Thursday, 29 March 2018

Family and Friends: Closing Remarks

Her fiction is noted for its subtlety and technical skill but this can be deceptive, and has indeed deceived an odd ghetto of English critics who greet her novels with delighted misunderstanding. Elsewhere it is recognised that in ambush behind her classically beautiful prose, rooted in the territory of small lives, is a devilry that works on her stories like lemon zest. Family and Friends, in Alfred's final revenge,* provides a finale so delicate and precise that you can almost see the keen eye of the author slowly blinking at you.
Callil and Toibin, The Modern Library ['the 200 best novels since 1950'] (1999)

*I'm not sure I really noted this ending on earlier readings. It concerns Alfred and Nettie and occurs in the last few lines. Brookner does love her last-minute reversals, reveals and surprises.

*

The Brooknerian will now be taking a break of a few weeks. Back soon. Thanks for reading!

Family and Friends: A True Chronicle

Brookner spoke at length about Family and Friends to Olga Kenyon in Women Writers Talk (1989).

'It's my family,' she said. 'Of course they're rendered into fiction because I didn't know them till I was about seventeen - when I began to see them as separate people.'

It was indeed a family photo that sparked the novel: a cousin showed her a wedding picture with her grandmother dominating the group. 'I gave the photograph back, but the following day I began to write Family and Friends. I had always avoided writing about my family. They had given me a good deal of trouble in real life.'

Although, largely from lack of knowledge, she fictionalised the early lives of the uncles and aunts in the novel, 'somewhere in the course of this invention, I discovered I was writing what amounted to a true chronicle. Whether this was an obscure form of unconscious memory, whether it was intuition, or whether it was the exhilaration of disposing of these characters whom I had always seen as immensely powerful, I have no idea.'

She felt 'freed' by the writing - she wrote 'without qualms'.
As I neared the end I was too frightened that I might lose the conclusion - which I did not know yet - and so I merely sat in the garden and wrote in a notebook. I felt an enormous tension; but my ending, when it came, surprised me into laughter. I felt like a spectator at my own game.
The novel 'laid many ghosts for me. I hope I've given those ghosts something new to talk about'. It was 'the only one of my books I truly like'.

Being in control was a motive in writing the novel. 'Maybe as in psychoanalysis you abreact the whole thing and it comes out right.'

The main characters in Family and Friends had their analogues in life. Mimi was Brookner's mother; there was an Alfred, and there were two who broke free, as in the novel.
And free will is a heavy burden to lay on anyone, particularly if they are not too bright.
Brookner's characters, Kenyon suggested, 'don't always seem in touch with the twentieth century'.

Brookner's reply:
Yes. They are nineteenth-century families, without the nineteenth century to give support.

Family and Friends: The Years of Danger

'I never thought he would marry, like the others,' thinks Sofka of her son Alfred in chapter 9 of Family and Friends. 'I thought he had passed the age of danger.'

It's a markedly literary novel, in the sense of its allusiveness to other works. The set-piece scene in Wren House with Dolly (a soon-to-be self-allusive choice of name for Anita Brookner) and the scrambled eggs suggests several such rural house-parties in English literature. Howards End, perhaps? L. P. Hartley? There is, additionally, specifically a reference to Dickens.

Brookner disdained comparisons with Jane Austen. But doesn't the quote above recall a line from the opening of Persuasion - Elizabeth Elliot hoping to be propositioned by a baronet within a twelvemonth, recognising as she does her approach to 'the years of danger'?

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Family and Friends: Private Meanings

I don't altogether shy from making links between an author's life and her fiction, though perhaps I ought to. Brookner's media critics, especially the hostile ones, never down the years showed any reluctance. But Family and Friends must have seemed resistant to such analysis. The four novels she'd written up till then had been of the classic Brookner 'lonely heroine' type. But here we have a family portrait, even a family saga. And yet I keep finding parallels and analogues. Brookner, like Dickens, seems not to have been able to avoid investing her work with private meanings.

Take Mimi and her hospital work in chapter 8. We know from an early interview (here) that Brookner did voluntary work at a local hospital, even on Christmas Day. Or Alfred and his purchase of Wren House in the same chapter. Perhaps readers wouldn't, on publication of Family and Friends, yet have recognised the significance. But gradually over the course of Brookner's writing career we would come to appreciate the dangers and horrors to be expected in the English countryside, provinces and even suburbs.

