Saturday, 31 December 2016

Gluck's Ezio

In an earlier post we discussed the conservatism, the limitations, of Brookner's musical references. I went to the Frankfurt Opera on Wednesday, to a performance of Gluck's Ezio, around which there are (as far as I know) no Brooknerian associations. All the same the evening was richly Brooknerian. One was surrounded by dressy mittel-Europeans; Brookner wouldn't have looked out of place. Oldsters in ancient finery; youngsters in smart bright trousers; neurasthenic young girls; glamorous couples; aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, family and friends; velvets, brocades, necklaces, jewels, patent-leather shoes, fancy glasses, fancy scarves, and everywhere the decorous behaviour and measured tones of cultured leisured moneyed Germany.

On Goethe

Brookner makes reference now and again to Goethe. Family and Friends begins with an epigraph from Werther. At least one later Brookner novel (Altered States?) namechecks Elective Affinities.

The Frankfurt Goethehaus looks at first like a genuine eighteenth-century house but like many old-looking buildings in Germany it is in large part a postwar reconstruction. In another part of the building there's a small art gallery: Tischbein, Fuessli, Hackert, minor Caspar David Friedrich. Brookner's comment somewhere about Friedrich's threadbare religious imagery apparently spoilt for ever Brian Sewell's appreciation of the painter.

'Like calling yourself Batehoven!'

'May' (Visitors) and indeed 'Brookner' ('Like calling yourself Batehoven!'*) were efforts at anglicisation, and not always successful. Brookner's Jews are identifiable, possibly, by their names; in other ways the information is no more than hinted at. It's seldom more explicit than:
[Herz] was grateful that [his parents] had died naturally, in their own home, a fate denied to so many of their kind.
The Next Big Thing, Ch. 9

In several of the early novels there is a contrast, a conflict, between the uncertain identity of the Jewish protagonist and the solidly Protestant object of her interest. The Haffenden interview explores this point. But in many of Anita Brookner's novels there's little or no mention of Judaism, and the lead characters have very English names: Elizabeth Warner, Alan Sherwood.

Brookner described herself as 'a lapsed Jew - if such a thing were conceivable' (Haffenden). The Bruckners / Brookners had come to England in Edwardian times, long before the start of the calamity that was to overwhelm their people, but Brookner remembered from her childhood in the 30s the arrival of refugees in London; they worked for the family as domestics, rather like those maids from Germany in Ishiguro's Remains of the Day.

*A reference from the original Paris Review interview introduction, which seems to be missing from the Internet version.

Watteau: Der Zeichner

At the Staedel, a Brooknerian moment: a substantial exhibition of Watteau's drawings. How many of the more than fifty pieces did Brookner know? In the bibliography to the accompanying book, one was sorry not to see her name. The exhibition was set out over several rooms and all but unvisited. At first the figures in the drawings withheld their message, but gradually one grew to appreciate their poised, pointed watchfulness, their effortful staginess.


For more on Watteau, see an earlier post.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Postmodern Brookner

Brookner tended to avoid conflict, not to say contact, with her literary peers, but Martin Amis expressed deep annoyance at her review of his novel Night Train. Brookner had written:

It may be post-modem; it is certainly post-human. There are few facts that are without disclaimers, few acts that are unambiguous. To read it is to undergo a temporary brain dysfunction […] a narrative which sets out to celebrate the demotic but ends up so out of hand that it is experienced as an assault on the reader's good faith.
Spectator, 26 September 1997

Brookner distrusted postmodernism ('Updike goes post-modern,' (Spectator 27 February 1993) she commented uncertainly, in her review of Memories of the Ford Administration). One hears less about postmodernism nowadays, but it was all the rage when I was young. And Brookner's postmodern novel? Surely Incidents in the Rue Laugier?

...those few notations - 'Dames Blanches. La Gaillarderie. Place des Ternes. Sang. Edward' - around which I have constructed this fantasy ... And it is a fantasy: I have no idea what any of it means... (Ch, 15)

Brookner at the Booker #2

Further to an earlier post:

It had been widely predicted and even firmly stated that the winner would be J G Ballard’s The Empire of the Sun. In the event, the prize went to Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. As it happens, Brookner, along with Carmen Callil, had come to supper with my partner and me the previous Saturday, an evening mainly devoted to talking about a now forgotten writer, Edith Templeton.* As Brookner left at the end of the evening, I called after her, 'Good luck next Thursday'. This was not well received: 'You of all people ought to know that I was very lucky to have been shortlisted. There's no likelihood whatsoever of my winning. Good night.' 
Martyn Goff, ‘Playing Silly Bookers’, New Statesman, 23 October 1998 

My own first taste of this experience was in 1984, with Small World. Like everybody else, I expected J G Ballard to win with Empire of the Sun. No one was more astonished than Anita Brookner when Richard Cobb announced that the prize had gone to her Hotel du Lac
Afterwards, in the crypt bar, the Labour MP Ted Rowlands, one of the judges, told me that they had been very divided in their final session, and that Polly Devlin had carried the day for Brookner with an impassioned speech in which she quoted from my complimentary review** of Brookner’s previous novel, printed on the back side of Hotel du Lac.
David Lodge, Diary, New Statesman, 6 November 1998

* 'I am apostolic about the novels of Edith Templeton, a Czech who writes in impeccable English: they are extremely restrained and tell strong stories about life in old-style central Europe, with recognizable passions and follies. Lovely, lovely novels.' Haffenden interview

** 'I cannot praise too highly this novel's poise, perceptiveness and purity of style.' Sunday Times

A Problematic Time of Year

She handed me a brochure which showed a Jacobean-style mansion in a sunlit snowy landscape. Inside was another photograph of a log fire in a marble fireplace wreathed with holly. The first thing to register was the price charged for this three-day Christmas break, which struck me as excessive, although this apparently was what people were prepared to pay for the privilege of being taken in at a problematic time of year ... Feeling slightly sick I noted that Christmas Day would be marked by full English breakfast, morning coffee, with a visit from more carol singers, traditional Christmas lunch, followed by tea with Christmas cake. Dinner would consist of a Scandinavian smorgasbord.
A Family Romance, Ch. 7

Brookner loves to be disgusted. The description of Dolly's vulgar Christmas in a Bournemouth hotel runs to a page or more. We are presented with the full horrifying details of the proposed extravaganza. A good deal of cultural knowledge is naturally required to make sense of such a smorgasbord of signifiers. (And a smorgasbord is, I think, vulgar, suggestive of the aspirations of Seventies suburban hostesses. A little later, Brookner contemplates the guests 'stuffed to the gills' with Christmas cake and smorgasbord.) Even the location - Bournemouth, far from London, far from acceptable Brooknerland - has its meaning. All of which is of course very exclusive, very elitist. But this will depend on our point of view. We're either on Brookner's side or we're not.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Mere Negotiation

To remain pure a novel has to cast a moral puzzle. Anything else is mere negotiation.

More Women than Men

In Howards End is on the Landing Susan Hill reviews her collection of books. She eventually gets round to Anita Brookner's novels. Could they, she wonders, have been written by a man? Hill has no answer to this somewhat unpromising question, and indeed can offer little illumination more generally on a writer she's plainly a fan of. Counterfactuals seldom do lead anywhere very profitable. Nor it is especially fruitful to enquire into the gender profile of Brookner's readership. Brookner knew she was read by men as well as by women; the topic is covered in interview. Men probably do read her differently, but there are surely other variables to be borne in mind: race, age, sexuality, class. Ah yes, class. Do non-Brits realise how significant, how over-riding a factor social class is, even today? What was Brookner's? Or was she, as a child of immigrants, somehow outside the system? - like Kitty Maule, 'difficult to place'?

