A well-dressed man, old, very old, gets on the bus. You wonder about the life he’s lived, the life he’s living. You wonder about his interior monologue: is he happy; is he lonely?
Paul Sturgis, the protagonist of Anita Brookner’s new novel “Strangers,” is that man. A seventysomething bachelor in London, he maintains a tidy existence in every sense, but finds he prefers the company of strangers—you, on the bus—to the waning world of more familiar acquaintances. He’s comfortable with his life of “undemanding steadiness,” if somewhat unsettled internally, till a chance encounter with a younger, far-less-buttoned-up woman disrupts his careful existence. Soon, the once-love-of-his-life resurfaces and complications, modest by most standards but life-changing for Sturgis, ensue.
Brookner, herself now an octogenarian with a Booker Prize and twenty-four novels behind her, knows of what she writes. Is that not the universal lot of the novelist, to prefer the company of strangers—their creations? A British writer in every sense of the word, Brookner’s prose is as tidy as Sturgis’ life, and her grace with the native tongue is rich with the literary inheritance of at least a millennium. The book jacket’s awash with blurbs comparing her to Henry James—a curse we should all suffer—but she plays with her legacy by making Sturgis a James reader and peppering her novel with his name.
The concerns of a life winding down consume Sturgis, whose torn between the forces the two women stir up: one, “a life force, a prime mover”; the other a remnant of what she once was, just seeming to wait out the end. “Life gets lonelier; that’s the truth of the matter,” he says to her. “In fact that adds to the disappointment. I suppose most lives end in disappointment.” To her credit, and the comfort of those of us on the bus, Brookner’s not willing to concede quite so easily. (Brian Hieggelke)
By Anita Brookner
Random House, 235 pages, $26