Back to Anita Brookner, and with Friends and Family, this wonderful author gives us a look at a wealthy Jewish family who live in London. The book is set between the world wars and so there are hints of shadows in the past and in the future. The book begins and ends with someone looking at old photographs and identifying various family members–a rather poignant activity as there’s the feeling that all these people, whose images are captured at a moment in time, are now dead.
The family matriarch is the widow Sofka Dorn. Her husband is long out of the picture, and there are hints given about his “little weakness,” which was, of course, women. Sofka has four children, and “named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy.” Frederick and Albert are the sons and Mireille (Mimi) and Babette (Betty) are the daughters. The novel charts the fortunes of these four children, with Sofka in the background as the years pass, and since we begin with a photograph the prevailing undercurrent here is how character determines destiny.
Frederick as the eldest son is the first one to come under scrutiny. He “is so charming and so attractive that women forgive him his little treacheries.” He’s surrounded by women who have marriage aspirations, and there’s a constant merry-go-round of females who visit Sofka’s house where Sofka makes it clear with barbed comments and marzipan cake that each woman is one of many. Some wonderful passages show how Sofka aids and abets her son’s bad behaviour–although she denies it strenuously.
When the telephone rings, and Frederick fears an importunate voice, he signals to his mother, and she gets up from her chair with the most extraordinary expression of girlish glee on her face. “I’m afraid Frederick is out,” she will say in her soft grave voice, one hand up to her mouth to subdue her smile. The voice continues in her ear, becoming plangent, and clearly audible to Frederick on the other side of the room, one hand wearily marking time to the reproaches. Sometimes when Sofka is unable to terminate the conversation as briefly as decency tells her is necessary, Frederick sets his metronome going and his mother is obliged to bring her handkerchief up to her mouth to stifle a little laugh.
Sofka imagines that her sons will marry “replicas” of their mother, and of course, one day a woman claims Frederick.
Youngest son Alfred is the polar opposite of Frederick. He’s serious–too serious, and devotes himself to the family business. He has a dream of owning a country house where he believes he will “find his true centre.”
Sometimes Alfred has a dream in which he is running through a dark wood; at his heels there are two beautiful golden dogs, his familiars, and with them he is running through the dark wood of his pilgrimage towards the golden dawn of his reward. It is this strange dream that has determined Alfred to look for his real home.
He launches on the quest to find the country house of his dreams, but when that fantasy proves impossible, he finally buys a house that does not fit his dream, installs grumpy housekeeper Muriel who rather takes advantage of her employer, and fills the place with furniture which “give[s] the place the look of a hotel.” Wren House is full of guests every weekend, and Alfred, who has denied himself for years, indulges in an affair with a married, spoiled “greedy woman of fickle appetites”
Now to the sisters: again polar opposites. Mimi is gentle and retiring whereas Betty, peaks at 16, fanangles her way to Paris and eventually moves to New York and then Hollywood. Both Frederick and Betty, who both seem to possess a ‘wild card’ are “stranded” and “adrift” in middle age. They were the most selfish of the four siblings and yet somehow they both become subsumed by the desires and destinies of others.
The novel shows how siblings do not grow up in a vacuum but are impacted by one another. Mimi, for example, is overshadowed by Betty’s selfishness and boldness and never recovers while Albert, left by Frederick to be the responsible son, dreams of escape to … somewhere … something.
I loved Friends and Family and marvel in the way Brookner created an elegant, lost world peopled with the extensive Dorn family and various hangers on and servants all neatly detailed in under 200 pages. Many of the Brookner novels set in the last decades of the 20th century felt as though they could have been set in the 50s. Family and Friends, set between the two world wars, had the feel of the late 19th century at times.