The Consolations of Art

The search for happiness, which Stendhal decided was entirely possible, has been rejected, has been replaced by the consolations of art. In the first and heroic phase of Romanticism it was possible to believe in personal fulfilment, if only in reduced circumstances. In the second and disillusioned phase the world is regarded as a vale of tears... 
Romanticism and Its Discontents, Ch. 5 
 
I always went to fiction for consolation, or indeed for company; and to be able to operate in that area seemed to me so desirable that I decided to try. 
Radio interview extract, part of Radio 4 obituary programme Last Word

It is always good and surprising to hear Brookner's voice. As far as I know only the above extract and another BBC programme, The Reunion, are available online. In the 1980s Brookner made herself more available, but recordings are hard to come by. I believe a Brookner scholar took the following stills from a TV arts show archived at the BFI:


As for Last Word, I remember hearing it as it was broadcast. I was driving home, and I knew Brookner would be on it. She played second billing to the magician Paul Daniels, a figure from my childhood. A few Christmases ago I stood behind him in the checkout queue at a branch of Poundland.

The Supreme Emotional Adventure

An ideal of effortlessness, of the sure-footedness that characterized Napoleon at his most successful, remained with them for life, as did an ideal of Napoleonic rapidity: Constant wrote Adolphe in fifteen days, Hugo wrote Hernani in a month, Stendhal wrote La Chartreuse de Parme in fifty-two days and made only notional revisions. If Stendhal joins up at all with the more standard Romantic artist it is because he shares with them the fantasy of  the supreme emotional adventure. 
'In Pursuit of Happiness', review of biography of Stendhal, Soundings  

[Kenyon:] Do you rewrite a great deal?
[Brookner:] No, there are no drafts, no fetishes, no false starts; there simply isn't time
Olga Kenyon, Women Writers Talk, 1989 

Did she revise much when correcting her proofs, I wondered. 'No, just the odd words, but no major revisions.' 
Shusha Guppy, 'The Secret Sharer', World and I, July 1998


[We can confirm Brookner's assertion that she altered just the odd word here and there by examining the handwritten page shown in the Paris Review and comparing it with the final published passage from Family and Friends. A word here and there is transposed; 'often' becomes 'frequently'.]

What are the advantages of redrafting and revision? Some writers indeed make a fetish of it, loading every rift with ore. Barbara Pym quotes this line of Keats in a letter to Larkin. So, certainly greater richness is an outcome, and also elegance. David Lodge describes in The Year of Henry James how he sought to give his novel Author, Author (which Brookner adored) its best chance in a challenging climate by working hard at the redrafting stage to eliminate ungainly repetition.

And what is lost? Probably a freshness, a smoothness, or as Brookner says of Stendhal, perhaps a sense of emotional adventure.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Brooknerese

adduce, adventitious, appurtenances, armature, at all events, avatar, beneficient, by dint of, canonical, chevaleresque, claustration, complaisant, defile, désinvolture, divagation, inadvertance, ineluctably, infraction, lycanthropic, martinet, mise en abîme, moue, on one's dignity, otiose, oubliette, provisional, rebarbative, subfusc, suzerainty, temerity, unavailing

Paris 29205

The Paris we all know, or think we know, came into being with the arrival of the Métro, much admired by Proust, who never used it. This was followed a few years later by the telephone (Proust’s number was 29205). The Paris we can remember, or think we can remember, was the Paris of the 1950s and 1960s, when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir held court at the Flore, and when a new novel by Simenon appeared regularly every few months. 
These were the last of the glory days, when it was possible to feel like a provincial, newly arrived, and undergoing a longed-for transformation, much as Robb, armed with his map and his gift voucher must have felt at the start of his own apprenticeship. New Paris, the Paris of today, is part of Europe, and its concerns are global. The charms of discovery must yield to a different kind of loyalty, to the planet, to the environment. The true Parisian will, of course, shrug this off, and remain embedded in his quartier, will be on polite if not cordial terms with his or her neighbours, and will continue to dress with an eye to fashion. At the same time, the true provincial will still be able to walk from one end of the city to the other, listen to the café conversations of strangers, and admire Baron Haussmann’s accommodating boulevards. 
'The People and the Place', review of Parisians by Graham Robb, Spectator, 7 April 2010

We see Brookner's Paris, in its 'glory days', in the early novels from time to time, later in Lewis Percy and Incidents in the Rue Laugier (ostensibly beginning in the Seventies, but its time-scheme is far from reliable). Later still, in a new century, we follow Julius Herz on a disappointing day-trip on Eurostar.

I first visited in the early 1990s, walked up and down the rue de Rivoli in search of the Hotel Bedford et West End from Family and Friends. I revisited the city on and off through the 1990s and early 2000s, bought a copy of The Next Big Thing in 2002 in the rue de Rivoli branch of W. H. Smith's, a few weeks ahead of its publication in England.

More recent visits have been less agreeable. The city has indeed become, as Brookner says, global. I was last there in 2009 or 2010. It was tourist hell.

On Charles Clement

...an oddly fervid and even neurotic statement from a man whose emotions had previously given evidence of having been put into excellent order and control by the calming influence of Lake Geneva...
'Gericault', Soundings

Endings

Brookner's, like Trollope's, is a conservative imagination. 'George must decide how much - or how little - he can do to transform the status quo,' reads the blurb to my edition of A Private View. Many a Brooknerian strives to break free, only to see the old dispensation restored. Not that Brookner doesn't provide final moments of epiphany, largely unearned. We might cite the closing lines of Fraud or what happens in the last sentence of Lewis Percy. Such endings give her work a novelistic shape, though Brookner knows their limitations:
There are moments when you feel free, moments when you have energy, moments when you have hope, but you can't rely on any of these things to see you through. (Haffenden interview, 1985)
The restoration of the status quo is achieved most memorably in the moments of shock and revelation that end, say, Providence or Undue Influence. The conclusion to Hotel du Lac is of another order.
[Haffenden:] [Edith] wins her freedom ... by accident, but the end - when she changes the wording of her telegram from 'Coming home' to 'Returning'- is ambiguous.
[Brookner:] 'Coming home' would be coming back to domestic propriety: 'home' implies husband, children, order, regular meals, but 'Returning' is her more honest view of the situation. (Ibid)
Brooknerians long for change but also fear it and reject it. They know the key discovery of the Romantics, that it is better to travel than to arrive. They know what arrival looks like; they see it in those around them. Let us finish with Miriam in Falling Slowly as she imagines the scorn and contempt of her contemporaries:
You are not one of us, said their eyes; you do not slop around untidily, push your hair back behind your ears, dress in the first thing that comes to hand. You do not shop for cornflakes, fish fingers, baked beans. You will not get fat. You do not take family holidays, the car loaded with junk. You only carry a briefcase, look astonishingly young, yet you must be what? getting on, anyway. Too late for you, then. You will have to make do with the rest of your life, with only yourself for company. (Ch. 9)

Thursday, 22 December 2016

A Brooknerian Christmas

'The loneliest Christmas Day on record,' said one reviewer of Chapter 8 of Fraud.

There are episodes in many novels - Trollope has not a few - when the plots are up and running and the author simply marks time. These can be interesting moments, and Anna Durrant's lonely Christmas has its perverse charms.

