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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

Reality Hunger
David Shields

1.  By chance, I picked up this book about a year ago at the library, read the dust jacket hysteria, and was sufficiently annoyed to put it right back on the shelf where I found it: another self-important screed treating matters I'd thought about ten, fifteen years ago as "explosive" and "revelatory." No thanks.

Of course, I was jealous and embittered. Unlike Shields, I have no academic platform from which to pitch these "inflammatory" "revolutionary" ideas. I quit graduate school to take up living with someone out of some mistaken notion of "living in the real world"--a mistake, not necessarily because the "real world" doesn't exist, but because I never had any suitable place in it. 

I haven't the credentials and connections that academia would have granted me had I stayed on and finished my MFA at Syracuse, not to mention if I'd retreated from reality altogether and earned my Ph.D. 

Oh well, I took the road more traveled by and here I am. It's not David Shield's fault. It's not even my fault. I'm not the person I used to be. If I were, I'd talk some sense into her. Or box her ears. Or both.


2. Flash forward to a month ago: I read a blog-post (Levi Asher, LiteraryKicks) referencing the book in a review of Shields new book, How Literature Saved My Life, and thought, "Well, maybe I should go back and read Reality Hunger, after long as I can get it free at the library, that is." There's no rush. I've still got another Anita Brookner novel to finish. 

Last Sunday morning, still in bed as the clock inched past nine, opportunity knocked. At the time, I was sitting back on my heels between my husband's spread legs. Hands laced behind his head, smiling contentedly against the headboard, he sighed and said, "How about we go to the library today after breakfast? Would you like that?" 

Never one to miss an opportunity to go to the very magnificent central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, I delicately licked the corners of my mouth, smiled prettily, and said "You bet!" 

Then I snuggled up in his burly arms for a great big hairy-chested snuggle until he roused himself and said, "So what do you think about rustling me up some breakfast, wench? Scrapple, I think, this morning."

One breakfast later...

3. As it happened, Reality Hunger was available, sitting on the bottom shelf, just waiting for me to borrow it. There were two copies, in fact. I was pleasantly surprised. So often I don't find what I'm looking for at the library, only to find something else even more interesting. On this particular day I signed out: A.S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale, Dean Young's The Art of Recklessness, and The Three Button Trick and Other Stories by Nicola Barker. And, of course, the one book, aside from The Art of Recklessness, that I actually came to borrow: the aforementioned, but so far unreviewed, Reality Hunger.

4. It was true what I said at the start of this pseudo-review. That I'd actually come to many of the same conclusions that David Shields has about literature over a decade ago. Maybe even more than a decade ago. Certainly I'd had these ideas in nascent form ever since I was in graduate school and conscious of myself as a writer. The need for a "new"kind of cross-genre literature that features immediacy, ultra-flexbility, speed, leaps (derived in part from Robert Bly's evangelical celebration of "leaping poetry"), collage effects (derived in part from Burroughs and Gysin and the entire history of art in the 20th century)--all these elements seemed to me then, and even more do they seem to me now, essential strategies for replicating how the mind, at least my mind, and apparently David Shields' mind, actually perceives reality. How could the traditional novel in particular, and traditional literature in general, capture that? In fact, once the internet came into play, how could traditional publishing accommodate it either? 

Answer: it couldn't, it can't.

5. Here's the criticism of Reality Hunger and of people, like me, who like the book, who find it inspiring: in the end, it champions the short attention span. At least that's the charge to which it lays itself open.

Shields wants information and revelations and climax without the connective narrative tissue. He writes that he's always been inspired to write a book filled with epiphanies--he'd build a literary House of Epiphanies, in each room a surprise, a shock, a treasure. He'd get rid of the long boring hallways in between. So would I. He finds the traditional novel a tedious and unnecessary machinery for conveying us to where we really want to go. Why not just go to the destination? Or, at least, just describe the destination? I get what he wants because I want it, too. He doesn't want to wade through a 600-page novel to garner half-a-dozen insights. He wants a precis of a novel, a report detailing the highlights. He wants a short story instead. Better yet, a short-short. An aphorism.

