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.