I don't think I've read Fraud since the 1990s, and what comes across now, in comparison with the harsher, more raw novels of the succeeding decade, is the evenness, even the gentleness of the tone. 'Like all successful characters, [Anna] could only exist in a book, but the author is perhaps too wryly conscious of the fact,' said John Bayley in the London Review of Books, and I can see what he meant: there's an enchanted, unreal, fairytale aspect to Anna's terrible Christmas Day.

She wakes early, at 5.45, after a blessedly chemical sleep. For a moment she considers staying in bed; but for Brooknerians this is an intolerable fantasy.

She bathes, dresses, drinks tea, aware all the while of the 'oppressive silence of the streets'. She remembers the undemanding, harmonious Christmases she spent with her mother. 'Fatal alliance!' comments Brookner.

Then a marvellous thought comes to Anna: 'there is no need to live like this!' This, then, after all, is perhaps a chapter that advances the plot, such as it is. She thinks about living in France, remembers boyfriends of the distant past: 'She would walk by the Seine, alone now, but no longer lonely.'

There follows, at ten o'clock, a meeting with a neighbour, a Mr Harvey. Mr Harvey has plans for the day, and doesn't want to waste time with Anna. But he's also achingly desperate not to give offence. The pair enact an elaborate, comic pavane about one another, hovering at one point behind their respective front doors, as a second meeting would be embarrassing.

Miss Carter, Anna's mother's old dressmaker, lives with her cats in a basement flat in Brompton Square. The streets, we learn, are 'as still as Pompeii'. Miss Carter, 'more timid than anyone knew ... really only comfortable when undisturbed', does not take kindly to Anna's visit, which is brief and ends in awkwardness and indignation.

Anna, 'resigned now to the empty day', returns home across the park. It isn't yet two o'clock, but the sky seems to be darkening towards evening. There are one or two determined joggers. It starts to rain. 'Bleak, bleak, she acknowledged, under the leaden sky...' But she knows she need spend no further winters in this way.

At home she boils two eggs, but can eat only one; then she gets ready for bed and listens to a concert on the radio. She feels 'almost at peace, but dangerously so, as if waiting for death'. At last she judges it acceptable to retire, allowing herself the luxury of a pill. Thus a 'beautiful peace began to loosen her limbs, and she lay back on the pillows, a smile of anticipation on her face'.

A Merry Christmas to you all!

Brookner and Cool Britannia

In the Roy Strong Diaries, we see Brookner and Strong in December 1998, walking from the London Library and railing against the (Labour) government, the rise of populism, and the abandonment of what they both sacred: excellence, quality, and aspiration upwards. Brookner, he says, is a lugubrious, profound woman with huge eyes.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Statue of Beethoven

[Max] had even bought a loose-leaf notebook at Ryman's, but then it occurred to him that what the world expected was a fully fledged biography, with details of the illustrious persons he had known, whereas he desired to recall sweet small incidents, family dignity, unassuming love. No publisher would be interested in such a thing; refugees' stories were all too common. The notebook was empty, although he had thought of a title: The Statue of Beethoven. 
Falling Slowly, Ch. 10

My mind returns to Mitteleuropa. I have a forthcoming holiday, between Christmas and Silvester, not to Baden-Baden this time but Frankfurt and Cologne, and shall be offline for the while, reliant instead on my trusty Moleskine.

Max in Falling Slowly seems at first glance a forerunner of Julius Herz, not least because he shares an identical memory. But Max Gruber is more of a showman, potent and mercurial, somewhat akin to the Ostrovski figure in the latter novel. Nevertheless the following two extracts are very striking. Not quite self-plagiarism, but close.

Beyond Kentish Town lay Cologne, their Sunday drives to Bonn to contemplate the statue of Beethoven, their summer holidays in Baden Baden, sedate family walks along the Lichtenthalerallee, the cup of coffee in the Casino gardens, where the orchestra played... 
Falling Slowly (1998)Ch. 8
He was with his family in a fiacre in Baden-Baden, being driven down the Lichtenthalerallee towards the Casino, where they would drink coffee to the sound of a small orchestra. 
The Next Big Thing (2002), Ch. 6

What's more, the city of Bonn is a feature of both novels. Fanny Bauer, in The Next Big Thing, lives there in her later life. I might, I guess, visit the place next week. But like many a Brooknerian I'll probably at the last moment suffer a failure of nerve.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Sharon and Tim's Postcard

He looked again at the card. 'Returning 22nd.' That was next Tuesday. Today was the 18th, Friday. That gave him a very small margin in which to conclude this venture.
A Private View (1994), Ch. 9

I've been thinking about Brookner's Christmases. There are a number in the 1990s novels, and we'll consider another in a few days' time.

I return too to the question of dating A Private View, explored in an earlier post (Link). The precision of the above quote confirms my thoughts on the Sickert exhibition. The conclusion of George Bland's mad venture takes place in December 1992.

I wonder if there are other such day-and-date combos elsewhere in Brookner.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

By Way of a Corrective

Why do readers keep on going back for more? Because the compensation for self-control, as Freud believed, is to think yourself more civilised ... Readers are flattered into thinking themselves rather clever and a bit superior: if they can't be happy and successful, they can at least be sensitive
Alison Light, review of A Family Romance, New Statesman (?), 9 July 1993

Saddest of all, though, is what this sort of writing tells us about our culture ... Brookner shows that we think something drained of life must be full of art. 
Rhoda Koenig, review of Altered States, unknown source 

This is the dead end of English literature, a cul-de-sac where mannered gestures stand in for creativity, and a careful aura of literariness replaces literature. 
Natasha Walter, review of Altered States, Guardian, 14 June 1996 

The only sign of an awareness of contemporary language in The Next Big Thing is an unconscious one: for all her fastidiousness she succumbs to the confusion about 'may' and 'might'. He knew that he may have lost his head. He saw that she may have known. If her prose is to be lifeless, let it at least be correct. 
Adam Mars-Jones, review of The Next Big Thing, Observer, 30 June 2002

I thought it might be interesting to view some negative criticism for a change. This is but a sample. I'm not sure I agree fully with Mars-Jones on Brookner's grammar. I knew Alison Light when she taught me Woolf and Lawrence at university. I would try to convert her to Brookner, but she was having none of it. She served, I remember, tea in very large teacups. Her Mrs Woolf and the Servants is much recommended.

Europe

Brookner's father, meanwhile, had come to England from Poland at 16: 'From Piotrokow Tribunalski; sorry, I can't even spell it. We couldn't pronounce his Christian name, either, and called him Newson.'
1994 interview (Link)

What strikes me about this quote is the foreignness, even the exoticism of Poland and the Polish in those days. Berlin, too, in Latecomers (1988), seems outlandish. How far we have come in a few decades. When I was growing up, the likes of Poland or East Germany were indeed scary places, but now I visit them without a second thought. The Brooknerian world has truly opened up.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Left Eyebrow

Brookner, in her essay on Oliver Sacks's book on migraine (see post called 'An Invasion of Unpalatable Memory'), mentions the pain she gets above her left eye. I don't know if there's any connection between this and the raised left eyebrow she had all her life. It is what makes her identifiable in the school photograph recently published by James Allen's Girls' School:

Nobody jogged

...those Burlington years were ones of great happiness, a happiness which for me covers most of the period. People seemed to behave more reasonably in those remote days. The companionship engendered by the late War had not entirely fragmented. Nobody jogged. Nobody went to the gym. Nobody suffered from stress or received counselling. Acts of kindness seemed more common than at the present time. Of all the acts of kindness that came my way none was greater than Ben's: he conferred on me the precious - and unique - conviction that my presence could be taken for granted. He was a true friend.
'Benedict Nicolson', Independent Magazine, 10 September 1994

