Yesterday I learned that one of my favorite authors, Anita Brookner, had passed away. The New York Times obituary, which I read as I was making my way from one class to another, summed up her literary life beautifully. At my hall duty desk, I scrolled past other obituaries and long ago reviews, remembering Brookner’s work.
I never much cared for the women at the center of any of Brookner’s novels, nor the way she was determined to create women who were destined for unhappiness and disappointment. But I loved the way she wrote; she could make the simple acts of lifting a tea cup, drawing the curtains shut, or buttoning a blouse important moments. Brookner noticed details, and invested exquisite care in even the smallest of those details.
As luck would have it, she lived in the same Chelsea neighborhood of London as my parents. For many years, when our children were young, we would spend a month of every summer in London, and one of my favorite memories is of what my mother and I would call “Brookner sightings” (my mother was a fan,too). At some point in the week, I would be sure to see the famous writer making her way to and from our local grocery store, Waitrose:
She was always dressed beautifully: skirt, jacket, silk shirt, sensible but beautiful heels and a sensible and beautiful handbag. Her hair was always styled in the same way: every lock in place and immovable no matter how blustery. She walked deliberately, looking straight ahead and avoiding any eye contact. No one would have dared to trouble her anyway – Anita Brookner radiated reserve.
Just once, I happened to see her on the bench in the store, waiting to pick up some item she had ordered. She sat very still, as one would imagine she would, feet crossed neatly and her handbag perched resolutely on her lap. But her dark eyes were scanning the scene closely, and every once in a while she would pause to watch some shopping scene closely. You could feel the intensity of her gaze, the way she was taking note of every detail. I knew that I was watching a writer at work.
“You never know what you will learn till you start writing. Then you discover truths you never knew existed.
― Anita Brookner