Saturday, 24 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 12

So I come to the end of my trek through Brookner's most famous novel. I accorded it this treatment in acknowledgement of its undoubted preeminence, and not because I have any particular fannish zeal for it. But it is special to me insofar as it was the first Brookner I read. Rereading it now, nearly thirty years later, I tried to be objective. But I found recent memories of the BBC film of the novel intrusive. And I found the novel's tone a little too ironic, too almost whimsical at times.

Surely among the unlikeliest things ever to have
appeared on a TV screen

It's certainly a comic novel overall, perhaps a reaction against the darkness of its immediate predecessor, Look at Me. The resolution of the Mr Neville plot does have similarities with events in the previous novel, but the effect on Edith is infinitely less devastating than what is suffered by Frances Hinton. The two books also draw similar conclusions on the subject of writing, the first markedly more serious and defeatist:
It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is for me. It is your penance for not being lucky. (Look at Me, ch. 6)
Why does the recipe no longer work? Is it because the whole process now seems too much like the hair shirt of the penitent, angling to get back into God's good graces? (Hotel du Lac, ch. 12)
But Hotel du Lac finishes in a sombre key - perhaps a more characteristically Brooknerian key. Even before the truth about Mr Neville is revealed, Edith is contemplating the change:
Looking back, she saw that [on her first evening here] she had been braver, younger, more determined ... It had seemed, at the time, almost a joke ... Since then she felt as if she had acquired an adult's seriousness...
I find the transformation in the novel's tone one of its saving graces, even one of its triumphs. It makes us feel we've come a long way. It is something of a surprise to discover in this final chapter that Edith has been at the hotel for only two weeks.


The Brooknerian will now be taking a short break. I look forward to returning with thoughts on other hotel-set works of literature and preparations for my own visit to Vevey. Thanks for reading!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 11

One of the several things this chapter-by-chapter survey has shown me is the extent to which Brookner elegantly varies her narrative methods. The interleaving of group scenes, two-handers, passages of individual introspection, letters and flashbacks gives an agreeable sense of structure and substance to an otherwise fairly slight novel.

Chapter 11, in which Mr Neville and Edith take a trip on a pleasure steamer, reads like a novelisation of a well-made play by Noel Coward, or even Oscar Wilde. The tone and the treatment are oddly superficial and at odds with the content. Brookner never quite gets to grips with Mr Neville. He's a 'curiously mythological personage'. The terms of his debate are satisfyingly and reassuringly antique, but his patriarchal condescension perhaps demands greater scrutiny than the novel is prepared to offer. Edith unpicks his argument to an extent, but her critique is weakened by her weakened mood. Brookner herself is all but silent, almost ambivalent.

'Please don't cry,' says Mr Neville at one point. 'I cannot bear to see a woman cry; it makes me want to hit her.' But there is no challenge, and the narrative glides opaquely on.

'And I have a rather well-known
collection of famille rose dishes.
I am sure you love beautiful things.'

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 10

The novel's new tone - darker, less ironic - continues here. The season has changed; we're heading towards winter. Then there's a scene with the Puseys: Alain, the young waiter, has been (wrongly) accused of impropriety. 'Of course, he'll have to go,' says Mrs Pusey.

The Puseys are no longer comic characters. The scene isn't played as farce, as might have been the case earlier. Instead we see the Puseys' carelessness, their misrule, their disregard of others, and also Mrs Pusey's fear of change. That Jennifer Pusey may have one or two secrets is hinted at. The mystery of the opening and closing door is again invoked. 'I wonder,' thinks Edith. 'I wonder.'

'My patience with this little comedy is wearing a bit thin,' she says to herself, confirming the change that has been in the air of the novel for some time.

Breakfastless - for the hotel is at sixes and sevens - she heads into town, turning into Haffenegger's,* where she meets Monica. The themes are feminism, exile and homesickness. The tone is glum. The changed circumstances are acknowledged:
It seemed to both of them in their separate ways that only the possession of this day held worse days at bay, that, for each of them, the seriousness of their relative predicaments had so far been material for satire or ridicule or even for amusement. But that the characters who had furnished that satire or that amusement were now taking on a disturbing life of their own...
Time in chapter 10 passes alarmingly quickly. Soon it is afternoon and the day is wasted. We finish in the hotel again, preparing for dinner. Like chapter 5 the chapter has taken place, classically, over the course of a day.

It's worth pointing out here that one isn't quite sure how long Edith Hope has been at the Hotel du Lac. Everybody seems fully institutionalised. One recalls the inmates of the Swiss sanatorium in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, and the terrifying vagueness with which days, months, years go by.

*Last encountered in chapter 6 (see my post), where the spelling was slightly different.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 9

What do we think of flashbacks? Generally I'm not a fan. I was disconcerted when I read Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night in the original version, Bowen's The House in Paris, and Larkin's A Girl in Winter, all of which contain lengthy flashback sections centrally placed. In Hotel du Lac the key flashback comes later, two thirds of the way through, and elements of it have already been hinted at. As such it works, but only just.

