This piece was originally read to Roundhill Book Group on 16 August 2018
Lewis Percy is a rare thing among Anita Brookner’s 24 novels in that its main character is male. I know of only three others. In her other novels there are male characters but they are subsidiary, and mostly crude caricatures.
At the beginning of the book we see the 22-year-old Lewis doing his PhD research on French literature in Paris. It is 1959. His topic is “The Hero as Archetype”. He attends frequent soirees with his landlady and two other female tenants of the boarding-house, one of whom he secretly admires. When he returns to London Lewis lives with his ageing mother (his father died when he was young) and writes up his thesis at the British Museum.
After his mother’s death, Lewis courts and marries Tissy, who works in the public library. Tissy is a very quiet, undemonstrative girl who has agoraphobia and lives with, and under the shadow of, her larger-than-life mother, Thea. Again there is no father, but Thea has a lover, a doctor. Lewis takes a job in the university library.
Tissy comes out of herself a little as she moves into the role of the competent housewife. But it all starts to go wrong when Lewis invites his friend Penry and Penry’s sister Emmy for dinner. Tissy takes against the flamboyant, flirtatious Emmy while Lewis takes to her in equal measure. When Lewis is called to Penry’s house late one night to intervene in a quarrel between Penry and his gay lover, Emmy tries to seduce Lewis; at first he is responsive, but then changes his mind. However, as far as Tissy is concerned, Lewis’s merely going to the house is tantamount to adultery. She leaves Lewis and moves back to her mother’s. A few months later she gives birth to a baby girl, Jessica.
Back on his own, with no wife and little access to his daughter, and with little interest in his job, which is under threat from new technology, Lewis’s prospects look grim. Then one day an American academic turns up at the library and invites him to a visiting lectureship at his college in Massachusetts. At first reluctant to accept, he changes his mind, thinking of his daughter:
“But the little girl, who was growing to resemble her mother, would not be ready for him for many a long year. Suddenly he did not see why he should spend the intervening time alone, or waste it on people who did not, would never, love him. If he could make a home for them in America, might not his daughter want to live with him there? And would it not be an ideal solution, to welcome her to another country, a country which he imagined as a sort of paradise?”
However he still has reservations about this decision. Then, somewhat out of the blue, he sends a message to Emmy via Penry that he wants to marry her. But there is no reply, and Lewis prepares to depart on his own.
Unexpected endings are very rare in Brookner’s novels; normally they wind down to a conclusion that the reader has perhaps suspected from the very start. Lewis Percy is different. If you are not planning to read the book, here is its final sentence:
“Turning round for his last look at England, he saw Emmy, plunging through the crowd, necklaces flying, laughing, swearing, apologising, and waving her boarding pass in her upheld hand.”
Lewis’s first impression of Tissy: (p51)
“Lewis saw that despite her pallor, or because of it, she had an air of delicacy, or narrowness, that pleased him. Her clothes were asexual: a pale blue sweater and a grey flannel skirt, schoolgirl’s clothes, which made her seem younger than her age. He reckoned she was about twenty-five. What he noticed mostly were her long unmarked slightly upcurling fingers, white as if they had never been engaged in a common or unseemly task. The face, momentarily enlivened by her emotion and the forwardness she obviously thought she was exhibiting, was equally long and pale, and could, he thought, look mournful. The face was framed by thick hair, in a colour midway between blonde and beige, and held back by a black velvet band …. She had large, rather beautiful dark blue eyes, shadowed by long colourless lashes.”
Lewis’s first impression of Thea: (p55)
“The mother, thought Lewis, was a beauty, a bold, strenuous-looking woman, with a curiously out-of-date sexual appeal. She was heavily made up, her mouth a dark red, her eyebrows arched in permanent astonishment, an artificial streak of white inserted into her upswept dark hair. She had exactly the same look of disdain that he remembered from the screen goddesses of his childhood …. She was still in the prime of life, not much more than fifty, he supposed. She looked tricky, hard to please, and also capricious, exigent, the last person to be the guardian of a pristine semi-invalid daughter. A fur coat was flung back from a plumpish compact little body; her skirt was short enough to show fine legs in fine stockings.”
A common theme in Anita Brookner is the tension between “life” and “literature”. It is there right at the start: in the first sentence of her first novel, A Start in Life: “Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” After a valiant attempt to win her man with a home-cooked meal that goes horrendously wrong due to the man’s self-centred thoughtlessness, the young Ruth Weiss gives up her flat and returns to the family home:
“She did not really mind being at home. It was anonymous, familiar; she had no further need for independence. Her recent encounter with reality had shocked her and made her feel childish. Only her books and her notes allowed her some measure of dignity …”
(However, I don’t believe that it was literature that ruined Ruth’s life. What ruined her life was her selfish, thoughtless parents, who had not wanted her in the first place and treated her as though she were a servant, to step in and look after them when their housekeeper left. But literature was always there, waiting to claim her after each failure in life).
In Providence, Brookner’s second novel, the heroine, Kitty Maule, is passed over by the man she hopes to marry for one of her students; but a glittering academic career beckons as consolation. Kitty’s self-image incorporates these aspirations as though they belonged to two separate selves:
“To her not very great surprise, she had passed the test of her lecture with flying colours. Coming home alone, afterwards, she had felt a sense of well-being and almost of worth; she was assured of a permanent post for next year and could thus conclude that her apprenticeship was at an end. For two days she had rested secure in this knowledge and also in anticipation of a pleasant future … This would be, as it were, her daytime self. For stronger emotions and delights, for a more positive future, she would place her faith in the events that would be brought to birth by Maurice’s (and her) dinner party.”
Lewis Percy displays the same tension. In Paris, he appears to view his female neighbours as though they were characters in a book:
“As to his attitude towards [women], it was, given his extreme youth, still unformed, but he looked to his little group, the first representatives of the species he had been given to study at close quarters, with a mixture of love, respect, and innocent enquiry. He seemed to think that all knowledge would come to him in this context.”
Later, Lewis too contemplates two different versions of himself:
“Writing, which came easily, also underlined his indeterminate status … The life of action, which he could not quite visualise, remained out of reach. He had the disagreeable sensation of signing away his future. Having found that he could do this work he seemed to have sealed his fate. This idea unsettled him profoundly.”