Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Fraud: Closing Remarks

Some final comments on Brookner's Fraud:
  • It's a novel about care and caring. This struck me only towards the end. Anna cares for her mother. Mrs Marsh is wary lest her own daughter become her carer (ch. 15). Even the predatory Vickie has 'a child's right to care and constant attention' (ch. 16). The novel's conclusion is markedly hard, cold, less than compassionate. Was Anna, in caring for her mother, truly a victim of fraud? I'm unconvinced by Anna in her final iteration. How long will she remain so blithe, so uncaring? Where is she now?
  • Fraud is also a novel about food. It brings together themes from previous novels, and advances them: Anna is all but anorexic. The set-piece scene in chapter 16 - the Hallidays' dinner party - compares with the restaurant episode at the end of Look at Me. There's terrible food - a terrine, cold and slippery as ice cream - and much horrifying conversation. There may not be a revelation, but the scene is nevertheless climactic. After this point, Anna ('pleine de pouvoir') makes her decision about her future. One other thing about the dinner party: Anna is the moral victor, regarding her hosts with something like pity. The tables are turned on the appalling Vickie Halliday: 'To be so transparent!' The reader cheers.
  • Fraud, better than any of Brookner's previous novels, handles narrative perspective expertly. The text's shifting eye gives us a kaleidoscope of views on Anna and her intriguing mystery. She comes in and out of focus. No sooner have we felt close to Anna, sympathetic to her plight, than we see her differently and less amenably. Fraud is probably the closest Anita Brookner comes to being an 'omniscient narrator'.
  • The ending reminds me again of Little Dorrit (see an earlier post here).
  • The title gives me pause. So dry, legalistic, brutalist: a curious Brookner characteristic as far as titles are concerned. Here's a parlour game. What would other novelists have called Fraud? Jane Austen: Self and Selflessness? Ivy Compton-Burnett: The Lost and the Found? Henry Green: Rejecting? Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym: An Emergent Spring?

The cover of the UK first
edition, showing Titian's
Sacred and Profane Love

Monday, 20 November 2017

Fraud: Strangely Contented

He was strangely contented. Every morning he devoted to being ill, and every afternoon to getting better. He listened to The Archers and the afternoon play. This was his favourite time. With the advent of the news and the more serious programmes he was reminded that he was fifty-one, a responsible citizen, and a businessman who was due in New York the following week, all of which information struck him as highly unwelcome.
Anita Brookner, Fraud, ch. 15


I don't know whether non-British readers will appreciate the authenticity and charm of this passage. Brookner is speaking here of BBC Radio 4, the nation's main speech radio channel. Many people structure their day according to its comforting and predictable rhythms; I have done this myself. In the small hours it goes off air and the frequency plays the World Service, which George Bland in A Private View listens to through the night. Menus plaisirs, but pleasures all the same.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Pity and Fear: The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark


The tone, from the start, is unsettling, uncanny: over-detailed, affectless, and then with sudden accesses of poetry and metaphor. Of the heroine's pinewood furniture: 'The swaying tall pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor have been subdued into silence and into obedient bulks'. What is Spark's game? For she's certainly playing a game.

Like Anna in Anita Brookner's Fraud, Lise in Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970) has gone missing - or rather is about to go missing. Or rather is about to be brutally murdered. Spark, in typical postmodern Sparkish fashion, larks around with chronology. We know early on, even before Lise has arrived at her final destination - an unnamed probably Mediterranean city - that she is to die. We find out by the end how this comes about, and why. The ending is chillingly bleak.

Lise is unknowable, even by Spark ('Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?'), an author who's in the driver's seat but of a vehicle that's just a little bit out of control. The narrative has an established end-point, but the journey is unpredictable. Lise careers madly from scene to scene, picking up and idly shedding subordinate characters. The novel has a dreamlike quality, but this is a trick. Lise's life and her story are in fact strongly teleological: unknown to the reader, known only to Lise (and Spark, of course), a diabolical plan is in motion. There is nothing random about this novel.

The Driver's Seat depicts an immoral universe and might be seen as an immoral or amoral novel or rather novella: brutish and short. But it lingers in the mind, minatory, cautionary. Take care, says Spark. Her eye may be pitiless - the whole 1960s world of cheap foreign travel is richly evoked - but her heroine is pitiable, and a warning to us all. '[F]ear and pity, pity and fear' echo the tale's closing words.

