Friday, 22 September 2017

Undue Influence: Sir Gerald Kelly

My mother had been an art student when girls at the Slade wore long belted smocks and had waved and curled hair. I know this - about the hair, that is - because there is a portrait of her by Sir Gerald Kelly in our dining-room. He seemed to have caught her essence, although she was very young at the time: she is seated in three-quarter profile, with her hands in her lap, the hair caught with particular precision. She has that absent-minded dreaming look that women had in those days, and which must have been de rigueur for girls of a certain class.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 2


I don't know whether Brookner ever met Sir Gerald Kelly, who died in 1972, a celebrated portrait painter. He painted the Royal Family, T. S. Eliot, Marie Stopes, among others. The following, from 1921, is part of the celebrated 'Jane' series of portraits of his wife:

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Undue Influence: a Hunger Artist

I could sell you anything in the shop, since I am so familiar with the stock. But I prefer the living flesh and its ambiguity. I am in my element there, a hunger artist whose hunger is rarely satisfied.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 2


Kafka's hunger artist is a man who performs and showcases his fasting, his abnegation, his sadness. But his life involves endless indignities: he is suspected of cheating; his public loses interest. It is suggested his unhappiness may simply be caused by his self-denial.

Brookner's protagonists are hunger artists in that there's a degree of complacency in their austere self-presentation. But there's also, as here, a sense of insatiable and perhaps unsuitable appetites - appetites that must be controlled and circumscribed and to an extent suppressed. And the true Brooknerian wouldn't want it any other way.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Backlisted Podcast: Look at Me

The Backlisted Brookner team: John Mitchinson, Lucy Scholes,
Andy Miller and Una McCormack. On the bench beside Andy,
under the Look at Me paperback, is, I think, a copy
 of John Haffenden's excellent Novelists in Interview.

For much of my life as an Anita Brookner fan I never met or had contact with anyone who'd read her, let alone liked her as devotedly as I did. In the broadcast media there was a similar dearth. Over the years, while she was publishing, Anita Brookner was occasionally mentioned on BBC radio arts review programmes, Front Row and Kaleidoscope and the like, but the tone was often disappointingly slighting. It's only in this age of the Internet that I've become properly aware of other readers, other fans, and it was therefore with enormous pleasure that I listened today to the Brookner-themed Backlisted podcast.

An exemplary programme, packed with insight and not a few anecdotes. I'd never heard the one about the Routemaster bus. And a mention of The Brooknerian! A special day indeed. Dr B would have been 'most gratified'.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Undue Influence: Prelude

It was not the first time I had been guilty of a misapprehension.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 1


Chapter 1 of Undue Influence (1999) is a Brookner curiosity. It functions as a prelude, connected only thematically with the plot that will get under way in the next chapter. It sets me thinking of the Prelude to Middlemarch, which I first read in my teens. Why, I wondered, was George Eliot telling me about St Theresa?

Chapter 1 of Undue Influence, which ends with the ominous line above, concerns the narrator's failure to understand events in an upstairs flat. I am reminded of Jane Manning in Brookner's A Family Romance, who misconstrues the identity of a pair of French Canadians in a neighbouring apartment. I think also of Barbara Pym and her sister and their elaborate fantasies or 'sagas'. Inspired by the 1930s novelist Rachel Ferguson (The Brontës Went to Woolworths), the Pym sisters would all but stalk their unsuspecting neighbours and other strangers they observed out and about in the locale. The progress of several such sagas is covered cheerfully and in some depth by Pym's biographer Hazel Holt in A Lot to Ask: a Life of Barbara Pym.

Still vigilant:
Pym in 1979 in Finstock, Oxfordshire

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Autumn Reading: Undue Influence

The UK first edition's
magnificent cover image

One approaches the autumn with a Brooknerian mix of resignation and relief. What to read, when the long dark evenings come? After a little mental tussle I decided to give Undue Influence a try. It occupies an interesting position in the Brookner oeuvre. It's the last of the 1990s novels, but it harks back to the first three Brookners (A Start in Life, Providence, Look at Me) from the early Eighties. At the time it seemed like either an end or a new beginning. And the following year, 2000, was the first time Anita Brookner broke the annual publication pattern she'd established through the Eighties and Nineties. You must remember that from 1990 I read Brookner as she was published. When I first read Undue Influence, and when there was no new novel a year later, it really did seem possible she might have given up fiction, as she had more than once threatened to do.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Ivy Compton-Burnett: Two Worlds and Their Ways

'And it is not true that people have nothing to fear, if they speak the truth. They have everything to fear.'
Ivy Compton-Burnett, Two Worlds and Their Ways (1949)


No blame should attach to the telling of the truth. But it does, it does. We know that from Anita Brookner, before whom there was Ivy Compton-Burnett. In fact she's quite a different kind of artist, though there are a number of congruences. Both began publishing regularly and in earnest in the second part of their lives. Both presented the public with a carefully maintained and very austere public image. Both had what can at best be described as a less than rosy view of the world.



