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In Undue Influence, acclaimed novelist Anita Brookner proves once again that even in the most closely circumscribed of lives, hearts can venture into unknown-and potentially explosive-territory.
Claire Pitt is nothing if not a practical young woman, living a life in contemporary London that is to all appearances placid, orderly and consciously lacking in surprise. And yet Claire's tangled interior life gives the lie to that illusion. She is prone to vivid speculation about the lives of others, and to fantasies about her own fate that lead her into a courtship so strange that even she wonders at its power to compel her. Martin Gibson and his chronically ill wife Cynthia come to depend on Claire to an extent that is nothing short of baffling, and yet Claire becomes ever bolder in her pursuit of their acquaintance-and, ultimately, of Martin's elusive affections. The result, a potent tale of urban loneliness and the chance intersections that assuage it, constitutes one of Brookner's finest and most psychologically acute achievements.
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
At first the man in the basement looked to me like an older and more careworn version of the man with bowed head in the cafe in Marylebone Lane who was not Mrs Hildreth's son and for whom I had imagined a whole illusory history. (I am not infallible.) This man had the same air of lassitude, which I detected in spite of his polished appearance. He was formally dressed for his visit to a dusty bookshop, although he could not have known that it would be quite so dusty. He wore a finely tailored grey suit with a faint chalk stripe, a very white shirt, and highly polished shoes. I think it was the brilliantly laundered shirt that led me to make the comparison with Mrs Hildreth's putative son, as if this man too had emerged from the hands of a watchful woman and set out, fully caparisoned, to encounter the hazards of the ordinary working day.
Except that this man obviously had no connection with the world of work: he was too careful, too immaculate. And besides, what sort of man do you find in a bookshop at ten o'clock on a Monday morning, unless he is some sort of don, about his own affairs? This man, however, was too presentable to be one of the academics we get in from time to time. He turned briefly when I said 'Good morning' before turning back to the shelves. I had an impression of a fine blond head and a fair-skinned face prematurely worn into furrows of anxiety which gave him an elderly look, although his figure was tall and upright and rather graceful.
In his hasty return to his earlier perusal of the shelves I sensed a reserve. This man would not waste time on a strange woman, with whom in any case he was not on terms of familiarity or friendship. I found him attractive, more attractive than the prospect of a day with St John Collier, who had begun to acquire a patina of benign tediousness. I pitied those two girls having to listen to him throughout their childhood, although the experience seemed to have done them no harm. Their respect for their father had remained intact, a fact at which I could only marvel. My own father had never emitted a single philosophical or semi-philosophical dictum, so that I had learned at an early age not to look to him for enlightenment, or even very much in the way of affection. He found me as tiresome as I found him, but I had never quite resolved the factors that made us so antagonistic.
I took the cover off my typewriter and pretended to be studying my papers. It would be impolite to start work with this man at my back, although he was paying me no attention. From what I could judge he was reading his way steadily through whatever came to hand, as if he had found sanctuary in our basement and was in no hurry to leave. I also detected an almost unnatural stillness, almost a watchfulness about him, as if he were sensitive to my own inactivity, or as if he knew that I was not normally an inactive person whom he had no wish to constrain by his presence. For this reason he was conscious of me, as I was of him. I shuffled the typewritten pages on my desk; clearly I could not start on the women's magazines while he appeared to be reading Heine's collected poems. I corrected a few typing errors, resolving to work properly, innocent as well.
I am alert now to signs of damage in a man. If this is combined with physical excellence I feel a perverse desire to take him over, as if his weakness excited me. When the two conditions are combined-attractiveness and hesitation-our conjunction is often spectacular. I sometimes think that my childish ruthlessness has survived undiminished, but in fact I am careful to cause no harm. Indeed I disappear discreetly, leaving several questions unanswered. I wish that this particular pattern did not impose itself, that I could happily offer affection without that slight feeling of vengeful satisfaction. On the whole I have managed quite well. It is just that my mother's death, and the sight of those photograph albums, which kept company by her bed together with Palgrave's Golden Treasury, had weakened me. And perhaps I was undergoing the influence of St John Collier's sweet-natured assertions, as if to believe in a happier world were within the capacity of even fallen creatures like myself. For I knew myself to be at fault. The intolerance I had manifested towards my father had left a stain, which was why I was such a solitary person. A solitary person with a longing for wholeness, an experience which would cancel all the others. A baptism, if you like.
