A few months ago, I read my first of Anita Brookner's novels, Hotel du Lac. I wrote about that book on the blog.
Now, I've finished another of Brookner's books, The Latecomers, which tells the story of two Jewish men transported to London as part of the Kindertransport at the start of the Second World War.
While there are elements of the novel that I found moving, it's not, on the whole, as successful as Hotel. For one thing, there's far too much description. I can't remember a work of fiction with such little dialogue, and with so much, well, describing. (That's fine and well, of course, and all those adjectives have the potential to circle something special: but in this case, they don't. Or they don't all the time.)
By the end of The Latecomers we know Brookner's characters well. No doubt: we know their wives, their children, even their grandchildren; we anticipate their actions, their responses. And yet, they remain two dimensional -- which is a product, I think, of the narrative structure: they simply don't say enough; they do not interact as we might expect them to do, even in this imagined world.
The sense I took away is that the characters remain flat because Brookner is unwilling to fully chart their roots -- in Germany, before the war. True, one character spends a chapter back in Berlin, but it doesn't result in a coherent experience for the reader: there's not enough said or done; there's not enough dialogue to understand how the character -- in this case, Fibich -- felt about his return.
This I found odd, as Brookner herself came from a family of Ashkenazi Jews who'd emigrated to London. Indeed, there's a sense in which the entire history told in The Latecomers is Brookner's own. For whatever reason, that history is never fully probed: the idea of experiencing life in phases, under duress, is never fully exposed.
What is exposed here, though, and what is nicely presented, is the idea of family. Both characters in the novel -- Fibich and Hartmann -- emerge stronger than we found them: their sense of fatherhood more complete, their sense for life's rewards more nuanced. This, I think, is the lasting impact of Brookner's novel: that home is an emotional space, a space that we build with our families. It's more than geography alone.