Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Infinitely Various

Every reader who feels sympathy with the genre of the novel, and with its potential subtleties, will realise ... how wholly and satisfyingly different each of [Brookner's] turns out to be. George Eliot is a one-track performer beside her. But there is no point in such a comparison, for as a novelist Anita Brookner is both infinitely various and adorably unique.

Bayley's characteristically gushing pronouncement comes to mind because I've been reading George Eliot recently. Eliot's output seems less prolific than Brookner's, but of course her novels are generally much longer. Eliot's variousness is not in doubt. Consider her different settings - from fifteenth-century Florence in Romola to the contemporary Jewish underworld in Daniel Deronda. But her characters and their concerns, their cruxes and their dilemmas, are perhaps fairly continuous. What then of Brookner? Bayley was writing in 1994, in the middle years of Brookner's novel-writing career. His remarks are, surely, artfully contrary, but there's something in them. Consistent in length, setting, character type and theme, Brookner's fiction nevertheless gives off a sense of danger and uncertainty not found in many writers. You never quite know where she's going, nor where she'll end up, nor who'll get out alive.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Brookner at the Office

One could go on raking this image for ever. Its faded colours, reminiscent of family photos from the era (1987). The bank of windows outside. The author / art historian, content and not too thin. The cards on the sill. The heavy typewriter. The bottles of Tippex. The piles of paper. The calendar on the otherwise municipally unadorned walls. The hard desk chair. The ashtray.

A Guide to Berlin

Brookner rated Latecomers highly. It, rather than Hotel du Lacshe said in interview, should have won the Booker.

Latecomers is for sure a confident book, and it has an 'important' Booker-pleasing theme. But I find it, along with Lewis Percy, published a year later, a little over-confident: Olympian, indulgent. There is less sense in these books of Brookner's affinity or kinship with the lives she so omnisciently appraises.

There is some dilution too, some sense of a diffuse focus. There are too many characters, too much multi-plottedness. But Fibich's realisation towards the end of Latecomers, that he wishes he had stayed with his mother rather than getting on the Kindertransport, is finely handled and powerfully affecting:
'I should have gone back,' whispered Fibich. 'I should not have left. I should have got off the train.' (Ch. 14)
But it is Fibich's return visit to Berlin in Chapter 13 that interests me currently. I've been to Berlin many times, but I've never viewed it through the prism of Latecomers, which I reread only recently. I recognise Fibich's depiction of the atmosphere of the landlocked city, far from marine breezes, the  fatigue du nord one experiences there, and I know many of the places, the Zoo station, the ruined church. But I must visit Dahlem and see Gainsborough's Joshua Grigby, and I must try to eat a few slices of strawberry shortcake at the Kranzler.

Latecomers, for all its problems, offers a guide to Berlin somewhat more practical than Nabokov's.

'alert and confident in his
subtle pink coat'

Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Portraiture of Women

Now, with age, comes a new tranquility ... a new bravery. Mme. David and her daughter are charmless women and no attempt is made to rearrange them, to work an act of artistic leger-de-main with their shawls and their sleeves and their head dresses, as would have been managed by Ingres ... to convey depths of hidden fascination. David's great gift to the portraiture of women is to show them not as they would wish to be shown as temple prostitutes, but rather as sturdy, confident creatures, no less competent but far less vain than men. Mme. David, still dressed in the satin shift, false curls and feathers she wore to court, reveals no hidden depths of erotic experience. She has no illusions about her appearance and neither has the spectator ... This revision of the concept of the female portrait, this fully frontal confidence and honesty, this refusal to embroider or even to arrange, must be counted as one of the aging David's most vital achievements.
Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, Ch. 12, 'Not Quite What We Desired'

David, Mme. David, Washington

Secret Tributes

Yes, I have this blog, and yes, I'm on Twitter, but in my everyday life I'm practically a secret fan. This is probably the only way to be. In numerous ways I honour the Brooknerian life, but my tributes are clandestine.
  • I travel to Brooknerian places, and to hidden corners of those places. In Paris to St-Sulpice, in Switzerland to Vevey, in London to certain little gardens where characters, in defeat, have sat and read Henry James.
  • I visit galleries and particular pictures. In London, M. Blauw and the Titian Ariadne. In Vienna, Susanna and the Elders. In Ghent, a kleptomaniac.
  • I sometimes wear Eau Sauvage, because George Bland wore it.
  • I drink herbal teas and call them tisanes.
  • Away from Brookner, I let Brookner guide my reading. I read the whole of Dickens, James and Trollope, because of Brookner.
  • I often listen to the Shipping Forecast, though I haven't yet taken to playing the World Service through the night.
  • As followers will recall, I once walked the length of the rue de la Loi, Dolly's Brussels hideout. A punishing trek.
  • I must, I really must, read Buddenbrooks and more of Proust.
As Maffy knows at the end of Incidents in the Rue Laugier, we all, the living and the dead, have our mysteries - and one day we may be called upon to explain them, if only to ourselves.

