Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Debut by Anita Brookner

One of the most unsettling feelings for an experienced reader is that insecure unsureness that strikes at the end of a highly-lauded novel that fall flat. Did you miss the point? Was the point ever there to begin with? It takes a lot of nerve to declare that a book doesn't work when it's entirely possible that you just didn't see it working.

Anita Brookner's first novel, 1981's The Debut, is problematic in exactly that way: the opening line declares that "Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature," but then the book spends the majority of its short length on Ruth Weiss's young adulthood. We don't even see her achieve her doctorate before the book ends, so the implication is that she was ruined very early and remained ruined in exactly the same way for the two decades that the book declines to dramatize for us.

This is probably explained by the fact that The Debut was that typical first-novel thing, a transmuted autobiography. Brookner's life was evidently much like she describes Dr. Weiss's for its first forty years -- hermetic, circumscribed, bounded by books and the monstrously needy egotists that were her parents, kept separate from the expected world of boyfriends and marriage and a family of her own. (Or even much of a life of her own.) But this reader doesn't see that Brookner makes a convincing case that literature ruined Dr. Weiss: I could argue for her mother, or her father, or both in tandem, equally well. But literature only got to her once she was already severely handicapped by those charming, horrible people.

The Debut itself is as hermetic as Dr. Weiss's life; it's set almost entirely within the Weiss household, and Brookner avoids making it clear when any of this takes place. Reading the book, I worked with the assumption that it was written about 1980, and thus Dr. Weiss was forty then and born about 1940. But Brookner herself was born in 1928, as I found out afterward. Either way, I looked in vain for any signposts from the outside world: I was looking for the hurlyburly of the London '60s and didn't find it, and even WWII makes no impression, even if Ruth's extended stay in Paris, if it matches a similar experience for Brookner, must have taken place in the late '40s. This is a novel about a family, not about the world they live in. That world only impinges slightly, in the characters that members of the family love or exploit or use as escape vehicles.

So: Ruth is raised as a child mostly by her paternal grandmother, who lives with her deeply-self-centered parents in a big posh apartment in London, whenever The Debut is set. But that grandmother dies when Ruth is young, and a live-in helper, Mrs. Cutler, insinuates herself into the family. Ruth is left to herself and her books much of the time: her father is an inheritance-supported  dilettante who owns, then sells a used-book shop and her mother is a deeply narcissistic minor actress whose career dies from lack of attention when Ruth is in her early teens. The two do nothing, care about nothing but themselves, and are interested in nothing: pure egoists of the worst, most useless kind. And they even get worse as the book goes on: her mother, Helen, turns herself into an invalid out of lassitude and indifference, and her father George is only very slightly better in his needy affairs with women connected to his book shop. As I said above, it really does feel like Ruth is doomed from birth, as the only child of such soul-sucking creatures: she would have had to be much stronger and more fearless to have any chance to escape them.

But Ruth is not strong or fearless: she's quiet and mousy and devoted to books, like so many of us. And her faltering attempts to make her own life -- a school friend who urges her to live for herself, a would-be boyfriend as needy and narcissistic as her parents, and most importantly that year in Paris that she hoped would be a life -- are, in the end, crushed not by literature but by the demands of her grasping parents. She cannot escape them, and The Debut explains why.

But it does not show how they captured her, or draw out the pattern into her adult life. At the age of forty, in what is basically a very thin frame story, Dr. Weiss is still caring for her aged father and still living mostly in and for books -- teaching, writing, reading, thinking. She may have realized at that point that she was ruined -- leaving aside my quibble about what actually ruined her -- but Brookner does not move beyond that realization.

The irony of The Debut is deep: it is not the story of Dr. Weiss's debut. It is the prologue. The reader may believe that Dr. Weiss, at the age of forty, is finally ready to make a start of her own independent life -- as Brookner evidently did about the same age -- but that would be entirely a leap of faith, since we don't see any indication that Dr. Weiss is ready or inclined or able to do such a thing. So any reader is left with that question, weighing hope against experience -- and Brookner's novel will not tip its hand either way, unless the title itself is the deciding point.

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