“It is my conviction that everyone is profoundly eccentric,” observes Claire Pitt, the 29-year-old narrator of Anita Brookner’s new novel Undue Influence. Of course, the remark could just as easily have been uttered by the author, who specializes in fictional portraits of women caught somewhere between the Victorian ideal of femininity and the modern example of liberated self-sufficiency. Brookner’s female characters are invariably spinsters, widows, adulterers, or divorcées. If they’re enjoying the company of the opposite sex, chances are the guy’s a philanderer, an old-fashioned mama’s boy, or, more likely, some cunning mix of the two. There’s something frighteningly Beckettian about this repetitive scenario in which one sex longs with increasing futility for spiritual fulfillment from another whose motive perversely lacks emotional depth.
The endless analysis of this equation has left many of Brookner’s fans frustrated, never mind feminist critics who cringe at the small playing deck of gender stereotypes. While unlikely to change anyone’s mind about what kind of writer Brookner is, Undue Influence is notable for several reasons, not least for its majestic prose style. Brookner has always been a writer of crystalline sentences, but here the faultless diction achieves a kind of aphoristic elegance. “Virginity is a rotten endowment,” remarks Claire, whose crisp speculations on the erotic tendencies of friends and strangers never fail to entertain. Commenting on a garishly mismatched wealthy couple, she slyly notes, “The ardor of the early years…had not survived the change from his dependence on her to her dependence on him.”
After having devoted her early life to the care of her now dead mother, Claire finds herself adrift in the world, fearful of replicating her parents’ disastrous marriage, though uncertain whether to follow her own libertine impulses, which have led to a string of anonymous affairs. By day she works in a secondhand bookstore, though she’s really a novelist manqué, imagining in minute detail the lives of those who come into her admittedly limited orbit. Of particular fascination is an attractive if wimpy middle-aged man with whom she stutters into an amorous relationship that ultimately forces her to question her ability to envisage other lives.
At the heart of the book is an appreciation of the defiant complexity of even the most banal personality; apparently even a storyteller as shrewd as Claire can mis- judge her characters. The ending is predictably glum, yet Undue Influence is filled with the aesthetic brightness of Brookner at her self-ironic best.