(The Brooknerian is not
sponsored by Dior.)

Friday, 24 March 2017

For Those in Crisis

Anita Brookner, secular in everything she said and did, views The Book of Job dispassionately as a literary narrative ('God's Great Wager', 1980 TLS essay, reproduced in Soundings). God is a character among many; she brackets Him with the impulsive gods of the classical world whose caprices will be both praised and feared in several of her novels to come. But what begins as sardonic bafflement, determined incomprehension, becomes by the end of Brookner's essay an acknowledgement of the story's mysterious and sophisticated power - 'a key text for those in crisis'. Brookner's sympathies, as ever, remain absolutely human. God she dismisses as wilful, childish, rather boringly unpredictable. It is Job who emerges not as the tale's victim but as its true hero, Job alone who retains that essential Brooknerian prize: his own personal dignity.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Brookner Takes a Break

From time to time Brookner steps outside her seemingly rarefied world, delighting in a moment of luridness or vulgarity. We see her taking such a holiday in an essay from 1982, reproduced in Soundings (Ch. 20, 'Scarsdale Romance'). It concerns a celebrated American murder case of a couple of years before. Brookner tells the story of Mrs Harris and her paramour Dr Tarnower, relishing the details with appreciative distaste. Brookner's tone is, of course, more than a little condescending:
Nor did it do her any good to remind him of the hours she had spent working on his diet book, the high intellectual calibre of which can be judged by the report, inserted somewhere between the recipes for Eggs Gitano and Pineapple Surprise Aloha, that a wife and husband 'dieting team' had taken up knitting and macramé 'to keep our hands busy and out of the snack bowl while watching TV with the kids'.
But ultimately one acknowledges the seriousness with which Brookner analyses Harris and Tarnower's sordid tale, or at least the seriousness with which she considers its moral aspects. In this way she anticipates the forensic nature of much of her fiction. In many of her novels Brookner's characters are as it were on trial, and Brookner is their judge - incisive, all-seeing, sometimes indulgent, but never less than fully committed to the full moral inquiry:
...any examination of the implications of human wishes and their effect on human behaviour is welcome, and ... is, in the present state of our customs and beliefs, rather rare.
The Brookner of Soundings

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Last Avatar

Among the nymphs, with their fixed gaze and dowdily coiffed hair, can be seen the last avatar of Mme. Récamier…
Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, Ch. 13, 'Exile'


David, Mars disarmed by Venus
Brussels
So in her novels, Brookner would present us with later versions of earlier characters. Emma Roberts is Claire Pitt; Paul Sturgis is George Bland. And Julius Herz? 'He's me, really. You were longing to say that, weren't you? And I thought I was making him up.' (2002 interview)

See also The Brookner Room.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Mme. Récamier

The child-bride, incredibly alone, does not charm; secure in her beauty, she is as bewildered by her isolation as we are. The accessories of the cruelly revealing studio are pared down to a lamp, painted by David’s newest pupil, Ingres, and the famous studio bed made by Jacob.
Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, Ch. 10, 'Recovery'

Consideration of this famous David painting, its pose, its colours, its lamp, perhaps sheds a little playful much-needed light on the oddest and most mysterious of Brookner photographs (part of a series of portraits not of novelists but of art historians). Or perhaps not.


Sunday, 19 March 2017

Brookner on Twitter

Followers of this blog may or may not also have noted my extremely minor presence on Twitter. I'm not at all sure there's much overlap between readerships. My experience of Twitter has been mixed, whereas this blog continues to give me almost unalloyed pleasure. Anita Brookner features to an extent on Twitter, though I don't know how she compares with similar authors or authors thought to be similar. I suspect Barbara Pym is more popular. Brookner tweeters seem to fall into four categories. There are a handful of superfans. Then there are more generalist literary tweeters who admire Anita Brookner among others. Next we have random folks who have clearly just stumbled on a well-known line from one of the novels or interviews. And finally there are what I believe are called bots, automated pedlars of quotes (I'm not certain about this last category, nor why such things exist, and I'm not keen to find out more). Little jokey storms can blow up from time to time. Someone will tweet a particularly bleak line, and others will try to trump it. It's perhaps a bit of a British thing. It can while away an afternoon. But really there's limited substance. And one must always judge the mood, and pitch one's tone accordingly. Anita Brookner herself was no user of technology ('I haven't got any of these machines' - 2001 interview), and probably didn't approve, though I have no doubt her representatives kept her informed. One thing I would say in conclusion. I do not want to read any more tweets about time misspent in youth or what Dr Ruth Weiss knew at forty, or anything more from Hotel du Lac.