One recalls, reading that, Mrs May's dream vision of a 1950s paradise, a field of folk, in Visitors. Benedict Nicolson was editor of the Burlington Magazine from the end of the war until his death in 1978. Brookner identified him as the person to whom she owed her start in life as a writer. 'Ideally one should always be writing for someone, either present or absent. It is not too much to say that my apprenticeship took place under Ben's guidance, which was all the more generous for being unobtrusive.'
Rodrigo Moynihan's portrait of Benedict Nicolson
that accompanied the Independent piece

A Rational World

In terms of your professional life, what particularly attracted you towards the eighteenth century? 
The Enlightenment, and the fact that it might just have come out right. The Romantic movement came along and bowled it all over. I do like a rational world, rational explanations and good humour and fearlessness [...] Kitty Maule says about Romanticism that in certain situations reason doesn't work, and that's the most desolating discovery of all.
Haffenden, Novelists in Interview, 1985

During her three postgraduate years in Paris in the Fifties, sitting daily in the old Bibliothèque Nationale in the rue Richelieu, Brookner read her way across and through the eighteenth century. (Her days in the library were powerfully described in an article in the Times Literary Supplement I no longer have a reference for; she was once, I remember, the recipient of a bunch of flowers from a gentleman admirer.)

In my own way, though I've gained more pleasure from the Victorians, I have tried to pay my tribute to the eighteenth century. I once bought a Kindle for the sole purpose of reading not 'At the Hairdresser's' but Richardson's Clarissa.

Last week I purchased in a charity shop for £2.50 a 1793 copy of a volume of Johnson's Rambler. One sees on every page the rational world, the good humour, the fearlessness Brookner revered.

Having written this blog for a number of weeks now, and having never previously contributed to the blogosphere, I wonder about the form. What are its analogue analogues? I wonder whether a blog is rather an eighteenth-century form, akin to the original Spectator or Johnson's Rambler: little familiar essays issued every few days for the amusement of a coterie of readers, literary Londoners in their case, and Brooknerians across the world in mine.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Personal Responses

Brookner, as we have seen, was rarely reviewed in ways that weren't extreme. Often, especially in the middle period, the tone was vitriolic. At the other extreme one found pieces lauding her to the heavens, and these often ended up on the covers of her books. The following review, of The Rules of Engagement, is noteworthy not only because it is written by a Courtauld colleague, Brian Sewell, but also because of the level of personal identification admitted to. We aren't, Brooknerians, reading her as some dry academic exercise; we are reading her because she tells the story of our own lives. (Not that Brian Sewell could ever really be called anything other than a Sewellian.)

Transposing gender here and there, I recognised every moment of the novel as in some sense the tale of my own life (as I suppose it must be of Miss Brookner’s too), except that in mine coffee and Madeira took the place of tea — the same rebuffs, the same warmth accommodating itself to the same chill, the same marital exclusions, the same sex for the sake of it, perfunctory, with the excuse that some sex is better than no sex at all, the same — if I may borrow for my purposes the title of her second book of essays — romanticism and its discontents.
Evening Standard, 22 June 2003 (Link)

Feeding the Pigeons: Courtauld Tales #2

The fact that there was one woman there – called Anita Brookner – who you used to go up for private, individual tutorials with her and she was in the top of the building of number nineteen next door. And she was always feeding the pigeons, had an open window and feeding the pigeons, and I remember her I’d knock on the door and she said ‘Come in’ and her back was turned to me feeding the pigeons. And she said ‘You know one day Flavia I’m going to be a novelist.’ And of course she was. Hotel du Lac which I think is the second book but the one that first really made her name in 1984 and how many did she publish since then? Fifteen? But she did write beautifully I mean she was a very good art historian too. So in a sense I suppose she was a bit of a role model. She was very beautiful. Well she’s still alive actually, in her eighties. Very beautiful very elegant French, French dressed. And people didn’t wear scent – scent was very expensive in those days – but she always had the latest or the most exclusive scents from Paris. I mean you couldn’t go into Boots in those days and buy you know, Channel [sic] or Armani or whatever you just couldn’t and it was far too expensive but you could always tell where she was and I if I couldn’t find her I’d just walk round the Courtauld [sniffs] using my nose and I’d always find her, because she'd wear this beautiful scent.

Transcript of interview with Flavia Swann, Association of Art Historians, Oral Histories Project, 2010 (Link)

Hotel du Lac, 3 August 1993

'...in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of the Dent d'Oche...'




[A postscript: There's a hospital in Vevey called the Providence, and a road sign - 'Providence' - just outside the hotel, not seen in these pictures.]

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Kit Kats in the Refectory: Tales from the Courtauld

Anita Brookner was as likely to criticise my hairstyle as she was my essays on Baudelaire and French Romanticism. As my tutor at the Courtauld Institute of Art, she would hold her classes in a cramped attic study at the top of the building, in those days housed at 20 Portman Square. 
'Oh, Katie, we must do something about that fringe,' she would say, offering me one of her untipped Woodbine cigarettes and balancing a small tin on her knee as an ashtray. She wasn’t joking: her own hair was always perfectly coiffed, making her head seem disproportionately large above her tiny, slender frame. She would sometimes be spotted in the grotty student basement canteen at lunchtime, nibbling on sliced-up apple or breaking a Kit Kat into tiny pieces. 
Elegantly dressed in camel Burberry sweaters and skirts long before Kate Moss made them cool, Brookner was a formidable teacher who made her students question everything at those intimate, informal lessons. She would throw in personal comments, always appearing to observe our reactions minutely.  It was 1980, and we were in our final year as BA students. Only months earlier the Courtauld’s director, Anthony Blunt, had been exposed as a spy and vanished. 
[…] 
For most of her life she lived alone in a red-brick mansion block in Kensington — describing that old-carpets-and-cabbage smell so evocatively in her novels. She never married or had children — to her great disappointment — but once said she would have liked to have had six sons, in deference to one of her favourite paintings, The Oath of the Horatii by her hero, the French Romantic painter Jacques-Louis David. 
While for me her best book remains A Start in Life — I still have my inscribed copy — the last was an e-book published in 2011 called 'At the Hairdresser's'. Its protagonist Elizabeth Warner only goes out to shop or have her hair done. 'I rather hope I shall die at the hairdresser’s, for they are bound to know what to do. At least that is what I tell myself,' says Warner. 
I like to think Brookner would be pleased to know that that these days I too go the hairdresser at least once a month.

Katie Law, 'Remembering Anita Brookner: mentor and a late literary star', Evening Standard, 15 March 2016 (Link)


Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Melancholy of London Flats at Nightfall!

Or indeed at any other time.

Chiltern Street, late 2001:



At the Hotel du Lac with a Baedeker

Well, a Fodor's, actually (1993 edn):
Vevey has an air of isolation, of retirement, of Old World gentility, of nineteenth-century stuffiness ... Anita Brookner wrote and set her novel in the Du Lac (subdued relative of the Hotel Trois Couronnes) - readers may be disappointed to find it lacking the discretion and refinement but still flaunting the stuffiness she so precisely described. Though some rooms are newly done up with prim florals or chic burled wood, others retain the kelly-green carpet and mustard chenille of another era in decorating. The lakeside facilities are the hotel's greatest attraction, as there's a graceful sheltered restaurant, a garden, and a pool all just across the street from the waterfront. Rue d'Italie, CH-1800 ... 90 beds, restaurant (reservations, jackets), terrace cafe, outdoor pool, garden. Expensive / very expensive.