*

As this is a blog largely devoted to the work of another author, it would be remiss of me not to consider Brookner's views on Muriel Spark. Here is Brookner in the New York Times in 1984 (see link here), offering a reading of a later Spark novel:
In all her novels Muriel Spark gives the impression that although she has risen above the problem of evil, the struggle has been great; the effort has left her in possession of a high-spirited despair, a sometimes painful irony - painful precisely because it is effective. One has sometimes yearned for what is not there, as if the victory of overcoming has exacted too heavy a forfeit. At times it has seemed as if the heart of the matter has been excised and only the nefarious transactions recorded. […] The Only Problem … is Mrs Spark's best novel since The Driver's Seat, and it is, yet again, a disturbing and exhilarating experience.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Fraud: Padding

I'm interested by the middle chapters of Fraud. Here, as in other Brookners, especially later ones, the reader is conscious of authorial unease. In essence she's run out of story, run out of road. It's a predicament that often propels Brookner into new discoveries. These can be raw and difficult, especially in the 2000s novels. But Fraud is Brookner at her mildest, at her most content.

So we get Mrs Marsh and her friend Lady Martin 'taking tea' together in chapter 13. I wonder, reading this, what another writer would have made of the same circumstance. If Barbara Pym were writing the scene - or Jane Austen. But this being Brookner, the chapter soon descends into pitiless analysis, bleak self-knowledge, and existential anxiety. Embracing Lady Martin at the end, Mrs Marsh cannot but be aware, beneath her friend's Jolie Madame, of 'the smell of mortality'.

Then we have Dr Halliday and his terrible wife. Another stock situation given the Brookner treatment, and highly literary: by mistake I typed 'Dr Lydgate' a moment ago.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Fraud: Brookner Takes a Holiday

One looks forward to those chapters in Anita Brookner's novels when she sends her personages away on holiday. One thinks of Alan Sherwood in Vif, Paul Sturgis in Venice, and any number of characters in Paris.

One such vacation is enjoyed or endured by Anna Durrant in chapter 12 of Fraud. It's January, and brightly cold ('sunshine as ruthless as the workings of the human heart'), and Anna is visiting her old friend Marie-France. But dissent and deception are in the air. Marie-France, after a lifetime's nunlike spinsterhood, has contracted to marry a faintly dubious friend of the family. Anna, excluded, must spend much of her time alone - for which we're surely grateful. Brooknerian wanderings follow, including (of course) a trip to the Louvre.

Eschewing the Romantics' 'great discordant machines', Anna focuses on the portraits of Ingres: Mme Rivière, 'reclining fatly on her blue velvet cushions'; Mme Marcotte, 'in unbecoming brown, her large sad eyes speaking of a physical rather than a metaphysical unease'. Anna can 'almost sense the processes behind' the eyes of the portrayed: the 'discreet gurglings and shiftings in those flawless bodies'. They are, she later realises, portraits of the 'sexual battle fought and won...' We're reminded, in Brookner's reading of the paintings of Ingres, and in her depiction of Marie-France's less than ideal liaison, of this writer's sometimes overlooked commitment to the fallen world, the physical world, the world of the flesh.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Fraud: Midlands Idyll

So he delivered the papers before he went to school, getting up at five in the frozen winter mornings, before it was light, and going home again to the fuggy warmth of the shop, with its cloying gas heater, and warming himself in the back room while his mother cooked him a huge fried breakfast.

Chapter 11 of Fraud begins with a depiction of Dr Halliday's Leicester youth. I'm not sure whether the ugly word 'Londoncentric' existed in 1992, but Fraud, like much of Brookner, is definitely it. The reader is always on the alert when Brookner strays into the English provinces. The tone of this passage is not quite condescending, but certainly rather indulgent, soft-focus. It works to an extent, but probably only insofar as it's a portrayal not so much of a place as of a time: the postwar period, that fabled era of kindness and solidarity Brookner celebrates most powerfully in Visitors, in Mrs May's dream of a field of folk.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Fraud: Vorfrühling


