Who really wants to read Anita Brookner's repellently accurate novels about the intricacies of loneliness? I'm sure this isn't a question that troubles the Booker Prize-winning author, who's managed to publish a book a year since 1981. But a critic confronting her 21st novel has to wonder if readers want to subject themselves to Brookner's searing insight. Indeed, "Making Things Better" is a sort of literary toothache, an all-absorbing pain that brings thoughts into unwelcome clarity.
At 73, Julius Hertz is a survivor. He escaped the Nazis as a child, but as an adult, he endured rather than fled his claustrophobic family, a decision - or lack of decision - that essentially cost him his life. Now he's finally outlived all the needy people who consumed him: His parents, whom he cared for even as they destroyed his marriage, are dead; his mentally ill brother, who stole all the family's attention and enthusiasm, has passed away; and his only employer has left him a comfortable retirement.
These were to be his golden years, but "at heart he was still a young man, a boy, even, to whom adulthood had come as a surprise and had never ceased to be a burden."
Freed from the problems of supporting himself or anyone else, he rises to meet each boring day "of his present existence in which nothing happened nor could be expected to happen." And so he spends his life getting the paper, eating a bowl of soup, and "hoping to catch life on the wing, and to make himself into a semblance of gentlemanly old age which others might find acceptable."
It's not an accident that Random House has released this novel about a nearly dead man in the nearly dead weeks of January. Earlier this year, it appeared in England under a slightly more bitter title - "The Next Big Thing" - where it received tepidly appreciative reviews from apologetic critics. Even assuming that older people read more than younger people, how many of the 65 million Americans over 65 will want to subject themselves to the alarmingly still story of Julius's final years? And how many of the rest of us have the courage to confront Brookner's warnings about the challenges of retirement? Especially in the wake of our relief that the perky models on "Friends" have agreed to give us one more year.
But the reasons to pay attention to Anita Brookner grow no less compelling. First, she's one of the great English stylists, an artist of such extraordinary precision that her novels serve as an antidote to the overwritten tomes from so many contemporary writers.
Second, in a literary marketplace excited by the bizarre, she remains committed to the mundane. No, she can't tell us about a hermaphrodite whose grandparents were siblings - for advice in that situation you must go to Jeffrey Eugenides's widely praised "Middlesex," - but if you're considering the somewhat more common predicament of getting older, Brookner is as wise a guide as you'll find.
For Julius, the challenge is not so much the burden of age but the burden of believing that he must always make things better for others. A lifetime of self-sacrifice and excessive obedience has yielded him none of the satisfaction promised by religious creeds.
He feels "as if he were one of those victims in the French Revolution who were tied to a dead body and thrown into the river to drown." Trapped between thoughts of grotesque self-pity or embarrassing himself in an adolescent search for new friends, Julius suffers a "delicate sadness," which his distracted young doctor hopes to correct with blood pressure medication.
A chorus of acquaintances offers advice: His cordial ex-wife admonishes him to cheer up, his lawyer suggests travel, his distractingly beautiful neighbor tells him to stop staring. But none of these courses can solve the problem of learning how to live with an abundance of unaccustomed freedom. "Keeping one's dignity," he admits, "is a lonely business. And how one longs to let it go."
Of course, there's something ruefully comic about a man who thinks of himself in a "posthumous condition," but what laughter Brookner inspires sounds like whistling past the graveyard. It's clear she has no intention of soothing our anxieties with some deathbed conversion to happiness.
Indeed, when an old cousin writes to Julius for assistance, presuming on his devotion which she cruelly brushed aside many decades before, he finally earns a degree of self-knowledge that's harrowingly profound: "His will had been at the service of others, to use as they thought fit, and in allowing this, in the fallacious enterprise of making things better, he had surrendered that part of himself that others could not and would not supply, and in so doing had forgone his right to respect."
This is bitter medicine for sure, but Brookner draws a portrait of despair so perfectly that it might serve a homeopathic purpose for anyone in or slipping toward "a pale simulacrum of life." Only a writer of her astonishing wit and insight could get us to swallow it.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail email@example.com.