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Undue Influence by Anita Brookner

Undue Influence (1999)

by Anita Brookner

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Novels can be plot-driven, character-driven or idea-driven: it is generally accepted that serious "literary" fiction is mostly of the last two categories. In character-driven stories, rather than events, it is the development and analysis of human nature that takes front stage. The events are just a backdrop. Skillfully executed, they are sometimes more exciting than the wildest adventure story; however, when the execution falls flat (as in Undue Influence by Anita Brookner), the result is a disaster.

Claire Pitt is a lonely young woman, living with her widowed mother. Her crippled father has passed away some time back. Claire is suffering from some kind of existential angst (at least, that is what her first person narrative indicates): she cannot form any lasting relationship with a member of the opposite sex, even though she hints that she has had adventures aplenty. Claire's only friend is Wiggy, an artist, who is happily in relationship with a married man - though even with her, Claire finds it difficult to unburden herself. She continuously fantasises about the lives of the people she meets, providing them with imaginary pasts, presents and futures. She is also adept at analysing the emotions of other people (according to her own yardstick, of course).

As the novel opens, we find Claire reeling under the death of her mother, the only human being who she could claim to be attached to. She suddenly realises that her sinecure job at a bookstore run by two old ladies is her only tenuous hold to life. As Claire desperately casts about for some kind of foothold on society, she meets attractive, middle-aged Martin Gibson who is married to an invalid. She is immediately attracted to him, and believes she has a chance at a life when Martin's wife passes away: all the more important to her, as the store is sold off and her job disappears. However, in this also, Claire is disappointed - making her realise that it is time to stop grasping at shadows and take charge of herself.

This could have been a great novel of manners. The characters are all well-drawn (even the dead St Collier, the father of Claire's employers, whose articles she is editing), the relationships complex and the language, superior. However, all the effort is wasted because of the meandering pace and the endless self-reflections of the singularly unlikeable protagonist. The author may have made Claire flawed to make her all the more human, but she ended up being such a whimpering, self-pitying dishrag that I wanted to poke her one on the nose! The excruciatingly slow pace of the novel also did not help. In the end, when the big "revelation" comes, it is something which would be clear to any discerning reader about halfway through the novel - still, Claire says, "this was one connection I failed to make". Shows what a jackass she is, IMO.

Avoid this one at all costs. ( )
1 vote Nandakishore_Varma | Sep 28, 2013 |
The first of my Brookner in July reads – I hope to do one or two more this month of Brookner reading.
Claire Pitt is an attractive young woman, living alone in the mansion flat where her mother died. Although not really in need of money, Claire has taken a job in a book shop owned by octogenarian sisters Muriel and Hester. Claire works in the dusty basement on the sister’s father’s papers. She enjoys the work, becomes fascinated by the man whose articles she is painstakingly transcribing from piles of rotting newspapers. It is while working in the basement that Claire meets Martin Gibson, and is immediately curious about him, soon finding herself attracted to him.
Martin is married to a manipulative invalid Cynthia – and Claire and her friend Wiggy are drawn into Martin’s world after they pay a courtesy visit to Cynthia.
“She was wearing some kind of peignoir, coral pink, with a certain amount of lace, and she smelt of the kind of scent which should be reserved for decisive women executives looking forward to a career in the boardroom. I imagined, though I could hardly turn round and look, a whole armoury of such scents, indulgences brought to the sickroom by the devoted husband who would naturally be at a loss in such a situation and who would seek the advice of the sales assistants behind the beauty counters. My mother had never used more than a simple cologne. But this was no time to think of my mother.”
When Cynthia dies suddenly, Claire begins to imagine a possible future for herself with Martin. Yet as Claire comes to see she doesn’t fully understand Martin, he is not all that she would want him to be.
It is the detail of Brookner’s character’s lives that is so very good. The small suffocating lives of Murial and Hester having lived with their father, they have continued to live for him, carrying on what he had started until they are too old to go on with it. Wiggy’s upstairs neighbour Eileen whose unexpected death so shatters Wiggy, as it serves to highlight the loneliness of a woman who had presented to the world a rather different face. I find the portrayals of these lives to be so beautifully rendered that they somehow take away from the bleakness – oh there is bleakness I admit that. Claire probably spends far too much time, ruminating on her life, remembering her mother and how she had lived her life. Claire is a young woman, she sounds far older than she is, she needs to just get on with living her life.
I know many people find Anita Brookner “depressing” – a word I often see applied to Anita Brookner in online reviews. It is true, that Brookner’s characters are not always very likeable – they live small disappointed lives, falling for unsuitable or disinterested men. On the surface it might seem that Anita Brookner writes about lives far removed from our own – upper middle class women, with inherited money, living in mansion flats in North London. However there is a truth about Brookner’s world – that is maybe a little unpalatable. Strip away the privilege and the London setting and Brookner’s characters could be anyone – anywhere. There are many small disappointed lives being led out there – people isolated and alone – they may not indulge in the kind of introspection that Brookner’s characters do, but the result is the same. Anita Brookner may be a bit like marmite, now I don’t like marmite – I do like Brookner – but I understand why other readers are less keen. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Jul 2, 2013 |
"Naturally, I said none of this."