But that doesn't mean that everyone else wants what he wants and I think that's where he antagonizes people. A lot of people don't mind taking the long way around. They don't mind being taken to "another world," something Shields baldly states he finds of almost no interest.

Shields doesn't see literature as "entertainment" but as an almost religious/spiritual endeavor. Many people see it as exactly that. They want to be entertained.

Maybe the most self-damning thing Shields asserts is that reality television actually provides a better format for embodying the truths about our lives than the stale inventions of narrative fiction. This seems to me the weakest link in his argument. Because, although I agree that we need an art that more effectively reflects real life, if art is synonymous with real life, as it supposedly is in the realm of reality television, what do I need art for at all? I have my own screwed up life to entertain me. I don't need to see someone else's screwed up life on television, or to read about it in books either, for that matter. 

The fact is that no matter how "real" a depiction might claim to's still a fiction. And this is something that Shields pretty much admits throughout Reality Hunger. Even the "honest" memoirist, doing his or her best to recall their memories as faithfully as possible, must necessarily fictionalize.

So...where does that leave us????

It leaves us hungering for reality and with no way to provide ourselves with a 100% daily requirement for it. We can only approximate and I suppose, in the end, what Shields is really arguing for is more reality in our art, less filler, as little filler as possible.

Okay, maybe there is something even worse that Shields cops to in Reality Hunger, worse even than his slanted admiration for reality television. He believes reality is subjective, and radically so; most people do not. He doesn't shy away from the charge of solipsism. In fact, he all but embraces the notion. He seems to believe that the only difference between a solipsist and a non-solipsist is that the non-solipsists haven't admitted to their solipsism yet. (Perhaps they're too solipsistic to do so). Who can blame them? Being a solipsist is considered to be almost as bad as being a child molester.  

6. Finally, here's the praise: Reality Hunger is an inspiring, thought-and-argument-provoking book. And the arguments and thoughts it inspires are both of the kind worth having. Shields champions a form of writing that he calls the "lyric essay." What is that, exactly? It's hard to say. He defines it, sort of. What he really seems to be after is not so much a "form" of writing, but a way of writing, in which the author seeks the unique form most appropriate to the subject at hand. He harkens us back to the original meaning of the term "essay" which is to assay a subject, "to make an attempt." Shields thus seeks to avoid the very problem he finds with the novel (and other traditional genres), which is the boring predictability and the inherent limitation of a finished product dictated by pouring even fresh content into readymade forms. 

It's easier for him to give examples of what he likes than to define it. He cites, among others, work by authors such as Fernando Pessoa, Samuel Beckett, Ann Carson, and Ben Marcus as the sort of thing he'd like to read (and write) more of. 

The book itself is comprised of fragments, including many call-to-arm quotations and pithy paraphrases from authors as diverse as Nietzsche, Montaigne, Beckett, Didion, Nabokov, Dillard, Emerson--well, even a sampling isn't enough to give you a proper idea. Many citations are from authors less well-known and more contemporary, authors that Shield's considers to be writing on the front lines of the "new nonfiction."  

7. I don't mind saying that Reality Hunger is one of the most worthwhile books I've read on writing in quite some time, even if I did formulate most of these thoughts on my own ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago. The book reminded me that I was on the right track in one sense, even if I were on the wrong road altogether.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

A Closed Eye
Anita Brookner

"Thus are lives lost, through what must be despair at knowing oneself too weak to deal with the dangers, the choices." 
--Anita Brookner

A Closed Eye opens with a middle-aged woman writing a letter to her goddaughter back in England. She invites the young woman, the daughter of an old friend, to come stay with her in Switzerland for a short vacation. We'll wait until the last chapter of the novel for Lizzie's answer.

