Drowning Tastefully in the Dark : A FRIEND FROM ENGLAND<i> by Anita Brookner (Pantheon Books: $15.95; 205 pp.) </i>

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“Unheimlich’ was the word that came to mind,” says Rachel, the narrator of Anita Brookner’s comfortless and discomforting seventh novel, contemplating her blank, white, unfriendly habitat. Rachel hasn’t read Freud (Freud would have wanted to read her), but Brookner allows her to remark that “unhomely,” in the “psychiatric textbook” she has glanced at, seems an inadequate translation for “the effect of alienation” in unheimlich .

She is suffering from the condition of all the solitaries in Brookner’s fictional hospital: Mimi in “Family and Friends,” whose “profound despair” proceeds from a sense of exclusion from the living world, Frances in “Look at Me” who “could only identify a feeling of exclusion . . . as if the laws of the universe no longer applied to me,” Kitty in “Providence” who feels “in a state of alienation,” “a stranger to the rest of the world.”

Brookner has frequently been misread as a soft option, a wistful English lady writing short, tender, sorrowful novels a la Rosamond Lehmann, on broken hearts and lost loves. This is quite wrong. She is an obsessive, clinical, severely disenchanted writer. All the same, it’s hard to resist the naive temptation to read her heroines as self-projections. Some are more likable than others, and some, like Edith Hope in “Hotel du Lac,” find a way home from their condition of exile. But they all, like their elegant author, cultivate style as surface, and defend themselves by a contrivance of would-be invulnerable, perfected manners. ( Dandy is a key word.) And they are all drawn, in a succession of “misalliances,” to couples or families with a quite different style--or no style at all--living fat, cozy, undisillusioned lives of sensual excesses or homely bliss. These attractions are also repulsions: discriminating despair is usually preferred to vulgar happiness. Brookner is something of an emotional snob.

Rachel fits the pattern, but she is an extreme case in the Brookner hospital, off in her own isolation ward. (She spends much of the novel feeling ill.) This is a lesson for anyone wanting to read Brookner as an intimate, confessional writer, a “friend from England.” For Rachel, as the tone of her narration brilliantly and chillingly makes apparent, is to be deeply distrusted:


“It seemed to me that I conducted my life on rather enlightened principles, that is to say, I imposed certain restraints on my feelings, kept a very open mind, rather despised those conventions that are supposed to bring security, and passed lightly on whenever I saw trouble coming.”

As a statement of policy, this has a queasy, hollow ring. Rachel thinks of herself as an adult, disillusioned and effective. She earns her living (in a bookshop), “favors sensible arrangements” and leads a “pared-down life” in her white box. Rejecting the “farrago” of romantic involvement, she has “cut her losses,” goes in for uncommitted secret adventures and violently despises women who need love and marriage. But she is not the invulnerable dandy she would like to be. Rachel has bad dreams, and fears death by drowning. Down there in the depths are buried her dead parents’ neglect of her, her failure in love, and her terrible sense of precariousness.

Her consolation--and her weak spot--is her friendship with a family so mild and homely as to seem to her “a lost paradise of unworldliness,” where she can safely regress into childish vulnerability. The comically named Oscar Livingstone, once her father’s accountant, now hers, has had a big win on the football pools and retired to a life of opulent suburban comforts in Wimbledon with his doting Dorrie, their only anxiety the marrying of their rather dull daughter, Heather. Rachel, self-appointed guardin to Heather (whom she despises), witnesses her rapidly unraveling marriage to one dubious character, and her second try, in Italy, to move away from her parents into an adult life.

This plot is very strangely presented. There is almost no dialogue, and a good deal of repetition. The Livingstons’ characteristics, and their lush material tastes (“Regency” wallpaper, imitation gas fires, heavy colored glass ashtrays, deep armchairs with matching green silk-covered footstools), are elaborately done, but the effect is of condescending caricature, unlike the richly observed lives of “Family and Friends.” The shifty son-in-law and his terrible father, Rachel’s much-derided women friends and her bookshop colleagues, are mere ciphers. Heather herself is a non-person, speechless and inert.

At last, though, we see what Brookner is up to. Rachel is sent to Venice for the crisis--”the ultimate nightmare: a city filled with water”--and does indeed find herself sinking. Like Strether in “The Ambassadors” (late James hangs, somewhat stiflingly, over the whole novel), she goes to fetch Heather back from the life she has chosen, and finds herself at risk. “Perhaps I was beginning to find a symbolism in her undistinguished adventure and the light it was shedding on my own life.” What we are reading is not a social comedy or novel of sensibility, but an allegorical debate between a false life of repression and a true life of risks and engagements. And it is the “Brookner heroine” who is defeated.

But how narrow the terms of the debate are, with no alternatives for women other than self-deceiving freedom or sexual dependency! And how faintly the opposition is drawn! And how neurotic and obscure the narrative is!--as troubling as Giorgione’s painting “The Tempest,” which Brookner characteristically provides as an analogue for her allegory. Rachel is “made for the dark”--”Who said life wasn’t terrible?” she says to Heather, echoing James’ Prince in “The Golden Bowl”: “Everything’s terrible, cara , in the heart of man.” For all Brookner’s sly distancing of this narrative voice, it’s impossible not to feel that this harsh, dark fable speaks of her own despair; it may be that if she didn’t write, she would drown.