As I mentioned in my Flaming June post, I have finally made a start on reading Anita Brookner properly! I say properly, because up until now I’ve only ever encountered “Hotel du Lac” which I’ve read twice; once, back in 1984 when it won the Booker Prize, and more recently when I re-read in 2013. Both times, the book really didn’t work for me, but I *have* been told it isn’t necessarily her best and I’ve been determined to have another go. So I’ve picked up a couple of early novels, and decided to go with her first – “A Start in Life” from 1981. Reader, I can report that this was a much better experience!!

As well as being a novelist, Brookner was also an art historian and academic, specialising in 18th century French art and later the Romantics. I do in fact have a couple of her non-fiction books, one on the artist David from 1980 and one on Romanticism from 2000; she did have a long and varied career! Anyway, “A Start in Life” opens with the uncompromising line “Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature“, and goes on to explore the early days and upbringing of Ruth Weiss. Born of a German emigre father and a flighty actess mother, Ruth’s lynchpin during her young years is her solid German grandmother. The literature that ruins her life starts early, with the fairy tales told to her by her grandmother; Cinderella never does go to the ball… Ruth ends up an expert on Balzac’s women, having made her way through school, university and even a spell studying in Paris. Meanwhile, her selfish parents act, frankly, like children; once Ruth’s grandmother has died, they employ a housekeeper, Mrs. Cutler, and the three adults have a rackety, chaotic existence while Ruth tries to carve out her own life. But can she escape her past?

There is no need to hide one’s inner life in an academic institution. Murderers, great criminals, should ideally be dons: plenty of time to plan the coup and no curious questions or inquisitive glances once it is done.

I shan’t say more about the plot, because I enjoyed watching it unfold without any real pre-knowledge. However, I will say that I absolutely loved the book and have definitely become a Brookner convert. I tried to approach the book with no expectations and was completely seduced by her prose; that was one of the positives I took from “Hotel du Lac” and here it’s just marvellous. She writes beautifully, and although the story is bleak (yes, the word I applied to HDL) it’s also darkly humorous and very atmospheric; she captures place and people brilliantly. Interestingly, too, although Ruth is in many ways the focus of the book, Brookner explores the rest of the characters quite deeply so that we understand why they’re behaving quite the way they are. Taking that focus away from Ruth at times certainly keep me interested in reading on, and also led me to sympathise with almost everyone in the story!

She knew that she was capable of being alone and doing her work – that that might in fact be her true path in life, or perhaps the one for which she was best fitted – but was she not allowed to have a little more? Must she only do one thing and do it all the time? Or was the random factor, the chance disposition, so often enjoyed by Balzac, nearer to reality? She was aware that writing her disseration on vice and virtue was an easier proposition than working it out in real life. Such matters can be more easily appraised when they are dead and gone. Dead in life and dead on the page.

Running through the book, of course, are some wonderful literary references, quotes from Balzac and Ruth’s desperate attempt to understand, in the end, why her life took the path it did. Her conclusion may well be that it’s better to be light, attractive and engaging, rather than intelligent and interesting, but she was never given the tools to go in that direction. In the end, what she has is her career, the books she’s writing and a friendship group; whether she’ll ever have any more is not something we readers will ever know. Certainly, she cherishes her independence and her academic career and they may well be enough for her; although interestingly I did sense a passivity in her, much the same as there was with Edith in HDL, and it may be that Brookner is deliberately engaging with characters who are buffeted by events, reacting to life rather than taking an active part.

Inevitably, it’s possible for the book to be considered as some kind of autofiction, as the kind of background portrayed here does accord a little with her own life (although more perhaps in concept than in fine detail). Whether or not that’s the case doesn’t really matter though; what does matter is that this is a wonderful novel, exploring a woman’s life and choices in the mid-20th century. I got truly involved in Ruth’s story, in the fate of her friends and family and although this is a short, concisely written book it certainly provokes a lot of thought. So I count my first proper read of Anita Brookner to be a real success and I’m happy that I have many more of her novels through which to make my way!