Edith's misgivings about marriage are about love and its absence: she isn't content with the 'kind looks and spectacles' model of mature romance favoured by the likes of Barbara Pym. But more than that she worries about her writing. Married, she would not be writing. Writing may be 'illicit', rather shamefully 'orgiastic', but it is authentic. We are reminded (again) of Larkin in the poem 'Vers de Société', labouring under a lamp, looking out to see the moon 'thinned / To an air-sharpened blade':
A life, and yet how sternly it's instilled
All solitude is selfish.
This is to be no 'noble jilt' of the Trollopian kind. Geoffrey Long, Edith's ill-fated fiance is dismissed out of hand, condemned for the 'totality of his mouse-like seemliness'. He is, in a word, unBrooknerian, and to Edith's rejection of him the true Brooknerian can only raise a cheer.

For Edith, who seems at times in the novel rather mousy herself, is perhaps in fact a genuine malcontent - nowhere near as extreme a case as, say, Frances in Look at Me or any number of figures in the later novels. But as the full story of her wedding day is revealed the novel finds its feet, Kodak-sharp not only in details of food, clothes, the surrounding streets, Larkinian in their charming ordinariness, but also in its setting out of Edith's emotional rebellion and refusal to be bowed - its setting out also of Edith's rejection of the sort of modern inauthentic life her friends had earmarked for her, and which they themselves seem only too happy to live. There's a small but telling detail buried in the middle of the chapter. Amid the modish vol-au-vents and asparagus rolls of the proposed wedding breakfast is a Nesselrode pudding, an archaic and unfashionable confection, but loaded with significance for Edith, loaded with notions of a better past.
'Pudding, Edith? You must be mad,' said Penelope. 'My mother loved it,' countered Edith, and thought, privately, that her mother would have considered this a puny alliance. 

Monday, 19 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 8

Chapter 8, the first part of which comprises a long extract from one of Edith's letters to David, focuses on the timeworn themes of appearance and reality. Mrs Pusey, so spry, is revealed to be seventy-nine, and possibly deaf, and her daughter, who looks about fourteen, is in fact Edith's age, thirty-nine. Edith's disappointed Viennese mother is pictured reading innocent romances ('Perhaps that is why I write them') while dressed in an ancient peignoir. 'My mother's fantasies, which remained unchanged all her life, taught me about reality. And although I keep reality in the forefront of my mind, and refer to it with grim constancy, I sometimes wonder if it serves me any better than it served my mother.' Such reflections are occasioned by the elaborate fantasy of Mrs Pusey's birthday party, the artificiality and theatricality of which Edith compares and contrasts with her own memories and also with the less than enviable lives of the other guests - Mme de Bonneuil, for example, dutifully attending the entertainment but 'a stranger to such elaborate games of make-believe'.

'Suddenly', writes Edith, 'I had the uncanny feeling that this was all for show, that everything was a pretence, that this had been a dinner of masks, that no one was ever, ever going to tell the truth again.' The lightly comic ironic tone of much of the novel so far begins here to be undermined. 'Unsound elements seemed to have crept into [Edith's] narrative,' comments Brookner. David, we are told, likes to be amused by Edith's 'news from Cranford', a reference to one of the most charming and delightful works in the whole of English literature.

The chapter finishes on a note of true sobriety. Edith is at last ready to review in her mind the events that led to her exile at the Hotel du Lac. The novel's revels, it seems, are at an end.
The careful pretence of her days here, the almost successful tenor of this artificial and meaningless life which had been decreed for her own good by others who had no real understanding of what her own good was, suddenly appeared to her in all their futility.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 7

Interviewer: Despite their subtlety and variations, all your books so far have been basically about love. Do you think you will go on writing about love?
Brookner: What else is there? All the rest is mere literature!
Interviewer: Where do you see yourself in the tradition of English literature?
Brookner: I don't know anything like that. I'm a middle-class, middle-brow novelist. And that's it. It amuses me. 

'You write about love,' says Mr Neville. 'And you will never write anything different, I suspect, until you begin to take a harder look at yourself.' Anita Brookner, in interview, purported to be on Edith's side, even to the extent of pretending she herself was Edith's kind of novelist. Yet in none of Edith Hope's novels would we find the sort of exchange that takes up much of chapter 7 of Hotel du Lac. The conversation is a deconstruction of the terms that underpin Edith's writing, and more widely of the romantic life her writing advocates. It is by far the best scene in the novel so far, not least for its challenging metafictional qualities.

Mr Neville, depicted as the Duke of Wellington in the previous chapter, is here commended for his 'eighteenth-century face'. There's something rigorously antique about the whole encounter. We might recall Brookner's comment in her interview with Olga Kenyon in Women Writers Talk (1989):
Probably this is the first time since the Regency that men and women can converse on equal terms.
So what does Brookner believe? Is she on Mr Neville's side, or on Edith's? I don't think we'll ever decide, and this is a central tension - though she also told Olga Kenyon she shared 'practically all' of Edith's characteristics, that Hotel du Lac was a very personal story, and that she 'meant it. Every word'.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 6

Followers of this blog will know I recently read, with great pleasure, Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann. Another largely hotel-focused story, the novel takes place in the early nineteenth century but reveals its modernist credentials towards the end, when Mann gives us Goethe's thoughts and feelings in a long stream-of-consciousness chapter. Edith Hope, in Hotel du Lac, though she may look a little like Virginia Woolf, is no modernist, and nor is her creator. Chapter 6, though reflective, introspective, and set deep in Edith's consciousness, nevertheless could have been written by Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope.

Not least because Brookner gives us Edith's letters to her lover. This is a successful and fitting technique, and there will, I recall, be a smart pay-off at the end of the novel, when Edith reveals she hasn't sent any of the letters. But it is old-fashioned. But again, perhaps fittingly so.


