Falling Slowlyby Anita Brookner, Eleanor Bron
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In Falling Slowly, Anita Brookner brilliantly evokes the origins, nature, and consequences of human isolation. As middle age settles upon the Sharpe sisters, regret over chances not taken casts a shadow over their contented existence. Beatrice, a talented if uninspired pianist, gives up performing, a decision motivated by stiffening joints and the sudden realization that her art has never brought her someone to love. Miriam, usually calm and lucid, slides headlong into an affair with a charming, handsomeand very marriedman. And as each woman awakens to the urgency of her loneliness, illness threatens to sever them both from the one happiness they have grown to count on: each other. Painfully wise, the Sharpe sisters embody the conflicting yearnings Jane Austen delineated in Sense and Sensibility.
The New York Times Book Review
Few contemporary writers are as fascinated as Brookner by the complex relations of siblings, and none can match her vigor or originality in excavating family histories. The faded gentility of Miriam and Beatrice's family life, and the unquestioned assumption of their parents that a woman can be fulfilled only by marriage (an assumption the sisters both resist and embrace), are artfully conveyed. The ways in which the sisters both need and rebuff one another are also explored with economy and precision. Brookner finds a perfect symbol of the relationship in Miriam's sudden marriage to a bland scientist: the marriage both allows her to distance herself from her increasingly dependent sister, and permits her to maintain her special ties to Beatrice....Those familiar with Brookner's work will find this a particularly spare and sharp variation. Those unfamiliar with it may find the book excessively bleak andsomewhat deterministic.
"If Henry James were around, the only writer he'd be reading with complete approval would be Anita Brookner." The New York Times Book Review
"Few contemporary novelists can match Ms. Brookner's consistently high level of achievement." The Wall Street Journal
"Anita Brookner works a spell on the reader; being under it is both an education and a delight." The Washington Post Book World
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The London Library was now the refuge to which she repaired on most weekday mornings, although she could more easily have worked at home, where there were few distractions. But home, real home, as opposed to some fictitious home which she would know the minute she found it, was unwelcome, especially in the daytime, when she could imagine she heard the ghost of Beatrice's piano, against which she had turned a deaf ear in real life. But Beatrice had been dead for some months, and she herself was no longer a girl resigned to shouldering unwanted family burdens but to all intents and purposes a mature woman, with work to keep her occupied, and in reasonable health, reasonable beyond all expectations. If life were dull, as she had never expected it to be, she had always been stoical in the face of dullness, as if once a certain term of trial were over she would emerge a lighter, more interesting being, able to take on the world, all her fears gone. Instead she had become a connoisseur of various forms of dullness, one age succeeding another as if in some hierarchically ordered progression. Some stages were preferable to others. She had come to appreciate, even to embrace, certain years, the years spent in Beatrice's company, towards the end of her life, before her strange but so logical eclipse had put an end to their companionship, to their misunderstanding, to the strange dread that she felt even now, and would continue to feel, she supposed, for as long as memory were active. As the final repository of her sister's illness she could look back almost with nostalgia to their terminal closeness, which nothing had been allowed to disturb.
How acceptable that earlier monotony nowseemed! Those careful Sunday mornings, those sedate walks round the silent streets, noting the gradual return of buds to bushes, obediently suppressing a sigh as the buds emerged so slowly, as the grey clouds sifted in the cold wind of what was still only February! The very absence of weekday noise and agitation was a balm, or was it an additional sedative? Only now did she measure the peace of that prospect. But to measure was to evaluate, to compare. Nothing prevented her from taking such a walk, on just such a Sunday, but now the very idea was hollow, leached of meaning, as everything else seemed to be. A death had occurred, and although she had dealt with it competently, with remarkably little emotion, her life and perceptions had been altered by it, as if oxygen had been withdrawn from the atmosphere, so that her steps were now as cautious as if she herself were in decline. Yet if she felt anything it was ennui, a delirium of ennui, the grey sky and the cold wind obliterating every impulse she might have felt to seek comfort in another climate, another landscape. She was free to leave but felt condemned to stay.
The monotony of her current situation was of a different order, had something shameful about it, useless; without attachments she saw her desire to please as unmotivated, unsolicited. And although this might at a pinch be counted a tribute to some residual innocence, as if she were still an eager girl in quest of friends, she knew that this was not the case. Age had invested her with new emotions--resentment, fear, sorrow--and she was shocked by her consistently ruminative mood, not previously encountered, regretting all the time now the breathless expectations of youth, which her continuance in the world had somehow put to shame. Even the brief willed peace of her former life, or that part of it that she could invoke, as if she were to swallow a sleeping pill, had vanished, to be replaced by what she imagined was a permanent scowl, though when she looked in the glass she saw only bewilderment. She had determined, so many years ago, to be good, but had somehow ended up compromised. Praised on all sides for her devotion, she felt impatience. By contrast those blameless Sunday walks were a guarantee of blamelessness. With their disappearance, her blamelessness was also mysteriously gone.