On an Author's Conversation

Those who raise admiration by their books disgust by their company, said Samuel Johnson. He goes on:
A transition from an author's books to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples, and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur, and magnificence; but, when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.
The Rambler, No. 14, 5 May 1750

She was witty, glitteringly intelligent, reserved, and unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon. I can’t think of a novelist less likely to write an autobiography.
Julian Barnes in the Guardian, 18 March 2016 (Link)

Unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon: 'I am not about to reveal all,' she told one of her interviewers. Let us consider once more those extraordinary conversations. One senses they were, pace Johnson, rather carefully rehearsed performances. But Dr Johnson was, almost in spite of himself, very social. and, especially with a fellow like Boswell tracking his every move, probably therefore felt a little sensitive. But Dr Brookner, like those Manhattan aristos the van der Luydens in The Age of Innocence, kept herself rare; mistrusted, like Henry James, 'the terrible fluidity of self-revelation'; and like her narrator in Incidents in the Rue Laugier held firm to the notion that the living and even the dead had a right to their mysteries.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Playing it Straight

I think it is important for the writer to take chances. To write with a very high degree of detachment ... it doesn't seem to me that one is playing it straight.
Christian Science Monitor, 1 March 1985 (Link)

This is a curiosity - a minor interview, conducted over the phone, with a journalist from the Christian Science Monitor, of all unlikely things. Brookner's tone is genial, indulgent, ironic. She had no truck with religion, knew Jesus didn't want her for a sunbeam. But the interviewer is duly seduced. 'Anita Brookner ... clearly works hard to put the best of herself into her fiction,' we are told - 'producing ... highly finished creations. Yet, remarkably, the unrehearsed, quotidian, "real life" Anita Brookner is as charming, poised, and gallant as her art.'

I believe rather - and I know I am not alone in this - that Brookner's interview persona was anything but unrehearsed. To adapt Samuel Johnson's thoughts on the eighteenth-century familiar letter, a Brookner interview is a 'calm and deliberate performance, in the cool of leisure'.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Anita Brookner said somewhere, in one of the interviews, that she was reserving autobiographical information for her own purposes. One might have hoped for some kind of late phase of autobiography, something akin to Henry James's late-career volumes of life-writing.

It was not to be. But as we have heard, writers of fiction are the folk who are really telling the truth. All those novels may be seen as one long autobiography, perhaps - or they may well not be.
Good to hide, and hear 'em hunt!
Better, to be found...

Telling the Truth

The main hazard [of authorship] will, as usual, be incurred by the author, since his success will be momentary, his failure felt as permanent, and his isolation complete. But since I believe that writers of fiction, in whom I am principally interested, are in some curious way the only people telling the truth, I would expect them to feel pretty unlucky anyway.

The Author, Summer 1984

The only people telling the truth: a salutary and reassuring voice, this, from so long ago, in this era of fake news and other horrors.

The International Theme

A Brookner extract is to be found in John Gross's New Oxford Book of English Prose (1998). (Interestingly Brookner is slightly misplaced in the running order. Gross arranges his authors by year of birth, but he seems to have none for her, so he places her somewhere in the 1930s. This is probably a hangover from the muddle over her date of birth, cited by David Sexton in his article in the previous post.)

Gross selects eccentrically: the passage in A Family Romance in which Jane travels to the United States.

This gets me thinking. It gets me thinking about Henry James and indeed about several other nineteenth-century authors, and how well travelled they were, how wide were the cultural references of, say, Trollope and Dickens.

Brookner doesn't otherwise stray outside Europe. We know she travelled to the States. There is a story about her doing a signing in New York and being astonished by the queue outside the bookstore.

One thinks of James's International Theme, that depiction of the clash between innocent America and corrupt old Europe. What is the equivalent in Brookner? Like all great writers, she loves her binary oppositions, but they are different from James's: they're Europeans vs. Brits; Jews vs. Brits; outsiders against insiders; and, central to everything, Brooknerians against non-Brooknerians.

Moral Standards

In my youth I worked in a library; the place was more Tissy Harper than Lewis Percy. But it was big and well resourced and there were many opportunities for private study, which for me meant Brooknerian study. There was a microfiche of things like The Times going back years, and a full range of the current daily papers and other public prints.

In August 1991, one hot dusty afternoon, I went out to collect the Evening Standard from a local newsagent's (this was one of my tasks), and was astonished to find a full-page article in it about Anita Brookner. 'Daring to question the morals of Miss B' by David Sexton, which I photocopied for my further instruction, was extraordinary. Even today, in this age of Internet trolls, and knowing as I do how sharply Brookner can divide opinion, the article seems extreme and unnecessary.

'Anita Brookner has always denied her novels are about herself, but DAVID SEXTON discovers many parallels between the writer's characters and her curious private world.' Her curious private world: but Sexton offers little to substantiate this insinuating phrase. We read the old story of how she shaved ten years off her age when she first became a novelist, and we are told that her desire for 'six sons', expressed in the Haffenden interview, is 'breathtaking' and almost alienates sympathy.

Sexton's main argument, if it can be called that, is rather showily feminist. 'Her view of life is simply false on several counts. It is possible for a woman to be happy in other ways than having a man and children ... The good may triumph over the wicked. These truths are obvious.'

He goes on to say he doesn't think her life has been so bad, citing her successes and mentioning her well-heeled upbringing and the fact that her parents were Jews...

But Sexton, like Mark Lawson (see an earlier post, 'Second Thoughts') recanted. A trawl of the Internet reveals on Amazon the following Evening Standard review of Strangers (2009):

Strangers is, in its own way, definitive. A more frightening, demoralising account of how hard life can be, without work, and above all without family, would be difficult to conceive...Brookner has given classic expression to what she sees to be a central truth of the human condition, absolute loneliness at the last...nothing less than a great horror story.

So, what had changed since 1991? Had Brookner changed? Had Sexton?

And I? I try to picture my younger self and understand him, that young man in a public library on that grimy August afternoon. What were his thoughts? Why was he an Anita Brookner reader? Why was he so thrilled and outraged by the article he had read? Was he yet a Brooknerian?


[I'm sorry about the split screen. I haven't
got an A3 scanner!]

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Bourgeois Past

On his desk he saw the letter which Simmonds had handed to him as they parted the previous evening, but instead took up his volume of Thomas Mann once more, and sank gratefully into the landscape, so well remembered, so totally familiar, of the bourgeois past.
The Next Big Thing, Ch. 12

(A question for Brooknerians: Is Herz the only reader of Thomas Mann?)

In Mann's Magic Mountain, one of my favourite novels, a young man Hans Castorp travels to a Swiss TB sanatorium to visit an afflicted cousin. But slowly he gets ill himself and ends up staying for seven years, during which time he engages with eccentric fellow patients and has philosophical discussions.