Some additional points:

1. Balkanization
[Mrs Pusey and Monica] are not on good terms and use me as a buffer state [Edith writes]. I am subject to a certain amount of balkanization.
Brookner uses metaphor sparingly, and speaks of politics even less frequently. Talk of buffer zones and the Balkans is arresting, dragging the narrative slightly awkwardly into the here and now.

2. Haffennegger's

This seems to be a cafe in Vevey, although I can find no mention of it on Google. It will be something to investigate during my visit. I shall also be interested to see whether the Grand Hôtel du Lac has a room 307, Edith's room.

3. The Duke of Wellington

Mr Neville 'looks rather like that portrait of the Duke of Wellington that was stolen from the National Gallery some time ago'.

Goya's portrait was in fact stolen in the early 1960s, when Edith would have been a very young woman. In early Brookner, Brookner's protagonists are often much younger than their creator.

4. Kindle highlighters

There's a line about emotional incontinence that has been chosen by no fewer than 43 'highlighters'. Who are these people? Why can't they be more continent? Is there any way of switching off this irritating function?

5. Time Revealing Truth

David is seen in his auction room, selling a work called Time Revealing Truth, attributed to Francesco Furini. Hotel du Lac is plainly a populist effort, but it is interesting to see Brookner's wider intellectual concerns and interests intruding on the text. This seems to be the theme of an academic article from 2010, 'Anita Brookner's Visual World'.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 5

Anita Brookner could never be accused of an over-slavish adherence to the notion of the classical unities. She plays fast and loose with her time-schemes, she sends her characters on vacation at a moment's notice, and not a few of her novels contain several disparate plots. None of which need be considered criticisms.

Chapter 5 of Hotel du Lac is an exception, as well as being a rather satisfying and exceptional chapter in its own right (at least in an 'early Brookner' sort of way - and I'm really trying to get over my mild prejudice against her early work).

The chapter takes place in the hotel over the course of a day, and it centres solely on Edith's viewpoint. Edith wakes from a series of dreams, a typical Brooknerian device (see an earlier post on the topic of dreams), though here the dreams are 'disjointed' and 'half dream, half memory'. As such they have a narrative function, introducing us further to the hotel guests, especially the 'man in grey' who will soon be known as Mr Neville.

A migraine follows, which confines Edith to the hotel for the day. Migraines and other such eclipses have their place in the Brookner repertoire. The speed of the novel, never exactly breakneck, slows, allowing for some passages of fine writing. We see the view in its late-summer glory and the scene on the hotel terrace in its Sunday somnolence.

We also get to watch the hotel guests in greater detail. The woman with the dog is named - Monica - and Mme de Bonneuil's history is sketched in. There's a degree of class-based comedy at the expense of the Puseys ('Ma Pusey', as Monica calls her). Mr Neville and Edith have one of their combative conversations. And the sound of a door shutting in the night - a plot point, as I recall - begins and ends the chapter.

But Brookner isn't a naturally dramatic writer. Here she observes the dramatic unities, but she is perhaps writing against the grain. She much prefers narrative that is interiorised, psychological, and, if the world must be shown, painterly. Not for nothing does Edith describe herself as a 'lay figure ... useful to a painter'.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 4

'Are you a writer?' he enquired, in a voice very slightly tinged with amusement.
Brookner is to be applauded for writing so rarely about writers. I can think of only a handful of writer-protagonists: Edith, here; Frances in Look at Me; and Jane in A Family Romance. None is quite a Brooknerian artist. Edith is a romance novelist; Frances writes Barbara Pym-style comic short stories for the New Yorker; and Jane is a children's writer.

Brookner was ambivalent as to the attractions of a writing life. It was a penance for being unlucky, she said in Look at Me (chapter 6). Later, in interview, she said writing had reprieved her from the despair of living. In Hotel du Lac Edith's work is 'obscure and unnoticeable', though her 'labours' are said to 'anaesthetise' her.

The Puseys are again a focus in chapter 4, and a note of seriousness is gestured towards. Their presumed ages are getting steadily higher; and 'in a way she could not define [the Puseys] were both out of date'. But it's men who take centre stage now, the man in grey (Mr Neville) in the present of the hotel, and David in another of Edith's reminiscences.

David is presented initially as an exotic figure. He talks of 'the Rooms' in which he works, and rather than auction rooms Edith imagines opium dens, Turkish baths, a tiled hammam, the Moorish paintings of Delacroix.

But his exoticism is really of another order, as John Haffenden in his early interview with Brookner pointed out:
The men in your novels ... have the common denominator of being staunch Christians...
- and therefore distinct from the implied Jewishness, certainly foreignness, of the classic Brookner heroine. To which Brookner replied:
They are conservative, establishment creations, aren't they? And as such impervious to these dark imaginings, these brooding midnight fantasies.
Novelists in Interview, Methuen, 1985

Delacroix, Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement

Monday, 12 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 3

'Incidentally, although I have been thinking of Mrs Pusey as a lady, I have adjusted this downwards: Mrs Pusey is definitely a woman ... And the woman with the dog has to be adjusted upwards to lady, or rather Lady.'
Brookner's is a conservative imagination. Characters, however individual, are fitted into established roles and types. The boy Alain, who brings Edith's breakfast, has 'the set expression and also the expertise of a much older servant, a gentleman's gentleman'. Later, in town, there's a reassuring scene in a cafe, with 'sturdy-looking women' drinking coffee and eating cakes, and 'flushed waitresses' hurrying between tables. Brookner, or Edith, looks for the eternal, the unchanging in the human scene.

