Anita Brookner, a British author and renowned art historian, has died at the age of 87 in London. Known for her dire novels of feminine despair, Brookner was known as the “mistress of gloom.”
Brookner was the daughter of Polish immigrants who fled to the UK to escape the Nazi’s Jewish persecution. They changed their surname from Bruckner to Brookner to assimilate into society. Anita was born in London on July 16, 1928. Her father was a businessman, and her mother was a singer. Anita said that her father was fascinated with Charles Dickens’ literature and thought that it was an accurate depiction of life in England. She said she never felt like she fit in with the English, that she was an outsider. Anita says she found the English to be “flippant, complacent, ineffable, but never serious, which is sometimes maddening.”
She said, “I still read a Dickens novel every year and I am still looking for a Nicholas Nickleby!”
“I was brought up to look after my parents. My family were Polish Jews, and we lived with my grandmother, with uncles and aunts and cousins all around, and I thought everybody lived like that. They were transplanted and fragile people, an unhappy brood, and I felt that I had to protect them. Indeed that is what they expected. As a result, I became an adult too soon and paradoxically never grew up.”
Anita Brookner said her family opened their doors to Jewish refugees. She said because of her heritage, she always felt like an outsider in England and “never learnt the custom of the country.”
Brookner attended prestigious schools, including the King’s College London. She focused her studies on French artists, especially Jean-Baptiste Greuze. She taught at Reading University and Courtauld Institute. She spent three years as a postgraduate studying in Paris and said she had “never been so happy,” according to BBC News. She was the first female academic to hold the Slade chair of fine art at Cambridge University.
Anita Brookner published her first novel, A Start in Life, in 1981 at the age of 53. The book closely reflected Anita’s own life in her early adulthood. She said she wrote because she had no children, according to the New York Times. In 1987, she told the Paris Review that her writing began “in a moment of sadness and desperation.”
“My life seemed to be drifting in predictable channels, and I wanted to know how I deserved such fate. I thought if I could write about it I would be able to impose some structure on my own experience. It gave me a feeling of being at least in control. It was an exercise in self-analysis, and I tried to make it as objective as possible. No self-pity and no self-justification. But what is interesting about self-analysis is that it leads nowhere. It is an art form in itself.”
Brookner wrote a novel almost every year after that. English critic Miranda Seymour wrote that Brookner’s characters “tend to be women of a type, forlorn figures who seem always to be looking for Henry James’ bench of desolation on which to deposit their meekly skirted behinds for an afternoon of fruitless anticipation.”
Her fourth book, Hotel du Lac, was published in 1984 and won the Booker Prize, much to the surprise of many, as J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun was considered a shoo-in.
In 1988, she retired from teaching, and in 1990, she became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She went on to write a total of 24 novels. Her last work, a novella, At the Hairdressers, was published as an e-book in 2011. Anita Brookner’s passing has saddened many in the literary world. Brookner requested not to have a funeral.
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