Look At Me by Anita Brookner

Triad Panther, 1985, 193 p

 Look At Me  cover

The novel starts with the sentences, “Once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten.” Narrator Frances Hinton works in a medical library. While she is laying out the progress of her life to the novel’s point of crisis she more than once alludes to something in her past she does not wish to remember (“the time of which I never speak”) but, annoyingly, we never actually find out what that was, though we can guess. She lives in the big, old house which belonged to her parents, with Nanny still in attendance, though Frances is completely independent. In her spare time she makes notes for a projected novel. Though not much should be made of this, Look At Me is not primarily a novel about someone writing a novel, it does give Brookner scope to make observations such as, “writing is the enemy of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory,” and, “For those who put pen to paper do so because they rarely trust their own voices.”

Through her work Frances falls into the orbit of Nick and Alix Fraser. Nick has an alluring aura, (“He struck one as a much-loved creature ….. The combination of his golden and indiscriminate affection and his hard if random gaze at the women around him made one feel that possibly, and potentially, he might favour one,”) and Alix has “come down in the world,” and scarcely forbears to let everyone know it. When discovering Frances’s parents are both dead they take to calling her Little Orphan Fanny – a description she dislikes.

Frances strikes up a friendship with mutual friend James, the details of which Alix is perennially asking Frances to divulge. This relationship is the core of the book. Frances tells us that, “The worst thing that a man can do to a woman is to make her feel unimportant.” James appears to do the opposite yet Frnces does not seem to appreciate that till it’s too late.

Apart from one aspect Brookner’s writing flows very smoothly and almost transparently though the whole is perhaps a trifle inconsequential. The problem is that use of “one” as an (im)personal pronoun. While seeking to illustrate generality, it in fact undermines it, serving instead to point to the book’s class imperviousness. That phrase quoted above, “possibly, and potentially, he might favour one,” is utterly jarring in its awkwardness. The affect is so detached as to be alien.

Pedant’s corner:- ambiance (I prefer the spelling ‘ambience’.)

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