She raised the window and leaned out, trying in vain to catch the smell of turned earth, to sense an emergent spring, but it was too early in the year: the air was sour, lightless.
Anita Brookner, Fraud, ch. 10


In the recent Backlisted podcast Andy Miller spoke persuasively of Brookner's narrative technique, likening it to the work of a painter: Brookner gradually fills her canvas, a touch here, a touch there - focusing for a time on a particular area, perhaps returning to it later, and so on. This is seen very much in Fraud, chapter 10: a dream returns Anna and her creator to the story of Mrs Durrant's disastrous second marriage. We might have thought that part of the story done and dusted, but there is still much to be learnt: Brookner is rarely what might be called a chronological writer.

The chapter is painterly in another sense. The depiction of January, and, relatedly, of Anna's desiccated emotions ('In middle life, she knew, the feelings wither slightly, rancour and disappointment replacing earlier hope and expectation.'), recalls (to me at least) Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Vorfrühling, also known as The Gloomy Day, which is in Vienna. This is surely not too fanciful, as Bruegel is invoked more than once in Dr Brookner's novels, though he wasn't an artist who fell within her Courtauld remit.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Fraud: Christmas Day

This day would end, like all the others, and she would look back in pity at the person who had endured it.

So I come to chapter 8 of Fraud. I've read it before, of course, and I've even written about it here (see A Brooknerian Christmas).

The chapter reads like a collection of Brookner's greatest hits. We have early waking, a flat that's never quite warm enough, striped upholstery, tentative confrontations with neighbours and old acquaintances, flâneurism, obsessive rumination, a cup of tisane, a struggle to eat the smallest of meals, and all the while the marking off of the empty hours as they go by.

I notice one or two new things: the 'demons' circling the extreme discipline of Anna's life; and Nick Marsh, Vickie Halliday and even Mrs Marsh being seen as a 'band of grotesques'. Suddenly we're no longer in 1990s London but in some dark long-ago Europe, in the world of Hieronymus Bosch.

I also see the following chapter, covering Mrs Marsh's less than successful Christmas, as a sort of companion piece. Mrs Marsh longs, as Anna might, for her independence, her 'cherished little habits', her 'little eccentricities', the 'quiet brooding life' of her own thoughts, her own silence.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Fraud: Night Thoughts

Once more, rereading Brookner, one comes across intriguing repetitions. Take Mrs Marsh's 'night thoughts' in Fraud (ch. 7). Lying in bed, with (like George Bland in A Private View) the World Service playing in the background, she entertains memories of shopkeepers she remembers from her earliest youth. Sturgis recalls such stores in Strangers, and Mrs May in Visitors similarly conjures the neighbourhood of her childhood.

Then, in Fraud, but briefly, there's 'Dolly', Mrs Marsh's mother's glamorous friend. So there are three characters with that name in Anita Brookner. There's the legendary aunt in A Family Romance / Dolly of course, but there's also a woman named Dolly Edwards who appears in a dream at the beginning of Leaving Home. As I say, intriguing. Are there other Dollys?

Friday, 10 November 2017

Fraud: No Voice

She was aware that she was uncomfortable to be with, had little to offer but her maidenly accomplishments and her letter-writing and her too careful clothes. [...] Within that carapace she was an adult woman, but one who had no voice because of her lifelong concealment, which now no one would question.
Fraud, ch. 6


Let me compare Fraud's Anna Durrant with Look at Me's Frances Hinton of nine years before. Frances too, in a famous passage, has 'no voice at the world's tribunals' (Look at Me, ch. 6), but arguably her 'accomplishments' are more substantial than Anna's: she works, she enjoys success in her writing. Whereas Anna's life is much more isolated and reduced.

This is a pattern in Brookner. Character types recur, but supports are stripped away. When reading Fraud for the first time the reader may wonder whether Anna will survive. She has disappeared. Her disappearance has come to the attention of the police. She may be dead, by whatever means. (She has, for example, her sleeping pills, though later in the novel she explicitly rejects suicide.) The blurb on my paperback copy of the novel shuts down any such possibility, but I remember the summary on the original hardback being more reticent. Fraud felt then, as first-time Brookners often feel, genuinely dangerous, a sense that to a large extent piquantly lingers during a reread.