Latecomers by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner is well known for her exquisitely-crafted novels of loneliness and isolation, typically featuring unmarried women living quiet, unfulfilling lives while waiting for their married lovers to make fleeting appearances. Latecomers – Brookner’s eighth – is somewhat different from the norm as it features two male protagonists, Hartmann and Fibich, who come to England as Jewish refugees via the Kindertransport evacuation in WW2. It’s a remarkably moving book, right up there with Brooker’s best, and a certainty for my 2022 highlights.

Having met at a Surrey boarding school where they bonded through a shared history, Hartmann and Fibich enjoy a close friendship that lasts for life. In a sense, they are like brothers, sharing an adolescence, a successful business relationship and many aspects of their adult lives – even their flats are situated together in the same apartment block.

Although the two friends rarely think alike on any subject, their personalities complement one another perfectly – a genuine case of how opposites can attract. While Hartman is optimistic, content, and at ease with his life, Fibich is anxious, melancholy and self-effacing, a demeanour that prevents him from enjoying the fruits of their success. As such, Fibich’s life is marked by deep-rooted anxiety, a detachment or isolation from those around him. (Interestingly, one manifestation of these differences surfaces in the friends’ attitudes to food. Hartman adores fine cuisine, the sensual pleasures of different tastes and experiences, while Fibich finds it different to tolerate anything rich – plain, simple dishes are all he can manage, with the occasional rush of sugar to prevent a collapse.)

Both men are latecomers, having escaped Nazi Germany, an experience that has shaped their lives in remarkably different ways. So, while Hartmann lives in the moment, relishing life’s little pleasures in all their elegance and voluptuousness, Fibich is burdened by the weight of history. In short, Fibich yearns for insights into those early years in Berlin – only then might he be able to establish a true sense of his own identity and hopefully find some kind of peace.

Essentially, the book follows these two men over their adult lives, tracing this unwavering friendship through their business partnership, respective marriages and the growth of their children, all set against the backdrop of the spectre of war. 

The novel’s success rests almost entirely on the strength of its characterisation, an area where Brookner excels. The bond between the protagonists is beautifully portrayed – two very different men who coexist through an unspoken bond of mutual comfort and support, despite their individual habits and schools of thought. 

What sets Brookner apart from many other writers is her depth of characterisation. She invests such care and attention to detail in the creation of these figures, thereby ensuring they appear fully painted on the page. From the details of their present and past lives to their mannerisms, values and idiosyncrasies, everything she imparts adds another facet, building up each character, layer by layer.

Hartmann’s wife, Yvette – whom he first encounters as an ineffective typist in the firm – is particularly interesting in this respect. A glamorous, well-groomed woman with a voluptuous figure, Yvette shares Hartmann’s passion for life – another person who lives in the moment, even if her attitudes are somewhat out of step with the progressive world.

She liked a bustle about her, thought women should be provocative, demanding, narcissistic, as if anything less spelled failure, unpopularity, spinsterishness. She had no time for the new woman, with her bold sexist demands, thinking that such women forfeited too much and made fools of themselves into the bargain. She herself preferred the idea of winning concessions from men, and saw no shame in doing so… (p. 122)

I love the following descriptions of Yvette as a young woman in the first flushes of youth – partly for their vibrancy and chutzpah, and partly for Brookner’s insight into character. No wonder Hartmann is seduced!

When she had first started work, in the far off days when she was in her early twenties, she had always managed to give the impression that she was chairing the committee of a charity ball. She bestowed her activity, rather than letting it be harnessed to anyone else’s needs, or even to the needs of the occasion. (p. 16)

The working day was too short, it seemed to him [Hartmann], to contain the enigma and the fascination of Yvette. After remarkably little hesitation, and with a shrug at his own weakness, he married her. (p. 19)

Fibich, for his part, also finds a likeminded soulmate in the shape of Christine, a quiet, unassuming girl – a niece by marriage to Fibich’s Aunt Marie, whom Fibich stays with on his arrival from Germany. Like Fibich, Christine has been denied a childhood of her own, largely abandoned by an indifferent father to the care of his second wife, the grasping Mrs Hardy. Naturally, Fibich and Christine gravitate towards one another over time, encouraged by Hartmann, who is keen to see his friend settled. Nevertheless, despite Fibich’s luck in finding Christine, the past continues to gnaw away at him, fuelling a sense of guilt and unease – a kind of homesickness for somewhere unknown.

