After a lifetime of personal restraint and servitude, Julius Hertz, the protagonist of Anita Brokkner's new novel The Next Best Thing is in a quandary. Finally free to make his own decisions and choices in life, he rattles around his central London flat, pounds the familiar streets and sits quietly on the same park bench on nodding terms with the world. At 73, he decides it is time for action of some kind. Time to move on, physically and spiritually. The big question is, where and with whom?
As Hertz struggles with his self-induced dilemma, he looks back over his life, searching for an answer. If he can only think things through rationally, perhaps the way forward was always there, hidden somewhere in the past, waiting for him to finally realise its significance? With a mixture of pathos and mild distaste, he reflects on his distant, ordered childhood in pre-war Germany, his unrequited love for his beautiful, haughty cousin Fanny, to whom, in desperate middle age, he would rashly propose. He remembers the family's enforced exile to London, their role as polite refugees, obligated to kindly compatriots. And then the onset of his brother's "illness", precipitating the end of his career as a concert pianist, the crumbling of his mother's dreams and his own rise as family carer. And his brief respite marriage to Josie whose pragmatism could never dovetail with his own servility.
Anita Brookner has, herself, moved on with The Next Big Thing. Her 21st novel is a finely wrought, painfully elegant treatise on old age: the wearing loneliness, the reflections, regrets and recriminations and the occasional stirrings of now-fading desires. And instead of the familiar middle-aged Brookner women, the protagonist is a man, albeit a passive and docile creature, whose lonely life has been shaped at every turn by the needs of others. Reading The Next Big Thing is not an easy experience. Brookner has stripped her characters of their flesh and, with her unique insight, let us into the distant recesses of their minds, their hearts and their souls, so often revealing how each can harbour its own conflicting desires. The only certainty in life is the inevitability of our end--in the meantime our duty to ourselves must be one of brutal self-honesty and personal fulfilment.--Carey Green