Family and Friends by Anita Brookner

The Tennessean, February 24, 1985, page 10-D

FAMILY AND FRIENDS. By Anita Brookner. Pantheon. $13.95.

Brookner Novel a Masterpiece
Plot Structured Around Image of Photo Album

Reviewed by JOHN BETHUNE

A beautiful and moving work, Family and Friends is Anita Brookner’s fifth novel since the British art historian began writing fiction during a dull summer in 1980. Her previous book, Hotel du Lac, a critical and commercial success, was a good novel; Family and Friends may prove to be a masterpiece.

Brookner begins Family and Friends by describing a wedding photograph; through the rest of the novel she describes succeeding photographs, taken over several decades, that document the slow decline of a young widow’s family.

In structuring this elegiac family chronicle as a kind of family album in prose, Brookner affirms Susan Sontag’s observation that the photo album is a memorial to the 20th-century family, which can be preserved intact no other way.

Taking her cue from the illusory timelessness of photographs, Brookner writes of the separate fates of the family members in a present tense that moves steadily but almost imperceptibly forward.

This is a convincing and disturbing technique for rendering our experience of time, and a large part of the subtle power of this book. Only in the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse have I encountered a rendering of time more artfully compressed and emotionally wrenching.

Sofka Dorn, an “unbending matriarch,” has dedicated her existence to her children, whom she watches over with a fierce possessiveness. Frederick, the eldest, is a voluptuary playboy with little taste for the family business; Alfred, the youngest, has no greater interest in commerce, but suffers through preparations for a business career despite his sensitive and bookish nature.

Mimi and Betty, “devoted sisters, devoted daughters,” innocent and beautiful, are transparently doomed to unhappiness.

Almost before we know it, but with an inevitable logic, Betty, a rebel, has betrayed her older sister and alienated herself from the family. As he indulges his sybaritic tastes, Frederick’s appearance just as inevitably erodes from that of a dashing orchestra conductor to something resembling “the leader of a trio in some provincial coffee-house.”

Mimi and Alfred, more responsive to their mother’s wishes and even less happy, stay at home at the cost of their dreams.

In coarser fiction, Alfred’s predicament would be grounds for an ax murder or two, but Brookner presents it with cool and sympathetic restraint. He has been “entered on a long course of character training by those who know better than he does . . . . His character, in fact, will be a burden to him rather than an asset. But that is the way with good characters.”

Alfred knows from books that “virtue is its own reward,” but “this seems to him rather hard, for by the same token vice is also its own reward.”
In the end, Alfred settles not for vice or violence but for an extended flirtation with a married woman and a futile search for a Trollopian country home.

Like Alfred, Mimi remains faithful to her mother and desperately but discreetly unhappy. She is the most poignant of the characters in this novel, absurd yet admirable in her nostalgic dedication to a romantic love that never blossomed.

Though Betty deserts her family and ends up in a rather sketchily portrayed Beverly Hills, she finds no more satisfaction in life than her sister Mimi.

Only Frederick, willing to settle for the small pleasures of life as a slightly fatuous hotel manager on the Italian Riviera, achieves a measure of happiness.

Brookner’s handling of her frustrated and repressed characters, particularly Alfred and Mimi, is one of the chief pleasures of this novel. Another is her sensuously elegant prose.

Especially memorable are her descriptions of Mimi wandering heartsick through Paris, waiting for a lover who never appears, and of Frederick feeding his “ever greedy sensorium” with daily walks through the splendid streets of Nice.

Here, as in Hotel du Lac, Brookner’s main concern is with what she has elsewhere called the “messy business” of love. It is the commonest of topics, one that popular songs and romantic novels have debased even below the level of the banal. Brookner’s skill and sympathy make it matter again.

Family and Friends is, at 180 pages, a deceptively small book and, superficially, a slight story. It is in fact a remarkably ambitious novel. Until recently, the nuclear family has been the central institution of modern social life. Its effects have been profound and, for many, profoundly unsettling. The great achievement of Family and Friends is that it confronts those effects directly, with neither rancor nor sentimentality.

Brookner’s distinctive genius lies in her ability to make art out of the unpromising fabric of dull and uneventful lives without romanticizing or condemning them. Family and Friends affirms at once the aching beauty and miserable inadequacy of human life.

John Bethune is a Sewanee, Tenn., free-lance writer.