An Uncommon Friendship Tied With a Twist

LATECOMERS by Anita Brookner, New York: Pantheon Books, 248 pp. $16.95

AT last friendship, dear old-fashioned friendship, has found a modern-day champion. Anita Brookner, the prize-winning British writer, describes the affectionate comradeship between two successful businessmen, a bond that grows stronger and stronger over the years and includes their wives and children.

Hartmann and Fibich (no first names are given) met and got to know and need each other when they were still young boys attending the same Spartan boarding school. Refugees, they had been sent to England on their own to escape the Nazis. Neither boy ever saw his parents again - they had been left behind to face Hitler's terrors.

Ah, you say, common experience shaped their attitudes and nurtured their friendship! Quite the contrary. Never assume anything with this writer. Again and again in this book Brookner seems to be suggesting the folly of expecting anyone to fit a pattern. Even the friends' children seem to have been born to the wrong set of parents.

But the reader doesn't find any of this unlikely. Brookner has built up her characters so meticulously, brush upon brush stroke, that they have a life of their own.

So of course the friends' reactions to their dismal past are diametrically opposed. Hartmann is determined to screen out the unpleasant, to relish every small pleasure, to remind himself, ``Look, we have come through.''

But poor Fibich is still so laden with anxiety, so tormented with guilt over the unknown fate of his parents, that it is as if ``he dared not trust the sun which reappeared at his window.''

There is no strong narrative running through ``Latecomers.'' We are given the characters and allowed to watch them develop, inexorably shaped by their marriages, birth of their children, the specter of the past, and their attitudes.

Moments of sweetness are not lacking: Fibich slips unnoticed into the Hartmanns' apartment and finds the elderly couple ``dancing, with serious expressions, and very gracefully too, he had to admit, although neither of them was as slim as they once had been.... Fibich was charmed, and, forgetting his errand, sat down to watch. He saw his friend as a brilliant success, brilliant as he himself had never been, and counted himself fortunate to have known him. He thought of the time they had spent together, time that encompassed two lives. He had been a good man, thought Fibich. Such considerations were important these days.''

But it must be said that at times Fibich's more usual characteristic overshadows this novel, for Brookner is expert at creating bleakness. All the same, it is her portrayal of loyal affection that makes her book so unusual and this reviewer so appreciative

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