We have a vignette of Brookner herself outside her habitual London milieu, when she visited Rosamond Lehmann in Suffolk (here). Carmen Callil recalls 'Anita sternly going for walks and drinking tea'. The 'sternly' is telling.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Family and Friends: Lili and Ursie

Lili and Ursie come to the Dorns' as maids - 'harsh' and 'hectic', given to weeping when certain pieces of music are being played. The girls are 'foreign', but Brookner will go no further. Something similar is in the air when an impoverished woman arrives on Sofka's doorstep, selling small items, and Sofka recognises her as one Irma Beck, whom she knew 'in the past, in another country'.

We're in chapter 8 by now, more than halfway through the novel, and Brookner cannot any longer step around the realities of her story. But the stories of Lili and Ursula, of Frau Beck, are told with great subtlety: restraint, Brookner suggests, is the only correct response to such horror.

We know the episodes have an autobiographical origin. Here she is talking to the Independent in 1994:
There was the added complication that in the 1930s the house filled up with Jewish refugees, who could come if they found a sponsor, I think, and if they went into domestic service. In the war, again, there were refugees living in the house, until such time as the police turned up to take them off to the Isle of Man and they went to be interned and were never seen again: history does not relate what happened to them. There was a tragic element in childhood. My parents weren't religious, but you couldn't help but be conscious of being Jewish at that time. I knew terrible things were going on, and were coming close, and I suppose that couldn't help but seem menacing.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Family and Friends: The Finished Product

The finished product is attired in a cunning little violet wool dress with a peplum, shiny high-heeled shoes, and a great deal of Schiaparelli's Shocking dabbed behind her ears and on her wrists.
Anita Brookner, Family and Friends, ch. 7

By all accounts elegant in real life, if not dressy, Brookner in her writing always goes to town with her clusters of clothes-modifying adjectives, but here I want to point to the specificity of her references to scents and perfumes. Even Brookner's men get their smells. Think of George Bland and his Eau Sauvage. The precise significations of such aromas is beyond me, but might be worthy of study.

Brookner herself, we know, was always fragrant:
The fact that there was one woman there – called Anita Brookner – who you used to go up for private, individual tutorials with her and she was in the top of the building of number nineteen next door. And she was always feeding the pigeons, had an open window and feeding the pigeons, and I remember her I’d knock on the door and she said ‘Come in’ and her back was turned to me feeding the pigeons. And she said ‘You know one day Flavia I’m going to be a novelist.’ And of course she was. Hotel du Lac which I think is the second book but the one that first really made her name in 1984 and how many did she publish since then? Fifteen? But she did write beautifully I mean she was a very good art historian too. So in a sense I suppose she was a bit of a role model. She was very beautiful. Well she’s still alive actually, in her eighties. Very beautiful very elegant French, French dressed. And people didn’t wear scent – scent was very expensive in those days – but she always had the latest or the most exclusive scents from Paris. I mean you couldn’t go into Boots in those days and buy you know, Channel [sic] or Armani or whatever you just couldn’t and it was far too expensive but you could always tell where she was and I if I couldn’t find her I’d just walk round the Courtauld [sniffs] using my nose and I’d always find her, because she'd wear this beautiful scent.
Transcript of interview with Flavia Swann, Association of Art Historians, Oral Histories Project, 2010 (Link)

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Family and Friends: A European Family

Brookner, like James, is reluctant to show her hand. Just what exactly, for example, in Family and Friends, does the Dorns' firm manufacture?  And when are the early scenes of the novel set? Things are looking up for the Dorns, the 'unpromising debris of a European family'; the factory is beginning to thrive again. But when, historically, is all this taking place? The wedding scene in chapter 1 suggests the 1920s*, or even earlier. The songs being sung in the house in chapter 2 - Massenet, Delibes - hardly indicate the prevalence of modern popular culture. And yet we could well be post-1945.** Time passes so unchartably, so elastically in Brookner, and in this book more dizzyingly than most. Much of this is owing to the narrative method, where everything is viewed by a cool, urbane, magisterial eye, as if from Olympian heights.

*The novel's first chapter was published in Granta (here), with an accompanying photo of a plainly interwar wedding.

