Picks and Pans Review: Latecomers

updated 08/28/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Anita Brookner

Characters in Brookner's novels usually lead lives of, if not quiet desperation, then certainly quiet. They are generally shy, pleasant-looking, bookish women of shaky self-confidence who seem destined to be thwarted in their timorous search for love.

The splendid, elegiac Latecomers is another matter. Long before the time of the novel, the meeting and pairing off among the principals has been dealt with. Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich, both past middle age, met as boys when their parents sent them from Nazi Germany to England. They are partners in a greeting card—photocopy machine business and live in the same apartment building.

Two more different men could not be found. Hartmann is a voluptuary who savors his food and his drink, who thinks the world exists for his pleasure: "Hartmann aspired to the sublime. If, as Hegel says, in the true sublime a sharp consciousness of inadequacy is required, Hartmann resided somewhere in the more comfortable territory of the false sublime, for inadequacy rarely troubled him. He considered his life's work to lie in the perfecting of simple pleasures, mainly of a physical or domestic nature, far from the strife and pain of more ambitious purposes."

With such aims, Hartmann chose well in finding wife Yvette, an empty-headed, vain, bracelet-jingling coquette. Hartmann lives happily for the here and now—"Look, we have come through" is his rallying cry—and he is perplexed by Fibich's frightened dreams and psychoanalysis, his despairs about a past he can't remember and a future he'd rather not think about.

The heartbreakingly unhappy Fibich, homesick even when he is at home, has married appropriately too. His wife, Christine, a paradigmatic Brookner heroine, is a woman "who did not even presume to be unhappy," who when shopping for a dress to wear to Hartmann's wedding told a clerk, " 'Blue is my colour.' So she had once been told and she never questioned the fact, indeed scarcely considered herself worthy of having a colour at all."

Each couple has a child, the Hartmanns a pale, pretty, docile daughter who seems as if she ought to be a Fibich; the Fibichs, a handsome, headstrong, self-involved son who by rights should be a Hartmann.

The most affecting part of this deeply affecting novel is Fibich's sentimental journey to Berlin, where he tries to retrieve his past. But this is a story of introspection, not dramatic events. While Brookner has spared her characters little bleakness in other novels, notably Providence, she offers a more hopeful view in Latecomers: the potency of comfort accepted after a long struggle with pain and the redemptive power of love, even love doled out in careful, small increments. (Pantheon, $16.95)

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