Anita Brookner is probably best known for novels like Hotel du Lac – those exquisitely-crafted stories of loneliness and isolation, typically featuring unmarried women living quiet, unfulfilled lives while waiting for their unobtainable lovers to make fleeting appearances. However, just like its predecessor, the superb Latecomers, Lewis Percy differs from Brookner’s earlier novels in that it features a male protagonist – in this instance, the eponymous Lewis Percy. Nevertheless, it is another triumph, demonstrating that Brookner is just as adept at mining the inner lives of her male characters as she is at dissecting their female counterparts. I loved this novel’s closeted, claustrophobic mood and hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.
The novel follows Lewis from his student days in Paris in 1959 to his late thirties, some sixteen years later, by which point he remains a man out of his times – bookish, old-fashioned and emotionally befuddled.
In Paris, Lewis spends his days at the Bibliothèque Nationale, writing his thesis on the concept of heroism in the 19th-century novel, returning to his lodgings at night, where he enjoys the convivial company of his landlady, Mme Doche, and her coterie of female boarders. Having been raised in England by his widowed mother, Lewis relishes this opportunity to study other women at close quarters, treating them with a blend of curiosity, respect and ‘innocent enquiry’.
Shortly after his return to London, Lewis’ mother dies, leaving him feeling lost and cast adrift. On the advice of his cousin Andrew, Lewis hires a charlady, Mrs Joliffe, to manage the house, relieving him of the domestic duties for which he is so poorly equipped. Nevertheless, it’s a solitary life, and Lewis misses the female companionship of his Paris days, someone to alleviate the loneliness of the long evenings at home.
One day, while Lewis is returning some books to the local library, he encounters Tissy, a shy, timid assistant who remembers his mother. While Lewis is not romantically attracted to the agoraphobic Tissy, he begins to think of her as a potential wife, a suitable companion who might blossom under his protection. If nothing else, it would be nice to have a female presence around his home again – someone to anticipate his return in the evenings and alleviate his loneliness.
Nevertheless, walking home with the books under his arm, it was Miss Harper, Tissy, whose image stayed in his mind, tiny, chill, eternally distant, like something seen through the wrong end of a telescope. He had thought her quite plain.
She might be somebody he could marry, he thought, quailing at the prospect of his mother’s empty house. The thought, though idle, was sudden yet not surprising. And then he could cure her, and she would be able to go out again. Or else she could stay indoors, waiting for him to come home. It would be nice to be expected again. (p. 53)
Contrary to expectations, Tissy proves herself to be a competent manager of the household, unearthing various treasures that Lewis’ mother had previously packed away. Nevertheless, she remains emotionally distanced from Lewis, despite her quiet sense of authority around the home.
He had acquired, simultaneously, an excellent wife, whose competence he could only value and admire, and a sort of artefact, which, like the automata in The Tales of Hoffmann, came to life when he was not there. For it seemed impossible to believe that he knew all there was to know of her, and that what he did know was enough to last him for the rest of his life. (p. 98)
In short, Lewis and Tissy remain estranged within their marriage – together but alone. From time to time, they come together briefly, only to separate again quickly, ‘like partners at the end of a dance’.
Her earlier timidity had hardened into a kind of refusal to engage which was in fact a sign of strength rather than weakness. Her silences were loaded with criticism, yet they were maintained as silences, and they became more eloquent than the words they suppressed. There was no open disagreement between them. Their routines were so established that they moved with an automatic accord through their daily lives. Sometimes it seems to Lewis that their value to each other was as a foil for what was essentially an individual experience of solitude, which, borne alone, might strike either one of them down with intolerable perplexity: with the other there neither could feel totally abandoned. (p. 109)
At heart, Lewis is not cut out for the complexities of adult life, something that Brookner illustrates with great subtlety and precision. He slips into marriage with Tissy, hoping to find solace in her companionship, but his inability to deal with the emotional aspects of the relationship leaves him isolated and adrift. It’s an inert, airless marriage, characterised by long silences and Tissy’s unspoken disapproval. She finds fault with certain aspects of her husband’s behaviour, especially around the voluptuous Emmy, whom Lewis meets through his friend, Pen.
While very little happens in terms of plot, the breakdown of the Percys’ marriage is beautifully portrayed, with Tissy returning to stay with her mother when she suspects Lewis of having an affair. Ironically though, Lewis is too naïve to embark upon a dalliance with Emmy, even when she presents herself to him on a plate, such is his confusion and inexperience in matters of the heart.
As ever with Brookner, the writing is superb, laying bare her characters’ flaws and foibles in precise, carefully-crafted prose. The secondary characters are excellent too, from the gaunt, weather-beaten charlady, Mrs Joliffe, to Tissy’s vampish, judgemental mother, Thea.
The cleanliness of the beautiful evening died on his skin as he shut the front door behind him and sniffed the familiar aroma of his mother-in-law, the Messalina of the suburbs: cigarettes mingled with the slightly stale Vol de Nuit. (p. 105)
There is a touch of Elizabeth Bowen about this novel, as though the story could be playing out in the 1920s or ‘30s when certain emotions were hidden or repressed. Nevertheless, it rings totally true, a suitable companion piece to Brookner’s earlier studies of quiet, unremarkable women living small, unfulfilling lives marked by disappointments. Unusually for Brookner, the book ends on an optimistic note with the promise of new beginnings for Lewis, a form of release from the constraints of his failed marriage.