But first, the story of one woman's lifetime...

Harriet Lytton is the daughter of elegant, beautiful, completely self-absorbed and immature parents. As a result, she hasn't had much of a childhood herself. Old before her time, she's at the same time spectacularly unworldly. Before she's half aware of what's happening, Harriet is safely married off to an older man, a contemporary of her parents.

It's a familiar situation in Brookner's fiction, one to which she returns again and again: the woman who has never taken chances, who's always played it safe, trying, now that it's almost too late, to escape her life of quiet desperation.

Married to chubby, complacent, predictable Freddie, Harriet fantasizes about having a real love affair with a daring, dangerous, sexual man who can't be tamed--a man like Jack, for instance, who happens to be her best friend's fiancee. Anyone can see that Jack is trouble, that his marriage to Tessa is doomed to failure, destined to destroy Tessa, and so it does. Still, as the years pass, Harriet finds her fantasies turning to Jack. Just once she'd like to have a Jack in her life. Now a mother herself, Harriet contemplates adultery, edges up to the precipice, stares down into the abyss, tempted, the dizzying fall into experience beckoning...

Then tragedy strikes. Then it strikes againHarriet has hardly recovered when it strikes once more.

The question now is whether these tragedies serve as a goad to long-delayed action, or do they sap whatever strength Harriet has to act at all, burdening her instead with a paralyzing burden of guilt and sorrow.

As usual with Brookner, the answer is neither straightforward nor predictable. The dilemma is illuminated and amplified by the difference in personality between her friend Tessa's daughter, the reserved, bookish Lizzie, and Harriet's own daughter, the dazzling Imogen. 

Thinking of Imogen, Harriet reflects:
"Immy demanded only the best, was impatient only with the second best, required from life only what she saw it could deliver, was not fearful, shy, self-effacing, knew, with some scorn, how meekness could conceal a certain holy vanity, preferred vanity unadorned and unashamed, was in fact shameless."

While, conversely, we learn that Lizzie had no "conviction that a place was reserved for her in this world, lacked benevolent elders from whom she might have inherited some kind of grace or endowment, some indulgence, some love. She had been wary since earliest childhood, eternally on the lookout for danger, or for threats to an existence which she strove to make as circumscribed as possible, as if only by being inconspicuous would she be allowed to continue." 

If Brookner teaches nothing else it's that reticence and timidity and voluntary self-effacement even with the noblest of intentions wins one nothing in this world whatsoever--except, perhaps, the private satisfactions of martyrdom and a hope (ever unfulfilled) of a reward in a future life--either this life, or, better yet, if anyone can still manage a belief in it, a life to come

So we come full circle at the end of A Closed Eye. Harriet, now older, wiser, sadder generously seeks to be of benefit to her oddball, out-of-place goddaughter, a young woman just starting out in life with whom she feels a natural affinity that she never felt with her own daughter. But does Harriet really have anything to offer Lizzie? Or is it already too late for either woman to change. Has it, in fact, always been too late?

In A Closed Eye, Brookner has both eyes wide open. She's written a profound meditation on human nature that is as lyrical as it is honest, as illuminating as it is disturbing.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

The Bay of Angels 
Anita Brookner

Brookner returns to a theme that has engaged her attention again and again throughout her career as a novelist. How does a young woman escape the smothering atmosphere of a sheltered home-life and the fate of a life-negating mother? The young woman in question is usually a thoughtful, loner type by nature who has grown up in a world of books and destined already for a relatively sheltered life of scholarship. Such a woman in such a predicament is Zoe Cunningham, the first-person narrator of Brookner's The Bay of Angels

This time, however, a way out seems at hand. Zoe's long-widowed mother, against all odds, meets and marries a generous, well-meaning older man who offers mother and daughter a new life rich with opportunities beyond their modest expectations. But their unexpected good fortune is short-lived. Zoe, having briefly tasted freedom, sees the door closing, the clouds of fate gathering, and the road ahead foreshortened. She may end up like her mother, after all.

