not unlike the hair shirt worn by the Catholic apologist Thomas More, Cromwell’s formidable adversary.

But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.

Incorporated into the life of this “person from Putney” is advancement, power,  privilege, and friendship, all in the form of Henricus Rex. Henry strolls through the pages of Wolf Hall with his legendary larger than life appetites intact, while at the same time seeming thoughtful and somehow vulnerable. Cromwell eases into the court life by virtue of his intelligence and willingness to work for his King and country. The friendship is remarkably vivid in Mantel’s flawless dialogue, full of humor and a sense of realism.

He (Cromwell) looks up. ‘May I speak?’

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ Henry cries. ‘I wish someone would.’

He is startled. Then he understands. Henry wants a conversation, on any topic. One that’s nothing to do with love, or hunting, or war…, there’s not much scope for it; unless you want to talk to a priest of some stripe…

‘If you ask me about the monks, I speak from experience, not prejudice…and May I suggest to Your Majesty that, if you wish to see a parade of the seven deadly sins, you do not organise a masque at court but call without notice at a monastery?…What I cannot stomach is hypocrisy, fraud, idleness – their worn-out relics, their threadbare worship, and their lack of invention…I believe they have suppressed the history they don’t like, and written one that is favourable to Rome.’

Henry appears to look straight through him, to the wall behind. He waits. Henry says, ‘Dogholes, then?’

He smiles.

Of course the intent which initially drives the friendship between Cromwell and Henry VIII  is that of obtaining a divorce for Henry from his wife Katherine so that he can marry Anne Boleyn.

Time now to consider the compacts that hold the world together: the compact between ruler and ruled, and that between husband and wife. Both these arrangements rest on a sedulous devotion, the one to the interest of the other.

Henry and Cromwell are bound forever within the famous campaign to shape  the future of their beloved island.

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater: her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.

Wolf Hall is populated with many peripheral characters, some written fully, such as Anne Boleyn, and many others brilliantly focused and placed within the novel to give the life of Thomas Cromwell shape and meaning. Cromwell’s characterization is immensely satisfying and identifiable in its wide range. In Mantel’s vision, he is as much a “man for all seasons” as his contemporary More.

He, Cromwell, is no longer subject to vagaries of temperament, and he is almost never tired. Obstacles will be removed, tempers will be soothed, knots unknotted. Here at the close of the year 1533, his spirit is sturdy, his will strong, his front imperturbable. The courtiers see that he can shape events, mould them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world: this people, this dynasty, this miserable rainy island at the edge of the world.