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Retirement Turns A World on End

Anita Brookner's latest novel explores the challenges of leaving the work force and the search for identity

Retirement, a feat of 20th-century social engineering that has created both problems and rewards, is a subject well-suited to a novelist's imagination. As newly disenfranchised workers face the prospect of building a life without the familiar routines of a job, profound questions about identity, activity, and purpose arise.

Who better to explore this territory, it would seem, than Anita Brookner, who has won a devoted following on both sides of the Atlantic with her finely drawn portraits of characters seeking to break out of old patterns? Some of her best books, in fact, have featured older men and women - among them ``Dolly'' and ``Latecomers.''

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Brookner's 14th novel, ``A Private View,'' begins with promise. At 65, George Bland has just retired as personnel manager for a British packaging firm. His best friend, Putnam, has also just died, compounding his sense of dislocation. As Brookner explains, ``He had loved the working week, loved his large immaculate desk, looked forward to the Monday lunch with Putnam at the club.''

A bachelor with only one long-term romance in his life - the devoted Louise, ``the wife whom he had failed to marry'' - Bland is wealthy enough to travel and enjoy a richly varied life. Instead, he shuffles through the most mundane routines: errands in the morning, a nap in the afternoon, TV and reading in the evening. Unaccustomed to leisure, he is left with too much time, too few friends, too little satisfaction in his well-appointed London flat.

Bland, whose personality matches his name, recognizes that in many ways he is ``an extremely fortunate man.'' Yet as he reviews his life he finds himself ``filled with all the sadness of loss ... for his whole past life, for his refusal of adventure, excitement, commitment.'' After a lifetime of obedience - ``years of duties fulfilled and obligations attended to'' - he is overwhelmed by regret: If only he had lived his life more boldly. ``He wanted life, more life.''

Enter a 30ish woman from California, Katy Gibb, who brazenly installs herself in a neighboring flat during the owners' extended absence and then insinuates herself into George's life. Part seductress, part gold digger eyeing George's assets for a vague business venture, Katy appears to offer him a new beginning, even though his feelings for her alternate between dislike and desire. ``Some part of him, an undeveloped part no doubt, was still waiting to be ignited, consumed,'' Brookner writes.

Yet as Katy takes center stage, carelessly gliding in and out of Bland's expensive flat and his confused thoughts, the book's early promise fades. With her irritating psychobabble about ``self-actualization,'' ``affirming the essential self,'' and ``get[ting] in touch with your feelings,'' Katy seems a parody of a New Age convert. Even George, often an appealing character as he struggles with a belated midlife crisis, strains credibility at times: How can a man whose career in personnel required careful assessment of people be quite so naive and gullible about this deceitful woman?

Brookner is too good a writer to have settled for occasional cliches: ``Her life was an open book to him, as his was to her.'' Nor did she need to have relied on heavy-handed clues: ``The events of the day seemed to him curiously significant. He thought that they marked some sort of turning point....''

Still, the book has its rewards: Brookner's London setting, her graceful prose, her insight into the challenges of retirement and the meaning of work. Of Bland she writes, ``The office had represented peace, good order, a place in an acceptable hierarchy. It had also represented work.... He did not believe that work could be done other than in a sober fashion, at a desk, within regular hours, which would keep one in one place and accountable.... And now it was all gone, all the safety and the pleasure of his working life, his working friendships....''

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The desire for transformation, the longing to break free and start over - these recurring Brookner motifs play on common dreams not confined to the retirement years. Yet the success of this theme depends on the power of a magnetic force to pull a character out of his or her unwavering orbit. If ``A Private View'' only partially succeeds, it is because Brookner's femme fatale, Katy, lacks that kind of force to convincingly move either George or the novel.

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