Making Things Better

Making Things Better

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by Anita Brookner

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Facing life alone at an advanced age, Julius Herz cannot shake the sense that he should be elsewhere, doing other things. Walking through bustling streets that seem increasingly alien to him, he’s confronted by life’s pressing questions with an urgency he has never known before: what do we owe the people in our lives? How should we fill our days? Feeling


Facing life alone at an advanced age, Julius Herz cannot shake the sense that he should be elsewhere, doing other things. Walking through bustling streets that seem increasingly alien to him, he’s confronted by life’s pressing questions with an urgency he has never known before: what do we owe the people in our lives? How should we fill our days? Feeling fortified despite the growing ache in his heart, Herz finds himself also blessed with a stirring sense of exhilaration. After a lifetime of deferring to others’ stronger wills, he faces a future of possibility, the only constraint the deeply ingrained habits of his mind. Profound and deeply resonant, Making Things Better explores the quandaries of aging, longing, and self-discovery with transfixing precision and spellbinding acuity.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
From the solitary bachelor in Henry James's Beast in the Jungle to the solitary butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, fiction is filled with memorable hesitators. Anita Brookner is the most intrepid contemporary explorer of this terrain, which she refers to, in Making Things Better, as the ''unlived life.'' In the 21 novels she's written over the past 21 years, she has created a distinctive world, a world of widows and widowers, of the divorced and the never-married -- lonely people who yearn for connection with others at the same time as they cautiously guard their privacy. If you look at the descriptions on her book jackets, you might conclude that her range is narrow. Yet Brookner, who won a Booker Prize in 1984 for Hotel du Lac, inhabits her main characters so persuasively, commits her imagination so thoroughly to each novel, that almost every time she returns to her territory, the results are powerful and fresh. — Brian Morton
Penelope Mesic
Julius Herz, a Londoner living alone, is making the somber transition between indeterminate adulthood and the infirmities of old age. He has spent his life wearing a conciliatory smile, trying to make life easier for his brother, a failed pianist, and demanding parents, now dead, who drove away the woman to whom he was briefly married. Now, as the recipient of a large inheritance, Julius is suddenly free to please himself. Brookner, who won the 1984 Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac, has created a novel of fine precision. Her character's name, which means heart, is a reminder of that organ's literal frailty—Julius is faint and ill increasingly often—but metaphorical strength. For even in old age, shedding belongings and illusions, Julius nourishes an unrequited passion for a once beautiful German cousin. His life, outwardly tranquil to the point of oblivion, inwardly seethes with longing and regret, sexual curiosity and wild optimism. This lucid novel is a patient homage to the strength of human personality and to the bravery of the heart, ready at the brink of oblivion to essay one last, glorious chance at happiness.
Publishers Weekly
Making things better has been Julius Herz's lifelong responsibility. He is yet another character in Brookner's sepia photograph album of dutiful sons and daughters trapped by familial duties into stoic existences. Like many of her protagonists, Julius is an outsider whose assimilated Jewish parents settled in London to escape the Nazis and never really fit in. His older brother Freddy's nervous breakdown, which ended his incipient career as a concert pianist, hurled their parents into bottomless grief, and firmly placed Julius under obligation to minister to the needs of all three. Now they are all dead. At 73, retired from an undemanding and unfulfilling job and amicably divorced, Julius faces existential questions with a sense of panic. He's desperate to find a purpose for the rest of his life, to create some companionship and perhaps even intimacy, and to put an end to his lonely interior exile. Brookner's gentle exploration of Julius's emotional dilemma is pursued with exquisite precision and empathy. In her novels, fate is cruel and hope of happiness a chimera, yet her characters are so fully realized that one feels the beat of life in their veins and longs for them to yield to their stifled urge for freedom. In Julius's case, the resurgence of sexual desire and an unexpected letter from the cousin he has loved since their youth in Berlin provide insights into what he belatedly recognizes as "the fallacious enterprise of making things better." While he grasps at a last chance at happiness, the narrative becomes a meditation on the longing for love, its risks and dangers, and how its absence makes life itself null and void. If Brookner treads a small territory again and again, there is no sense of dej vu or of staleness. She has the facility to make each of her extended character studies (this is her 21st novel) ring with psychological truth. Agent, Brandt and Hochman. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In her latest novel, Brookner (Falling Slowly) describes the daily routines and musings of Julius Herz, who at 73 has been forced into retirement when his shop is sold. He has been a passive player in his own life, not so much making decisions as accepting the anxieties and responsibilities thrust upon him by his inept family. By his own admission, Julius is tired of and retired from life, and while he seemingly embraces his own solitude, he also struggles to reclaim some intimacy with seminal women from his past, including his ex-wife and the cousin who was his first love. Like many of Brookner's novels, this one explores how those who are no longer sustained by their dreams and who struggle to maintain their dignity while coping with the "endless solitude" of aging reconnect their past and present. Unfortunately, though, Brookner's themes are just as exhausted as Julius. Her renowned, razor-sharp perceptions and observations seem blunted here and expose not the puritanical sensibilities of a complex character but the doleful plodding of a flat one. While Brookner's sundry fans are sure to demand this work, it will leave many of them hoping for a stronger effort in keeping with her high standards.-Caroline Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another intelligent, emotionally wounded protagonist muses on a life consumed by others' expectations in Brookner's 21st novel (after The Bay of Angels, 2001, etc.). "Making things better seemed to have been assigned to him as his life's work," thinks Julius Herz, who at 73 has outlived both his mentally ill older brother and the parents who extinguished Herz's youth and his marriage with their matter-of-fact assumption that he existed to meet their needs. He's financially secure, thanks to a generous settlement from the owner of the London shop in which he and his father dully labored after fleeing the Nazis, and he has a comfortable flat. But his days are long and lonely, his listless routine of "a newspaper and the supermarket in the morning, and in the afternoon a bookshop or gallery" broken only by an occasional lunch with his ex-wife or dinner with his solicitor, Bernard Simmonds, "during which he would remain on guard against his own indiscretions, while allowing Simmonds full license to indulge his own. That too was what was expected of him." All this will be familiar anomic territory to Brookner readers, as will Julius's lifelong love for his selfish, spoiled cousin Fanny, whom he helplessly adored when they were kids in Berlin, then sought out in Switzerland to propose marriage after his divorce and her first husband's death. Though the proposal was rejected with calm brutality, Fanny reenters Herz's life 30 years later, blithely counting on Julius's fidelity when she's nearly destitute after Husband Number Two's demise. Will Julius upend his comfortable, empty life to fulfill once again someone else's agenda? A man who takes an apartment on the calculation that "with a bit ofluck he would be dead before the lease ran out" isn't the most likely candidate for a happy ending. Sparely written and psychologically astute, as always, from an author who apparently agrees with Herz that "maturity rarely brought cheering insights."
From the Publisher
“Brookner is an artist of an exceptional purity.” —The New York Times