The obvious Brookner analogue is Hotel du Lac. But one also recalls Zoe's mother's decline, her invalidisation, in The Bay of Angels.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Lost Interview

OK, so it isn't actually lost, but it is little known and hard to come by. Olga Kenyon in her interview with Anita Brookner in Women Writers Talk (Lennard, 1989) takes the following stance: 'Brookner revitalises the romance as she fictionalises its restricting of female potential'. The meeting, one senses, wasn't entirely harmonious, and later Brookner would be interviewed mainly by men.
Kenyon: What were your mother's expectations?
Brookner: She wanted me to be another kind of person altogether. I should have looked different, should have been more popular, socially more graceful, one of those small, coy, kittenish women who get their way. If my novels contain a certain amount of grief it is to do with my not being what I would wish to be. 
[...] 
K: Did your parents ever talk about their past - or the holocaust?
B: No, and I'm grateful for that.
K: I believe you made plans to visit Poland, but didn't go. Why?
B: For a Jew, Poland is not exactly the Promised Land. I would have liked to see my father's family summer house on the river. But I would never have found it, or known if it was the right one, and that would have mattered to me extremely. 
[...] 
K: Why is it that you didn't begin writing till middle age, like Edith Wharton? Had you been writing in secret?
B: No, there were no secret notebooks, not a scrap, not a sentence. 
[...] 
B: ... What is interesting about self-analysis is that it leads nowhere. It is an art form in itself.
K: Do you rewrite a great deal?
B: No, there are no drafts, no fetishes, no false starts; there simply isn't time. I write straight onto a typewriter, as though the novels had been encoded in the unconscious. I find the process of writing painful rather than difficult. You never know what you will learn till you start writing. Then you discover truths you didn't know existed. These books are accidents of the unconscious. It's like dredging, seeing if you can keep it going.
K: Can you explain why you write when it's painful?
B: I can't really explain it. I don't usually enjoy it. There's a terrible exhilaration, like having a high fever, which comes on me. Writing is my form of taking a sedative... 
[...] 
K: [Of Hotel du Lac:] ... you started with a hotel where you'd stayed in Switzerland?
B: I have stayed in that hotel more than once. Nothing like that happened in the real hotel, so I suppose that image did stay in my memory. It was very still; it was very grey; and one was waiting for something to happen. 
[...] 
K: In your fiction you seem to me to give a very true picture of the way it is to be lonely, to be perceptive, to be an observer. Do you feel yourself to be those things?
B: I know all those things, intimately. Yes, I'm all those things. 
[...] 
K: Would you say that one of the major themes is romantic love?
B: Romantic hopefulness - it's constant, in spite of a sense of defeat.
K: Isn't it a little old fashioned today?
B: Romanticism is not just a mode; it literally eats into every life... 
[...] 
K: You said to another interviewer that love is your subject.
B: What else is there? Everything else is merely literature... 
[...] 
K: You said that when writing Family and Friends you were in control. Is that a motive?
B: 'With one bound Jack was free.' It's a kind of involution almost. Maybe as in psychoanalysis you abreact the whole thing and it comes out right... 
[...] 
K: Your characters are not at home in the twentieth century. Is that why your heroines are given such a limited set of alternatives?
B: They are stupid - if they weren't they'd have more options. But the choice is never unlimited, that's the twentieth-century mistake, whereas the nineteenth century was more realistic. You can do this or that, not an unlimited number of things.
K: Is your writing a critique on the options of the twentieth century?
B: No, except that I find the moral position of many modern novelists ridiculous, as if you could start editing your life halfway through... 
[...] 
K: Do you think you are read by men?
B: Yes,I do.
K: And read differently? How?
B: The most pertinent criticism I've had from a male reader was 'You write French books, don't you?' They don't offer comments on the characters, which women always do ... [Men] seem to view it from a certain distance. I haven't taken elaborate soundings, but I just know that the criticism tends to be different. 
[...] 
K: ...Which qualities do you value most in a friend?
B: I think accountability, that's to say explaining actions with full knowledge of emotions and procedures. You get it in Russian novels: the complete confession. Accountability in friendship is the equivalent of love without strategy, and it is the Grail.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Julius and the Angel

The pain began quite suddenly, unlike anything he had experienced before.When his flight was called he got up, fumbled for his pills. His shaking hand sent them flying, rolling across the dirty floor. Making an effort not to gasp he lurched forward, crushing the pills beneath his feet. Then, with the empty box still clutched in his hand, the ghost of a smile still on his face, he struggled mightily, exerting his last strength to join the other travellers on their journey.

The Next Big Thing, Ch. 18


When I first read The Next Big Thing, on publication, I wasn't sure of it. Parts of it seemed like rehashes - Sophie Clay was, say, another Katy Gibb.

Rereading it earlier this year, I changed my mind, saw things I'd overlooked. The language of the final paragraph (above) especially caught my attention. I recalled the extended passage earlier in the novel (in Chapter 8), when Julius Herz stands before Delacroix's painting Jacob and the Angel.

Herz's final mighty struggle parallels in several ways the confrontation depicted by Delacroix. In the Chapter 8 description the word 'struggle' is used twice. We see too, at Heathrow, things cast aside - Herz's pills - just as a hat is discarded by one of the wrestlers in the picture. Then there is Delacroix's 'dusty train of men and horses disappearing into the distance', 'hapless voyagers' who are mirrored in the airport scene in the image of the 'other travellers', out of reach, receding.

'This most terrifying of painters,' says Brookner of Delacroix in Soundings, and Herz's demise is surely one of the most terrifying of Brooknerian endings.

(Jacob and the Angel can be seen in the post of 13 November called 'A Private View'.)

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Lewis, Lizzie, Jane, Maffy and Dorothea

He seemed to be writing it in a life parallel to the real life he lived with his wife ... Sometimes he felt himself to be more truly authentic when contemplating a shift in the fortunes of a fictional character than when talking to Tissy...

Lewis Percy, Ch. 8

This was surely the stuff of fiction? A strong plot, unusual characters, a threatened outcome: who could ask for worthier diversion? And she was, after all, an observer.

Visitors, Ch. 4

Now that the Brookner oeuvre is complete and we can view it as a whole, we begin to see new and interesting patterns in the carpet. Preceding posts reveal to me a minor theme she pursued during the middle part of her career. In Lewis, Lizzie, Jane and Maffy we see several kinds of young writer. In Dorothea May we see an old non-writer but also a woman living the same sort of life as her younger Brooknerland compatriots. The writing lives of Lewis (1989), Lizzie (1991), Jane (1993), Maffy (1995) and Dorothea (1997) are, one notes, neatly spaced over this middle period.

Or do I see congruence where none exists, a victim of the madness of art?


What Anita Knew

She was not aware of loneliness so much as of endeavour: her future career as a writer, of which there was as yet no sign, would, she thought, in time validate her entire existence. Until then she would adopt - had already adopted - a regime which would steel her against rejection and disappointment ... friends were a burden for which she had neither the time nor the inclination. Her own silence, her own solitude seemed to her entirely preferable. It was with relief that she entered the empty flat in the evenings; after eating her yoghourt and her apple she was free to read or to write in her diary ... She had a vision of a writer's life as clean, economical, controlled. The lack of a subject bothered her until she remembered that she did not need to think about this matter until she was forty. In the meantime she composed a list of aphorisms and quotations ... She trained herself to be cynical although she still missed her mother,of whom she thought with pain and terror.
A Closed Eye, Ch. 16

When it was published, critics thought Lizzie a self-portrait, or at least a portrait of the Brookner-style artist in embryo. As such she might be seen as a counterpart to Jane, referenced in the previous post. I think, rather, she is her counterpoint. For Brookner writing was a much less conscious, much more organic, much murkier process than Lizzie supposes. One thinks of Maffy in Incidents in the Rue Laugier:

I am inclined to favour indirection, which has its own power.
Ch. 15

One wonders whether Lizzie ever will begin her grand project. She might find, at forty, like Ruth Weiss, that literature isn't all she believed it might be. As ever one can never be sure of Brookner's allegiances. Lizzie may be a parody, even a self-parody; she may not be. Only Brookner knows, and we'll probably never get to the end of what that is.