This is another excellent novel from one of my favourite authors; her ability to dissect complex, emotionally stilted lives never fails to disappoint.
This hardback edition of Lewis Percy was published by Jonathan Cape, but the paperback is currently in print with Penguin Books; personal copy.
I’d never heard of this novel by Anita Brookner: it sounds remarkably well-observed and sad. I was thinking that Tessa Hadley seems to have inherited the mantle of AB, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen, wouldn’t you say?
Yes, I think she’s probably the closest in terms of style, themes and literary skills. Hadley also has that ability to switch between novels and short stories with consummate ease, just like Taylor and Bowen.
Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
Sounds very poignant and in the Bowen and Pym vein!
Absolutely. She captures the sadness of these lives so well.
Like Marina, this is not a novel I had heard of. I’ve still not read Brookner but I have a couple of her novels and really must give her a try soon.
Which of her novels do you have, Grant? I’d be tempted to recommend you start with Look at Me, if that’s one of the books you have to hand.
Yes, I’m sure that’s one I have – good to know that’s a reasonable place to start!
Great. You’re all set!
Yes, an accurate review Jacqui. Thank you. Lewis’s lost opportunities in both life (missed academic career), and relationships – as you say Emmy (but also the share house in Paris had potential) – are frustrating but quite plausible. These things do happen to people and it is important for fiction to portray it.
PS. Janet Frame is not on your list. Please consider ‘Faces in the Water’.
Thanks, Paul. I’m glad my review of this novel resonated with you. And thanks for recommending Janet Frame. She’s been on my radar for a while, largely through An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion’s film about her life. I’ll try to seek her out at some point!
Great review as always, Jacqui. This is a Brookner I’d not heard of it, and it sounds fascinating. Good to know she can get under the skin of a male character as well as she does with the female ones; and even offers a slightly positive ending!!
Thanks, Karen. Yes, I think it helps to show that there’s much more to Brookner than sad spinsters in cardigans (if you get my drift)! She’s also very good with older Mittel-European characters, although they’re less prominent here than in some of her earlier novels. And the denouement is positively optimistic compared to other Brookners I’ve read, which certainly makes a change!
Do you think you’ll carry on reading her after A Start in Life, which I think you read last year?
Yes, I do intend to carry on with Brookner – it’s just that so many other books keep getting in the way! But every time her name is mentioned I get a reminder so I really must bump the next book up the pile!!!
I’m curious to see how you get on… :)
I read this years ago and you have just reminded me why I liked it so much. I think it is one of two books by Anita Brookner with male protagonists? Definitely will be re reading very soon.
Yes, the two I mentioned in my intro (Lewis Percy and Latecomers) are the only ones I’m aware of, although there may be others amongst her later novels. I’m trying to read her in order, so it’ll be Brief Lives next. Have you read that one?
Yes An interesting look at female friendship. Or as I remember, the kind of friendship that can arise between women who don’t really like each other.
Sounds very on-brand for Brookner!
Ooh, another Brookner to hunt for. I’d never heard of this, now I’m on a quest.
Excellent! I hope you find it, Lisa.
I haven’t read any Brookner since Hotel du Lac in the ’80’s, but this sounds great – you had me at Paris in 1959 actually!
Lovely! It’s well worth seeking out, especially if you haven’t read her for some time. The Paris section at the beginning is quite brief but beautifully evoked.
I remember this one quite well, as it’s one of the Brookner novels with a male protagonist. Such a well drawn, sad character and overall a poignant novel. I haven’t read a Brookner for ages. She really is masterly at portraying these small, old-fashioned, disappointing lives.
I’m enjoying reading her in order, I must admit, and a novel once every six months or so feels just about right. As you say, the focus on a male protagonist differentiates it from much of Brookner’s other work, but the tone and overall ‘feel’ are very much in line with her female-centric novels. (I kept having to remind myself that we were in the 1960s here as it could have easily been the 1930s!)
Ah! But Anita Brookner is excellent isn’t she? I listened to an audio book of Stranger and that was excellent too. She is so perceptive. Lovely review.
Yes, she’s remarkably perceptive. I mean, you get Lewis’ mother-in-law in an instant, don’t you? Just from that quote alone!
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I don’t think I ever read this one as I reached a point in Brookner where I found myself catching up with the age of the characters and feeling they were a bit too true and depressing! But maybe I can try to fill in the gaps now as I really loved her earliest ones.
Yes, I remember you saying this before. She certainly speaks to me differently and more clearly now than she ever did when I was in my twenties. If you do want to try her again, I would strongly recommend that you consider Latecomers (if you haven’t read it already). It’s quite different from her other books – still sad, in it’s own way, but with some hopeful elements too. I think you’d find it less depressing than some of her ‘lonely women in cardigans’ novels!
Completely agree with you about Latecomers, Jacqui! I found the second half of it to be very insightful, compassionate, and touching. Really liked and was impressed by that book.
It’s really moving, isn’t it? I’m so glad you rate it so highly too. (I recall Andy Miller raving about Latecomers during one of his ‘and what have you been reading this week’ updates at the beginning of the Backlisted podcasts – bang on with his recommendations once again!)
Apparently I haven’t read that one so will look out for it. It’s odd as I am actually married at least whereas when I read her earlier ones I was convinced I would be alone in my flat in London in my cardigans, boiling a bit of fish for supper, forever!
Haha…I can relate to that feeling, for sure!