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A Closed Eye Paperback – January 4, 1993
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A Closed Eye opens with a middle-aged woman writing a letter to her goddaughter back in England. She invites the young woman, the daughter of an old friend, to come stay with her in Switzerland for a short vacation. We'll wait until the last chapter of the novel for Lizzie's answer.
But first, the story of one woman's lifetime...
Harriet Lytton is the daughter of elegant, beautiful, completely self-absorbed and immature parents. As a result, she hasn't had much of a childhood herself. Old before her time, she's at the same time spectacularly unworldly. Before she's half aware of what's happening, Harriet is safely married off to an older man, a contemporary of her parents.
It's a familiar situation in Brookner's fiction, one to which she returns again and again: the woman who has never taken chances, who's always played it safe, trying, now that it's almost too late, to escape her life of quiet desperation.
Married to chubby, complacent, predictable Freddie, Harriet fantasizes about having a real love affair with a daring, dangerous, sexual man who can't be tamed--a man like Jack, for instance, who happens to be her best friend's fiancee. Anyone can see that Jack is trouble, that his marriage to Tessa is doomed to failure, destined to destroy Tessa, and so it does. Still, as the years pass, Harriet finds her fantasies turning to Jack. Just once she'd like to have a Jack in her life. Now a mother herself, Harriet contemplates adultery, edges up to the precipice, stares down into the abyss, tempted, the dizzying fall into experience beckoning...
Then tragedy strikes. Then it strikes again. Harriet has hardly recovered when it strikes once more.
The question now is whether these tragedies serve as a goad to long-delayed action, or do they sap whatever strength Harriet has to act at all, burying her instead under a paralyzing burden of guilt and sorrow.
As usual with Brookner, the answer is neither straightforward nor predictable. The dilemma is illuminated and amplified by the difference in personality between her friend Tessa's daughter, the reserved, bookish Lizzie, and Harriet's own daughter, the dazzling Imogen.
Thinking of Imogen, Harriet reflects:
"Immy demanded only the best, was impatient only with the second best, required from life only what she saw it could deliver, was not fearful, shy, self-effacing, knew, with some scorn, how meekness could conceal a certain holy vanity, preferred vanity unadorned and unashamed, was in fact shameless."
While, conversely, we learn that Lizzie had no "conviction that a place was reserved for her in this world, lacked benevolent elders from whom she might have inherited some kind of grace or endowment, some indulgence, some love. She had been wary since earliest childhood, eternally on the lookout for danger, or for threats to an existence which she strove to make as circumscribed as possible, as if only by being inconspicuous would she be allowed to continue."
If Brookner teaches nothing else it's that reticence and timidity and voluntary self-effacement even with the noblest of intentions wins one nothing in this world whatsoever--except, perhaps, the private satisfactions of martyrdom and a hope (ever unfulfilled) of a reward in a future life--either this life, or, better yet, if anyone can still manage a belief in it, a life to come
So we come full circle at the end of A Closed Eye. Harriet, now older, wiser, sadder generously seeks to be of benefit to her oddball, out-of-place goddaughter, a young woman just starting out in life with whom she feels a natural affinity that she never felt with her own daughter. But does Harriet really have anything to offer Lizzie? Or is it already too late for either woman to change. Has it, in fact, always been too late?
In A Closed Eye, Brookner has both eyes wide open. She's written a profound meditation on human nature that is as lyrical as it is honest, as illuminating as it is disturbing.
Brookner is a writer of very great psychological insight. Her descriptions of the 'feeling life' not only ring true , but have a beautiful complexity and multi- sidedness about them. Brookner 's heroine is usually a somewhat passive, frustrated soul who has never managed to make the best of what they have been given in life. They are outsiders and loners, who never really 'seize the day'. They are people who have made compromises in life which have cost them what they most wanted. But most often they do not explode in violent passion but suffer silently, inwardly.
This work has a dimension usually not present in Brookner's work. It is a more frank look at the frustrating sexual life of its heroine. There is also another unusual feature a focus on parenthood.
Brookner is a truth- teller of the first degree. But she is also a writer who has a wonderful kind of sympathy for her characters. There is a tremendously moving farewell scene when the heroine who we have been made to feel does not love her dull - boring elderly businessman husband expresses her appreciation and in a way love of him, apologizes to him and thanks him. I cannot do justice to the subtlety through which Brookner describes the relationships in her work.
I believe however she is a great master and this work a masterpiece.
But like I said, I did finish this book. I think it is because there was more dialogue in it than there was in the first book I tried. When I write my own novels, I try to include a lot of dialogue because I feel that it helps flesh out the characters just as much as a good description does. I am sure I would have enjoyed this book more if I had connected with the main character. It jut didn't happen. Actually I came to appreciate her husband more, despite the fact that my view of him through her eyes wasn't at all complimentary.
I will not reveal a major plot twist in the book, but will only say that it seems to do nothing to provide an opportunity for growth or development. It just casts a loud over the proceedings. Was that the point?
I am not going to give up on Ms. Brookner, however. I have several of her books and I'm going to keep going with her. Perhaps my hopes were raised too much by one reviewer's description of her as a modern-day Jane Austin. I definitely do not see that yet.