Just as I became interested in Brookner during the time I worked in a public library, so I came to Ivy Compton-Burnett among the stacks. The Penguin A First Omnibus always attracted me, and I tried to read it. It baffled and defeated me. I tried again years later, and registered a similar response. For those who aren't initiated, let me set out the basics. ICB was an English writer who wrote her major works between the 1920s and the 1960s. They're predominately set in upper-middle class households during the last years of the previous century. They have highly sensational and even shocking plots. They're written almost completely in stilted, aphoristic, and faintly camp dialogue. The narrator mainly stays 'on the surface', but allows herself random access to characters' less admirable thoughts. Physical descriptions are brief and formulaic. Descriptions of settings are practically non-existent. The tone of most of the characters' exchanges is harsh, astringent, cruel. ICB's novels are extremely frustrating, extremely odd, but rather addictive. They're unlike anything else. Henry James's The Awkward Age and the novels of Henry Green come near, in that they rely on dialogue, but no one gets close to Ivy's brutality.

Two Worlds and Their Ways is a middle-to-late period Ivy. She had her heyday in the second war: Elizabeth Bowen wrote, in 1941, 'To read in these days a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up one of these London mornings after a blitz.' The wartime public seemed to appreciate the formality and honesty of Compton-Burnett's novels: 'the effect of stiffness and surface distortion no longer seemed a problem in a world where the comforting half truths, cliches and conformist platitudes of conversations were temporarily in abeyance,' writes Hilary Spurling in her introduction to the Virago edition of the novel.

After the war Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels became shorter and even more rarefied and concentrated. Two Worlds and Their Ways is heading in that direction. Nothing is wasted, though there are long passages that seem to be heading nowhere. She's like a pianist improvising. Only she knows where she's going. Where she's usually going is in the direction of revelations, realisations and discoveries that can be profoundly horrifying.

Compton-Burnett's theme in Two Worlds and Their Ways, as ever, is power and its misuse:
Clemence lifted her eyes in incredulous consternation. Surely human beings could not have such power over each other and yield it thus without thought or mercy.
The 'two worlds' are home and school. Both are charnel houses. The child Clemence and her younger brother Sefton are sent away to boarding establishments, where both commit similar offences - offences that eerily mirror the behaviour of their relations at home. There are lessons for everyone, lessons in the true nature of what one character calls 'this hard, unhappy human world'. By the end of the novel all pretence has been taken away, all shameful secrets revealed, including a particular secret involving the theft and sale of an earring, which Compton-Burnett, not without relish, covers in inordinate and painful detail. No one, at the close, can be in any doubt about anything. 'And that is hardly an enrichment of our family life,' comments one of the children.

My (incomplete) Ivy collection.
Sourcing ICB books isn't
remotely easy. Get them when you see them.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Brookner Interview Discoveries #3: Novelist with a Double Life

The last of my discoveries, 'Novelist with a Double Life', admittedly more of a 'profile' than a fresh interview, is from the Observer on 7 August 1988, marking the publication of Latecomers.

Latecomers, we learn, has no author biography on its dustjacket, no rundown of the recently retired Brookner's academic achievements. 'That's over,' she says. 'It is no longer relevant. I've consigned it to the past.'

But that past is celebrated, in particular her kindness as a teacher. 'To be taught by Anita was to be loved by Anita - you had to accept both,' says an unnamed ex-student.

Balancing the academic and novel-writing sides of her life became like 'schizophrenia'. A friend recalls: 'In the same week that she published her scholarly monograph on David, on which she'd been working for years, she got far more publicity about a review she'd written in the TLS about a cookery book ..., saying "Yuk!"'

A colleague remembers her elation at winning the Booker Prize, speaking of the 'kilowatts coming off her': 'She positively glowed.'

Brookner 'considers herself a person of extravagance and excess', and is unfailingly generous: 'If you go out for a coffee, you find it quite hard to pay for the KitKats* when it's your turn,' says a friend.

Though not religious she 'likes and shares the "geniality" of her race. "I don't think anyone could call me cheerful. But I'm quite content."' On Christmas Day she helps serve lunch to patients in a nearby hospital.

She continues her search for the 'ideal, perfect, appropriate home': 'But I think the great step forward is the knowledge that I will never find it. But I will always seek it.'

*

*Oddly enough, this is not the only mention in the Brookner literature of this popular biscuit. See also here.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Brookner Interview Discoveries #2: Great Expectations

