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.

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