Alone, all alone with Anita Brookner ... again

UNDUE INFLUENCE By Anita Brookner Random House 231 pp., $24

One of Henry James's plays contains a direction for the actor to enter as though he has just finished tea.

Anita Brookner may be the only person alive who could describe such an entrance. (This may be why we've heard of James's novels, but not his plays.) In fact, when one of Brookner's characters enters a scene, we might even be able to detect the brand of tea. Not that she's wordy or overly descriptive. Not at all. But she writes with such fine calibration that she can detect the seismic shifts that barely rumble the surface of her lonely characters' lives.

"Undue Influence" is the story of Claire Pitt, a young Londoner left alone by the death of her elderly mother. She gets a job at a used bookstore where she meets a young man and has a brief affair that leaves her no happier than it found her. This is not the plot of a garden so much as a terrarium. Brookner has placed every blade and stone with such precision that it's oddly captivating.

I confess to approaching her short novels with a certain degree of hesitation. As a reader, it means being in the company of desperately unhappy people, whose understanding of their unhappiness is chillingly accurate.

It's not clear if witnessing their despair is cathartic or merely depressing. But her novels are models of psychological observation that remind us of the myriad glances, asides, and gestures that indicate so much we usually miss or dismiss.

Claire spent her adolescence in the stultifying house of her ailing stepfather and long-suffering mother, an experience that plunged her energies inward and made her determined to live an independent life among healthy people.

But when her mother finally dies, Claire finds herself at bay, "charged with the mournful consciousness of lost alternatives." Suspended between a rejection of her mother's life and a desire for the companionship it offered, she takes a job at a secondhand bookstore run by two elderly spinster sisters. "Most people do not realize that the shop is open for business," Claire notes, "since the door sticks so badly that it is almost impossible to gain admittance."

Claire has been consigned to the basement to organize the quaint essays of St. John Collier, the owners' saintly father, who wrote a series of nature articles and homilies in women's magazines during the '50s.

The work is routine and the salary is small, but the complacent tone of Collier's essays, his serene confidence, and contentedness offer a soothing escape from the anxieties of dating or the sting of loneliness.

"I felt as if someone should be looking after me," she thinks, "but had the sense to see that this attitude was dangerously unhealthy, even archaic."

On cue, in walks a good-looking young customer named Martin Gibson. "This tall fair stranger seemed so incongruous in our dusty basement," she observes, "as if he were visiting from another world where everyone was well dressed." Speculating that he might be material for an interesting affair, Claire strikes up a stilted conversation. But she soon finds herself stuck visiting Martin's ailing, melodramatic wife at their ornate apartment in some of the novel's most darkly comic moments.

Everywhere, Claire finds self-absorbed people who are insufficiently interested in her. "I was no romantic," she complains, "but part of me wanted the process to be effortless. Instead of which I had taken the only options I thought I had, and had considered myself secure against disappointment. The disagreeable element in all this was that I knew nothing would come of such manoeuvres, invigorating as they were. I returned every time to the status quo ante, whereas ... friends seemed to move quite easily into further stages of maturity, leaving me on the outer margin, waiting for my life to begin."

Witty lines are thrown out in this sea of despair, but they may not be enough to keep most readers afloat. Perhaps Brookner's fans are "fit but few," as Milton said of his audience, but even those of us who appreciate Brookner's flawless style and careful construction of characters are impatient for her to broaden her thematic range.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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