** Not till quite a bit later in the book (in chapter 6) does Brookner allow herself (or give in to) the exophoric reference we've been looking for:
Evie's papa has warned her privately of conditions in Europe and what they mean for families such as theirs. Wars, and rumours of war.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Family and Friends: Ambassadors

Brookner is the poet of Paris de nos jours, and chapter 5 of Family and Friends is a true tour de force. Alfred and Mimi are in the French capital to rescue their sister Betty from a life of sin. The situation is of course profoundly literary: we can't but think of Lambert Strether. Staid Alfred is horrified by the place, but Mimi is more susceptible, and for a moment it seems she will, like her Jamesian counterpart, be seduced. By which I mean culturally and emotionally seduced - though Mimi has for the moment a more basic seduction in mind. But the chapter ends in failure and horror, a horror akin to those moments in several other early Brookners, the closing chapters of Look at Me in particular.

But the charm of the great city remains, and though Mimi will never return, Brookner herself will go back to it time and again in her fiction over the years. The pearl-grey Parisian morning. Brushing the whitish dust from one's shoes after a walk in the Tuileries. The iron chairs.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Family and Friends: The Westminster Bridge Road

Brookner, as I've said before, doesn't always like too much detail, or not in a narrative as finely spun as Family and Friends. I'm on chapter 4, and still we don't know what the Dorns' factory manufactures. But we do now know its location: the Westminster Bridge Road. Nearly a decade later, in 1994, in interview (here), Brookner would reveal perhaps this detail's autobiographical origin.
She was, she says, 'born into the purple of trade' in Herne Hill, a suburb near Dulwich, on 16 July 1928. Her maternal grandfather had come to England as a young man from Warsaw, and had set up as a tobacco importer, with a factory on Westminster Bridge Road. 'I didn't know him: he'd already died when I was born. My mother said that in his last illness he raised a Corona cigar to his lips, and drew on it. He supplied Edward VII with his cigarettes. There was an engraved cigarette case from the King, which vanished with one of the maids.'

These things are always intriguing. In some novels, maybe even here, Brookner can be very specific in her references. Chapter 4 moves towards events in Paris - and the 'ineffable blue Parisian evening' is memorably conjured. Her characters find themselves at the Hôtel Bedford et West End. It's some time since I read Family and Friends, but I register great personal nostalgia as I encounter these scenes again, remembering as I do my own youthful Parisian afternoons and evenings, walking up and down the rue de Rivoli in search of that hotel, and not finding it.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Family and Friends: Everybody Marries

Will the boys marry? Well, of course they will, in so far as everybody marries.
Anita Brookner, Family and Friends, ch. 1


Perhaps a little more than loneliness - too awkward a subject? - marriage is a recurring theme in Brookner's interviews. Everyone should marry several times, Brookner tells Boyd Tonkin in 2002. Or consider the interview with Blake Morrison from 1994:
…a recurrent dilemma of her novels is: Should I marry? This has also been the dilemma of much great (not merely romantic) fiction of the past. But Brookner's characters often receive the wrong kind of proposal, or bolt from the impending ceremony, or marry in haste and repent at leisure. The choice between lonely self-possession and companionable self-immolation - this is her theme. How much has this to do with her own life?
'What can I say? I have had offers of marriage but I didn't accept them. I possibly never met anyone to whom I could really entrust my life. I suppose it stems from early childhood.'
In what way?
'Well, I was always wary of my parents' plans for me. And I never really wanted to be taken over, or to have to give up anything else. It would have meant giving up work.'
But did she never think: working as an art historian need not rule out marriage - I could have both?
'No, I never thought that. From the outset the work absorbed me and I felt passionately about it. Of course I fell in and out of love like anybody does, but I think I knew that I was always going to live on my own.'
Yet she was attracted by the idea of marriage? 'I thought when I was young I would give everything up to be happily married. But you grow out of that, I think. By 30 a sort of wariness had crept in - I began to recognise men and what they were doing it for. These are people with their own agenda, who think you might be fitted in if they lop off certain parts. You can see them coming a mile off.'
In this sense she's like her heroines, then, who tend to receive unsuitable proposals, unsuitable because they have nothing to do with love? 'Yes. Or even sex.'