The yearning for love in a lonely world

Special to The Times

In her latest novel, “Making Things Better,” British writer Anita Brookner takes us inside the mind of Julius Herz, a 73-year-old man who has lived in London for many years.

But to call Herz a Londoner, while accurate on one level, discounts a major thread in Herz’s ruminations: In his youth, he and his family fled Nazi Germany for England -- and in some ways Herz is still trying to fit in.

Herz, possessed as a boy with what Brookner describes as “an eager, placating smile,” spent many years of his life attempting to “make things better” -- for his frustrated, hypochondriacal mother; for his father, who, through the kindness of a fellow refugee, gets a job in a record shop; for his brother, a musical protege who ends up suffering from a variety of ailments. When the three of them, in turn, die, Herz -- already middle-aged -- struggles to figure out what to do with himself.


Brookner has a true gift for plumbing the depths of her characters’ psyches, dredging up major events from the past and circling around and around them until the character -- and also the reader -- gets a clearer idea of how those events form patterns in the protagonist’s life. Like many Brookner characters, Herz is desperately lonely and spends much of his time thinking: about his loneliness, about the few figures who populate his daily existence and about key people in his past.

When we meet Herz, he has been retired for several years from the record shop (he, too, went to work there, and eventually became the owner) and is living in a well-situated London flat, courtesy of the same refugee who helped his family shortly after their arrival.

He passes his time taking walks around nearby parks, attempting, often awkwardly, to make contact with people around him. His circle of acquaintances is small: his lawyer, his ex-wife -- whom he at times still refers to as his “wife” -- and a few neighbors. His major social events are an occasional meal with Bernard Simmonds, the lawyer, or with Josie, the ex-wife.

The stasis of Herz’s existence is shaken up briefly when a young woman named Sophie Clay moves into the flat downstairs.

While Sophie, for the most part, considers Herz of very little interest, he becomes fascinated with this new person in his cramped, confined world.

Herz’s marriage, which lasted only a couple of years and took place long ago, was apparently a casualty of Herz’s devotion to his family. Josie, not a refugee and not familiar with his family’s lifestyle, left him after being unable to live in a small flat with his parents. Still, this relationship with Josie -- who also never remarried -- factors prominently in Herz’s thoughts.


But the true love of Herz’s life is his cousin, Fanny Bauer. While Herz’s immediate family headed for London, Fanny and her mother left Berlin for Switzerland, where Fanny married a man her mother found for her. Decades later, the middle-aged Herz journeyed to Switzerland to see Fanny, now widowed, and her mother -- and proposed to Fanny, who turned him down. This story, told in the opening pages of the novel, is returned to often.

And as the plot progresses, the now-elderly Herz attempts to reunite with Fanny, the one person remaining of his family. While he knows Fanny is selfish -- “petulant, with the petulance of a spoilt pretty woman, demanding and discontented,” Brookner writes -- he remembers her as charming, and when he receives a letter from her, he realizes what he needs to do.

Brookner has dealt before in her fiction with refugees, for example in “Latecomers,” and successfully evokes the sense of loss and the search for a new identity these characters face, even many years after their initial upheaval. While Brookner hints that Herz and his family are Jewish, interestingly, she never says so. Herz is portrayed as not especially religious.

Herz’s story makes one wonder what point Brookner is trying to make. Through Herz’s lack of integration into the society in which he has lived for so long, she could be reinforcing the idea that the shadows of a tragic event like the Holocaust are still with us, and that people who are displaced go through their lives with an extra burden.

On the other hand, she could be focusing more narrowly on the particular circumstances surrounding the life of this one man.

“Making Things Better” is not light reading. In fact, though beautifully written, it is somber, even depressing at times.


But Brookner carries the novel, her 21st, off with her usual intelligence, and for this, serious readers should be glad.