Brookner imparts to this scenario a gothic sense of doom. One can't help feeling Zoe's claustrophobic horror as she sees events conspire, one by one, like bricks being laid, walling her up still alive in a tomb. You can't help but root for Zoe, to hope for her escape, and she does effect an escape, of sorts, but it isn't the one that she, or the reader, foresees.

Brookner is a realist in the end. And Zoe describes the painful path from romantic to realist that so many of Brookner's heroines must inevitably travel. Such a path does not lead to the happy ending we were promised in books and fairy tales, religion and art, but it does lead to the hard-earned wisdom that enables us to make the necessary compromises that enable us to survive with dignity and a measure of contentment. 

Such a "reward" may not be everything we hoped for in life; but it is often enough to make the struggle of living it worthwhile.   

***Memorable Lines***

"The sun is God. Of the rest it is wiser not to know, or not yet to know. The plot will unfold, with or without my help..."

"Our story will run it's course, and I realize, with a lifting of the heart, that it is not yet time to close the book."

"How had it felt to die? This was the news that no one was available to tell. Hence the entire business remains unknown, and must remain so until it is one's own turn to confront it. Then perhaps one would conclude that it is indeed a mystery, and one that no living person, the person so helplessly in attendance, can imagine. One would be more alone in death than one had ever been in life, and that would be the worst outcome of all."  

"I was too sensible, even as a child, to believe in a fairy godmother [yet] I accepted as part of nature's plan that after a lifetime of sweeping the kitchen floor I would go to the ball, that the slipper would fit, that I would marry the prince...I was willing to believe in the redeeming feature, the redeeming presence that would justify all of one's vain striving, would dispel one's disappointments, would in some mysterious way present one with a solution in which one would have no part, so that all one had to do was to wait in a condition of sinless passivity, for the transformation that would surely take place."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

Selected Stories
Alice Munro

Munro is widely considered to be one of the best short story writers (still, at 81) around. She's highly regarded not only by readers, but, apparently, by fellow writers, as well. After reading my way through the majority of this generous collection, I can see why. There is something that puts one in mind of "the classics" about Munro, even when her subjects are contemporary. She eschews literary gimmicks, for one thing. Her tone and style are largely traditional. Her themes are the eternal ones as relevant to the human condition a hundred years ago as they are today; one is put to the challenge to imagine a time when they wouldn't be relevant. She seems a shoe-in to be included in every serious comprehensive short story anthology from now until Doomsday.

Childhood, family life, marriage, infidelity, illness, death--these are the subjects Munro returns to again and again in her work. She deals in the "small" mysteries and quiet crises that mark the pivotal turning points in ordinary lives. For the most part, her stories have rural Canadian settings. Oddly, this doesn't seem an impediment to their universality any more than a setting in a traditional fairy tale does. Even though few of us have ever lived in a rural Canadian setting, or any kind of rural setting, there is an elemental truth to Munro's world that strikes close to the bone, that taps some larger archetypal memory we still share of a life lived closer to earth and weather. 

Traditional, even conservative as they are, Munro's stories almost never track an ABC plot-line; often it is even hard to say exactly what they are "about." The stories seem to grow organically, like a crystal in solution; events are often recounted out of order, past and present reflecting, amplifying, clarifying, and deepening the meaning of events, the definition of character. Munro writes about a situation--a father's illness, a mother's infidelity, a husband's abandonment--without seeking to resolve anything, with no other discernible intent than to present it in all it's complexity. If anything becomes clearer at the end of a typical Munro story, it's that life--and other people--are an even greater mystery than we ever realized.

