Monday, 29 May 2017

How / Isolated, like a fort, it is

My recent booking of a night at the Hôtel du Lac set me thinking not only about Brookner's most famous novel but also about other hotel-set works of literature. There's an early Arnold Bennett, there's Elizabeth Bowen's The Hotel, there's Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. And there's Larkin's poem 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel' (High Windows, 1974).

Larkin was notoriously phobic about 'abroad', but his hotel could be located as easily in Mitteleuropa as in the Midlands. The poem, ostensibly a description of an all but deserted hotel on a Friday evening, is packed with strangeness. Light 'spreads darkly downwards'; empty chairs 'face each other'; the dining-room 'declares / A larger loneliness of knives and glass'; silence is 'laid like carpet'. The vivifying of the inanimate owes much, perhaps, to Elizabeth Bowen. There are also strong Brooknerian echoes, or rather prefigurings. 'The headed paper, made for writing home / (If home existed) letters of exile' reminds us of the ending to Hotel du Lac.

But 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel' is more than a virtuoso description, and it is about more than solitude. It is about the poet's sense of himself as a writer, as a writer in the Romantic tradition. It is about, if you will, his 'out-of-date romanticism' (to quote Brookner's A Closed Eye). When the speaker comes to write his 'letters of exile', he pens instead the enigmatic lines that finish the poem: 'Now / Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.' We've left far behind the real world of the hotel, and we're deep in night thoughts, deep in English Literature itself. We might recall King Lear's 'low farms, / Poor pelting villages'.

The Grand Hôtel du Lac, Vevey

I'm sure the Bank Holiday long weekend is when the thoughts of many folk turn towards pilgrimage. I'll return presently to my survey of Altered States, but for the moment I've been booking a summer holiday.

I've been several times to Vevey, I've had tea in the garden of the Hôtel du Lac, but I've never actually stayed there. It's been rather radically renovated in the meantime and is now known as the Grand Hôtel du Lac, so I can really only afford one night.

It'll be an excuse or an opportunity to reread the novel, which I'm not sure I've ever done. It was my first Brookner, read when I was seventeen or eighteen in 1990. I don't think of it as a great or a typical Brookner but something must have chimed. I remember reading voraciously.

I hope I get a view of the Dent d'Oche.

The Hôtel du Lac, 3 August 1993

From the hotel, August 1993
The Dent d'Oche

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Brookner's Passport Photo

Yesterday's spell of Brookner tourism also took in a visit to the Passport Photo Service in North Row, the other side of Oxford Street from the Wallace Collection. A piece in the Guardian by Andrew Male had alerted me. It's a small, unremarkable photo studio, but its walls are decorated with photos of celebrities.

Including Anita Brookner. You can see her in the Guardian picture. Dressed in a crisp white blouse with rather wide collars, she slouches forward slightly. Her expression is composed but lugubrious; her bottom lip is more protuberant than in other pictures. She looks newly coiffed. The photo has a faded, almost sepia look, though it's probably from no earlier than the Eighties. She keeps company with other old-time half-recognised figures.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Drowning in Blueness: the Wallace Collection

I wanted to look at pictures, either in the National Gallery or in the Wallace Collection. This last was a haven of coolness, even of gloom, yet it was deserted, except for discreet knots of American ladies looking at snuff boxes in glass cases. To this day I can retrieve the sensation of walking over the hot gravel of the courtyard, my head hammering from the unforgiving glare, and the sensation of dignity which descended on me as I made my way up the stairs. Ahead of me were the great Bouchers, masterpieces neglected by most visitors but to me of the same order as the astonishing weather, which, if I turned my head, I could see through the dusty windows. In comparison with the pictures the sun suddenly seemed tawdry, exhausted. ... I turned back to the pictures, to the effortless immaculate soaring of the figures in their spectacular universe. The throbbing in my head died away, as did all bodily sensations, as I stood at the top of the stairs, drowning in blueness.
A Family Romance, ch. 4

Intent on a spot of Brooknerian tourism, I visited the Wallace Collection this morning. I haven't been there for many years, but was once a regular. I knew the place when the central quadrangle, now glazed over and a very posh cafe, was a wilderness of weeds and broken statuary. I may even have visited the Wallace Collection before I read about it in Anita Brookner. Or perhaps not.

The hot gravel of the courtyard...

...snuff boxes in glass cases...

...the great Bouchers...

...the [not so] dusty windows...

Of course, the Powellian Poussin:

And the corner of a Rubens landscape, such as George Bland in Brookner's A Private View might have fantasised about:

And several rooms of paintings by Greuze, Watteau and others. Brookner Rooms, I'll call them:

Friday, 26 May 2017

Swiss Exile

Brookner's repetitiveness - inevitable, perhaps, in a writer writing so copiously and at such speed - is, for some, a weakness; for the more committed reader it's a source of comfort, even of a certain perverse pleasure. Reading Altered States, chapter 12 - like chapter 10, another tour de force - one cannot but recall Edith Hope's Swiss exile in Hotel du Lac.