The man in the basement, of whose presence I had become uncomfortably aware, as he had of mine, smelled discreetly of some subtle scent which was far removed from the blasts of aftershave one was likely to encounter in the early morning. He gave an impression of almost futile luxury, which was implemented when he drew a snowy handkerchief from his pocket and flicked a small speck of dust from his fingers. He implied an army of servants, either that or a lonely and obsessive drive towards perfection, probably the latter. He was probably rich, certainly idle. I imagined his empty day, every gesture aiming at sublimity. He had an iconic presence, and yet I was able to observe the occasional involuntary grimace which creased his fair thin-skinned face. He was a man torn between achievement and frustration, the balance tilted towards the latter. When I sneezed he gave a violent start, as if recalled to familiarity with greater upheavals.
I offered to make him a cup of coffee but he refused effusively. I was beginning to find his continued presence rather tiresome. At the same time he impressed me as attractive. I wanted to know his story, which I was quite capable of inventing for myself. Perhaps because I had been thinking of my father I thought I detected an unhappy home background, an invalid sister to whom he was deeply attached. This selfless sister-for she would be all virtue, as in one of St John Collier's scenarios-would urge him to go out and enjoy himself. But the poor fellow would be half-hearted in this pursuit, would seek refuge, indeed basements, where his presence would impress but would remain unchallenged. This same sister would oversee his appearance, which would always be faultless, this being a subject on which they would naturally concur. I had no way of knowing how accurate or inaccurate this picture was, but I did not doubt that I was intrigued. I looked at my watch and realized that he had been silently reading for thirty-five minutes. By this time he could have had one or two of Heine's poems off by heart. Either that or he was translating them. Perhaps he too was a man of letters. But he looked too ineffable, and also too unhappy, for that. I altered my estimate of him. He was a dilettante, a caste I had always admired.
'Can I help you?' I said finally, slightly irritated by the lack of effect my presence was having on him. Besides, I wanted to get on with my work. I was aware that before my enforced absence I had come across an article boldly entitled 'Emphasize your good points!' (nowadays it would be called 'Maximize your assets!', in deference to the market economy) which suggested that St John Collier's favoured publications were emerging from their post-war obedience, and were exchanging austerity for a certain tentative assertiveness. This in turn, but the thought must have been lying dormant, alerted me to the unpleasant fact that St John Collier was running out of time and myself with him. The pile of magazines had shrunk dramatically: my task was almost completed. I had no doubt that Muriel would keep me on for a bit, but she did not really need a full-time assistant. My task had been to devote my attention to St John Collier, and this I had done; editorial work simply amounted to putting the articles in chronological order. Changes of an unwelcome kind seemed to be inevitable. I resolved to ask Muriel whether it might be interesting to write some sort of Foreword, an account of St John's early life, perhaps. She could tell me the facts and I could string them out into some sort of narrative. The idea appealed to me. I had got used to him; he was safe in my hands. Besides, his philosophy was so user-friendly, the best of the best of all possible worlds, as someone or other had said. Trust and hope would never let you down, he seemed to imply. I should have liked to believe that he was right.
'Are you looking for anything in particular? 'I asked, rather more sharply than I intended.
'Jenny Treibel,' he replied. 'You don't seem to have a copy.'
'We have Effi Briest,' I said. 'Are you particularly interested in Fontane?'
'Oh, I have several copies of Effi Briest,' he replied. 'It was some of the other stories I was after. They are rather hard to come by, you know. You are my last hope.' He gave a heartbreaking smile. 'I have tried almost everywhere I can think of.'
'The London Library?'
'Oh, but you see I must have my own copy!
He looked worried, distressed, more distressed than one should look in the face of a slight contretemps.
'Most people come in for the French,' I remarked chattily, anxious for some reason to put him at his ease.
'I prefer the German writers,' he said, with the same heartbreaking smile, as of one confessing to a weakness. A man who was not quite a man, I reflected. The idea had a perverse appeal.
In my mind's eye I had an image of a book with a red and white cover brought in, with a job-lot of texts, by a university student after graduating. (We get plenty of these.) This book was entitled The German Library and was in good condition. Muriel had put it on one side, on one of the tables, with the intention of reading it herself. As far as I knew it was still there. The name Fontane, which was certainly there, came to me distantly but with a sense of certainty. I have an excellent photographic memory. I remembered something like 'Shorter Fiction', also on the cover.