Yet she was the first to acknowledge that it had not been easy, that false equilibrium, though she almost missed the approving smiles of neighbours, even of strangers, as she accompanied her sister on their small shopping expeditions, their humble excursions. 'So devoted,' she had heard one woman remark to her companion, and had felt a preliminary spurt of horror. 'A devoted couple,' she used to hear said of her parents, yet she knew that their relationship was stormy, uneven, based on very real antagonism. Illness had united them at the end, and they had faced the world together, bringing forth sentimental tributes. And similar tributes had somehow become her due, as she had shortened her steps to accommodate Beatrice, whose poor health was known. Women admired them; men were if anything abruptly dismissive, sensing an oppressively sexless world of sacrifice and obligation. They had been aware of this, could not completely ignore it. But what was resignation in the one was something more complicated in the other. They had survived their history, and besides, they had no other choices.
Beatrice had been well named, a stately character, with a natural dignity, according to those whose knowledge of her was based on infrequent acquaintance, and it was true that she bore her increasing frailty with a habitual smile and shake of the head when that Greek chorus of well-wishers and commentators enquired. It was true that the stiffness in her fingers had put paid to a promising career as an accompanist, but the truth was not entirely served when this explanation was forthcoming. There had been an element of willed collapse in that renunciation, a condition endemic in the family background, and rampant in her own acceptance of the supporting role thus forced on her, the younger sister. Or had she chosen it out of fear of contention? She remembered only too well the contentions that had shadowed the years of growing up, or trying to grow up, her mother threatening illness, collapse, even death, if not humoured, her father all tearful resentment, hardly a man at all, or at least not a man as dreamed of by two wistful girls. And further back, even beyond this, there were memories of an embittered grandmother berating her daughter for marrying such a man, while the two girls ran up to their bedrooms and refused to come down, thus prolonging the dissatisfaction that was the very climate of their home. They had learned how to protect themselves, by tacit obedience, by tacit indulgence of their mother's moods, but despite some fairly successful dissembling they had never managed to feel indifferent to this disharmony. Only to each other could they confide their disappointment once they had knowledge of other families, picked up from schoolfriends, who were only infrequently invited to the house. On these occasions either the mother or the father, if he happened to be at home, but sometimes both, would comment on their own bad luck, although the house seemed prosperous enough, even if the visitors were not made entirely welcome. They were there as audience, while the girls, Beatrice and Miriam, suffered a discomfort they were too young to identify as moral. They longed for dignity and were not to find it.
Their respective escapes seemed to them miraculous, though each hankered for the closeness of the other. When Beatrice won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, the younger girl, Miriam, was allowed to go to university, on condition that she continue to live at home and keep her mother company. By this stage their father was ill, and extravagantly awkward, genuine fear shifting in his eyes, and their mother, frightened into showing a timid support, had significant failures of control. On the street, their arms linked, their faces wary, they were accorded an indulgent smile. Beatrice refused to be part of this drama; music supplied her with a world of feeling which she recognized as superior to anything she had ever known in life. But she was circumspect: no expression of pleasure, of excitement, was permitted. In any event it would have been out of place. Their faces identified them as sisters: they appeared well-meaning but unprotected. No one had ever told them they were attractive, with a slightly old-fashioned, slightly irritating appeal. Out in the world they marvelled that they were found acceptable to others, after years of being castigated as unsatisfactory, disappointing. In a perverse but logical manner disappointment was their inheritance. Nothing had prepared them for a welcome.
Since there were no other family members to advise them they had stayed in the house after their parents' deaths, a substantial suburban house on the outskirts of London, until Beatrice's modest celebrity as an accompanist, and her own progress as a translator, prompted their epic flight to the flat in Wilbraham Place, prompted not so much by their own initiative as by their friends' complaints at having to travel so far to visit them. Even so they had no thought of separating; each constituted the other's family, in a very real sense. They had been witnesses to each other's discomfiture, a condition which they could not translate for others. By their twenties, their thirties, they were popular, courted, felt themselves momentarily to be part of the effervescence around them. Those years had run their course. They had their work, they had an agreeable home, but they were a little tired of going to weddings, which to them marked the disappearance of confidantes. It was then that Miriam had succumbed to the temptation of marriage. It had not been an easy decision. She was thirty-five, an age which almost debarred her from youthful romance and its illusions. It was because she saw how dangerous such illusions could be that, wryly, she put in train certain plans of her own, searching out the candidate least likely to disappoint her. She had known him for ever, since childhood, almost. Longing, for no reason she could identify, for a safe haven, she made the necessary telephone calls. Beatrice was not consulted. As a courtship it was well outside Beatrice's experience. Besides, the outcome could not possibly alarm her, would indeed leave her intact, unslighted. The urge to protect had operated in this matter as in all the others. That it then had to be extended to her husband was something for which she had not bargained. It was some time before she perceived, and embraced, the appropriate irony.
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Anita Brookner lives in London.
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I have read other novels by Anita Brookner and understand that she writes about constrained lives. However, the characters in Falling Slowly were painfully tedious.