Alan Sherwood's exile is to a town on the Swiss/French border:
The name of the small town to which [my father-in-law] had consigned me ... seemed appropriate, since my nerves were à vif, that is to say, flayed.
He must, again like Edith, absent himself for decency's sake:
...somewhere, at some level, there may have been a hope that Aubrey's reasoning was sufficient, that all I needed was fresh air and exercise, and that if I absented myself I would expiate my fault ... and would go some way to being forgiven.
His arrival, and indeed the subsequent details of the vacation, including observations of fellow guests, are comprehensively described. It's as satisfying as poetry. It's as satisfying as similar such scenes in Hotel du Lac, or in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, the archetypal novel of Swiss exile.

Alan's wife, and his unborn daughter, have both left the stage; it's as if Brookner were back on home turf. Solitude, she told John Haffenden, takes a lot of getting used to; one has to nerve oneself every day. Alan has a similar reflection:
A solitary life is not for the faint-hearted...
But would he or his creator want it any other way?

The Power to Shock

In later Brookner - and Altered States is past the mid-point - the screw turns, iron enters the soul. There are moments in many of these works that truly bring the reader up short. Or this reader, at least. Or they do now: I find myself more shocked now, on re-reading - possibly because I'm older. The end of chapter 11, for example. I read it aghast. My heart is in my mouth. One's heart is often in one's mouth when one reads later Brookner, such is the atmosphere of dread. But here the fear is realised, and in unsparing fashion.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Beyond the Bridge

Beyond the bridge lay the Paris I had known and loved, and perhaps should never see again with that lift of the heart that had once attended me every morning of my life.
Altered States, ch. 10

Chapter 10 of Altered States is one of the most accomplished in the whole of Brookner. Significantly it is about Paris and significantly it's about a character travelling on his own. Alan goes to Paris, planning a clandestine meeting with Sarah at the George Cinq, but things go farcically awry. There's a bizarre travel-phobic man on the plane; it's raining heavily; the hotel is overbooked. From that point, Alan's attempts to meet Sarah develop from farce into Kafka-style nightmare. He reflects again on her unavailability; he's practically never had a proper conversation with her. She's rather like the love object in Mann's Magic Mountain, the woman with the Kirghiz eyes, whom Hans Castorp never so much as speaks two words to. The chapter ends in full-blown horror: it's Brookner pulling out all the stops. But the setting gives it added weight. Paris: scene of Brooknerian dreams, but also of Brooknerian disillusion. One remembers Mimi waiting hopelessly for Frank in a Paris hotel in Family and Friends, or one looks ahead to Julius Herz and his terrible visit to the city in The Next Big Thing.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Country and the City

Angela, Alan's ill-fated wife in Altered States, is Lewis Percy's Tissy reborn, though for Tissy's suburban origins we have a background even farther beyond the pale. Alan spends an 'excruciating weekend' in Angela's mother's provincial 'red-brick box of a house', the cramped amenities of which are described with maximum distaste. The garden, we're told, slopes down to a small stream.

Angela has dreams of the countryside, but her fantasies are more of the fabled lives of the squirearchy. She isn't keen on Alan's mother, fears Mrs Sherwood may be condescending to her. The issue of class, as ever in Brookner, is very subtly conveyed.

In chapter 9 Alan takes Angela on a holiday into the English interior - alien territory for any true Brooknerian. They spend time in the New Forest, then head for Bournemouth, mixing with Jewish matrons. This is firmer ground, recalling the Christmas hotel scene in A Family Romance. Indeed the vacation is surprisingly a success, and leads to the purchase of a second home, Postman's Cottage, in Shoreham-by-Sea. Brookner's laughter is quiet but not too difficult to hear.

Soon, though, we're off to Paris again, and the narrative can (perhaps) breathe a sigh of relief.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Aga Saga

[Angela] preferred to think of us in a genteel country setting, in a house called The Old Rectory, or The Old Post Office, in which she, in a flowered skirt, and one of her eternal blouses, would bake bread or entertain guests of the squirearchical class.
Altered States, ch. 8

Angela, we earlier learnt, favours 'upmarket sagas of village life', a million miles from Brooknerian fare.

'Genteel', 'country', 'a flowered skirt', 'squirearchical': Brookner picks her words damningly. The stiletto of her irony is perhaps here at its sharpest but thinnest; it's possible not everyone will hear her subtle scorn. How to prove it? It's about city vs. country, outsiders vs. insiders, the wary and the excluded vs. the complacent and the established. It's about Brooknerians vs. the likes of Angela and the rest of the comfortable or comforted world.

Monday, 22 May 2017


Who writes letters now? I did, in my analogue youth. I was, I guess, playing at being grown up, because writing letters was what grown-ups did. I even had a pen-pal, Marie Delemotte, mention of whom has been previously made. (I was with her in London in 1992 on the day I met Anita Brookner - see 'A Fraudulent Encounter'.)

Brookner characters write letters - long, highly emotional letters they either later regret or do not send. We get to see them in all their horror, get to witness at close quarters the collapse of the Brooknerian reserve. They're terrifying performances. No one would want to receive such letters. There's one, a comparatively short one, in chapter 7 of Altered States, and the valediction gives something of its flavour: 'I am yours devotedly, in spite of, or rather because of, everything, Alan.'

With the publication of the letters of Philip Larkin and later of Kingsley Amis (both born in 1922), critics suggested the age of literary correspondence might be at an end. Of course we all still write to one another now - but differently, ephemerally, perhaps less stagily.