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Casting moral puzzles: a novelist on her craft

Anita Brookner is not only the author of four outstanding novels, but also an authority on 18th- and 19th-century art. She has written books on Watteau, Greuze, and David and in 1968 was the first woman ever to hold the position of Slade Professor at Cambridge. Ms. Brookner is 46 years old and lives in London, where she teaches at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Reached by telephone at her London home, Brookner explained that her novels were published out of sequence in the United States. ``Look at Me,'' her third, appeared here a year before ``Providence,'' which is actually her second.

``I believe they thought `Providence' too `downbeat.' '' Brookner's voice is almost exactly what readers of her novels might expect it to be: poised, limpid, low, beautifully modulated, with traces of humor that do not detract from its air of unassertive authority.

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She said she had started writing fiction only about five years ago. Not surprisingly, however, she had been a voracious reader of fiction long before that. ``All my life I have read fiction: for instruction, for information, and, of course, for moral inprovement.'' A touch of delicious irony in her voice indicated her amusement at knowing how old-fashioned her pronouncement would sound.

Her aim in writing fiction, she said, was to produce the kind of novels she enjoyed reading. ``I was interested,'' she explained, with a candor and simplicity rather rare among writers, ``to see if I could do it.''

The novelists she most admires? ``Dickens, above all. And all the great moralists. And Henry James, certainly,'' she added, a lilt in her tone acknowledging the comparison between James and her I had ventured to make earlier in the conversation.

Among contemporary novelists, Brookner's particular favorites include some Americans: Saul Bellow, Alison Lurie, and Arthur Cohen (author of ``An Admirable Woman''), a writer who she believes is still too little known in Great Britain and whose novel she hopes will receive the attention it merits.

Perhaps the most important feature of fiction, in Brookner's eyes, is its capacity to present people in the process of making choices. She writes her own novels with a keen awareness of the subject of moral choice: ``I like to think of them [her novels] as casting a moral puzzle.''

I asked if she could answer a question I'd been thinking about ever since I began reading her books: To what degree is there a sort of ironic detachment between the author and her heroines and to what degree is there a kind of identification?

``I should say,'' she responded, a slight smile in her voice, ``there is a high degree of identification. This means there is also a high degree of risk. But there has to be, hasn't there, if the feeling is to come through?''

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Reminded of Edith Hope's remark in ``Hotel du Lac'' about the choice between cynical detachment and believing every word one writes, I observed that a certain measure of authorial detachment or distance seemed to be the prevalent mode among contemporary English novelists such as Julian Barnes and Malcolm Bradbury.

``I think it is important for the writer to take chances,'' she mused. ``To write with a very high degree of detachment . . . it doesn't seem to me that one is playing straight.'' It was strikingly apparent that Brookner's concern for the moral choices presented in novels is echoed by her concern for what she perceives as the moral choices confronting the novelist.

Brookner is at work on her fifth novel, which she describes as ``quite different from the previous ones.'' While her previous novels focus on the lives of single women, this one will be a family story that features a hero instead of a heroine: ``a very unlikely one -- an unfashionable one, I should say, because he is very virtuous.''

It was my turn to smile. ``The current propaganda,'' Brookner observed, ``all goes against this. Everyone seems to be boasting, `I am worse than you are.' ''

Too often, the writer can be a disappointment compared with his work, particularly if he is an artist who polishes, refines, and puts the best of himself into his art. Anita Brookner, like all writers whose work will continue to matter, clearly works hard to put the best of herself into her fiction, producing intricately carved, highly finished creations. Yet, remarkably, the unrehearsed, quotidian, ``real life'' Anita Brookner is as charming, poised, and gallant as her art.

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