TO an extent underestimated by literary critics - and overestimated by self-appointed moral watchdogs - most people read fiction to learn about human behavior. Clearly, none but the most naive of readers would pattern his or her every move, Quixote-like, on something read in a book. But few people read novels without giving some thought to the moral implications of the attitudes and actions portrayed therein.
This is not to insist, simplistically, that every story has an obvious ``moral,'' but rather that novels do tend to evoke, in palpable detail, how it feels to have experiences and make choices.
Anita Brookner's fiction is located in the richly shaded territory where novels of conscience and novels of consciousness overlap. She is concerned with the morality of making choices and with the psychology and aesthetics of how it feels to choose and live with the consequences.
In her ninth and in many ways most accomplished novel to date, she portrays the ``sentimental education'' of a sensitive and conscientious Englishman, Lewis Percy, who appears first as a 22-year-old student in Paris in 1959 and whose life is followed through the next two decades.
Lewis is a man who is even more emotionally susceptible than a typical Brookner heroine, and just as cloistered.
As a dedicated and brilliant scholar of the 19th-century novel and its heroes, he longs to lead a more heroic life himself, but he is sensible enough to realize why he cannot.
The only child of a devoted, self-effacing widow, Lewis feels comfortable in the company of women, but he is still not sure how to behave toward them or how to judge them accurately:
``Fatherless, always seeking a home among women, reading their books in an effort to love and understand them better, he nevertheless looked to them to love and understand him, and it occurred to him that this was true of most men. Men were banded together not simply as hunter gatherers but rather in sheer bafflement at the behaviour of women.''
His mother's advice on the subject, offered with her usual diffidence, is a charming example of the small comic jewels embedded in this novel:
```Remember, Lewis, ... Good women are better than bad women. Bad women are merely tiresome. Learn to appreciate goodness of heart. Learn to look beyond the outer covering. Would you like some of those crumpets for tea?'''
The trouble is, appearances can be deceptive, even when one thinks one is looking beneath the surface.
Lewis finds himself drawn to a shy, fragile girl who works in a library. He resolves to rescue her from her own timidity and from her domineering mother by offering to marry her, only to find that the delights of domesticity are not always what they seem to be:
``Down they sank, through all the pretences, through the eager assumption of otherness that each had sought in marriage, down to that original feeling of unreality, unfamiliarity, with which they had first embraced the world. With this, a recognition of strangeness between them, as if each were puzzled by the continued presence of the other. From time to time there was a coming together; afterwards they took leave of each other, like partners at the end of a dance.''
Brookner has a genius for describing mental and emotional states with such precision and insight that readers can recognize them instantly, whether or not they have actually known them before.
Her finely nuanced chronicle of her hero's inner life from young manhood to the brink of middle age demonstrates a subtle feeling for the flow of human time.
She is more in control of time here than in her previous novel, ``Latecomers,'' which examined the retrospective lives of two men in their 60s.
In ``Lewis Percy,'' Brookner has been more careful. She maintains consistency with the outward events of the decades in question and paces her narrative to reflect the ebb and flow of emotions and experiences that continue to mold Lewis. He fears he is sinking into lassitude while hungering for a kind of transformation.
The opportunity for a more vibrant life - or, at least, for a change - offers itself to Lewis in the guise of Emmy, an actress, who is the sister of Lewis's closest male friend, a tactful and sympathetic homosexual called Pen.
Poor Emmy constantly finds herself ``typecast'' in the classic role - and predicament - of the mistress:
```I wanted to be married,''' she insists. ```I don't look the part, so I never got the offers.'''
She continues poignantly, ```I imagined all the wives banding together, ready to turn me out of their houses. And making no effort to please. That disgusted me. Only mistresses make that sort of effort, and they get called all sorts of names for doing so.'''
Temptation-renunciation; good women-bad women; wives-mistresses; security-adventure: The polarities that animate Brookner's novels are in place here too. But she also lets readers see around them - to reconsider them from a higher dimension that enables them to see beyond simplistic black and white.
As he moves toward a new maturity, Lewis Percy experiences a genuine, unexpected growth: a ``new vulnerability, quite unlike the old, the so familiar weakness. This new feeling was childlike, but without fear. He saw that while a certain amount of attack was needed to enjoy the world, this inwardness was required in order to make sense of it.''
So Lewis learns a heroism, different from that of 19th-century novels, but not entirely dissimilar in assuming the risk of vulnerability.
Brookner, like the great novelists of her tradition, once again demonstrates that fiction can provide insight into moral questions and can offer the kind of attention to the inner life that is hard to get from any other source.