Not to be confused with the French film starring Jeanne Moreau, The Bay of Angels is the short novel by Anita Brookner that introduced me to her work. Drawn by the cover, a paperback depicting the streets of the old town in Nice and the story in which a young woman accompanies her mother as they leave their dull suburban flat somewhere in an unfashionable part of London for the South of France, it had too many parallel lines for me to ignore.
Living myself at the time in this region of France as well as being responsible for my own mother who had courageously agreed to uproot from rural England I turned the first few pages with interest. Due to my mothers advanced age and the fact that I was possibly her best option and the only one of her daughters that mentioned neither a retirement home or threatened too much melodrama she had done the unthinkable and moved to join me at the age of eighty-six.
The mother in the story was so much younger than my own. Having at first naturally identified with the daughter in the story, I was shocked to realize that in fact her mother was younger than I was myself. It seemed faintly ridiculous that a woman who could not even have reached sixty weakly died in a convent of seemingly nothing at all. I wanted to tell her to get up and pull herself together. While the daughter wandered disconsolately along the shingle beach of the Baie des Anges uncertain of her own happiness I longed for her liberation, for the story to flower into some sort of hope at least for her.
Despite all this I was fascinated, I felt this book was somehow a modest gem and that it held a secret. I collected two more of her books, Hotel du Lac which awarded her the Brooker prize against all odds in 1984 and then Strangers a later novel but she wrote many more.
Anita Brookner died this week at the age of 87. She was both greatly admired and misunderstood by writers as well as critics. A single woman, childless and alone in older age is usually regarded with pity and she herself was childless and never married. Possibly the heroine in Hotel du Lac was a reflection of herself, but it was not from lack of opportunities but the inability to compromise that their stories ended as they did.
Oddly enough the most positive ending for me was in Strangers. The protagonist, this time an older man goes off to start a new life in Italy, I sighed with relief at the end of the book because to me the alternative ending would have been exactly that, a compromise that I absolutely did not want him to make.
I realize now that all of her stories stemmed from her own loneliness but that it was not a loneliness to be despised but one to be seen as an inner strength. an ability to transmute that state of being into gold. It is a certain type of courage that is seldom recognized. Mark Lawson, a journalist who writes in the The Guardian wrote of his own experience of her work,
‘The pages which seemed opaque eventually become a mirror.’
We believe and go on for so long believing, in the next room we enter, the next place we find ourselves, at any moment, and then years pass by and we only see it in that mirror. But we also see that poetry comes from this, when there was no one on the road to remind us that we have waited forever.