Monday, 5 December 2016

An Obscure Purpose

The trip to Vienna had taught me something about my own resourcefulness, but had not answered my obscure purpose, a purpose too obscure for me to identify but which manifested itself as a steady discomfort. Vienna had been too beautiful, too distracting. I chose out of the way places, out of season: almost any town in France or Germany, however devoid of scenic interest, provided the sort of ruminative space which I seemed to require. One day, seated at a rickety metal table in a side street cafe in Dijon, I stealthily began to write.
A Family Romance, Ch. 8
This is Brooknerianism in a nutshell. The obscurity not just of the Brooknerian personage but of the Brooknerian writing project; the favouring of unpopular Continental locations; the disquieting desire to write ('a steady discomfort'); and the stealth (masterly word) with which the need is assuaged: great writers tell us how to live, and Brookner tells Brooknerians. It is as much as we can do not to race up to St Pancras and take the first train out, in ardent search of that rickety metal table,

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Dickensian

I return to the topic of an earlier post (‘Comparisons’). One writer whom Brookner was never compared with was Dickens. Yet he was one of her favourite writers. In almost every interview she spoke of how at the age of seven she was set to read Dickens’s novels, which were advertised to her by her uncertain and uprooted family as the key to Englishness.

That Dickens felt himself to be excluded from the happy years of his early childhood; that the Dickensian world was itself one of deracination; that that world was ever far from being a reliable portrait of any reality – must have sent out confusing messages to the young Anita. When she went to school, she said, she was quite surprised to find that everyone didn’t have a funny name.

She continued to read Dickens at the rate of a novel a year, and throughout her adulthood she pursued the habit. Dickens features significantly from time to time in her fiction: in the Dickensian porters and comic domestics; in the helpful older characters like the saintly Mr Redman in The Bay of Angels, who recalls the brothers Cheeryble in Nicholas Nickleby; and in Jane’s panic-stricken reading of David Copperfield, her passionate longing for a happy ending, as her mother slowly dies in A Family Romance. And Anita Brookner’s London is perhaps as unreal and as original as Dickens’s.

A Providential Discovery

I bought this early American copy of Providence from George Whitman at Shakespeare and Co:


Author's Photographs

Until the late Nineties, when photos stopped appearing on her British book jackets, Anita Brookner was represented by the following four images:
Elegant (1980s)
Compassionate (later 1980s)
Magisterial (1990s)
Ethereal (later 1990s)

Summer surprised us...

He thought of Hartmann, whom he now saw to be lively, exuberant, festive, not stricken by this fatigue du nord which hung over Berlin. Hartmann, of course, was from Munich, an elegant and already southerly city.
Latecomers, Ch. 13

I once, from Munich, took a suburban train to Starnberg, to see the Starnbergersee, solely because of its mention in the opening lines of 'The Waste Land'...

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

The resort, I recall, gave off a sort of civilised reticence, the lake high, a large inscrutable presence. The day was drizzly, murky, and I didn’t tarry long; I'd just wanted to be there for a time. It was very Brooknerian behaviour.

(I have looked through Latecomers for mentions of the Starnbergersee, which I seem to retain, but can find only memories of the Englische Garten and of Nymphenburg.)


Comparisons

Comparisons have a bad rep. Reading Villette, I'm reminded of an early review of Look at Me: 'a novel sufficiently distinguished to make you blink twice at "Brookner". Blinked at once, it might be "Bronte".' Other early comparisons included Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and of course Jane Austen - whom Brookner excoriates on more than one occasion.

Comparisons with male novelists - Henry James, especially - come a little later. Later still - into the new century - we see references to the great Europeans. '[Brookner's] characters, reflective, displaced and intransigent, are more like those of Camus than of any contemporary British novelist. Her style has a similar purity. Increasingly, Brookner reveals herself as a European novelist, and a major one,' wrote Helen Dunmore of The Bay of Angels (2001), a judgement she repeated in her 2010 Introduction to Latecomers (Link): 'Anita Brookner is the most European of British novelists'.

One wonders what Brookner would have made of the Brexit vote.

(But Brookner's politics are never explicit. I can remember her once mentioning Conservative Prime Minister John Major in the 1990s, when, in an aside, she defended his misunderstood 'back to basics' policy. Otherwise we're in the dark. But working out the political leanings of great novelists is an enjoyable parlour game. We know that Trollope stood as a Liberal; nowadays we would probably call him a One Nation Conservative. James was right-of-centre too, but Dickens on the left. And Brookner? I would risk a suggestion that she probably voted Tory. But with Brookner you can never be sure.)

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Media Game

Fortunately, my menopause is now becoming a distant memory, but it was not too much trouble. I don't think I had any noticeable symptoms really, and it was over very quickly. 
My attitude is that the menopause is a natural part of life and you don't need to worry too much about it. Just accept it and remember that it does pass. For me, it now seems a very long time ago.
Daily Mail, c. 2006

This is a curious slice of Brookneriana. Brookner rarely took part in the media game. One guesses she was rung up by a Mail journalist - her words have a spoken rather than a written feel. In the piece she was presented alongside other celebrities - incongruous company - and the accompanying photograph was one of her most benign.

A Fleeting Moment of Authenticity

The writer, particularly the writer of fiction, is different from the storyteller … The storyteller lives in the real world: she has a life, as the current locution would have it. But the writer has two lives. He, or more probably she, is the hapless character who goes to the supermarket, performs domestic tasks, and is invariably worsted in arguments, and that other one … the cold logician who observes a beginning, a middle and an end, who determines causality, although subject, like everyone else, to the irrationality of circumstance.
 […]
 I am convinced that writing is a displacement activity that gives one the illusion of an honest day's work. That may be its main function, but it is set in train by a different psychic arrangement. The strange organic process by which a body of written work is achieved has less to do with will than with wish. What that wish may be is rooted in the personal history of a writer, and is paradoxically known but also secret. But if wish — a desire to resolve something left frustratingly incomplete — is the engine that inspires the beginning of the enterprise, will is needed for the continuation, and a level of tension, sometimes extreme tension, must be endured to reach the point at which a degree of satisfaction, i.e. the conclusion, is arrived at.
 Thus the process is both involuntary and deliberate, and inevitably a mixture of both. This is rarely comfortable, although it may be energising. One would rather be out in the world, pursuing more recognisable objectives, living the sort of life in which activities are recorded by more recognisable standards. Why do it, then? Perhaps in order to be sincere, perhaps because the impulse is too strong to be ignored, perhaps because one wants one's fleeting moment of authenticity. Writing is rarely undertaken in a spirit of grandiosity; rather the opposite. In answer to the question, 'What are you working on?', there is a reluctance, even an inability to give a good account of oneself. The reaction to the inevitably evasive reply is disappointment. This disappointment is experienced on both sides.
[…]
[Writers, especially women writers] have in fact inherited the Romantic tradition, in which art is allied to tragedy and doom. To bear this burden, while at the same time purloining fragments of real life, i.e. other lives, may well lead to various forms of alienation. Yet the writer's life, perhaps particularly the female writer's life, is without incident. The surreptitious function goes on undetected and is experienced in isolation. The moral conundrum is never answered, but is somehow resolved on the page. This has led to the suspicion that writing is 'therapeutic'. How could it be? To juggle with conflicting imperatives would, in any other occupation, be more trouble than it was worth, and would in any event guarantee a condition of permanent unease.
'I'm the other one', review of Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead, Spectator, 9 March 2002 (Link)


This magisterial disquisition, hardly at all a review of Atwood's book, is highly revealing and well worth quoting at length. Brookner is able to view the writing process as it were from the outside. Atwood, by contrast, dates her writing life from her teens: she was a born writer; it was a vocation. Was it a vocation for Anita Brookner? Brookner, as we see, takes an unillusioned stance. Not that she doesn't admit the Romantic myths surrounding a writing life. But in conjuring Romanticism, Brookner returns to a theme from her early interviews. This is a Brooknerian Romanticism, almost indistinguishable from existentialism. Existentialism, she said, was a kind of late flowering of the earlier movement. For there was grandeur in a life sans espoir - to borrow a phrase of Camus's. Was there grandeur in writing? If there was, it was fleeting, provisional. Brookner, having come to fiction late, almost as an afterthought, had little truck with the romance or the game of the writer's life, and something of this may have lain behind the antagonism she experienced from other writers and critics.

