If the quintessential Anita Brookner novel revolves around the self-obsessive woes of a highly self-conscious, introspective woman, there are also quite a few of them in which the protagonist is a man. He too is a sensitive soul, detached from the world around him and dedicated to self-contemplation. Loneliness, displacement and an overwhelming sadness are hallmarks of the singular emotional territory Brookner has delineated in the nearly 30 years since this eminent art historian began writing fiction.
For the first couple of decades, her novels appeared with clockwork regularity each year, one tour de force after another. Like snowflakes, they appeared at first to be alike: In fact, each was intricately different from the others, all beautifully crafted variations on a theme. But recently, the pace has slowed and now the novels come at intervals of several years. The familiar themes are there, but there is a definite autumnal atmosphere about them: The fury at thwarted hopes and lost opportunities has been replaced by a grim resignation with hints of desperation that there cannot really be much more to expect.
Why then do Brookner's novels continue to compel so many readers? Is it just an orgy of schadenfreude, allowing them to wallow vicariously in the misery of others? Perhaps, but there is something undeniably fascinating about her protagonists as they face up to their bleak existences and make something of them.
In "Strangers," Brookner's 24th novel, Paul Sturgis is an elderly bachelor, a retired bank manager, a solitary figure who lives modestly in a small, unprepossessing apartment in a respectable part of London. But in Brookner's hands, he is anything but dull, for you get to find out all about him and his inner life. A devoted son, he was thrown over by the woman with whom he had a lengthy relationship and whom he genuinely loved -- in essence because he was too good, she said. In vintage Brooknerian scenes, he gazes out of his windows into the rainy streets and memorably evokes scenes from a life that was not without its Sturm und Drang.
Even now, in his solitary state, the world impinges on Paul. There are the responsibilities resulting from the death of the nearest he has to a relative, a late cousin's wife (what a typically Brookner connection!); the impositions of Vicky Gardner, a crass young woman he meets on a trip to Venice; and a chance encounter with Sarah, the fiancee who jilted him: All of these combine to shake up his staid little world. Brookner often cites Dickens as a favorite writer, and there are definite echoes of him here, not merely in the use of coincidence and convergence but also in the portrait of Sarah -- an updated version of the ludicrous Flora Finching in "Little Dorrit" and just as hard to imagine as ever having been an object of desire.
In early Brookner novels, the protagonists were wont to envy those who seemed to get their way in the world. Lately they have been more likely to seize on people even more miserable than themselves. With her unhappy marriage, which seems to have ruined her health, the woeful, complaining Sarah is a pathetic counterpoint to Paul. Next to her, he seems admirable in his staunch acceptance of his solitary state, facing the reality that he will die, as he has lived, alone.
In "Strangers," though, there are signs that Brookner's art is fraying a bit round the edges. That once lapidary style which made every sentence a conscious pleasure to read has eroded somewhat. Her use of expressions such as "Deal with it" are jarring, and there are occasional solecisms that once would have been unthinkable in her prose.
When he first encounters Sarah again after all those years, Paul unflinchingly notices "a slackened jawline, an air of fatigue." Brookner, who is 80, has indicated recently that this will be her last novel. Perhaps that would be for the best. Fatigue and slackness of prose do not become her fictional world. Just as her protagonists now need their steely quality, her writing needs to be diamond-hard to do justice to them and their singular world.
Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."