Saturday, 22 July 2017

Summer Plans

The Brooknerian will now be taking another short break. If all goes to plan (my itinerary is dismayingly complex) I should soon be a guest (for one night only) at the Grand Hôtel du Lac, Vevey. I could of course take my laptop with me, and blog from the scene, but I guess I'm old-fashioned. On my travels I prefer my pen, my notebook, my old analogue world.

[Two views of the hotel taken on a previous visit in August, 1993:]

Friday, 21 July 2017

Hallucinatory Reality

...but when he looked up from his soup, which he had been drinking rather greedily, and smiled at her, as he had smiled at her when he was a young boy, her heart smote her and she made a pretext of tiredness after the journey in order to weep a few tears in the privacy of their spare room. She spent a sleepless night watching a square of moonlight reflected in the tall mirror hanging on the dark blue patterned wall to the left of her bed and imagining that she was a girl in Vienna once again, sleeping in a similar bedroom, with a similar polished wood floor, and the same smell of beeswax fustiness that now came back to her with hallucinatory reality.
A Family Romance, ch. 3

There's something of an hallucinatory quality to A Family Romance as a whole. It has to do with the density of the prose and the expansiveness of the chapters. It has also to do with events such as those above not having been experienced by the narrating consciousness but instead imagined and presented with great affecting vividness. It is as if the story were being seen through some kind of filter, giving a sense of altered or heightened reality.

On another point, A Family Romance sets up and explores a familiar Brookner binary: the contrast between England and Europe. It is Toni Ferber who is so overwhelmed in the passage above, which takes place in Brussels. It is Toni Ferber who, earlier in the novel, pities her English daughter for her 'tepid existence, for never having known the hothouse love she had known as a girl in Vienna' (ch. 2).

The rue de la Loi, Brussels

For more on Brooknerian Brussels and some extreme tourism, see a previous post, Incidents in the Rue de la Loi.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Incidents in the Rue Saint-Denis

She soon had a clientele among the girls, cheerful, stoical, good-natured creatures who petted the baby and took to spending their off-duty moments in the workroom with Fanny. There was nothing downtrodden about these girls; they regarded ordinary married women with scorn and pity.
A Family Romance, ch. 3

Brookner's determined blithe tolerance of what would now be called sex work is of some interest. It may be that she's cocking a snook at the political correctness that was coming into its own at the time of A Family Romance's publication (1993). Or at feminism - of which Brookner wasn't a noted follower.

But it probably has its roots in her affection for the modes and mores of the eighteenth century. The girls, during the Occupation, became, we learn, mistresses: they were, as Brookner puts it, 'elevated to the status of regular mistress'. The conservative imagination, far from being outraged by such goings on, instead is almost reassured by a sense of tradition and continuity.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Mysteries of English Life

My father thought that Dickens would uncover the mysteries of English life. Instead, I grew up thinking that everyone had a funny name. Life was really rather a relief after this panorama of social injustice.

The ghost or the shadow of Dickens, hovering over A Family Romance from the beginning, steps into the footlights in chapter 2:
Having effectively divorced themselves from home and family, [my parents] felt free to invent their lives, as if they were characters in Dickens.
(Brooknerians often feel the need or have the leave to invent their own lives. It's a favourite locution of Brookner's. Incidents in the Rue Laugier, I think, also employs the phrase.)

Then there's Brookner's use of Dickensian phrasing. Compare these: ties which [my parents] had long ago sought to sever, so as to be all in all to each other...
A Family Romance, ch. 1 mother and I and Peggotty were all in all to one another...
David Copperfield, ch. 8

Dickens-style characters also raise their heads. One thinks of Jane's schoolfriend's Scottish aunts Kate and Nell, ladies of great innocence and virtue, travelling down to London every year with their cargo of typical goods, always keen to get on with some 'serious baking' (ch. 4).

As The Princess Casamassima was for Henry James, A Family Romance is Brookner's most Dickensian novel, and Jane Manning one of her most English protagonists: 'English and unafraid', as she puts it.

The mysteries of English life were at last, perhaps, uncovered.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Romance of the Open Road

Living as we do through an era of technological change, we might look back not only at the time that came before but also at other moments of transformation.

In chapter 5 of David Copperfield, in midsummer weather and the evening very pleasant, David travels by mail coach from Yarmouth to London. The journey takes seventeen hours. With fascination and nostalgia Dickens conjures the lost or vanishing world of coaching - a world that by the time of the publication of David Copperfield (1849-50) the railways had all but swept away; a world, moreover, that linked him with the concerns of his first fictions - The Pickwick Papers, in particular - and earliest reading - Smollett, Fielding, both referenced several times and with great fondness in David Copperfield.

We all live in the digital age now, but I remember the time before. While I was at school I never once touched a computer, and I'm only in my middle forties.

Brookner's novels belong to the last years of the analogue era. In her final novels there are one or two tentative mentions of 'e-mail' (she hyphenates the word) and mobile phones. But little more.
Observer: Pencil or pen?
Brookner: Pen.
Obs: In manuscript?
B: I haven't got any of these machines.
Obs: And do you type them up later on?
B: Yes, I do that. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

No Good Could Come of It

Her father [a Viennese ophthalmologist] was moderately successful in his profession, which was something of an irony, as his own eyes were weak and occasionally watery, which gave him a melancholy appearance. This ocular melancholy might even have masked something more profound, as if genuine grief were manifesting itself in this singularly appropriate symbol. Vienna was alive with metaphors: no explanation was too far-fetched.
A Family Romance, ch. 2

Was there ever a more Freudian Brookner than A Family Romance? There's its title, of course (though its applicability to the events of the novel isn't entirely obvious*), and there's Jane's maternal grandmother's Viennese background. I remembered from earlier readings that Toni Ferber ended up, like Freud, in Maresfield Gardens, London, but I had forgotten her journey had started in none other than the Berggasse in Vienna, and that the consulting-room of Dr Meyer, the ophthalmologist, was, like Freud's, just across the landing from his apartment.