The chapter proceeds once more through reflection and flashback. Edith wakes; then her mind returns to yesterday evening, and we see how her meeting with the Puseys developed. This is occasion for some high comedy, subtly of a class nature. Of a different, more typically Brooknerian sort, are Edith's memories of her disappointed mother. We find ourselves in heavy Viennese interiors, and later in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, looking at a painting that could be Bruegel's Land of Cockaigne (but that's in Munich) or else The Harvesters (which is in the Met, New York).

One further point: the 'veal-coloured' decor of the hotel. Veal is an unEnglish meat; I never ate it until I went abroad. In the Eighties and Nineties, UK involvement in the European veal industry was roundly condemned in the British tabloids, and I think there was legislation as a result. 'Veal-coloured' is therefore a peculiarly Continental choice of words.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 2

A steady pace and a sparkling tone are maintained in Hotel du Lac's second chapter. We get to know more about Edith's lover David, and we get further viewings of the hotel's guests. The fairly monstrous Mrs Pusey (but 'dainty with it,' as Brookner said in interview) and Jennifer come to the fore.

The mystery of Edith's presence in Vevey (which is never named) remains potent. We're also treated to a key passage, the famous, clever, and perhaps now rather hackneyed lines about the hare and the tortoise (which crop up here and there on Twitter with aggravating regularity).

The passage comes during one of the book's many flashbacks. Edith is about to undergo the ordeal of dinner at the hotel. She leans back for a moment and closes her eyes, remembering the last meal she had before leaving England, with her agent. We're clearly deep within Edith's consciousness here, but during the remembered meal something disconcerting happens. We suddenly have access to the private thoughts and observations of the agent. These are useful in that they let us see Edith from the outside, but they're at the expense of the usual novelistic protocols.

A similar clumsiness is seen at the sentence level. In the following sentence, the gerund is misapplied:
Talking busily to each other, knives and forks flashed as they ate their way enthusiastically through four courses...
I grant that these are all rare and minor slips, but perhaps they remind us that Hotel du Lac is a relatively early Brookner.

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 1

I'll admit at the start that I find myself resistant to Hotel du Lac. This may be a result of having watched the BBC film fairly recently. I keep hearing Anna Massey's arch tones.

The tone of chapter 1 is of interest. At times it's whimsical, clever-clever. 'A cold coming I had of it,' writes Edith to her lover. And later in the letter, 'Not drowning, but waving' and 'all these sad cypresses'. Brookner describes the hotel's austere amenities with similar jaunty irony:
It was implied that prolonged drinking, whether for purposes of business or as a personal indulgence, was not comme il faut, and if thought absolutely necessary should be conducted either in the privacy of one's suite or in the more popular establishments where such leanings were not unknown.
The Augustan expansiveness of that sentence seems typical of the novel. One recalls Philip Larkin's comments on Anthony Powell's style:
A formal, slightly absurd view of life requires a matching style: Mr Powell's is Comic Mandarin, a descendant of Polysyllabic Facetiousness. ('Mr Powell's Mural', Required Writing)
Contrast chapter 1 of Hotel du Lac with the opening of Brookner's A Private View, written ten years later. In that novel we're presented with a comparable set-up: a character abroad. But George Bland's circumstances are considered with much greater sombreness, and, what's more, we're inside his head from the start - whereas Edith Hope comes gradually into view, and disappears at the end of the chapter. This focusing and defocusing perhaps gives the chapter a neat arc. At the start it's achieved by use of the passive voice - 'all that could be seen', 'It was to be supposed': we're aware through the long opening paragraph of an observing consciousness, but we don't see her, and we don't quite see with her eyes. Brookner's omniscience is confirmed at the end of the chapter when we view Edith through the eyes of old Monsieur Huber. I'm not sure about the success of these shifts of perspectives.

Chapter 1 of Hotel du Lac presents us with an interesting situation, a few puzzles, and some engaging characters. There is little sense of jeopardy. But should there be? There's jeopardy aplenty in, for example, A Private View, but A Private View isn't a comedy. That's what Hotel du Lac, at this early stage, seems to promise to be.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Hotel du Lac

I come, as I always knew I would, to Hotel du Lac. It's a faintly daunting prospect. You'll forgive me if I take it slowly, looking for the moment at some cover images. This is a fruitful enterprise, as Hotel du Lac is undoubtedly Brookner's most popular and reissued book. (I talked about its dominance in an earlier post.)

To begin: the first UK edition, and the most famous. Are we in the South of France? The light seems too bright. Is that a palm tree?

Now for some later UK editions, and the balcony motif has become established, even ritualised - to the extent almost that it has left the original behind. Look at the second, monochrome image below, from Penguin. It's a distant simulacrum. Is this a nineteenth-century novel?