“Brookner has a true gift for plumbing the depths of her characters’ psyches.” —Los Angeles Times

“Depicted with sharp Austenesque humor that makes Making Things Better stick in your memory long after.” –The Boston Herald

“Brookner’s artistry holds you in the novel’s spell. There is wizardry in her writing.” –San Jose Mercury News

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt


Herz had a dream which, when he awoke into a night that was still black, left him excited and impressed. He dreamed that he had received a call from his cousin, Fanny Bauer, the love of his life. He was to take her to the cinema, she ordained. Eager to conform to her wishes, as he always had been, he shrugged on his coat, and within seconds was elsewhere, as was the norm in dreams of wish-fulfilment. Although it was a weekday afternoon the cinema was so crowded that they had to stand at the back of the auditorium. Fanny was as he had always known her and still remembered her: petulant, with the petulance of a spoilt pretty woman, demanding and discontented. Shortly after the beginning of the film she had clutched his arm and declared that she felt unwell. Again, without transition, they found themselves in the vast café that was part of the cinema complex. Fanny had recovered somewhat but looked uncharacteristically dishevelled, with a large camel-hair coat slung over her shoulders. He was conscious of retaining his eager smile, but felt discomfited. This feeling had something to do with the coat, which he recognized as his own, the coat he should have been wearing. He had no memory of having offered it to her. The coat, and Fanny’s malaise, remained closely associated in his mind. It was only when he understood that it was he who had been taken ill that the dream attained its peak of significance. Ailing, smiling, he had offered her his remaining health and strength, and she, not in the least grateful, had carelessly dispossessed him, not noticing that she had done so. This was so akin to their real life association that, if anything, his newly awakened self was conscious of its reality. Brought back to himself he was aware of the smile—of complicity, of acquiescence—directed to the corners of the dark bedroom. Only the relentless ticking of his clock informed him that he had woken up, that this would soon be a new day, all too closely resembling the others, the normal days of his present existence, in which nothing happened nor could be expected to happen.

