Jim's Reviews > Strangers

Strangers by Anita Brookner
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May 27, 2014

really liked it

Brookner’s novel is full of good words, words most of which I thought I understood but still felt the need to look up, words like ‘minatory’ which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the Minotaur and unheimlich which translates as ‘uncanny’ but which Freud put his own twist on. A word she might well have used, and used correctly I have no doubt, would be ‘vacillate’ which has nothing to do with Vaseline and she would’ve know that. Vacillate is what the protagonist of this book does more than any other character I’ve ever read. One minute he’s actively seeking the company of a certain woman, the next she’s exasperating him and he wants to be rid of her only to find when he runs into her later or she turns up unannounced that he doesn’t hate the experience and wonders what it might be like being married to her only to then realise what a bad idea that would be. And his vacillation doesn’t end with women but rather extends to every aspect of his life. He wasn’t always like this although he has always been boring, so boring that he’s never married and now finds himself in his mid-seventies facing the prospect of dying alone, something which makes him shudder.

Paul Sturgis turns seventy-three during the course of this book. He’s a man whose life revolved around work and now any connections to that world have dried up. Days are things to be got through. Luckily his many years working in the banking industry have left him comfortably off but he’s still frugal often taking the bus or walking even though he can easily afford a taxi. He has no family left bar Helena, the widow of a cousin, whom he visits on a semi-regular basis despite the fact it seems to be a strain on both of them but as they’re the only family the two of them have left they feel it’s their duty to make something of an effort, effort being the key word. Paul is an old-fashioned man, a man out of time whose generation is dying out. He’s also a lonely man who spends most of his time in the company of strangers and it really was only a matter of time before Tennessee Williams was quoted although not referenced.

He’s no Blanche DuBois though, far from it. The same could not be said for Victoria Gardner, a woman of about fifty (he never finds out for sure) who he encounters on a flight to Venice and who managed to get at least one claw in him if not a full pawful. She does expect strangers to help her out in her hours of need, is genuinely puzzled when they don’t seem to want to and unwittingly Paul becomes one of seemingly many to do her the occasional wee favour like looking after some luggage. She’s annoying but she can also be entertaining so one can see why Paul might be in two minds about her, one of those women you’re pleased to run into in the street but after five minutes wonder why.

The third woman in Paul’s life is an old flame, Sarah. He runs into her part-way through the book. By this point Helena has died and so Paul’s even more alone than ever, acutely conscious of his own fragility if not mortality and here comes someone only a few years younger than he is and wouldn’t it be sensible if they were to pick up where they left off and take care of each other? Only Sarah’s now a feisty late-sixty-year-old, independent-spirited and although she complains about her health she’s still not ready to give up control of her life.

What these three woman have in common is that they immediately (instinctively?) see that Paul is a soft touch, a nice man. Not that they milk him for everything he’s got, rather they realise he’s limited in his usefulness. All three of them keep the bulk of their lives to themselves in fact it takes Paul practically to the end of the book to even get a phone number out of Vicky and it’s not until after her death that Paul realises (not that he hadn’t already surmised) that the life Helena painted was not the one she was living.

These are odd woman and not very likeable. And, of course, there will those readers who think much the same of Paul and they’re all welcome to each other. But then these people will probably be young. And young people won’t get this book. In his review in The Guardian critic Mark Lawson, who was not an avowed fan of Brookner’s, does a one hundred and eighty degree turn:
There are writers we grow into. Brookner's themes—ageing and isolation—seem pointless and self-pitying to a twentysomething reader. But decay and/or loneliness will come to all of us, and pages which seemed opaque eventually become a mirror.

Objectively, Strangers has all the faults my younger self identified: a man and a woman who seem to possess neither genitals or sense of humour fence around each other before accepting disappointment. But the pitiless depiction of the final stages of life—and the refusal to allow her characters any consolation—makes Strangers as great a reflection on fear and regret as Philip Larkin's poem ‘Aubade’ or Beckett's Endgame.
I think he hits the nail on the head. I’ve always liked Brookner but then I came to her in my fifties. I’m not sure that a twenty-year-old—or even a thirty-year-old—me would’ve given her the time of day. There are writers you grow into.

Towards the end of the book Paul notes, “Fate is rarely kind, and nature never.” It’s a profound statement. And a sobering one. The book’s opening line is, “Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers.” Although we don’t know how he dies—we are left to wonder on that account—what we do know is that even if he and Sarah do get together after the book’s final chapter (purely for practical reasons you understand) they will still be, as they always have been, strangers. Because everyone in this book is a stranger, at least one step removed from everyone else. Perhaps that’s the cruellest realisation of them all and the one we put of admitting for as long as possible assuming we ever admit it as a possibility.

Yes, there is a tedium to this work and at times it is work—if only because of Brookner’s serpentine sentences—but I found the work worthwhile, much better than Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass which I read a couple of weeks ago. This was the book I’d hoped Noah’s Compass would be.
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May 27, 2014 – Shelved
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May 28, 2014 – Finished Reading

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