The posthumous republication of most of the Brookner corpus in 2016 yielded a set of largely successful black-and-white images. But Hotel du Lac's dominance was signalled with a (faded, colour) cover, showing a (vintage) car travelling beside a lake:

I don't dislike the image, though I would have liked to see the balcony tradition continued. If anything, the most recent cover makes me think of one of the paperback covers of Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, a novel that  Brookner championed. But that's just me.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Tired Soiled Colours

...exhibited in the Salon of 1800 was the last Jeune fille qui pleure la mort de son oiseau (Louvre) which is not so much a study in double meaning as a fascinating piece of mannerism. The heavy hair has acquired a serpentine life of its own and twines in and out of the knotted drapery. The hands are boneless and affected, the head very large in proportion to the body. The effect is increased by the tired soiled colours...
Brookner, Greuze, ch. 7

This is not to say that Brookner's own style ever became affected, coagulated - but that she knew the dangers awaiting an artist over the long term. Greuze painted what his audience and presumably he liked to see, and thereby lost objectivity, thereby grew unable to see his own shortcomings. Brookner certainly had her detractors, though her supporters outnumbered them. And no one was probably as sceptical as Brookner herself - never quite enamoured of the idea of being a writer of fiction, and, while maintaining the integrity of a peculiar and very individual vision, ever alert to the need to keep her colours fresh.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017


She believes that therapy is the answer to the sort of stalemate at which we have arrived, and I dare not tell her that this stalemate suits me well enough, for I intend to proceed no further.
Altered States, ch. 17

This is the last in my series of posts on Altered States. I found it, on rereading, both chilly and chilling. It has the atmosphere of a ghost story, as more than one critic has pointed out. A number of the Nineties Brookners seem to have this low temperature, this sense of dead calm after great storms. Altered States is an autumnal, a wintry book.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Rendering of Accounts

'You're mad, Alan. You're a fantasist.'
Altered States, ch. 15

Here Sarah and Alan meet for the last time. The meeting has many of the hallmarks of a final showdown, such as novels are supposed to conclude with. But Brookner, like James (and the ending of The Sacred Fount - 'My poor dear, you are crazy, and I bid you good-night!' - is of relevance), makes of these conventions something of her own. The meeting in fact becomes a tussle over the future of Jenny, whose strange story has shadowed Sarah's. In the end Sarah fades into her habitual silence and inaccessibility, declining every overture, every over-thought Brooknerian sally:
'It was always too late. You were too slow, too innocent.' 
'And it's the fate of innocents to be massacred, or so we're told.' 
'Just leave me alone, will you?'

Monday, 5 June 2017

Not Too Unhappy

'Not too unhappy?' he said, getting to his feet. 
'Of course I'm unhappy. But it's quite bearable. Even interesting. I'd like to work it out on my own, for however long that takes...'
Altered States, ch. 15

One is reminded of Brookner's words in her 1994 Independent interview:
Depression can be quite fruitful if it leads to thoughtfulness, inwardness. Certainly my parents' deaths, certainly disappointments in love have led to periods, yes, quite long periods of depression - but they haven't been entirely defeating, you see, they've been quite nourishing. Because you're very receptive when you're in that state: in fact, it's invaluable.

Sunday, 4 June 2017


I decided not to go straight back to the office but to go home, make some coffee, and sit in absolute silence for an hour. I wanted solitude, though this is frowned on in a healthy adult. The propaganda goes the other way; one is urged to get out of oneself, as if preferring one's own company were a dangerous indulgence. I wanted, above all else, to be free of attachments, of those personal agendas which are wished on one in any conversation of any depth, and which are as disruptive to the process of contemplation as a telephone ringing in the middle of the night. I was not sick, I was not melancholy: I simply demanded that I might enjoy the peace of the situation I had inherited.
Altered States, ch. 14


The phrasing of the 'propaganda' line seems to be idiolectic. Compare this from chapter 2 of Hotel du Lac:
The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Palely Loitering

Alan Sherwood in Altered States is, we learn, 'in thrall' to Sarah Miller. He gives her lilies. He blushes. Sarah, for her part, is ever distracted. She's enchanting. Their coming together is 'almost magical'. The novel begins and ends with an autumn-set frame narrative.

Brookner's invocations of English poets are rare, and indeed Keats's 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' isn't directly referenced here. But of all Brookner's novels Altered States is the one that, uncharacteristically for its Europhile author, aspires towards a more English version of Romanticism.


'A Pre-Raphaelite air of brooding intensity...' (Altered States, ch. 6)

Friday, 2 June 2017

Wider Dimensions

I sensed that since [Jenny's] most lavish sympathies had brought her nothing in return, she had decided to withdraw them, even cancel them altogether. This had made me even more uncomfortable, as it exactly paralleled my own condition.
Altered States, ch. 13

Jenny, also known as Jadwiga and Edwige, returns to the footlights in the later part of the novel. She serves as a foil for both Sarah and the stolid Englishness represented by the narrator and, to an extent, by Sarah too. Jenny reminds us that there are other, European ways of doing things. She reminds us, in a novel that might otherwise seem somewhat parochial, of the wider dimensions of Brookner's work.

The passage above recalls an exchange in the John Haffenden interview. I've covered it before ('A Creative Power'), but it bears repeating:
[Interviewer:] What all your characters are left with is a resignation which is not even stoicism of the classical order; it's merely learning to put up with the way life is inevitably going to turn out.
[Brookner:] Yes, and the horror of that situation is profound.
Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (1985)

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ten Random Books

The literary blog Stuck in a Book urges you to select from your bookshelves 'ten random books to tell us about yourself'. I've found myself tempted by this 'meme', even though I haven't a full idea what a meme is. So - in the picture below, from the top:

1. Barbara Pym, A Very Private Eye
I do love these Grafton Books editions of Pym's works. This is a collection of her diaries and letters. Her eventual apotheosis, after years of neglect, gives hopes to us all. 'Beautiful ... contains the living essence of Barbara Pym,' says Brookner on the cover.

