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.

Wanting Moor

In early times, say the Icelandic chronicles, men from the Western Islands came to live in this country, and when they departed, left behind them crosses, bells, and other objects used in the practice of sorcery.

So begins Independent People, or in the original Icelandic, Sjálfstætt Fólk or Self-standing Folk. The author, Halldór Laxness, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1955, partly on the strength of this 1934 epic. I flirted with the novel for months, pulling it from the shelf, wondering about the sheep on the cover, quickly replacing it, though never quite scooting it into the darker recesses of the bookcase. After settling upon it, I was visited by the uncanny sense that I had chosen just the right novel at just the right time, a dose of serendipity that may carry Independent People to the finish line in my ‘read of the year’ reckoning.

It is a hefty thing, 482 closely spaced pages in the 1997 Vintage International Edition, translated by J.A. Thompson. I feared, diving into the opening, that amid the supernatural rattlings of the devil, Kolumkilli, and his evil changeling Gunnvor, the heaths, the stones, and the bleating sheep, my reading might be hexed. But tenacity like that of any old crofter seeped through; before long, I picked up the ultrasonic heartbeat of Independent People, faintly at first, then pounding so wildly that I won’t soon forget the emotional journey I took within its pages. For the next two weeks, I dwelt in the hovel of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a protagonist so completely fleshed that I can forever picture him schlumping through the low doorway at the end of the long day, chores set aside, ewes in the pen, scowl on his highly un-evolved brow. I can also imagine just what he might say, or his snide glances towards his family and neighbors.

Bjartur is a man who flings contempt at the notion that his property, acquired after 18 years of indentured service, might be worth less than his appraisal because of the witch Gunnvor’s hauntings and the local requirement of placing stones on the witch’s grave to pacify her and ward off her interference.

”No,” he said defiantly…And as he passed Gunnvor’s cairn on the ridge, he spat, and ground out vindictively: ”Damn the stone you’ll ever get from me, you old bitch,” and refused to give her a stone.

In flaunting his disregard for the history and spirit of lore, Bjartur establishes himself as the true force to be reckoned with. He sees himself as outstandingly modern, indebted to none, shorn of superstition and emotion, free to pursue the sheep raising he esteems, using his children as ever busy farmhands. There are fields of sheep populating Independent People, and Bjartur’s struggle to establish and grow his flock is central to the novel. But the sheep of Summerhouses possess no cynefin. They are passive, dependent creatures who suffer from maladies both meta and sheerly – I almost typed sheeply – physical.

Yet sheep are not the heart, that pulsing life of the novel. For Bjartur has a daughter, Asta Sollilja, or Beloved Sun-lily. She is birthed during a blizzard when Bjartur is far from home pursuing a ewe that he wrongly believes has wandered too far. (Revealing what happened to that ewe would spoil a section of the novel that is so brilliant I’m again marveling and smiling to think on it weeks later.) As she grows, Asta Sollilja’s lowly beginnings and impoverished circumstances contrast with the high minded, romanticized adoration she holds for her father and others. Herein lie the seeds of great conflict, for Bjartur refutes emotion and all of its tendencies while Asta Sollilja embodies them.

She sat on the bank and listened. Then she stripped herself of her torn everyday rags under a sky that could wipe even the sunless winters of a whole lifetime from the memory, the sky of this Midsummer Eve. Young goddess of the sunlit night, perfect in her half-mature nakedness. Nothing in life is so beautiful as the night before what is yet to be, the night and its dew. She wished her wish, slender and half-grown in the half-grown grass and its dew. Body and soul were one, and the unity was perfectly pure in the wish.

Father and daughter embark one morning upon an educational and mercenary excursion to Fjord, a trip that deals the novel’s centerpiece of shattering, cataclysmic misunderstanding. I came to this section unprepared for its majesty and emotion, within just a few pages – perhaps twenty – and found myself, a few days before Father’s Day and at the end of a sunny lunch break, kneeling unseen in the workplace garden, studying the undersides of cabbage leaves, blubbering towards composure for the afternoon’s tasks.

It is not enough to say that Bjartur and Asta Sollilja find themselves bitterly opposed. Their estrangement animates them, each wandering through years of mental and financial waste to endure that which defines them. Bjartur takes newfound prosperity at the advent of World War I.

”And since the swine can be bothered to go to the trouble of butchering one another — from imbecility or ideals, it’s all the same to me — well, I’ll be the last man on earth to grieve for them. To hell with the lot of them. All I say is this: let them continue till doomsday, as long as the meat and the wool keep on rising in price.”

Asta Sollilja drifts, impoverished and alone, with neither safe homestead nor love to call her own.

Her life was one unremitting impassioned torment, so that one could not help wanting to be good to her; and then to push her away; and then to return to her again because one had not understood her — or oneself either, perhaps.

Even when their lives run at right angles, Asta Sollilja and her father are inextricably bound. A lesser novelist might have imagined a weaker, sentimental ending for his epic. Halldór Laxness found the clay of rich emotion, mixed it with the grass of the Icelandic heath, but rather than a hovel, he fashioned a timeless, sparkling home for his Independent People.

Sun Lily

Independent People

There couldn’t be a better time to read Halldór Laxness’ Independent People. I’m finding the world of an Icelandic sheep farmer cooling to this mid-westerner in the throes of a prematurely hot summer. Yesterday, mowing the lawn in 90 degrees, I tried to imagine reindeer riding in order to summon wintry images. I also thought a bit about independence as it’s portrayed in the novel.

The character of Bjartur the sheepcrofter views himself as impervious to the whims of supernatural beings that populate the lore and poetry of his fellow crofters. He scoffs at the beliefs of his wife, Rosa, and refuses to allow her any acknowledgement of her superstitions. He looks at his life through one lens, that of his account ledger, and prides himself on maintaining only minimal ties to the people who surround him.

…he was only filled with the modern spirit and determination to be a free man on his own land, with the same independence as the other generations that had settled there before him.

Trouble is, that spirit and determination has cost Bjartur, but he’s unawares as of yet. I’m not quite half-way through Independent People, and it’s not a zippy read. But I’m finding that incredible sense of immersion that sometimes comes in longer novels, entry into another world that is at first wildly foreign, yet slowly begins to feel like home.