ANITA Brookner is the author of three exceptionally good novels, remarkable both for the distinctiveness of their visions and for the sheer artistry of portrayal. Formerly Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge University, she now teaches art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. .
All three works - ''The Debut'' (called ''A Start in Life'' in Britain), ''Look at Me,'' and her latest effort, ''Providence'' - are about women who feel themselves undergoing a metamorphosis. But their liminal, almost dreamlike, hypersensitive states of waiting watchfulness will be arrested by unforeseen - if not unforeseeable - twists of fate. Yet, despite powerful similarities of theme and style, each of these novels is as intricately conceived and as delicately individual as a snowflake.
At first glance, Ms. Brookner appears to be writing feminist fables, cautionary tales that illustrate the problems of women whom conditioning has made too passive.
In ''The Debut,'' Ruth Weiss waits for a dilatory young man who does not really care for her, while the dinner she has prepared is slowly done to death in the oven as hours go by. Frances Hinton, the shy librarian who narrates ''Look at Me,'' places her hopes for changing her life not in herself but in others - some seemingly glamorous friends she has acquired. And Kitty Maule of ''Providence,'' Brookner's latest, conceives of her future and her very identity as dependent upon a man.
In each case, the heroine will fall from a state of romantic illusion into one of bitterly comic disillusion. Yet these stories present more than object lessons in women's independence. There is more in their tone than the obvious ironies of a clever author recording with deadpan accuracy the follies of her hapless heroines.
Brookner's central characters are always disappointed, it would seem, not merely because their author wishes to show what perils lie in wait for the too-trusting, but because she is concerned with exploring the many-layered structure of the mind trying to apprehend reality, the complex relationship between expectation and disappointment, desire, and frustration.
In ''Providence,'' Kitty Maule, for all her innocence, is possessed of considerable acumen. Yet she does not see her lover, Maurice, for the duplicitous cad he is. ''Quite simply,'' Kitty eventually concludes, in a statement so dry as to take on an almost unbearable poignancy, ''I lacked the information.'' More accurately, Kitty deliberately preferred to overlook the negative signals and concentrate on the positive ones. Subjectivity, consciousness itself, surrounds Kitty like a vast crystal ball. She sees up and outward from its depths, and even manages at times to stand at its circumference from which she can see herself as others see her.
Brookner is so adept at evoking the consciousness of her heroines that we may wonder whether or not she actually shares their mixture of naivete and sophistication. So successfully, in fact, does Brookner capture that state of mind which would excuse faults, soften harshness, take all blame on itself, that at times the foreknowing consciousness of the author and the self-deluding consciousness of her characters seem to merge, making it hard to know the dancer from the dance. While other British novelists, like Malcolm Bradbury and A. N. Wilson, are indubitably more knowing than their characters, Anita Brookner leaves us wondering whether she in fact knows more or less than her writing reveals.
This effect may be intentional; it is certainly spellbinding. Judging from her record thus far, we can be confident of this much: that Brookner's next novel will puzzle, delight, and enchant us anew.