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A Start in Life Paperback – February 1, 1984
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Excellent * Sunday Times * Enormously sophisticated, knowing, often very funny tragi-comedy * Financial Times * How can anything be so funny and so sad both at once? Every sentence is an object lesson in compression and wit. -- Tessa Hadley * Guardian Summer Reads, 2015 * A delight, amusing, beautifully written. * The Times * Enormously sophisticated, knowing, often very funny tragi-comedy. * Financial Times * Excellent, brilliantly drawn. * Sunday Times * --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Anita Brookner was born in south London in 1928, the daughter of a Polish immigrant family. She trained as an art historian, and worked at the Courtauld Institute of Art until her retirement in 1988. She published her first novel, A Start in Life, in 1981 and her twenty-fourth, Strangers, in 2009. Hotel du Lac won the 1984 Booker Prize. As well as fiction, Anita Brookner has published a number of volumes of art criticism. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Monsieur Pierrotin drives a ramshackle stagecoach between Paris and Presle, a nondescript village about twenty miles away from the French capital. Presle is too small for the main post chair service so Pierrotin has a monopoly on a road no one else wants. His cart holds four people comfortably, but he usually squeezes nine passengers and sometimes ten. The passengers include Georges Marais, a handsome charmer who entertains himself by getting the innocent in trouble, and Oscar Husson, an innocent but frustrated youth. Next to them sits a count travelling incognito to check how his steward is managing his estate, and it is the steward who has invited Oscar to spend a few weeks on his master's estate.
Despite his mother's warning to avoid gossiping with his fellow passengers, Marais goads Oscar into revealing things about his host, who happens to be the steward the count is going to meet.
For once in a nineteenth century novel the coincidence is not outlandish. People unknown to each other but travelling to an obscure destination will likely have some connection to each other without realizing it.
The count arrives on his estate, confirms his steward was putting his personal interests ahead of his master's, but would have forgiven him had it not been for Oscar's gossip including revelations about the count's beloved wife.
This is Oscar's start in life: the loss of a protector through is own fault. His mother calls upon her former brother-in-law and Oscar's paternal uncle to take the boy under his protection. His uncle finds Oscar a clerkship in a law office. Oscar does very well for two years but on the day he is promoted to Second Clerc, he meets George Marais again, and again gets in trouble, and again finds himself without a situation and without a protector.
After a few more adventures, a wiser Oscar ends up where we first met him, in Monsieur Pierrotin's stagecoach. He's on his way to Presle, having repaid his debt of honour to the count, with interest.
A standard but interesting coming-of-age novel from Balzac's Comédie Humaine cycle.
Vincent Poirier, Montreal
Ruth Weiss, an expert on Balzac, teaches French Literature at London University. She leads a quiet academic life where none of her colleagues would be so distasteful as to pry into her personal existence as a woman, and yet she has one -- or at least has had one. After the opening chapter, the novel plunges back in time to when Ruth, the only child of a Jewish book-dealer and an English comedy actress, is a promising high school student. It follows her as she goes to London University as an undergraduate, and then to Paris to pursue doctoral research. It shows her struggles to get out from under her demanding but useless parents -- the actress mother no longer able to get roles, the father prematurely retired. It reveals her encounters with romance, running the gamut from abject failure to sensible accommodation. One can sympathize with Ruth, cheer for her, weep with her, but fortunately also laugh with her. Brookner's humor is understated, but it enlivens almost every page.
I must admit to personal reasons for liking this book; this used to be my own world. Ruth is of my generation; her career is remarkably similar to that of my first wife; and I myself did graduate study in Paris, when I was briefly a student of Professor Brookner's in her other career as an art historian. There is one glimpse of this in the book, when Ruth visits the Louvre and Brookner distills her impressions into a single magnificent paragraph; here is one sentence: "She paid a duty visit to the early-nineteenth-century galleries and was bemused, as always, by the sheer size of everything: giant figures enmeshed with one another, toiling towards rescue after shipwreck, towards liberty after oppression, towards Paris after Moscow; never would they find peace or be reconciled to their proper dimensions." It is a perfect example of Brookner's measured style, her spot-on descriptions (in this case of Géricault, Delacroix, and Gros), and her own twist of humor at the end.
Anita Brookner and Ruth Weiss might well be amused by such Romantic excesses, for neither of them ever venture beyond their proper dimensions; that is their charm. But there are places in this early novel when the secondary characters -- the parents and the housekeeper -- verge on tragicomic melodrama. In her later novels, Brookner would rein this in, achieving an autumnal watercolor perfection in her Booker Prizewinning HOTEL DU LAC, or a poised tristesse when she revisits a theme similar to this one in the beautiful LEAVING HOME. But this first fictional outing has an exuberance all of its own, which makes it an ideal introduction to Brookner's tragicomic genius.
[This book was published in the US as THE DEBUT, which lacks the irony of the original title. But since the novel is still in print in that form and Amazon has no cross-reference between the two, I have submitted a version of this review there as well.]
Mike Cullen flirts with danger, takes to bed as many ladies as he can manage, tries to make a quick pound in every way possible, falls in love, makes friends, engages in philosophical conversations and fistfights - he is bursting with life and certainly is not afraid of living.
Since then that jaunty working class hero was always on my mind, urging me not to be a sissy and add an extra spice to life. My bookish side was captured by Thornton Wilder's Theophil Nort but every time I was in for a trick or two it was Mike Cullen stirring in me.
Now I am 33 and these two decades were not as eventful as I hoped - but is that not the case with all of us?
Anyway, when the gloom and depression lurk nearby I open that book, read, smile and hope for a new start.