Earliest Brookner

The women he paints have a sparkling miniature solidity, the men an engaging quirkiness, a sharpness of knee, an intense turn of head which prompt admiration for Watteau's realism; yet these sharp little characters who, even in repose, seem always to be pouting, to be urging, to be inclining their tiny thoughtful heads, exist in a vacuum of apparent purposelessness. Their clothes, of satin slick as the oil into which Watteau translates them, are beautiful, flimsy, and bizarre; the context in which their languid activities take place is grandiose and vague, like a stage set. They look, in fact, like a group of professional actors, either warming up half-heartedly for a performance or enjoying a break in rehearsal, falling into a day-dream while a musician improvises softly on his guitar.
Anita Brookner, Watteau, 1967

(It isn't actually the earliest Brookner. That honour goes to the extraordinarily titled An Iconography of Cecil Rhodes, from the mid-50s, which I can only guess at.)

Watteau looks at first like a children's book. It was published in 1967 when Brookner was 39, fourteen years before A Start in Life. Mine is an ex-library copy. It is part of the Hamlyn 'Colour Library of Art', with '47 plates in full colour'.

But on every page, as the example above shows, there is the pure, the authentic Brooknerian sound.
'Down-and-out aristos', as Brookner says somewhere:
L'Embarquement pour l'Ile de Cythere'

Friday, 2 December 2016

The Disappearing Brookners

[On A Misalliance:] …it wasn’t a very good book, but it wasn’t that bad either. I have written it off. I didn’t like it even as I was writing it. 
Paris Review interview, 1987 (Link
[On the early fiction:] I hate those early novels. I think they're crap. Maybe I needed to write them. I far prefer what I'm doing now … They're morbid, they're introspective and they lead to no revelations … I don't like any of them very much. 
Independent interview, 2002 (Link)

Writers rarely estimate correctly the value of their own work. James disowned The Bostonians, did not include it in his collected edition. Likewise, two early Brookners seem to have slipped from the radar, and are increasingly difficult to source: A Friend from England and A Misalliance. Buy them when you can.

On Brookner's Comedy

Probably on account of the success of the highly atypical Hotel du Lac (1984), Anita Brookner acquired for a time a curious reputation as a comic writer. Hotel du Lac is indeed a novel somewhat in the English tradition of social comedy. There are several other, less assured funny elements in the early novels - amusing domestics and the like. One remembers a Mrs Cutler.

Something of the reputation persisted into later, grimmer times. The Next Big Thing (2002), not remotely a comedy, was described, in its hardback blurb, as 'her ... funniest novel to date'.

It was like this for Trollope.When I was growing up, Barchester Towers was Trollope's most famous novel, and it is obviously comic. But the bulk of Trollope's output is in the serious rather than the comic mode, however high. Yet Trollope continues to be thought of as funny. Perhaps it is because the English prefer comedies and, as Brookner said, are never serious.

Brookner, at the outset, was lazily compared with Barbara Pym, in fact quite a different novelist. (And I could say quite a lot about Pym, but she's possibly the subject for another post, even a separate blog.) Pym was a comic writer first and foremost, and really no Brooknerian. (She died before Brookner had published her first novel, though Brookner wrote about her. My copy of Pym's A Very Private Eye has a Brookner cover puff: 'Beautiful ... contains the living essence of Barbara Pym'.)

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Dreams of Anita Brookner

Observer: Where do you think your ideas come from?
Anita Brookner: I wish I knew. I'd tap into them straight away. I think it's mostly dreams and memories, isn't it, as with all novelists?
[…]
Obs: Where will the next idea come from?
AB: I don't know, that's the point. I have no control. I'm a great believer in unconscious processes. They usually work.
Observer interview, 2001 (Link)


Dreams are potent if mysterious motors in the novels, especially the later fiction. The Next Big Thing, Leaving Home and 'At the Hairdresser's' all begin with dreams. Information is received, considered, and not always found to be of use. Visitors ends with a dream, but it is a vouchsafement earlier in the novel - of a field of folk - that stays in the memory, lambent, puzzling. Brookner invokes not so much Piers Plowman as a Forties and Fifties heaven, a lost England, old decent values, kindness... Martin Amis, though not a Brooknerian, somewhere tells us that the modern world is all very well and really quite bearable, until you remember what it was like when people were kind.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

'Adieu, notre petite table!'

Brookner, rather like James (as in so many other ways) is an unmusical writer, by which I mean music is referred to infrequently in the novels. Brookner characters (distinct, I might aver, from Brooknerians) prefer Radio 4, Britain's main speech network. 'Falling slowly' is a quote from Radio 4's daily Shipping Forecast.

In A Misalliance, Blanche's dull ascetic suitor is represented by his predilection for the Brandenburg Concertos. Lewis Percy has more Romantic tastes: he listens to Mahler 6 at one point, and sobs at Manon.

Mrs May, in Visitors, longs for the noble sound of Schumann or Brahms, and I think it is Zoe in The Bay of Angels who also listens to Schumann. And in one of the early 90s novels, Brief Lives or A Closed Eye, characters attend a performance of Swan Lake.

Brookner's musical choices, then, are somewhat conventional, and her comments a little bland, in contrast to the sophistication of her references to the visual arts.

(A postscript - or perhaps a coda: Because of Anita Brookner I got interested in her almost namesake Anton Bruckner, and I fondly remember hearing Bruckner's Eighth under Dohnanyi at the Theatre du Chatelet one long-ago Parisian evening. It was a very Brooknerian experience, for me at least.)

This is, I think, 'Place du Chatelet under Snow' by
Eugene Laloue, mentioned in the opening pages of Falling Slowly.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

European Habits of Thought

My grandfather on my mother's side saw England as the most liberal country in the world: he adored it and adopted every English mode that he could find. But European habits of thought - melancholy, introspection - persisted, and it's a bad mix: it was thicker than the English air. 
Brookner, interviewed by John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview, 1985

I return, you see, to the Haffenden exchange, the Ur-text for Brookner's several interviews. Periodically I long for Europe, and for middle-Europe in particular. Not that my experiences of the continent aren't perhaps irredeemably touristique

But ah, Mitteleuropa! The place names, the names of streets, the hotels, the modern art galleries! The cosy restaurants and cafés, the railway stations with their boards showing destinations impossibly eastern! The sedate matrons shopping in the morning, the buzz of guttural conversation, the precisely reconstructed town squares! The icy rivers, the large skies, the forests of silver birches, the Autobahns!