Latecomers sounded like a joyful anomaly in Anita Brookner’s work, which I have come to view as a series of incredibly similar novels, following, as she does, largely female characters with the same traits, and problems in their usually domestic-based lives. Published in 1988, Latecomers was inspired by the Kindertransport, which evacuated Jewish children from Germany to Britain during the Second World War.
Helen Dunmore has written a lovely introduction to the volume, in which she calls Latecomers ‘a moving, compassionate portrayal of how we confront the past and live with the present’. She goes on to say that ‘The brilliance of Latecomers lies in the way every cherished domestic detail is set against an immense dark canvas.’
Hartmann and Fibich have been best friends since meeting at the English school they both attended. Both are named Thomas, hence Brookner’s decision to call them by their surnames. Of them, Dunmore writes ‘These two, united against the miseries of the school, become each other’s family and remain so for the rest of their lives.’ Hartmann is the first character whom we meet. Brookner writes that at this point, ‘He was now middle-aged, in the closing stages of middle-age, even old, he daringly thought. He had an impressionistic attitude towards his age, as he did towards his daughter’s marriage, sometimes resigned to it, sometimes deciding to ignore it entirely.’
The men ‘respond to their shared history in different ways’, and are markedly different characters. Hartmann is confident, taking an awful lot of pleasure from food; Fibich is more timid, and has an unhealthy relationship with food, hoarding it but finding the process of eating rather a chore. ‘Fibich,’ writes Brookner, ‘with his anxious mournful temperament, had nurturing instincts, although what he longed for was to be in receipt of those instincts from someone else. Yet it seemed that this would never be.’ The contrast between both men, despite being so close, did work well, but they felt like rather typical characters; there was very little about either which surprised me whilst reading.
Brookner also follows several close family members of both Hartmann and Fibich, and whilst this gives the book a little more scope, it feels like rather an inward-facing novel. As ever, Brookner appears more concerned with how people feel than what they do. Despite the novel looking rather different on the face of it, there are still rather a lot of similarities which can be drawn between Latecomers and her other novels: portraits of people, albeit largely men rather than women, are presented at length here; the style of Brookner’s prose is rather old-fashioned, and on occasion a little stuffy; and there is actually relatively little included with regard to the plot of the book.
Despite the Kindertransport being one of the elements which drew me toward Latecomers, it is barely mentioned; rather, the novel begins when Hartmann and Fibich are already in England. I thought that the Kindertransport, as well as elements of the Holocaust which still affect both boys despite their being in a different country, would be more of a focus than they were. So much more could have been made of these aspects, making the novel stronger as a result. Brookner’s oversight really let Latecomers down for me.
Whilst Dunmore believes that there is ‘a good deal of comedy in this essentially tragic novel’, I must admit that from a modern perspective, I did not find it overly amusing. The asides which Brookner clearly intended to be humorous felt very dated. There are certainly some acerbic remarks which have stood the test of time, but, like much of Brookner’s fiction, Latecomers is very of its time, and does not translate that well into the twenty-first century. Of course, some of what she writes about is still relevant, but Latecomers, overall, feels like a very secluded 1980s novel, a little underwhelming and predictable in both its characters and plot.