He had not seen her for thirty years. In the dream they were both young and she was still unmarried, before Nyon, before Mellerio, before his own family had come to England. It was his longing that had made him feel close to her, since he thought about her so often and so much that there seemed to be no distance between them. This longing extended to her parents, whom he preferred to his own. He knew that his own parents were socially inferior, although he suspected that morally they had the upper hand. His mother had never forgiven her sister for marrying out, though by no means observant in her own right. His father, a modest man, deferred to his brother-in-law without ever feeling entirely comfortable in his presence. Yet it was this brother-in-law, Hubertus, who had guaranteed them safe passage out of Berlin. Their house, one of those chic villas that Hubertus was so good at constructing, had all the charm of a more carefree establishment, an hotel, for example, or some kind of resort. By the same token, his aunt, Anna, appeared always on the verge of giving a party. They played bridge, drank cocktails, yet even at his young age he could see that they were merely fashionable, slightly meretricious. He did not know then that they were worried about the fate of their ardent dark-eyed daughter, whose looks were so suspect in the Germany of that time. His own parents were worried, morbidly worried, not about their own fate, but for that of their elder son, Freddy, their musical genius, rather than that of the eagerly smiling Julius. This had brought the two families momentarily closer; there were more telephone conversations than had previously been the case. Hubertus would stay behind; that was never in any doubt. But it would be prudent for his wife and daughter to be moved elsewhere, out of harm’s way. Herz’s own father, an employee in a firm that made musical instruments, had every faith in his colleagues, in his director, to whom he had pledged his loyalty. How could such loyalty not be recognized, and if necessary protected? His mother, who was afraid of everything, dreamed of escape from the many difficulties with which life had presented her. She, rather than her husband, put her diminishing faith in Hubertus; he rather than her too humble partner would know what to do.

As the boy, Julius, presented himself at his aunt’s tea-table, his smile making up for his lack of an invitation (he would overlook this though they might not), he was given the sort of greeting into which he read so much: familiar, if slightly impatient. He had just missed Fanny, he would be told; she was playing tennis with friends, with some of her ‘set’, but he would stay for a quick cup of tea, his aunt queried, with a lift of her pencilled eyebrow? Useless to wait for Fanny, who would be spending the evening with her friends. The family well? This question was a pure formality, the kind in which she normally dealt. He would sit humbly in their glass and chrome drawing-room, with its pale wood and white curtains, comparing its discomfort favourably with his parents’ flat, all subfusc and dim, the furnishings still those of his grandparents who had ruled their loyal daughter and meek son-in-law not entirely mercifully, and from whom Anna, the disloyal daughter, had parted with few backward glances. Her marriage to a Protestant was considered an act so terrible that she was never to be forgiven, although Hubertus was a good man whose discreet allowance had ensured a comfortable old age for the tyrannical elders who continued to vilify him. It was probably a matter of survival to agree with them on this. Nevertheless the moral discomfort that this brought about made Hubertus and Anna seem an enlightened pair, as perhaps they were, and their house a haven of modernity, for which he craved. Even if Fanny were not at home—and she so rarely was—he could sense her presence, picture her picking up her tennis racquet, follow her in sympathy as she issued into the bright afternoon. The image was so gratifying that he would count his unscheduled visit a success, taking home impressions to be added to his meagre store, and already looking forward to another similar afternoon, when surely, one day, she would be at home and delighted to see him.

