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How to rearrange the pastThe Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner247pp PenguinFashion has not favoured Anita Brookner whose 21st novel published just over two decades after her first continues a loyal aesthetic engagement with mourning and melancholy that frequently attracts criticism rather than praise When Dame Gillian Beers Orange prize lecture praised the liberation of contemporary womens writing from the straitjacket of romantic obsession Brookners name came up - peculiarly twinned with that of Jean Rhys - as typical of a kind of anguished abasement Its more than likely that well never know what she made of that judgment because Brookners authorial persona is one of restraint and detachment none the less anguished might have been expressly designed to irritate It also strikes a false note Brookners characters wary of excessive displays of emotion and governed by the constraints of gentility and decorum dont really do anguish it verges on the vulgar For the most part these timid inward creatures have been women but in The Next Big Thing the repository of Brookners meditations on solitude memory dreams and destiny is an elderly man Julius Herz is 73 roughly Brookners own age has lived in London since his familys flight from Berlin when he was 14 and now finds himself in a small flat in Marylebone trying to perform a semblance of gentlemanly old age which others might find acceptable He has a set of neatly formulated and intensely practical problems which the reader fearfully apprehends are about to come to a head the tiny lease on his flat is rapidly expiring and his heart is beginning to fail Whether its because the coincidence of these problems might cancel them out or because his focus has shifted significantly to the past Herz seems barely to consider these actual threats to his well-being More probably its because he has little sense of well-being at all In old age Herz becomes aware that he has spent a
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