2. Anthony Trollope, Is He Popenjoy?
An old blue OUP Trollope, with wafer-thin pages. One can imagine some former owner reading it during the Blitz, Trollope's heyday. One has a sense, with such books, of rescuing them from oblivion. I read it in Switzerland, in cable cars and beside glaciers.

3. Baedeker's Southern Germany and Austria
From 1883. Because one would hate to be anywhere with no Baedeker.

4. Denise Gigante (ed.), The Great Age of the English Essay
Because I'm forever surprising a hunger in myself to be more serious.

5. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
Ditto. I didn't actually finish this; I kept wondering why she didn't just give in and write a novel. But the Brownings have always fascinated me.

6. Benjamin Constant, Adolphe
If you're here, you'll possibly know why this is on my shelves.

7. Henry James, A London Life
Sometimes we remember books because of where we were when we read them; others because of where we bought them. I got this in Shakespeare and Co, very possibly from a wizened old man who may have been the legendary George Whitman.

8. E. M. Forster, Abinger Harvest
Are any of these essays any good? Or are they too insubstantial, too evanescent, too unwilling to commit themselves? I always think I want to read and reread Forster but I never quite get round to it. But I like to think of this book being on my shelves.

9. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
I think I saw the film before I read the book, so reading could never be pure. But I like the cover. But how many books have I seen with dandelions on the cover?

10. Matthew Arnold, Selected Poems and Prose
I got through uni by reading poetry ('cos it's shorter), and this dates from those years. Don't think I've ever read any of the prose. But ah, 'The Scholar Gypsy'! '... this strange disease of modern life, / With its sick hurry, its divided aims...'

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Where to Start

Anita Brookner acquired a forbidding reputation during her writing career. Critical reception was strongly divided. So - where to start? It was possibly easier then, while she was still writing. If you had never read her, and wanted to, you could read her latest. Now that she's gone, and her body of work is complete, the uninitiated can be daunted by her sheer fecundity, the sheer volume of her fiction: twenty-four novels and a novella over thirty years. Where to start?

It is a difficult question. There's no obvious stand-out novel, by which I mean one that stands out in terms of, say, length or critical appreciation. The obvious answer is Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize in 1984. But Brookner herself didn't think it should have won. Her surprise or shock is clear in a press picture from the Booker event.

She thought Latecomers (1988) should have got the prize - a book with a serious and indeed Booker-friendly theme: the lifelong effects of surviving the Holocaust.

Both Latecomers and Hotel du Lac hail from the Eighties, often cited as Brookner's best decade. You can divide up your Brookners by decade. The Eighties novels are certainly sprightlier in tone and style. Here you'll find the stylistic experimentation of Family and Friends (1985) or the basic and uncompromising Brookner manifesto that is Look at Me (1983).

The Nineties offer different pleasures. You'll find fuller character portraits: the fading actress Julia in Brief Lives (1990), or the monstrous aunt, Dolly, in A Family Romance (1993). You'll find denser, darker novels, with less incident but greater analysis. I say less incident, but there are moments of real horror: the deaths in Altered States (1996) or the ending of Undue Influence (1999). If you don't read Brookner with your heart in your mouth then you must be reading someone else.

Brookner's final five novels, plus one novella, were published in the 2000s. This last phase presents us with fresh challenges. These are Brookner's most raw and least predictable books. Her last novel, Strangers (2009), gives us a portrait of old age that's both terrifying and uncomfortably relevant. The Next Big Thing (2002), another of Brookner's 'guy' novels (Brookner didn't just write about lonely spinsters, as all those lazy critics liked to sneer), a tense and intense drama of consciousness, a novel with a strong European dimension - salutary too, in its way, in these latter days of ours.

So - where to start? I look back at my old 'Recommendations' post, and I find I haven't mentioned several. 'Where to start?' is, of course, a slightly different question. I'd say start with something recent, and something that belies Brookner's reputation. Start with The Next Big Thing. I come back to it again and again. A novel that tells us how to live.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Comfort Reading

Art doesn't love you and cannot console you, said Anita Brookner. It's a discomforting assertion. When I examine my own intake or uptake of art - by which I mean my reading, for primarily I'm literary, verbal - I realise consolation is one of the chief things I look for. My sudden blogging, my sudden and tardy engagement with the Internet, after years of silence, has somewhat changed my reading habits. I now read more, and with more purpose. I look at what others are reading and am influenced. Or else I'm reduced, made to feel subtly inferior. These other folk - how quickly and how widely they read!

Much of my reading is now rereading. I read new things infrequently. I try new authors hardly at all. I favour books about certain types or classes of character and set in certain locations. I'm really very choosy, very small-minded. I've come to the end of Trollope, an almost exclusive preference of mine through my twenties and thirties. I never thought I'd exhaust him. I've read all of Dickens and James too, other favourites, and often feel at something of a loss.