My favorite story in this collection, "Fits," is a good example. In it, Peg, a sensible, undemonstrative woman, a good wife and hardworking mother, discovers the bodies of her next door neighbors, both shot to death in their bedroom. She dutifully calls the police, files a report, and then goes to work. She never mentions what she saw that morning, not to her friend and co-worker, not to her husband, not even to the son who's home from school that day. Why not? She figures everyone will hear about it soon enough. That's her plainspoken answer. But is it the truth? As Munro reveals, it both is and isn't, and either way, you have the essence of what a mystery a human being is.

***Memorable Lines***

"I did not avoid touching my child but realized I was touching her with a difference. There was a care--not a withdrawal but a care--not to feel anything much. I saw how the forms of love might be maintained with a condemned person but with the love measured and disciplined, because you have to survive. It could be done so discreetly that the object of such care would not suspect, any more than she would suspect the sentence of death itself."

"People say they have been paralyzed by fear, but I was transfixed, as if struck by lightning, and what hit me did not feel like fear so much as recognition. I was not surprised. This is the sight that does not surprise you, the thing you have always known was there that comes so naturally, moving delicately and contentedly and in no hurry, as if it was made, in the first place, from a wish of yours, a hope of something final, terrifying."

"All my life I had known there was a man like this and he was behind doors, around the corner at the dark end of a hall. So now I saw him and just waited, like a child in an old negative, electrified against the dark noon sky, with blazing hair and burned-out Orphan Annie eyes. The man slipped down through the bushes to my father. And I never thought, or even hoped for, anything but the worst."

"Like the children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back from marvelous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared to live happily ever after--like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word." 

"The map of the city that she had held in her mind up till now, with its routes to shops and work and friends' houses, was overlaid with another map, of circuitous routes followed in fear (not shame) and excitement, of flimsy shelters, temporary hiding places, where she and Miles made love, often within hearing distance of passing traffic or a hiking part or a family picnic."

"She saw herself as a person surrounded by, living by, sham. Because she had been so readily unfaithful, her marriage was a sham. Because she had gone so far out of it, so quickly, it was a sham. She dreaded a life like her own before this happened. She could not but destroy. Such cold energy was building in her she had to blow her own house down."

"I guess we never believe we're going to die," Georgia says. I mean we never behave as if we believed we were going to die."

     Raymond smiles more and more and puts a hand on her shoulder. "How should we behave?" he says.
     "Differently," says Georgia. She puts a foolish stress on the word, meaning that her answer is so lame that she can offer it only as a joke.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

=the madeleine=

=2013 Books Read=

A Misalliance
by Anita Brookner

Blanche Vernon is on her own. After twenty years of seemingly contented marriage, her husband has left her for another, much younger, much less stable, and almost completely undependable woman. Why? Cast adrift, Blanche finds her otherwise empty days an opportunity to fully indulge her propensity for aimless wandering and speculative musing. She satisfies both at the museum. Here she is particularly struck by the stark difference in attitude between the great classical paintings that, on one side, depict the Christian saints and martyrs, and, on the other, depict the gods and goddesses of Greek myth. 

Blanche contrasts the ethics of voluntary suffering she sees raised to a virtue in the paintings of the martyrs versus the celebration of pleasure-seeking amorality in the depictions of the pagan deities. Eventually she develops a theory to explain what she sees as two rival mythologies--and two incompatible life strategies. And she applies this theory to her own life, finding in it comfort, instruction, and, most importantly of all, an explanation of her failed marriage. 

In Blanche's estimation, there are two sorts of people in the world. Those, like her, and like the saints and martyrs of the paintings, who sublimate their own appetites and always attempt to do well by others. And those, like her husband's lover, who simply and selfishly go after what they want in life no matter the collateral damage. Blanche concludes that she is more a victim of her mistaken identification with the wrong mythology than anything else. What she always saw as "selfishness" and "amorality" were, in fact, the very will to live.

In order to study up-close the kind of person she could never quite be herself, Blanche befriends a thoroughly selfish young woman named Sally. Vain, carefree, living only for the moment, Sally is the feminine type that men like her husband seem to find a source of eternal fascination. But while Sally provides Blanche with a useful model of the archetypal femme fatale, it is Sally's silent, serious, largely neglected stepdaughter, Elinor, with whom Blanche sympathizes and who she seeks to save. 

