Enlarging the Novel's 'Envelope'

NOVELS, traditionally, have been about the ways in which we are broadened by experience, whether they are adventure novels like "Robinson Crusoe" or "Two Years Before the Mast," coming-of-age novels like "Huckleberry Finn" or "The Catcher in the Rye," novels of courtship like "Jane Eyre" or "Pride and Prejudice," or novels of adultery like "Madame Bovary" and "Anna Karenina."The heroes and heroines of these stories, more often than not, are setting forth: growing up, leaving home, exploring life, finding a vocation, a mate, or at very least themselves. Whether it is because there are no more sailing ships, or the median age of today's population has risen, or because marriage no longer seems to guarantee a happy ending, the focus of contemporary fiction has been shifting to subjects that previously received scant attention. As life expectancy increases and a 35-year-old no longer is considered "middle-aged" (as she would have been in Jane Austen's time), novelists are tackling new territory. What happens after one grows up? After the West is won? After one "finds" oneself? What happens after happily-ever-after? Divorce, widowhood, retirement, the last child leaving home: What happens when there are no more rites of passage to negotiate? What if the passages through which one passed lead nowhere? What if one's life story wasn't really a story with shape or form but merely a flowing away of time? In her 10th novel, "Brief Lives," the accomplished British writer Anita Brookner turns her searching, intensely sensitive gaze on a woman who has reached a stage of life where she feels she has little to look forward to, yet where she cannot shake the feeling that there must be something still to hope for. Brookner previously treated the theme of advancing age in her eighth novel, "Latecomers," a mildly cheerful portrait of two older men, who were business partners, and their respective families. "Brief Lives" also focuses on the friendship between two couples - the husbands, again, are business associates - but this story is seen through the eyes of one of the wives. Fay, the narrator of this beautifully written novel, is a modest, self-effacing woman who continues to look a little younger than her years. Unlike many of Brookner's earlier heroines, who have a hard time finding a man, Fay married Owen, a handsome man who left her very comfortably off. Having been raised at a time when women usually gave up their jobs after marriage, Fay did not object to cutting short her moderately successful career as as singer of sweet, yet melancholy, songs like ll Be Loving You A lways." Marriage also entailed a close, enduring, but unsatisfying friendship with Owen's colleague Charlie and Charlie's glamorous, domineering, demanding wife, Julia, a former cabaret star. Many of Brookner's earlier novels are about the hopelessness of desire: about old-fashioned, romantic women whose longings are frustrated and whose hearts are broken. But in this book, she explores a subtler theme: the disappointment of fulfillment. For, although Julia is the spoiled, disdainful, difficult woman who has everyone else dancing attendance on her moods and whims, her life is by any standard even less fulfilled than Fay's. When Fay's husband dies in an accident, Julia's devoted Charlie has an affair with Fay. And later, when Charlie dies, it is Fay who attracts the less-than-romantic but still flattering attentions of Dr. Alan Carter, while Julia's once-loyal female retainers desert her to lead their own lives. Judged by the standard of external appearances, Fay has enjoyed a fulfilling, even enviable life. But beneath the surface, her satisfactions have been hollow. Her marriage to the handsome man of her dreams lacked passion and real intimacy. Her love affair proved equally disappointing. Looking back, Fay tries to understand her disappointment: "I had what few women of my advanced age could lay claim to: a man who did not bore me and who never made me suffer. For he never did make me suffer; my unhappiness, of which I was barely conscious, had to do with a certain disappointment. I had been a conventional wife, and now I was a conventional mistress...." Fay's problem has to do with the loss of her voice (symbolized in giving up her singing career) and lack of a sense of identity: "The grudge that women feel against their lovers," she remarks, "is really a desire to be taken seriously.... To make him listen to me was my overriding concern; what I had to say was somehow of lesser importance. Indeed, I hardly knew what it was." Although Fay envies younger women who are dedicated to their careers, we are also given reason to doubt that devotion to her singi ng would necessarily have brought lasting satisfaction either: The songs she sang are long out of fashion. Fay's uneasiness may be linked to the particular quirks of her personality, but Brookner also shows us the larger, more "existential" side to her discontent: Fay is a woman who longs to go on wishing and hoping, even when she knows that getting what she hopes for may be no more satisfying than continuing to long for it. If Brookner's heroine feels that life and hope are always somehow in the future, whatever one's age, the characters in Nina Berberova's stories are plagued by the sense that life is a parade that passed them by. The six long stories (for some reason billed as "novels" rather than "stories" or "novellas," although they average around 50 to 60 pages) in her collection "The Tattered Cloak" might well have borne the title Milan Kundera gave to one of his books, "Life Is Elsewhere." "She didn't know what life was, but she had a sense that this was not it." Tania, in "The Waiter and the Slut," grew up in St. Petersburg, stole her sister's fiance, married him, moved with him to Shanghai and, later, Europe, where she survived both her husband and the scandal connected with his shady financial dealings. She hangs on in Paris, wishing for security, more money, nicer clothes, or whatever it is that makes life worthwhile. She is not a very admirable character, but her frustration and bored om are poignant. So, too, Sasha, narrator of the title story: "I had been 13 and now I was almost 30. But sometimes it seemed to me that I was just the same as before...." Unlike Tania, Sasha is hard-working and provident. But her work and saving bear little fruit. Only the vivid memory of an evening back in Russia, when her sister's lover, a poet, told the story of a tattered cloak, continues to nourish Sasha's imagination. Stranger still, the hero of "The Black Pestilence" drifts westward across the globe, from St. Petersburg to Paris to New York to Chicago, unable to connect with anyone or anything, unable to overcome his desolation at his wife's death: "For years now nothing in the world has mattered to me, but people don't like that. They stop noticing you, and the mirrors stop reflecting you...." Born in St. Petersburg in 1901, Berberova now lives in the United States. Following the brief period of artistic freedom, she fled the Bolshevik repression for Paris, where she experienced the harsh, disillusioning emigrant life described in these stories. They are bleak, poetic, and occasionally a little unfocused. Berberova's most devastating portrait is the story of "Astashev in Paris": an opportunistic insurance salesman who preys on people's fears. Grim as her vision is, Berberova has a gift for dis tilling a stark beauty from its bitterness.

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