Rereading is inherently a limited activity, though of course it also has things to offer. I know what to expect and I know I'll also probably gain something new. But I have a fear. One day I'll pick up an old favourite and it'll mean nothing. It will have lost its savour. Such fears should not be underrated: reading, for some people, isn't just a pastime. It's deeply bound up with, indeed part of, their inner lives. And as we know from Brookner, one must cherish and protect one's inner life almost at any cost.


I'm currently reading Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann. It's actually new to me, though followers of this blog will know I've read Mann before (like several Brooknerians - Elizabeth Warner in 'At the Hairdresser's', who puts aside Doctor Faustus, or Julius Herz in The Next Big Thing, who finds a significant old letter in a copy of Buddenbrooks). I've also been to Lübeck several times. (The Thomas Mann house is, like the Goethehaus in Frankfurt, an artful post-war reconstruction.)

If Lotte in Weimar is comfort reading for me, I suspect it was comfort writing for its author. Published in 1939 while Mann was in exile from his homeland (Buddenbrooks having been publicly burnt) the novel is set in the early nineteenth century and tells of real-life Werther* heroine Lotte's arrival in Weimar forty-four years after her youthful association with Goethe. I am sorry the novel isn't better known in English.

Here is George Steiner on Mann:
Thomas Mann is a towering presence in modern literature. The analogy with Goethe, which he himself invoked, is often justified. The leviathan series of novels that chronicled the decay of the old European order, and its descent into the night of the inhuman, stands unrivalled. Our current politics, our aesthetics, our images of personal hurt carry the impress of Death in Venice, of The Magic Mountain, of Doctor Faustus. The epithet 'Olympian' has been attached to Thomas Mann. In an important sense, it is erroneous. There is nothing remote about these classics. They ache at us.

*Brookner's Family and Friends begins with an epigraph from Goethe's most famous novel. And the cold calculations of Elective Affinities are discussed in Altered States.

Marvellous Eighteenth-century Women

'"Personne ne m'aime, et je ne m'en plains pas. Je suis trop juste pour cela."' 
'What?' I asked him, startled.
'One of those marvellous eighteenth-century women, I forget which one. Madame du Deffand, no doubt. She blamed no one for not loving her, said she was too - what is it? - Just? Fair? - for that.'
Altered States, ch. 12

It's not a quote that's on everyone's lips. When I typed it into Google a moment ago, Altered States was the only hit. It must result from Brookner's early reading, those youthful years she spent in the old Bibliothèque Nationale in the rue Richelieu, reading her way lengthways and widthways through her cherished eighteenth century. (There's a piece in the TLS somewhere, in which Brookner writes about the library, including mention of the day she was the recipient of a large bunch of flowers. I have in my notes a mention of the article, but no longer a copy.)

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.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

My Virtue Had Been Equal to My Happiness

I was filled ... with the memory of Sarah, and the awesome revelation of our matching physical temper. For the first time in my life I had met a woman with that rare sort of genius, effortless, uninvented, almost unconscious. This was the gift she possessed and I had been its recipient. Like Julien Sorel in another context my virtue had been equal to my happiness. This phrase had puzzled me ever since Mother had persuaded me to read the novel ... She had blushed and said, 'It means that he acquitted himself well, and no further explanation was needed. I'm sure you see the beauty of that, Alan.' I had, in fact, although I had thought the novel difficult. Yet along with its crankiness went a sort of excitement, which convinced me that its author had been young and ardent and romantically fulfilled, even though his hero had ended in prison.
Altered States, ch. 6

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Phenomenal Psychological Pressure

I seemed to have to exert phenomenal psychological pressure along the order of mesmerism, to induce her to meet my eye...
Altered States, ch. 4

Alan strives time and again to capture Sarah Miller's attention. The 'oddness' of Sarah, her 'psychopathology' - she's a 'lusus naturae', a freak of nature, he decides - are topics for much speculation - by Alan, and by Brookner. There's a sense of Brookner struggling to capture Sarah, of Sarah - more than any other Brookner monster - eluding the baffled author's grasp.
I telephoned her several times. Each time there was no answer, yet I had an image of her, sitting in the flat, on the floor, perhaps, willing the sound to stop, the silence to be restored. (Ch. 6)

Friday, 19 May 2017

Minstrels and Troubadours

Three years at Oxford and nearly five in Paris should have alerted me to the notion of courtly love, but I rather think that even if I had been acquainted with it, had grown up believing in minstrels and troubadours, I should not have recognised my own behaviour, which had more in common with the Middle Ages, even the Dark Ages, than with the twentieth century.
Altered States, ch. 5

I quote this passage largely as an excuse to share one of my favourite paintings. I saw it again in Berlin recently. It is one of Moritz von Schwind's 'picture novellas': The Rose, or the Artist's Journey (1846-7). 'The hero', wrote the painter, 'is the last musician, a man of lofty ideas' and yet 'a ruined genius'. My guide to the Alte Nationalgalerie reads:
The viewer can guess what longing will be awakened by the dropped rose. Disillusion was a central theme in Schwind's work.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Crude Manners of the Age

Her exquisite manners disarm and put visitors at ease, and at the same time secure a reasonable distance. 
She offers coffee from a cafetiere, and seats herself on the sofa: immaculately dressed; perfectly contained in her movements, a woman of impeccable manners and propriety.