In the end, though, it is Blanche herself who needs saving, caught as she is in an unendurable limbo: unable to be a mythic goddess, no longer willing to be a martyred saint. How Brookner resolves what she sets up as Blanche's unresolvable predicament makes "A Misalliance" not only a deeply compelling and richly rewarding novel of ideas, but, inasmuch as a quiet, elegantly written psychological character study of a middle-aged woman can be, a riveting page-turner.   

***Memorable Lines***

"Her neighbors thought her unapproachable and therefore did not approach her. This did not amaze her for she was so intensely occupied  in her attempt to resolve inner contradictions that she rarely noticed the signals she gave out."

"She did not expect art to console her. Why should it? It may be that there is no consolation. But, like most people, she did expect it to take her out of herself, and was constantly surprised when it returned her to herself with no comment."

"If one is not very careful, free will can come to mean there being no good reason for getting up in the morning, becoming ridiculously dependent on the weather, developing odd little habits, talking to oneself, and not having very interesting conversations with anyone else."

"She was always quite conscious of her aberrations, which was why they rarely got out of hand."

"For Sally, like Mousie, like those cynical smiling nymphs in the National Gallery, had known, with an ancient knowledge, that the world respects a predator, that the world will be amused by, interested in, indulgent towards the charming libertine. At that moment Blanche knew herself  to be part of the fallen creation, doomed to serve, to be faithful, to be honorable, to be excluded."

"It occurred to her that she had never been deceived; merely surprised. Eternally surprised by the appetites of others and the lengths to which these appetites would take them. And she had been naive to think of this trait as selfishness, when it was life itself in its brutal urgings and promptings. It was the lesson she had never learned, being too schooled and educated in careful manners, and hoping to win her reward by scrupulous good faith."

"She had made her usual mistakes, thinking love to be easy, sweet, natural, reposeful, understood. Just as she had thought that love, once reciprocated could be counted as a blessed state, without thoughts of possession. I was foolish, she thought. I have never fully understood the laws of property. If I had, I should not be alone, at this moment, and apparently forced to remain so." 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

The Debut
Anita Brookner

For Ruth Weiss, books have always provided solace, escape, and advice in dealing with the harsh realities of life. They've also provided her with a career as a well-respected Balzac scholar. But as Dr. Weiss looks back on her life at forty, she wonders if  she somehow misunderstood the lessons to be gleaned from a lifetime of reading great literature. Has she identified with the "wrong" literary types, modeled herself on the long-suffering heroines whose virtuous behavior is so often richly rewarded in fiction...and hardly ever rewarded in real life?

In "The Debut," Anita Brookner takes up the story of Ruth's life from a dysfunctional childhood to a stifled middle-life in an attempt to answer this question. As Brookner tells it, Ruth's tale is by turns hilarious, touching, and, in the end, deeply unsettling. Try as she might to break free, Ruth seems doomed to play true to the literary type with which she by turns identifies and despises: the good woman, the dutiful daughter. Was Ruth's character determined by her reading, or were her reading preferences the result of her inherent character and therefore fated from the start? By the time Ruth asks herself these questions it is already too late (if, indeed, it wasn't always too late) and this slow-dawning revelation is the disturbing dark side of what is otherwise a deceptively light, witty, and thoroughly entertaining read.  

***Memorable Lines***

"Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature."

"Ruth wondered how she was going to fill the day. With anticipation, of course. That is how most women in love fill their day. Frequently the even anticipated turns out to be quite dull compared with the mood that preceded it. The onus for redeeming the situation rests on the other person, who is, of course, in no position to know of the preceding mood. Thus both fail and both are disappointed."

"She studied the couple closely, as if they were an unknown species. They were, in fact, an unknown species. They were happy."