Jane's English father had understandable doubts:
He thought the ambience perfervid, haunted by the ghost of Freud and other Viennese associations. Even the conjunction of the Berggasse and Maresfield Gardens was, he thought, too apt, too prompt, too symbolic to be a mere accident: no good could come of it.
(For more on Brookner and Freud, see comments in her several interviews, especially the 2009 Telegraph interview.)

*Jane 'was not encouraged to formulate any family romance, although I was to do this later in the books I wrote for children' (ch. 2). Thus, curiously negatively, the (British only) title refers to something that the novel rejects. But in steering wide of a too closely Freudian form of fiction, Brookner perhaps avoids a crime identified by Virginia Woolf: that in becoming 'cases' characters cease to be individuals ('Freudian Fiction', 1920 essay collected in A Woman's Essays).

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Most Delicious Retreat

After tea, when the door was shut and all was made snug (the nights being cold and misty now), it seemed to me the most delicious retreat that the imagination of man could conceive.
David Copperfield, ch. 3
All in all my parents were a haven to each other, finding in Prince of Wales Drive, and in the largely wordless company of Miss Lawlor, a peace that neither of them had ever found at home with their contentious parents.
A Family Romance, ch. 1

One wouldn't want to stretch a comparison too far, but as I reread David Copperfield and A Family Romance, I really am struck by the similarities. An old ship that's now a house, on the strand at Yarmouth, and a mansion flat in Battersea ('You live in the middle of nowhere, you know,' complains Dolly) - what's the difference?

I am hospitably received by Mr Peggotty.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Dolly and Mme Moitessier

Out of its draped neckline rose a throat that was full at the base and slightly suffused with colour ... Her hair and eyes were dark, her skin a beautiful clear olive and flushed over the prominent cheekbones, but her most characteristic feature was her mouth, which was long and thin, the lips as smooth as grape skins, the lipstick worn away into an outline by her eager tongue ... She had a squat European figure, with shortish legs and a full bosom, the whole thing reined in and made impregnable by some kind of hidden structure.
A Family Romance, ch. 1

There's something very painterly about these early-to-mid 90s Brookners. The chapters are long, about double the length of chapters in earlier and later Brookner novels. This adds to the dense, static atmosphere. Descriptions are full and considered. Reading the above description of Dolly, I am reminded of Ingres's Mme Moitessier in the National Gallery (see an earlier post for more on this painting). I know that this famous painting, its sitter in her impossible dress, is referred to directly in one of Brookner's novels; it may even be in this one.

Friday, 14 July 2017

David and Jane

David Copperfield: We open with an aunt, a 'discontented fairy', and with scenes before David's birth. This is a novel, so the events are imagined by the writer. It is also a first-person narrative, yet these particular events weren't experienced by the narrator; they're therefore as it were doubly imagined, giving the opening of the novel a slightly unreal or magical quality.

Dickens knows this, and makes some effort to explain himself. In the second chapter David is young, but his jewel-bright recollection continues.
...I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose.
...if it should appear from anything I may set down ... that I was a child of close observation, or that as a man I have a strong memory of my childhood, I undoubtedly lay claim to both these characteristics.

A Family Romance: Here too we start with an aunt: 'the aunt rather than ... my aunt, for anything more intimate would have implied appropriation, or attachment'. Magical stories are invoked: 'Dolly's absence I took for granted, for in the manner of fairy tales I assumed that after the apotheosis it was natural for people to vanish'. And we are treated to detailed recounts of events and conversations, even though the narrator Jane was little more than four or five at the time (and in later chapters she dramatises scenes that took place before her birth).

She tells us, perhaps echoing David Copperfield:
It is not true that children do not understand adult feelings. They understand them all too well, but they are powerless to deal with them.
And towards the end of the first chapter is at pains to justify her apparently excellent recall:
These facts were not revealed to me until much later. Many of them I had to supply myself. It seemed to me important to reconstruct the story, even to the point of doing a certain amount of research.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Summer Books

I'm sure I'm not the only person who spends an inordinate amount of time wondering what to read each summer. For me it must be a long novel, preferably a nineteenth-century novel. Such novels give me lots of comfort on my travels. Art cannot console you, said Anita Brookner. But I'm not sure I agree with her there.

Last summer, before my blogging days, before The Brooknerian was even a twinkle in my eye, I read or rather reread The Portrait of a Lady. That's one of the perils of getting older: the need to reread. I know I should try to find new things to read. But I know what I like, and, as I say, I'm looking for comfort.

2015 seems to have been a low point. I read, for the first time, Thackeray's The Adventures of Philip. The first and only time. In 2014 it was Clarissa, 2013 The Princess Casamassima, and 2012 He Knew He Was Right. I could go on.

This year I toyed with the idea of returning to the first Dickens I properly read, Bleak House. (I say properly read because anyone who's been through the British school system will at some point have read Dickens as part of their studies.) But at last I had a minor brainwave and decided on a joint reread of David Copperfield and Brookner's A Family Romance. Jane Manning, as you may know, reads David Copperfield as A Family Romance progresses, and it informs her sentimental education.

So the decision is made. I look forward to starting both soon, with due attention to an annual ritual.