29 JUNE 2002, Page 40

Last chance saloon

Sara Maitland

THE NEXT BIG THING by Anita Brookner

Viking, 416.99, pp. 247, ISBN 0670896357

0 ne of the central themes of Brookner's novels has been 'resignation': Is it possible? Is it virtuous? Is it desirable? What are its compensations? What are the rewards and costs of realism and good behaviour? (This latter form of the question indeed is reflected always in her prose: what are the rewards and costs of such well-behaved, subtly, quietly, disciplined syntax?) My problem with Brookner's novels has always been that I feel that resignation is a pseudo-virtue, a vile diminishment preached to the already marginalised — originally the Victorian poor and subsequently unhappy children, frustrated women, those in pain and of course the irritating old. I still believe that we ought to be raging 'against the dying of the light'.

But, Brookner presses in her new novel, what if the only 'next big thing' is death? What if life has not offered you much and is running out anyway? Julius Herz, the 73year-old protagonist of The Next Big Thing, has endured a thin life; thinner, he rightly feels, than he deserved. He began as an exiled Jew, a child trapped in a loveless family who took on (as children sometimes do) the duty of trying to 'make things better' and failed (as such children always do). He continued as an adult with a mildly unsatisfactory job, a mildly unsatisfactory marriage, now long over, a mildly nonexistent social life and mildly poor health. On the up-side he has a mildly satisfactory income, a love of art, a certain mild selfmockery and a long lost love (who is also his sole remaining relative, his connection to his childhood.) What should he do now? How should he fill in the years that will intervene between now and his death? Should he accept that this is all he is going to get, should he practise resignation? Or should he make one last effort to make life deliver its fruit? And if the latter, what would that be — love, travel, companion

ship? Brookner with some boldness has deprived him of the usual resources — exciting memories or grandchildren; he has nowhere to go backwards, and can only go forwards on his own behalf.

Although Julius Herz's life is pathetic, he himself is not. He considers at one point that although 'he was respectable, he was not respected', but the reader will respect him. His struggles are courageous, even admirable, but his author is not very generous to them. The more he tries the more pathetic (or rather pathos-full) the results. This leads to something going oddly awry with the pacing of the novel. It behaves rather like Julius's heart: when he makes any efforts the narrative is seized by panicked flurries and uncertainties, We are rushed through the action at jerky high speed but allowed to linger meditatively on the intervening periods of Julius's passivity. It is as though Brookner really can't 'do' decision and action. The end, though, is both sudden and subtle, leaving the ethical answers, quite unexpectedly, open.

What Brookner can do is observation and perception. She captures exquisitely the physicality of old age; its hesitations, confusions and stubbornness. Among other things, she describes the relationship between paintings and their observers movingly. (With great generosity to the reader she chooses pictures for Julius that we all might know and so can compare his response to our own — a genuinely brilliant novelistic technique for revealing characters.) She lays not so much bare as naked that odd mixture of self-knowledge and self-delusion that one so often experiences in encounters with the very old, But even as I am about to succumb to her persuasions about acceptance and good manners I am struck with the realisation that Julius just isn't old enough. Seventythree is too young to give up. Why should his creator punish him for wanting more and fighting for it?