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Richard Eder

Family and Friends by Anita Brookner (Pantheon: $13.95; 187 pp.)

October 27, 1985|Richard Eder

The motor of Anita Brookner's brief and very artful novel is time. That is close to a truism. If any one thing distinguishes the novel in general from the short story in general, it is that the novel is an embarkation onto time, and the short story is a landing.

But this already suggests the image of a river; and this is what time is in many novels. In others, it is a clock, with the author firmly controlling the movement of characters around to their appointed chime roulades or cuckoo maneuvers.

Brookner's "Family and Friends" is a mechanism, not a stream. But its circling shift of power and life within a wealthy emigre family living near London is more top than clock. Life spins to the author's touch, each character waxing and waning rhythmically in his or her own color. And, then, as they slow down, the rhythm grows erratic, and they lurch unpredictably. The only predictable thing is that eventually they will topple and lie still.

The book begins with a wedding photograph. As it goes on, other wedding photographs will appear, each a freeze-frame depicting the changes that have befallen each member of the Dorn family over a generation.

At the start, the central figure is Sophie, a widow whose husband has left her a declining family business. She is charming, imperious and bent upon bringing up her two sons, Frederick and Alfred to re-establish the business. Her daughters, Mimi and Betty are to live harmonious feminine lives: flirting, marrying well and seeing that their husbands' shirts are ironed and put away with lavender and vetiver.

Immediately, as is the way with most any family, the characters--and destinies--of each of the children seem to be fixed. Frederick, the charmer and Don Juan, will run the business brilliantly, steadied by Lautner, an old family friend. Should his pleasures get the best of him, his younger brother Alfred, a quiet bookworm and momma's boy, will take over.

Among the girls, Betty emerges as the wild one. Sexy and willful, she will run off to Paris with her dancing teacher. Mimi, quietly lovely, is more attractive in fact. But the men who look her way are promptly dazzled by Betty, and Mimi seems destined to be the aging spinster.

Two greyhounds, then, and two cocker spaniels. But the dashing Frederick slows down and grows stout and vaguely feminine. A vigorous hotel-keeper's daughter takes him over. He spends the rest of his life, most agreeably, as a vague and charming host on the Italian Riviera: greyhound turned lap dog.

Betty, in Paris, becomes an industrious charmer, whose tiny apartment is littered with old pots of makeup. She seduces--or is seduced by--a movie producer and is taken to Hollywood. Idleness dampens her fire. She sits by her modestly opulent swimming pool, grows fat and dreams of her childhood.

As for Mimi, her melancholia is dispelled by the imperceptible wooing of Lautner, the old family friend. By the novel's end, Sophie is dead and Mimi has replaced her and taken on a solidity that her two more fiery siblings have lost.

Alfred changes the most. He has taken over the family business as Frederick fades and revived it. The dreamy bookworm has become a cold, hard-working success; the joyless pillar of the family's renewed fortunes.

At night he dreams of walking with two golden retrievers in a dark wood toward a golden sunrise. Growing older, he tries to break out and become a gentleman of pleasure; but his pleasures are ungainly and dull. Turtlelike, his slow-and-steady has won the race over his hare brother. The trouble is that when you win a race this way, you get no breeze in your face.

Or do you? The top has not quite run down, and Brookner hints, in her delicately ironic ending, that another lurch or two may well take place.

The author, an English art historian whose novels are attracting increasing attention, constructs her jeweled wobble with precision and grace. She takes risks doing so. For one thing, she makes deliberate use of stock figures and stock scenes. The ambitious and designing Sophie, the fiery hellcat Betty, Mimi the spinster, languishing over a youthful love, and Frederick, the aging roue, are dangerously and sometimes cloyingly close to caricature. A movie producer, father of the one Betty will marry, has sleek gray hair, for example, and smokes a cigar.

Then, instead of concealing her mechanism, the author stresses it by using a silkily knowing narrator who chokes us with omniscience. The language is dosed and wears starches; if we don't pay close attention, we may think we are in some Edwardian pot-simmerer. Or, more closely, in an Edward Gorey take-off of such a thing.

There is some tediousness in Brookner's deliberate use of Tiffany glass shards. But what she has constructed is no pastiche but something new. Her set pieces move in original ways, and it is in their movement that the novel finds its considerable witchery.

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