The second of my interview discoveries, 'Great Expectations', is from the Observer on 27 March 1983, marking the publication of Brookner's Look at Me. The interview was conducted by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, who would continue an interest in Brookner's works. Here she is on Brookner's 1998 novel Falling Slowly:
She is one of a handful of living writers who can turn a sentence so graceful that to read it is a lascivious pleasure, and she can string those sentences together to make paragraphs - whole chapters even - that unfurl surely and musically until they climax, or fall away into silence with a superbly exact authority to which it is delicious to submit. There is a constant delightful tension between the austerity of her message and the voluptuousness of her medium.
Brookner interviews have ritualistic tendencies, and Hughes-Hallett's certainly covers the usual ground: 'I regard myself as being completely invisible'; how the young Anita learnt false lessons from the classic books she read in her solitary childhood:
I grew up thinking that patience would be rewarded and virtue would triumph. It has been demonstrated to me that this is not true. It was a terrible realisation.
and her reasons for starting a second career as a novelist:
I thought if I could write about it I might be able to impose some structure on my experience. It gave me a feeling of being in control.
But of greatest interest are some unfamiliar biographical details. For many years, we learn, Brookner allowed her life to be determined by someone else's needs. 'A man. He became very ill. He has since died.' There was also, Hughes-Hallett tells us, another lost love in Brookner's past, 'on which she is not to be drawn, but she divulges clues':
Perhaps I was naive in expecting that these matters would be less complicated than they prove to be. As an art historian I am accustomed to reading signs, but sometimes I forgot to do so in real life. [...] People who are going to be good at reading the signs can do it at the age of 18 months. The others never learn.
We see her in her 'attic' at the Courtauld, on which the world 'doesn't impinge'. And we see her still hopeful:
I have great expectations. One waits to be sprung.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Brookner Interview Discoveries #1: Finding the Art of Fiction

Regular visitors to this blog will know of my devotion to Anita Brookner's interviews. Five are available on the web - the Paris Review interview, the 1990s Independent interview, and three from the 2000s (the Observer, the Independent again, and the last interview in 2009 in the Telegraph). In printed form there are the Olga Kenyon and the John Haffenden interviews, both from the 1980s. The Haffenden exchange remains to my mind the best Anita Brookner interview.

You will conceive of my delight at discovering several fresh interviews on the Guardian/Observer archive website. I propose to cover these over the coming days.

We start with a piece in the Guardian on 27 May 1981, 'Finding the art of fiction', published to coincide with the publication of Brookner's first novel A Start in Life.

As well as giving in remarkably finished form her later familiar responses to questions about her motivations for writing ('Socially she has always had the sensation of being invisible') and her love of Dickens and 'her idol' Stendhal, Brookner also speaks at some length about the art criticism for which she was then best known: David, Delacroix, Ingres, Greuze. For her study of the latter, she 'had to visit almost every French provincial city, usually in the dead of winter. I was young, I thought the discomfort exhilarating'. Her parents, we learn, were against the expedition. The interviewer writes:
They were sure she would be recruited into prostitution. Had she told them very few academics are? 'No such luck,' she replies.
Brookner speaks further of her mother, once a concert singer; she gave it up to marry. When she sang at home friends would exclaim at the choice she had made, and Brookner's father's face would blacken. In her singing her passion showed. The young Anita would start to cry. 'She, and not I, should have been the liberated woman.'

Brookner says she would like to write a biography of Ingres, a passionate happy man. Her students, she says, start by liking Delacroix and come round to Ingres. A biography of Ingres would 'take her to Montauban where she might start French life all over again, and this time, stay there'.

Her lives of Watteau, David and Greuze offer cheer: 'if they got their lives wrong they got their pictures right'.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

At the Courtauld

The Courtauld used to be in Portman Square.

[This piece of Brookneriana dates from the mid-70s.
It found it inside a printed copy of a celebrated lecture Brookner gave
on Jacques-Louis David. I don't know who 'Louise' is or was.]

I remember visiting the Courtauld in perhaps late 1989 or early 1990. And it was gone. Visit research had been wanting. The Courtauld moved into Somerset House about that time, a year of so after Brookner retired.

Brookner attended the Courtauld's 75th anniversary celebrations at Somerset House in the mid-to-late 2000s:



I myself visited the Courtauld Gallery a few weeks ago, nearly thirty years after my first attempt. I wasn't sure whether I'd find much of interest. The place is famed for its Impressionists collection, and I'm not keen on them. Nor can I think of a single mention of the Courtauld in Brookner's novels. She probably didn't like to mix business with pleasure.

The gallery is medium-sized and not too popular. You also have to pay, which is usually a good sign. I visited alongside several tourists and lots of old and middle-aged folk who seemed to be up for the day from the suburbs and provinces.

One or two paintings made me think of Brookner's 1994 novel A Private View. I've always loved the bit where George Bland imagines himself in future years being consoled by the memory of the corner of a Rubens landscape. I thought Brookner might have had in mind the Rainbow Landscape in the Wallace Collection or the View of Het Steen in the National Gallery, but she might equally have meant this Landscape by Moonlight, 1635-40, acquired in the 1980s:


In other rooms I found a small collection of Sickerts - Portrait of Mrs Barrett, 1906, and Dawn, Camden Town, c. 1909 (though this one's only on loan) - which reminded me of Bland's trip to see a Camden Town Group exhibition, and also of Sturgis's similar later visit in Strangers.



I was interested to learn that the artist and critic Roger Fry supported the founding of the Courtauld in 1932. The gallery holds his Portrait of Nina Hamnett, 1917. I remembered the character in Brookner's Providence known only as the Roger Fry Professor. (The gallery also has a Fry self-portrait, acquired in the 1990s.)