Brookner is more portrait painter than story teller. We meet Claire Pitt on the edge of the millenium, solitary life, orphanhood, unemployment and her own exisistence. As the navigator of this dull, muddled identity she spends her day contemplating the many ways she's restrained by societal forces for which she has little respect. She is adamantine in her confused notion of independence, relentless in her development of imaginary life stories of strangers and an assiduous bookshop clerk. The obvious contradictions are not clear to Claire. There is little to recommend her as a classic heroine, antiheroine or...anything much, yet her captured image is intense and meaningless. ( )
1 vote Beezie | Feb 27, 2011 |
What an awful book! The author rambles on and on and on and the characters are really not likable at all. I read all the way through because it received such good reviews and I kept thinking it would get better. Not so. ( )
1 vote dldbizacct | Feb 13, 2009 |
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It is my conviction that everyone is profoundly eccentric.
She was wearing some kind of peignoir, coral pink, with a certain amount of lace, and she smelt of the kind of scent which should be reserved for decisive women executives looking forward to a career in the boardroom. I imagined, though I could hardly turn round and look, a whole armoury of such scents, indulgences brought to the sickroom by the devoted husband who would naturally be at a loss in such a situation and who would seek the advice of the sales assistants behind the beauty counters. My mother had never used more than a simple cologne. But this was no time to think of my mother.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375707344, Paperback)

A new Anita Brookner is unlikely to surprise, unlikely to shock or disturb. Yet her fiction remains utterly compelling. Undue Influence, her 19th novel, follows the usual pattern: a single, bookish woman, whose life is dominated by loneliness and the seeming impossibility of marriage, has her forlorn equilibrium disturbed by an unsuitable attraction. At 29, Claire Pitt is one of Brookner's younger alter egos--financially independent, clever, emancipated but empty. When she sees Martin Gibson in the secondhand bookshop where she works, Claire is beguiled.
I looked at my watch and realized that he had been silently reading for thirty-five minutes. By this time he could have had one or two of Heine's poems off by heart. Either that or he was translating them. Perhaps he too was a man of letters. But he looked too ineffable, and also too unhappy, for that. I altered my estimate of him. He was a dilettante, a caste I had always admired.
Soon, Claire's desire to be part of the story she tells herself about Martin's probable life leads her to provoke the quiet crisis so indicative of a Brookner dénouement.

This gifted author, who is seen by some critics as the embodiment of Jamesian exactitude, is really quite the opposite. An almost pathological writer, Brookner returns again and again to her notion of the inability of women to think of marriage as something that will rescue them--and yet they are pulled toward the ideal (one they easily deconstruct) of a romantic savior. A particular, melancholic despondence saturates her work, and disappointment dominates, despite the humor, erudition, and classical elegance of her prose. Brookner is a modern, bitter writer. Few novelists have the ability to create such complete characters and then dissect their motives so clearly. Even fewer have the skill to delineate the emotional complexity of the domesticated manners that mark our inability to communicate with one other. Undue Influence is another triumph of profound psychological investigation--and perception--from one of England's finest writers. --Mark Thwaite

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:51 -0400)

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Enigmatic Claire is 29 and lives alone in Marylebone. She is content with her life, although she recognises she has become more reserved and independent since her wilder student days. Her life changes when she embarks on an affair with a widower.

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