Fanny Bauer! In the dream she had been young, pretty, a heart-breaker, her fickle behaviour part of her charm. In the dream his own age was indeterminate, but he recognized the smile, which in fact had never left him. When he finally reconciled himself to a day like any other he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was seventy-three years old, ‘retired’, as they said of old people with too little to do, and that Fanny would be a year older. In fact when he had last seen her, in Nyon, at the Beau Rivage, she was already altered. He had sought her out after his divorce, with the intention of asking her to marry him. He had found a stout dignified woman who did not even possess her mother’s chic. ‘Julius!’ she had said. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ And he had made his request, far too early in the proceedings, without the proper setting or preparation, to have it waved away by a still pretty hand. He did not tell her that he had followed her progress by dint of some unnecessary detective work, for what was there to discover? He already knew that Fanny and her mother had, by virtue of Hubertus’s prudence, been dispatched to Switzerland, to the most peaceful and neutral of lakeside towns, until things improved. He knew that equally prudent Aunt Anna had found her daughter a husband, an architect called Mellerio who had taken them both on, installing them in his ugly villa, from which they escaped as often as they could, to eat cakes at the English tea-room or to sit on the terrace of the Beau Rivage, to which they quite naturally retired after Mellerio’s death from a fall when he was inspecting one of his own buildings. The sale of his house and of his business had left them well off: the hotel suited them, or rather hotel life suited them, was appropriate to a deracinated existence which could surely be only temporary. They were safe, more than safe, for the time being, but in fact never went home, for home no longer existed, flattened by Allied bombs, and Hubertus no longer alive to make plans for them all.

Calmly Fanny had rejected his proposal, not unkindly, simply demonstrating that she was better off as she was. She did not speak as if she had a lover, nor did he suspect her of living an irregular life. She was placid, comfortable; she played bridge with women friends, looked after her mother in the suite they shared, still frequented the English tea-room or sat on the terrace before retiring to make alterations to her appearance and thus ushering in the evening. She was practically Swiss now, just as he was practically English, but their childhood had left its mark. That was why he was so grateful that part of them remained untouched. More realistically he could see that she would never exchange Nyon for London. He accepted defeat, joined Fanny and her mother for dinner at their habitual table, and left for home the next day. Neither of them had thought his visit anything out of the ordinary. He had returned home to an empty flat, promising to keep in touch. This he had done sparingly, unable to identify the stout calm woman who was Fanny in late middle age with her younger dark-haired dark-eyed self. Therefore he was more than happy to have encountered her in his dream, intact, unchanged. Even in the dream he had not possessed her, yet, untouched, innocent, he preferred it so, or was conscious of having decreed that this should be. At heart he was still a young man, a boy, even, to whom adult- hood had come as a surprise and had never ceased to be a burden.

In retrospect even his visit to Nyon—his only visit—seemed to possess a kind of charm. This had more to do with his own initiative than with the reception offered. For he had still been relatively young, able to make decisions, or maybe trusting more to chance than he was ever willing to do in normal circumstances. Fanny’s rejection of his proposal did not alter his impression of adventure, of acting on an impulse that impressed him as heroic. For both of them her refusal was final. He knew that he would never see her again. He wrote to her, keeping her in touch with news of the family, such as it was, but received few replies. Eventually a letter came informing him that her mother was unwell and that she was to marry again, the two pieces of information logically linked. Her new husband was a German businessman; she had met him at the hotel where he was on holiday, and in due course she would move back to Germany with him, to Bonn. She seemed to have no qualms about this return. Assured of protection, she disregarded the wider implications. But that had always been part of her charm: her utter selfishness. And this same selfishness gave her a character to be reckoned with. She was no longer the young beauty whose tears usually ensured that her wishes were met. He did not blame her. He wrote congratulating her, and then the letters stopped. He had no new address for her, relinquished her symbolically as well as emotionally. He no longer knew anything about her, whether she was ill or well, whether, in fact, she was still alive. For some reason he sent a card to her, care of the Beau Rivage, one year after their last communication. It was met with silence, as he knew it would be.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Anita Brookner is the author of twenty-one beautifully crafted novels, including Fraud, Undue Influence, and Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize. An international authority on eighteenth-century painting, she became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University. She lives in London.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Making Things Better 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
manbooker1989 More than 1 year ago
Miss Brookner has a very good hand at writing; it is clear from each paragraph that she can apply language in very detailed and orderly ways. This book is much like her others, focusing on loneliness, other's happiness over one's own, trying to move on or somewhere else. She has very mundane actions but to her characters they are momentous. Herz has given up his life, essentially, the making better of others. The next big thing is for him to move on and conquer his own wants. Although it is inconclusive if this is achieved, the reader feels Herz has overcome his sadness and made something happen. Miss Brookner is a fanastsitc write, though at times a bit dull, she hits many serious points on contemplation of one's life and role in it.