Anita Brookner’s novel Look at Me is the story of Frances (Fanny), a young librarian, a burgeoning writer, who makes friends with a glittering handsome couple only to find that she is completely out of her depth.
Fanny lives in a large inherited London flat, which was purchased, furnished, during WWII. It’s full of wonderfully bizarre furniture “which looks like something sprung direct from the brain of an ambitious provincial tart,” and Fanny (who hates to be called that, by the way) lives with an elderly Irishwoman named Nancy. Nancy is a legacy from Fanny’s mother; she nursed Fanny’s mother in her final illness, and she still takes care of Fanny. Nothing has changed in spite of the death of Fanny’s parents, and now Fanny goes to work at a reference library of a medical research institute “dedicated to the problems of human behaviour.” There are some delicate references to a broken love affair which Fanny very occasionally refers to later in the novel as “the time of which I never speak.”
Some of the novel’s action centres on the library and its frequent visitors: Mrs Halloran, who drinks too much and who writes articles for psychic magazines, using the library (sometimes inappropriately) to escape her hotel room And then there’s Dr Simek, a serious, courtly “Czech or Pole,” a nice, polite man but he’s not nearly as attractive as Nick Fraser, one of the two doctors whose research is being funded by the institute. Nick is “everybody’s favourite.” And why not: he’s “tall and fair, an athlete, a socialite, well-connected, good-looking, charming.” He makes lightening visits to the library, flirts, and with his boyish charm manages to get the two librarians, Fanny and Olivia to do his bidding. Nick is a perfect example of someone who floats by in life with superficial charm. If he were taciturn or unpleasant, his behaviour would be seen for what it really is. But neither Fanny nor Olivia mind being used by Nick because it’s enough to have that golden gaze fall upon them–if even for a moment.
Nick is married to a woman named Alix, a woman who is always the centre of attention. She’s supposedly ‘come down in life,’ and while she (and Nick) have the power to make people feel fortunate when she turns her attention to them, she is also capable of casual cruelty. In their circle of friends, “everyone succumbs to Alix.” There’s a great scene in the book as Alix first sweeps into the library and grabs everyone’s attention when she tells Fanny that she and Nick are having an argument about how she should wear her hair.
“I think it looks very nice either way,” I said lamely, but that didn’t seem to matter either because she had already turned to Nick and posed with one hand on her hip and the other smoothing up the escaping strands on her neck. Mrs. Halloran and Dr Simek had suspended their research and were looking on as if some voluptuous cabaret had been devised for their entertainment.
A more experienced woman would see Alix’s behaviour for what it really is, but Fanny, who is lonely and who sees the Frasers as offering her an option to her staid boring life, launches full steam ahead into a close friendship with Nick and Alix.
With Alix, everyone in her circle must be inferior and owned, added to the circle to be part of the selected audience to admire this golden couple, and it’s when it comes to ownership that the situation becomes destructive and painful.
She is one of those fortunate women who create circles of loyal friends wherever she goes, so that being with her is like belonging to a club.
I loved Look at Me, and of the three Brookners I’ve read so far, this is my favourite, and I was rather surprised to discover that it was written early in her career (1983). Dolly was published ten years later in 1993 and Undue Influence appeared in 1999. In Look at Me, Brookner gives us another quiet, solitary woman who has a bookish job, and there’s another legacy relationship (Fanny inherits Nancy from her mother) just as Jane inherits Dolly from her mother. Alix reminded me of Cynthia in Undue Influence, but Alix is crueler, more destructive.
I loved Fanny’s dreaded visits to the former librarian, Miss Morpeth who “seems sealed off from the vital interests of the living world.” This is another relationship that gives Fanny a shock–how funny to think we are being so gracious and kind to visit someone only to discover that they loathe our visits every bit as much as we loathe to make them. There’s quite a bit of self-deception going on which Fanny manages, painfully, to finally shirk at the end of the book. She says she needs the Frasers “for material,” but the pull towards the Frasers originates in a desire to avoid “that withering little routine that would eventually transform me into a version of Miss Morpeth.” We see destruction and unhappiness rolling towards Fanny long before she does. Fanny is an introvert, and her attraction to the Frasers and her desperate gratitude to be included is the action of an introvert admiring an extrovert when really there’s very little to admire. And finally why am I not surprised to read that Brookner never married and nursed her aged parents?
Gert’s review is here