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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 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.
About the Author
Anita Brookner was born in London and, apart from several years in Paris, has lived there ever since. She trained as an art historian and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art until 1988.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.