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.