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.
11 responses to “Friends and Family: Anita Brookner”
As ever with this author, the book sounds marvellous. In some respects, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that at times this reads like a 19th-century novel. There are clear links to the literature of Balzac in her debut, A Start in Life, so it could be a recurring influence in her work.
She was such a brilliant observer of people at close quarters…
I have a lot of Brookners, but I don’t have this one, I shall have to find a copy!
Thanks, Brookner is masterful.
Brookner is masterful, but I do wonder if the slight antiquity of her texts is a failing. If a book feels like it’s set in the 1950s, why not set it then? Still, most of us over the age of say 30 live in a decade already past in a sense (how many of us are avid snapchatters I wonder? I suspect not many).
It sounds good, but probably a bit down the list for me of the Brookner’s you’ve already reviewed.
Nearly all of her books still seem to be in print, so that’s a good sign. On the dating of the texts:
1) I think Brookner is writing from a rarefied world.
2) Some of it seems to be the almost total absence of cultural references
3) Some of it is the age of her characters (not all however).I had one set of grandparents perpetually frozen in pre WWII while another set were very progressive.
I’m reading A Private View with a 65 yo man whose life is interrupted by a young woman in her 30s. This book seems to be set in its times as was Visitors in which a 70 yo widow is exposed to a group of young people.
But take Hotel du lac, Look at Me, Undue Influence and Dolly. They all could be set 20-30 years earlier for the settings and the themes. These characters are not concerned with social issues: miners strikes, etc, and I think that’s just Brookner’s rarified world.
These four novels are written about fairly young characters but it’s that rarefied world again that makes the date of the setting wobble a bit. Hotel du Lac concerns a writer but the other three are women of independent means who have some sort of bookish employment.
With Friends and Family, there’s the sense that we are seeing a world that is soon to fade away.
Points well made Guy. Do you think you’ll do a ranking of them once you’ve read a few more? How many do you have left?
Yes I’ll rank. I’m going to read them all–however many there are….I haven’t counted. I’m very annoyed with one of the characters in a Private View so that one may go on the bottom of the future list
I find this sounds superb. Dreamier than some of the others. Not sure that’s quite the right word but you painted a sepia-colored picture (not only by mentioning the photos) in your review, so it makes me think the book that has that same quality,
You would really like this Caroline. So far of the lot, this one rates highly IMO. AT first I wanted more about all these characters but then I thought about it and realised that we are just getting snapshots of these lives (which ties into the photos)
I got that from your review. They all sound good but this one seems to have something more and different to offer.
Yes, definitely the feel of a 19th century novel here. It’s almost reminiscent of Edith Wharton at times.