Bleak, bleak, bleak. Anita Brookner’s new novel, Stran- gers, is unlikely to inspire resolutions to self-improvement or even cathartic tears. But its main character, a retired bank manager called Paul Sturgis, is a brilliant and affecting creation by a writer whose empathy runs deep, and whose pitch is perfect.
Sturgis, 72 years old, is in good health and financially well off. His trouble — and it is deep — is of another kind. He lives in a well-kept but dark and depressing flat in London. He has no children — only a distant female relative who lives on the other side of town and for whom he has no particular feeling. He visits her out of a sense of obligation, to give order to his days, and because he senses that, with death looming, it is ‘essential to possess not only a relative but a relative who would prove to be near at hand.’
Alas, she dies halfway through the novel, leaving Sturgis with no choice but to harden his heart, ‘haunted by a feeling of invisibility,’ reflecting on what ‘a terrible thing [it is] to live without witnesses.’ ‘His habits,’ writes Brookner, invoking Philip Larkin’s Mr Bleaney, ‘were ineradicably solitary’; ‘a sadness . . . had become the very climate of his life.’
Sentences like these appear on every page, with no hint, for a good three chapters, of anything so hopeful as a plot. But Brookner isn’t merely scene-setting or building suspense; she is describing truths that feel like burning in the oesophagus and may never be alleviated. Thus, the reiteration and circling back ring true.
The shame of death — the disgrace of leaving behind a body and belongings that must be disposed of by others — is never far away, and even as Sturgis is ‘briefly glad that he had no children whose lives might be overshadowed, even ruined, by attendance on him,’ he longs for familial connection.
His best companion, he thought, would be a young child … a boy, perhaps as young as four years of age . . . Any love he felt could be safely invested in such a child, from whom he would desire nothing in return … But no child was available, and he was left with adults and their tedious agenda, their discontent, their fear.
From adults Sturgis wants, more than anything, a sympathetic listener. Perhaps for this reason he instinctively prefers the company of women. But the women he knows resist him, and for this he blames himself. ‘It was the old dilemma: how was one to be known?’
Stymied by his own niceness, his unchallenging consideration for others and his persistent sense of etiquette, he has been self-sabotaging in love. When, in chapter four, he goes to Venice, and makes contact with an attractive younger divorcée, the promise of change shimmers briefly on the horizon. ‘Her delighted smile transformed the day.’ Back in London, she offers to sleep with him. He declines because ‘he had wanted to spare her the sight of an ageing body.’
The relationship persists, fitfully, throughout the book, but the promise of a new turn in Sturgis’s life comes to nothing. His gloomy routines continue to be punctuated at unpredictable intervals by her telephone calls and visits. But as he intuited from the beginning, the mysterious, ungraspable aura she cultivates is really no more than theatre: she is self-centred, incurious, rather preposterous.
There is one other woman he sees: an old love for whom he had proved insufficiently interesting in his youth. In that sense, nothing has changed: she remains impatient and judgmental, easily irritated by his courtly good manners, which cannot disguise his desperate need for companionship. But in another sense, everything has changed, for this lovely, fearless creature from his past is now, after miscarriages and more, enfeebled, both physically and emotionally. ‘Nature had deserted her. Or maybe nature had taken over.’ Sturgis is gallant to the last, but ‘he sensed that she was anxious to get away from him, simply because he communicated a sense of the past being irrecoverable.’
What is Sturgis left with? Dreams of travel, of new connections, of escape from his bedroom — ‘the room that disclosed his condition to him most readily.’
This is a brisk and moving story by a writer no longer prepared to offer up the usual comforts of fiction.