"Don't make a mess of this. Don't give in too easily. String him along. Take another lover. Keep him guessing. Break the odd appointment. How on earth do you think I got Brian after all these years?"
     Ruth looked sadly at her friend. "Is it all a game then?"
     Anthea looked sadly back. "Only if you win. If you lose, it's far more serious."

"Ruth began to think of the world in terms of Balzacian opportunism. Her insights improved. She perceived that most tales of morality were wrong, that even Charles Dickens was wrong, and that the world is not won by virtue."

"If the moral code she had learned--through the literature she was now beginning to reinterpret--were correct, she should have flourished in her heavy unbecoming coat, in her laborious solitude, with her notes and the daily bus ride and the healthful lonely walks. Yet here she was, looking really not too bad, having spent more than half of her money, eating and drinking better than she had ever done in her life, and absconding from the Bibliotheque Nationale to spend time with another woman's husband."

"Selfishness and greed and bad faith and extravagance had made her into this semblance of a confident and attractive woman, had performed the miracle of forcing her to grow up and deal competently with the world. People seemed to like her more this way." 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

=2013 Books Read=

Anita Brookner

Paul Sturgis is in the twilight of his life. He's retired, well-situated, financially comfortable--and alone. He's been alone his entire life, but only now does it become painfully obvious. Yes, he's reaping the practical rewards of playing it safe, always doing as expected, and staying close to the middle of the road. But as he travels the last stretch of road into the sunset of his life he finds himself dissatisfied with his lot and it isn't only that he has no one in the seat beside him to share the ride.

Sturgis welcomes a disruptive change in his all-too-well-ordered life. Or thinks he does until he gets his wish in the form of two women. One is a true stranger, a woman he meets on a trip to Venice. The other is an old lover, who left him years ago to marry another man, and who remains an enigma. 

The disruption caused by these two women leave Sturgis torn between wanting to retreat to his formally uneventful life and the need to break through to...what? This is essentially the dilemma Sturgis confronts in "Strangers." What does he really want, this agreeable, amiable man who never dared to want anything but a quiet, uneventful life and a partner he would be content to please?

As she always does, Brookner dissects with virtuoso delicacy the amorphous, always-shifting psychological state of her principle character. What she manages to pin down here is precisely what can't be pinned down--the elusive satisfaction we all seek, an apotheosis that is always more in the pursuit than in the attainment.  

Filled with the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime, "Strangers" has the pared-down poignancy of an elegy to life. At 83, Brookner writes now as if she's well aware that each book can be her last. If that is the case with "Strangers," she's set a fitting capstone on the pyramid of her life's work.  

***Memorable Lines***

"Once the pains of love were relegated to the past the pains of living became more noticeable."

"He had privately observed that God was unjust, or, even worst than that, He was indifferent. To the pronouncement, I am that I am, went the unspoken addendum, Deal with it." 

"Was love merely an intrinsic part of youthful energy?"

"The past was hateful because it encoded one's mistakes, and was thus less about youth than about what one had done with it, and how close it had brought one to the fact of mortality."

"That life of making do, of making the best of a comfortable but uncomforting existence, could no longer be sustained. He supposed that he would go back to it eventually, but seen from here it registered as a last resort, rather like a hospital, or rather in the same category as a hospital, a place to die."

"The same desire for a better life, or at least for a different life, probably visited everyone once satisfied with what had been worked for, the same longing for some sort of reward, the same defiance, the same claim to more life. That was one of the dubious endowments of aging, a conviction that one's desires had not been met, that there was in fact no reward, and that the way ahead was simply one of endurance."

"Memory was now porous; little survived of the past to sustain him, and what did survive was infused with regret. But this regret too was valedictory, something to be renounced, as one abandons a lost cause. It was to other agencies that he now entrusted what remained of his life. Like a man at the dawn of time he put his faith in the return of the sun, the benign and vivifying light that would eventually bring fruition."