He knew that he could have married no one else. He knew that he loved her. Yet he also knew, in an unrealized way, that his true life lay elsewhere, that it remained undiscovered, that his task was to reclaim it, to repossess it, and that for as long as it remained hidden from him he would be a sleepwalker, doomed to pass through a life designed for him by others, with no place he recognized as home. (p. 128)

The couples’ respective children are fascinating too, not least because one might wonder if they were switched at birth.

Hartmann and Yvette’s daughter, Marianne, is a quiet, well-behaved girl who shares her mother’s beauty and sense of style but not her appetite for life. Personality-wise, she is perfectly suited to Fibich and Christine, who love her like their own. While Hartmann also adores Marianne, Yvette tries to encourage the girl to be more sociable in the hope of attracting a dashing suitor. In the end, Marianne’s marriage to Roger – a dependable but dull man from Hartmann’s firm – proves a disappointment to both parents, sucking all the life out of Marianne through a devotion to motherhood.

Meanwhile, Fibich and Christine must grapple with Toto, their troublesome, unruly son, who seems utterly alien to them – only Yvette can tame him in childhood, mostly through their shared desire to be admired and the centre of attention. In essence, Toto colludes with Yvette’s ‘need for an audience’, spurning Christine’s attempts to control him and Fibich’s unconditional love. By early adulthood, Toto’s personality seems set in stone – a dashing heartbreaker who favours superficial attachments over deeper involvement with a trail of broken hearts in his wake.

At twenty, at twenty-one, Toto saw the world as a vast medley of surfaces on which he might imprint his mark. (p. 92)

In truth, Fibich suspects Toto of despising his (Fibich’s) weaknesses, accentuated by the inherent anxieties that continue to hound him. If only Fibich could summon up a more visceral response, something that Toto could recognise and respond to. 

The best gift that he [Fibich] could have conferred on Toto would have been, oddly enough, an equal form of contempt, masking an amusement or superior experience. In that way respect could have grown. (p. 80)

As the novel nears its denouement, Fibich feels the pull of a return to Berlin, which he hopes will furnish some gaps in his understanding of those early years, helping to assuage a sense of survivor’s guilt. Hartmann, in his wisdom, is against the trip but will support his friend to the hilt in whatever he should discover there.

In summary, Latecomers is a superb novel – a beautiful, profoundly moving exploration of how we live (or try to come to terms) with past traumas. Brookner is adept at illustrating how some of us can successfully break free from the weight of history, choosing to live in the moment while savouring the time we have left. By contrast, the novel highlights just how challenging this can be in practice, especially for someone of Fibich’s demeanour, coloured by a memory that eventually resurfaces. Another triumph from Anita Brookner, whose insights into human nature never fail to impress me.

38 thoughts on “Latecomers by Anita Brookner

  1. MarinaSofia

    A Brookner U’m not familiar with but which again sounds like my thing. That sense of never quite belonging anywhere, of what might have beens, never quite able to escape the weight of history… all subjects I enjoy. You do know how to tempt me, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think this might suit you better than some of her others, partly because of the migration aspect and partly because the novel is relatively compassionate in terms of tone. The bond between these two men is so beautifully drawn – she manages to convey the shared understanding and mutual support without a hint of sentimentality.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Cool. I appreciate her more now as well. It’s probably easier to relate to her characters once you’ve got some experience of adult life under your belt…

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s right. Quite a lot of the books I read were first published in the 20th century, so my annual reading highlights will include several ‘backlist’ books.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think what’s particularly interesting about this one is the focus on two (quite different) male characters. She seems to be able to write men just as well as women, which is quite a skill. Her understanding of human nature (among the middle classes, at least) is so finely tuned.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      As I was just saying to Cathy, I think what’s interesting about this one is the focus on not one but two brilliantly-drawn male protagonists, each with their own characteristics and outlook on life. It shows her range a writer – she can do much more than the ‘classic Brookner heroine’ and ageing Mitteleuropean relatives that populate many of her earlier novels.

      Reply
  2. whisperinggums

    I love Anita Brookner, though I don’t think I’ve read her since I started blogging. Interesting, as you say, that this one has two male protagonists. There have been men in the novels I’ve read, but I think all have had a female as the main character. My reading group just did Julian Barnes’s Elizabeth Finch which is part homage to Brookner I think.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’ve been thinking about the men in the other (earlier) Brookners I’ve read to date, and they’ve all been supporting players rather than the main focus of the book. Some have been lovers, others brothers or ageing relatives, and while they’ve always felt true to life and interesting to observe, this is the first Brookner I’ve read with a man (two men, in fact!) centre stage.
      Your Elizabeth Finch review is in my blog reader, so I must take a look to see how it compares!

      Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    This sounds excellent, such complex characterisation. I’m just starting to get back to Brookner, feeling this is the right time for me to read her. That quote ‘She bestowed her activity…’ is just wonderful!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s an insightful quote, isn’t it? Between that description of Yvette bestowing her activity on others and always giving the impression that she’s chairing a Charity Ball committee, the reader has ‘got’ her demeanour fixed in their mind. Just brilliant! I’ll be so interested to hear what you think of Brookner whenever you get a chance to pick her up again.

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    A beautiful review. This was one of my favourite books by Anita Brookner. A long time since I read it, so time to revisit. I liked the few of her books with male protagonists perhaps slightly more than the usual books with lonely women. Lewis Percy was another, published not long after this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much, Gert. I’m really pleased you enjoyed my review, especially as this is one of your favourite Brookners. Lewis Percy sounds excellent – I’ve just read the blurb, which describes him as “a haunter of libraries”, so that’s right up my street! In the meantime, I’d be fascinated to hear how you get on if you do decide to revisit Latecomers. It feels nuanced enough to stand up to another read.

      Reply
  5. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    I very much enjoyed the review, which made me rush to the bookcase and almost take out my copy of Latecomers! Back in the day, I went through a lot of Anita Brookner, including this one. I must admit that it wasn’t one of my favorites — no detriment to the work. At that time, I was very much focused on Brookner’s portrayal of women and tended to glide over the works where she departed a bit from the usual. I think now I might have a very different reaction.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s really interesting to hear! I’m sure our responses to various books are influenced by our mood and frame of mind at the time. So if a reader’s going through a phase of focusing on female protagonists or pre-disposed to that kind of story, I can see why how this might not land as well as Brookner’s other novels. As you say, maybe you’d have a different response now – do let me know if you ever decide to go back to it!

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    Fascinating review Jacqui, not a Brookner I know, but it looks really intriguing. Especially seeing a strong male friendship and the relationships between the generations with the deeply perceptive characterizations Brookner brings to her work.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth Fibich and Christine had produced a child like Toto (something that Fibich struggles with himself at various points). He really is quite unlike either of his parents. If only they’d ended up with a placid girl like Marianne, life might have been somewhat easier for them…

      Reply
  7. Dan Friedman

    Yours is an excellent review of one of Brookner’s finest. I’ll be interested in your thoughts on her Dolly (also titled Family Affair), another exceptional and surprising Brookner.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! That’s very kind of you to say, and I’m glad to hear you rate it very highly too. I found it very involving – and possibly a little more compassionate / humane than some of her others, although they’re all exquisitely observed.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      I just checked where Dolly / A Family Romance sits in Brookner’s bibliography (as I’m trying read them in order), and it’s right in the middle of the list. Hopefully I’ll be able to get to it over the next couple of years, as long as I stay on track!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d heard it being cited as a favourite by a couple of Brookner fans, so I knew it would be good. Maybe it’s not as well-known (or widely read?) as some of her others because of the focus on men? She’s known for her lonely, unfulfilled women, so this is somewhat atypical in her oeuvre. Really excellent, though – it’s definitely one of my favourites, too.

      Reply
  8. heavenali

    This really does sound excellent, vintage Brookner and one of hers I haven’t read. I may have a copy but can’t remember. I love the kindertransport angle and that Brookner explores how this shapes her characters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      As you say, the focus is intriguing because another writer might have chosen to concentrate on the evacuation itself, the immediate aftermath, the children’s youth etc. but Brookner doesn’t delve into any of that (one or two instances aside). She’s more interested in how this pivotal childhood experience has shaped each of her protagonists as adult. So we get a sense of how Hartmann has used it to value life in the present (i.e. the past is over, they got through it, we live in the moment etc.) while Fibich can’t escape it (turning things over in his mind, feeling guilty for having survived, expecting the worst to happen etc.). It’s really well done while still maintaining an air of mystery about those wartime experiences.

      Reply
  9. Liz Dexter

    I love this one, one of the last I read before the characters got too aged and I got too old to cope with them! It’s also the reason I keep trying to get my best friend to look at mansion blocks in Swiss Cottage and the like for her new home, so many Brookner novels set in those dim, heavily curtained but large flats!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Yes, this seems like one of her best novels, and the focus on male protagonists gives it a different ‘feel’ to the others I’ve read so far. I loved all the contrasts between the two men, and the sense that their children might have fared better had they swapped them around!

      Reply
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