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Escaping, Arriving, Uniting, Prevailing : LATECOMERS <i> by Anita Brookner (Pantheon Books: $16.95; 248 pp.; 0-394-57172-X) </i>

<i> Rubin is a free-lance writer. </i>

In all but one of her seven previous novels, Anita Brookner has filtered the story through the complex, yet clarifying sensibility of a sensitive, self-conscious woman. The Brookner heroine is, among other things, a kind of moral barometer. Sympathizing with her perceptions, yet aware of her limitations and blind spots, the reader is moved to share--and question--her views. But the hint of ambivalence that adds such depth to her fiction is, apparently, not intended by Brookner, who told me quite explicitly when I interviewed her some years ago, that she shares her heroines’ perspective and wishes to present their moral dilemmas without irony. Perhaps this is a further irony?

Whatever the author’s intention, these heroines have a Jamesian complexity. When Brookner briefly abandoned the one-woman viewpoint for a more distant, omniscient narrative in her fifth novel, “Family and Friends,” the characters seemed flattened and the narrative voice more intrusively and insinuatingly didactic. “Latecomers,” her eighth novel, is Brookner’s second attempt to venture beyond the framework of a single, unifying, feminine consciousness. Like “Family and Friends,” it is a group portrait, but this time Brookner manages to get more deeply under her characters’ skins, lending them some of the poignancy and fullness of her heroines.

In place of a heroine, “Latecomers” has two heroes, who were sent to England from Nazi Germany by parents they would never see again. Since both men are called Thomas, they are known by their surnames: Hartmann and Fibich. Although unrelated by ties of blood, they are “twins” (the name Thomas comes from the Aramaic for twin ) in that they represent complementary polarities.

Hartmann is blessed with the ability to live in the present. Hedonistic, kindly, cheerful and enterprising, he is the one who came up with the idea for the greeting card business from which he and Fibich have prospered.

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Fibich is haunted by a past he can’t remember. He is an anxious, brooding man, unsure of himself, grateful to follow in Hartmann’s expansive wake, yet troubled by a sense that he is not living the brave, self-directed life he ought to.

Fibich’s wife, Christine, has the qualities of the typical Brookner heroine: She is gentle, sensitive, self-effacing, yet quietly dignified. Hartmann’s wife, Yvette, is just the sort of narcissistic woman who usually plays the selfish foil to the Brookner heroine. But in this novel, Yvette’s egotism, like Hartmann’s hedonism, is seen as a source of comfort to those around her: a distraction from melancholy and an affirmation--however shallow--of the life-force.

The Hartmann’s daughter, Marianne, at first looks like another of the pampered princesses Brookner has portrayed so well in the past. But she turns out to be genuinely docile, not “spoiled” at all. The Fibichs’ son, Toto, is a handsome, strong-willed womanizer. His parents are afraid of him, yet proud of having produced such a creature. Toward the novel’s end, he shows a certain inwardness that makes him more palatable.

Although the old Brookner dualisms are softened in this book, they are still the axes of vision coordinating her fictional world: strong/weak; selfish/self-effacing; self-confident/self-conscious. But the vision is touched with compassion for all, even the vain and the shallow. There is, perhaps, a shade too much compassion for the men: One cannot imagine Brookner tolerating Toto’s faults in a woman. Hartmann often sounds like a parody of an infuriating old-style Central European male chauvinist. He disapproves of his married daughter for losing her looks to pregnancy. He makes supposedly affectionate fun of his wife for taking night classes to improve her mind. His attitude is presented with unadulterated sympathy.

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More than sexual attitudes, however, this is a novel about the texture of time’s passage. We feel it in Hartmann’s hedonistic attempt to live in the present, prolonging the good moment, and in Fibich’s fears about the past and future. Fibich feels the guilt of the survivor. Hartmann suggests they are not survivors--since they did not share their parents’ terrible experiences--but “latecomers” who have come into full possession of their lives relatively late. Certainly, the ripeness they attain comes to them only in their 60s.

The climax of the book is Fibich’s decision to revisit Berlin. It takes all his reserves of willpower, but he is determined to have at least a chance of finding some memory of his lost childhood. Wandering the broad streets of a city much larger than he expected, Fibich makes no connections, but feels he has somehow passed a test of personal courage. Returning to England, he is caught off guard by a scene at the airport that suddenly revives his memory of the pain of parting he suffered as a young boy.

Oddly enough in a novel where time is of the essence, there are curious anachronisms. Yvette, who is described as a 2-year-old in wartime France, marries shortly after the advent of the New Look (1947) and has a child two years later, which would make her a bride at 5 and a mother at 7! One can only suppose that Brookner (and her editors) were as caught up by the spell of her narrative as her readers will be, and simply failed to spot the incongruity.

For this, despite its flaws, is an astonishingly powerful narrative. With unruffled serenity, as if she had all the time in the world and no fear of losing the reader’s attention, Brookner carefully, lingeringly, and searchingly explores the becalmed, cushioned, melancholy world of these two well-off bourgeois families. Yet here is wonderful economy in her leisureliness: Within a mere 248 pages, she has compressed a lifetime of subtle changes, four lifetimes, really, from dimly remembered childhood to encroaching old age.


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