'I think I can find you a copy,' I said. 'But not straight away. If you'd like to give me your name and address I'll let you know.'
He looked even more worried, as if this were classified information, but divulged an address in Weymouth Street. I knew it well, of course, for it was on the route of my evening walks. I promised to be in touch and accompanied him back up the stairs. By now he seemed anxious to leave. With a pleasant expression, or so I hoped, I watched as he wrestled with the door.
'Give it a good tug,' said Muriel, raising her eyes from her book. 'It needs seeing to, but we haven't the right instruments.
'We need a man.'
At this he looked alarmed, as if she had expected him to take off his coat and get down to it straight away. (She probably had.) We both watched as he extricated himself. Then Muriel went back to her book, and I lingered for a few minutes in the shop. I found the red and white volume under a pile of others on the table, waiting to be shelved. I took it downstairs with me, as if I were going to put it away.
At six o'clock that evening I telephoned the number he had given me. 'Mr Gibson?' I inquired. 'It's Claire Pitt, from the bookshop. I've found a copy of Jenny Treibel for you, but it's in English. Would you like me to keep it for you?'
'Could you perhaps send it?' he said.
'Oh, I'll drop it in,' I assured him. I was anxious to verify my theory about the invalid sister. 'I'm often in the area.' This at least was true.
'Claire!' came Muriel's voice. 'I'm locking up!'
He was quite likely to have forgotten my name already. 'Claire Pitt" I repeated, then suddenly wondered what on earth I was doing. His voice had sounded thin and melodious, as if he were on his best behaviour, anxious to reassure. Definitely the invalid sister, I thought.
I picked up the book, said goodnight to Muriel, and went home. In the course of the evening I glanced through it, beguiled by some of the names ('Victoire', 'Lisette'). I would ask him to lend it to me, I decided. Just for a few days. That way I could deliver it to him all over again.
I have no interest in the German Romantics, or indeed in any other kind of romantic, with or without a literary status, but the stories seemed limpid, accessible, but at the same time remote in time, rather like the man who had been looking for them. I did not go so far as to read Jenny Treibel so as to seem more knowledgeable than I really was; such stratagems were not in my nature. I really do not know what I had in mind at that stage. Sometimes an attractive appearance is enough, so that one is inclined to endow the person who possesses such an appearance with other gifts, grace, intelligence, some sort of accomplishment. And this tall fair stranger had seemed so incongruous in our dusty basement, as if he were visiting from another world where everyone was well dressed. The wincing nervousness seemed out of character but it was easy for me to excuse it. It was the reason for this that I was determined to examine. The man had either suffered some sort of psychic injury that had left him otherwise intact or he was under great strain. There may have been, probably was, illness somewhere in the background, and with this I could sympathize all too readily, as my experience had taught me to. I had frequently felt shame at my own resistance to my father's tragedy, but I believe my instinct was correct. It is sometimes necessary to keep one's distance from misfortune, however harsh this may seem to others.
The man in the shop seemed more affected by this dilemma (if it existed) than I had ever been; he was far gone, if not in suffering, then no doubt in awareness. I should have liked to discuss this matter with someone, or even to have put the man on his guard. Your sympathy is quite adequate, I should have said; do not allow it to become excessive. Vulnerability is commendable; masochism is not. There was no possibility of my ever saying this. But I believe that my desire to say it was present even on that first day. I felt both pity and impatience, as if enormous efforts would be needed to impose the realities of life once more before it proved too late. In this I may have been prescient. Spotless heroes (I did not doubt that he would be spotless) often owe their survival to agencies more worldly than themselves. It was something to think about, something to remind me of the fairy stories I had read so obsessively as a child. I put it no higher than that.
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If one is a diehard Brookner reader, there are no better or lesser works. Her writing is as finely crafted and intricate as old lace. Every January I await the release of a new Brookner. She cannot disappoint. And yes she is still relevant. Her books are not for quick reads or vacation diversions. They are for January and February nights. They deserve time and attention. If you are looking for a book to evoke thought and feeling, pick any book by Anita Brookner. They are and we are them. .