- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

By Anita Brookner
Random House, $23.95, 275 pages

Julius Herz spent his childhood and youth smiling eagerly, "[t]he smile was his disguise, and also his defence." "Making things better was what [he] always tried to do." It was "his task, his obligation" to please his parents, his brother and later, his wife, Josie.
Herz is the central character in Anita Brookner's fine new novel, "Making Things Better," originally published in England under the title "The Next Big Thing." It is another tour de force by the prolific British art critic and novelist which reaches deep into the human soul, into those pockets of loneliness that cannot be shared. Herz touches emotions which lie in all of us fear of aging, yearning to give a meaning to the last years of life and regret for lost love, friendship and family.
Herz came to London with his parents and brother, refugees from Hitler's Berlin. His mother, beautiful though she was, "had been a discontented disappointed woman … . Consumed with longing, she had kept up a facade of sophistication; a failed pianist, she had played in improvised concerts in her own drawing room, so that visitors were obliged to listen respectfully and to compliment her." His handsome father was "never allowed to enjoy his life as a man, his spirit already broken by excessive obedience … ."
His life "had been one of unsought duties, of which pacifying his disappointed wife had been uppermost." Julius' older brother, Freddy, was pampered by his parents as a piano prodigy, although to Julius, "Freddy's gift … seemed a kind of autism rather than a genuine passion." Freddy retreated into depression and breakdowns, "a failure who had found failure to be his proper element." Julius grew up with sadness, "the sadness of his stricken parents, the sadness of those visits to Freddy in hospital."
Thanks to Ostrovski, a fellow German small-time entrepreneur, the family was housed and offered employment in a music shop when they were forced to give up their pleasant German bourgeois life for the vicissitudes of London. Julius eventually took over the shop until one day Ostrovski announced he had sold it and was giving Julius the money to buy a little flat and live independently.
Julius married a nurse he met quite by accident. He loved Josie and could have been happy with her except for the constricted quarters in which they lived together with his parents. The marriage was childless and short-lived although husband and wife remained friends and saw each other occasionally for lunch as the years passed.
Julius' real love was his cousin Fanny, the daughter of his mother's sister. As a boy in Berlin, he would visit his aunt in the hope of catching a glimpse of the beloved. Years later, he offered himself as a suitor to Fanny, then living in exile with her mother at the Hotel Beau Rivage in Nyon, Switzerland. Rejected out of hand, he returned to London crestfallen yet not surprised.
Now, at 73, Herz "found himself once more enveloped in dream and memory, as if they alone could furnish him with information… . His days were composed of artificial outings: a newspaper and the supermarket in the morning, and in the afternoon a bookshiop or a gallery."
He goes to Paris, thinking that here he might recapture the good times he had in his youth or experience something new and engrossing, but soon realizes that "the true balefulness of age was an inability to bring those memories [of a joyful past] back to life." He stops in at the Church of St. Sulpice to visit his favorite painting, Delacroix's "Jacob and the Angel."
In an extraordinary passage where her background as an art historian is clearly evident, Miss Brookner describes the spiritual experience which Julius undergoes as he looks at the painting and realizes that Paris cannot change the emptiness in his life.
Most unexpectedly, Julius falls in love. From behind the curtains of his window, he watches the object of his affection, Sophie Clay, a young consultant who has moved into the flat above his. He arranges to run into her on the staircase or takes a walk at a time she is due to come from or go to work. Love changes his outlook on his surroundings the park glows with golden sun; the voices of the children fill him with joy; he greets neighbors and tradesmen. But Sophie regards him with the coldest of eyes and warns him off.
Love turned cold, Julius is left with weariness, longing for his bed and recurrent pains in his chest. To his surprise, he receives a letter from cousin Fanny in Bonn, now alone, friendless, without her overbearing mother and apparently impoverished after the death of her second husband, who was not quite as rich as mother and daughter had assumed.
Julius writes a soul searching letter setting forth the reality of their unconsummated relationship (he is an admirer of Sigmund Freud), which he tears up. Still, he decides to reestablish contact although well aware of Fanny's selfishness. He sees the possibility of a future, perhaps even with someone to care for him. Julius finally has found the opportunity to really make things better.
For all his disconcerting, often annoying passivity, Julius Herz evokes feelings of tenderness in the reader. Life has rejected him despite his efforts to be loved. In clear, lucid and elegant prose, with touches of sly humor, Miss Brookner offers us the wisdom attained, the dreams forsaken, the charm of understanding all the rewards of age while recognizing, as she has written elsewhere, "[t]he essence of romantic love is that wonderful beginning after which sadness and impossibility may become the rule."

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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