A Private View: Anita Brookner

“The girl possessed an unusual gift:she brought everyone to the brink of bad behaviour.”

After a string of Anita Brookner novels from the female perspective, it was a change of pace to come across A Private View. The protagonist of this novel is 65-year-old, freshly retired George Bland. When the novel opens, he’s having a boring time in Nice. There’s too much time on his hands and too much time to think, and so he returns to his London flat to resume his retirement. But shortly upon his return, his life is disrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Katy Gibb who commandeers the opposite flat. George finds that his life of orderly calm is now subject to disturbing thoughts and longings. Will the man who’s spent his whole life with caution as the dominant force, now suddenly become impulsive and throw caution to the winds?

a private view

Thematically, A Private View has the most in common with Visitors (of the ones I’ve read so far). Visitors is the story of a widow who temporarily houses a young man, and his presence forces the widow to question her life and her choices. Katy Gibb has the same impact on George, but in George’s case, Katy wheedles and manipulates her way into George’s life against his better judgement, flagrantly dangling herself rather like a piece of ripe fruit.

George, to outsiders, and certainly to Katy, seems to be mundane and boring. He loves his routine, goes to bed early and never overindulges. The reader, however, is privy to George’s inner thoughts and concerns that perhaps he’s been too cautious in his life. Born into poverty, and used to a life of modest means, he put off marriage to his teenage sweetheart, Louise, until she got fed up waiting and left George to marry someone else. And then there’s the memory of George’s dearest friend Putnam, who died before he could retire, before Putnam and George could put all of their retirement travel plans into reality:

They had waited for too long, and the result was this hiatus, and the reflection that time and patience may bring poor rewards, that time itself, if not confronted at the appropriate juncture, can play sly tricks, and, more significantly, that those who do not act are not infrequently acted upon.  

It takes George a while to see Katy for what she is, and even though he’s onto her game, he’s still torn by desire and even pity. For George, Katy represents everything he isn’t, everything he didn’t do with his life. Her presence unearths the question of regret, and offers George, devilishly, the opportunity to indulge in behaviour he’s always cautiously avoided.

While Brookner uncovers George’s private thoughts, he still (in complete privacy) isn’t entirely honest with himself, cloaking his desire with denial and excuses.

He knew that he was not being quite honest with himself: he had been stimulated by the sight of the girl’s appetites (for there had been more than one in evidence) and intrigued by her, as if she were a puzzle sent to beguile him in these bewildering days of leisure, this life so free of incident and adventure

Overall, George was far too easy on Katy, who had an over inflated opinion of herself and could have done with a swift kick in the bum.

On another level, I was mildly irritated by George’s thoughts that he never spent money. He eats out about twice a day, just returned from Nice, and I lost count of the number of taxis he took. But these are symptoms of Brookner’s rarefied world. In most of the other Brookners I’ve read, the female protagonists have some sort of bookish employment but also have independent means. George, who stayed at the same job for decades, has a pension which was added to when Putnam made George his beneficiary, so again no money worries. It’s interesting to note that while the protagonist of Visitors had a deeply rooted fear of having her home taken away by nefarious means, Katy doesn’t hide her designs on George’s flat.

order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 



Friends and Family

Undue Influence

A Private View (bottom of the list because Katy was so repellent)




Filed under Brookner Anita, Fiction

12 responses to “A Private View: Anita Brookner

  1. I guess the creation of a truly repellent character shows the writer’s skill, but as readers we can be so turned off by her it spoils the book for us, as for you in this case.I haven’t read this one but love the comment about George thinking he never spends money ,yet his indulgent habits are writ large.

  2. Shortage of funds is rarely a problem for her characters.

  3. It’s the least tempting of those you reviewed so far but still sounds good. The Next Big Thing, one I own also has an older male protagonist.

  4. Jonathan

    Wow, you’re storming through these and each one sounds like the sort of book I’d enjoy. Is the ending dramatic or quite calm?

  5. I have this TBR along with a few other Brookners. Just trying to decide which to go for first…..

  6. The money thing would annoy me, and it does sound like it’s a product of Brookner’s world. One does suspect that she thought he wasn’t spending any money particularly.

    I wasn’t surprised to see it midpoint on your list. It sounded a midpoint sort of novel.

    The bit about being too cautious and so losing out on life did rather remind me of this folk song:

    It was on one Monday morning and oh and it was soon
    I bought my pretty Betty a pair of new shoes
    A pair of new shoes and slippers also
    But I lost my pretty Betty by courting too slow
    I lost my pretty Betty by courting too slow

    I bought my pretty Betty a garland of green
    And ribbons that you wear so fair to be seen
    And rings for her fingers all made of glitt’ring gold
    But I lost my pretty Betty by not being bold
    I lost my pretty Betty by not being bold

    It was on one Tuesday evening and oh and it was late
    I fain would have kissed her but I was too straight
    I was thinking how to gain her consent to be true
    I lost my pretty Betty by courting too slow

    For in there come a sailor all in his tarry shoes
    He went into the chamber where my true love was
    He kissed her and he flattered her, he flattered her so
    He fair won the day by my courting too slow
    He fair won the day by my courting too slow

    So come all you bold fellows and pray take my advice
    And when you go a-courting now don’t you be too nice
    But you kiss all them pretty girls and you let them for to know
    That you don’t mean to lose them by courting too slow
    That you don’t mean to lose them by courting too slow

  7. The main character could have written this, thanks Max.

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