'I had not quite learned the crude manners of the age,' says Alan Sherwood in chapter 4 of Altered States, and there follows a rather dreary account of a time when he complimented a secretary's looks and she took umbrage; this is more about political correctness than manners, though the line about the age's crude manners remains valid. And it is true of so many Brooknerians, and results in many a misunderstanding. But would they ever have had it any other way? What might have its origins in shyness gradually, with greater confidence, becomes a cherished trait, a means of self-protection: protective colouring, as Brookner said in another interview.

Brookner herself, as we see, was famed for her good manners - manners not frosty but certainly distancing. 'You will find yourself babbling,' Julian Barnes advised the Telegraph interviewer. I indeed found myself doing that when I met her. Not that Dr Brookner scorned me; she was politeness itself. But I was on my mettle.

Politeness itself

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

On Samuel Richardson

Richardson's novels, far-fetched and of poor quality in any language...
Anita Brookner, Greuze, ch. 2

Brookner's chief beef with Samuel Richardson is a well-worn one: his didacticism: 'one was expected to read his novels in the virtuous anticipation of being instructed'. She condemns his 'almost professional assurance that virtue will triumph'; such uplift is 'spurious'. And she has her suspicions that many of his readers would have gained 'more than a little excitement' from the more lurid aspects of his fiction.

I don't often disagree with Anita Brookner (I probably wouldn't be writing this if I did). I agree with her as far as Richardson's first novel, Pamela, is concerned, a dull and ridiculous book if ever there was one, and I haven't read his last, Sir Charles Grandison (who has, other than Jane Austen?), but I tend to think of Clarissa as one of the greatest novels in any language - absorbing, immersive, and not a little mad. Clarissa set out the rules of engagement for all the great psychological novels that were to come, not least among them the novels of one Dr Brookner. Perhaps Brookner struggled with the not inconsiderable logistics of reading such a monstrously oversize text, no readable printed edition of which has been available for some time. I recently read Clarissa over the course of a year on my e-reader. It's what Kindles were invented for.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017


In retrospect I can say that I never felt more of a man than I did at that moment, on that silent afternoon, before I was put to the test, before my life began and ended.
Altered States, end of ch. 3

The ends of Brookner's chapters, like several of her novels' overall conclusions, don't always work. They strive towards epiphany, at any rate towards 'fine writing'. But sometimes, as here, the pressure forges new thinking. 'Before my life began and ended': how easily this might be applied to other Brooknerians, or indeed perhaps to Brookner herself. She often gave the impression, particularly in interview, that the writing of fiction was a kind of posthumous occupation for her, not quite her real life; it was something she had engaged in only when the real business was over.


For more thoughts on Brookner's endings, see here.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Down and out in Paris but not in London

I'm reading chapter 3 of Altered States at present. We started the novel with the narrator, Alan Sherwood, a man in his fifties, holidaying in the French border town of Vif (which I once, in the 90s, on a coach trip, passed through - and it was as somnolent as Brookner describes). Imperceptibly, somewhere and somehow in chapter 2, Brookner took us back to Alan's twenties, and by the current chapter we're firmly in that past, at a party and being introduced to Sarah Miller, who'll become Alan's obsession.

Brookner seems to be trying hard with Sarah, but it is another character who claims our attention. Sarah's uncle's new wife - an ageing Polish woman who has lived most of her life in Paris, and now tries to be English - is Sarah's obverse. Her looks are contrasted with Sarah's, the slipperiness and uncertainty of her European identity seen as the very opposite of Sarah's (and Alan's, for that matter) solid Englishness. The woman has, crucially, several names: Jadwiga, Edwige, Jenny.

Whose side is Alan on? And whose side Brookner? Alan is sorry to have come to the end of his années de pèlerinage in the French capital: misty wintry London is now to be his portion, along with duty, work, and, he reckons, marriage and child-rearing. But his old life gives him an affinity with Jadwiga/Edwige/Jenny:
I saw that Parisian background as lonely, an affair of stratagems. I had lived there; I knew how hard it was to exist on a small amount of money, to live in a cheap hotel, never quite warm enough, never quite clean enough...
This is the occasion for an extended riff on the attractions of Paris. But:
I was young, and I was not a woman.
So: Jenny vs. Sarah. As the novel proceeds I shall attend with interest to what seems like a classic Brookner binary.

Gare de Vif

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Falsely Intelligent Summaries

...I am averse to falsely intelligent summaries, such as seem to be prevalent nowadays, and prefer long moments of reverie and speculation, which seem to me more conducive to satisfactory conclusions.
Altered States, ch. 1

They are, I realise, those falsely intelligent summaries, what I must avoid here. Let me trust instead to speculation and reverie, to indirections that might perhaps find directions out.

In any event, I often think I have little choice. How I envy those who can put together regular, cogent, recognisable (I'm trying to avoid the word 'normal') reviews and summaries of books they've read. I'm given, rather, to the power of impressions. At one time I would write essays, long essays, dissertations. Not now.

My initial impressions of Altered States: a ghost story; and a Sebaldian quest story:
...I lingered, a substantial English ghost, haunting the woman in the German hat ... I felt that this person on the platform might hold the key to the mystery, might in some extraordinary way enlighten me as to where Sarah might be, for although I tended to see her everywhere I had not yet laid eyes on her in ways that might be construed as physical, verifiable... (Ibid.) 
I had nothing to go on apart from two addresses on a piece of squared paper: the pencil was faded and the paper limp from much folding. One address, the one in Paris, I already knew about; the other, in the rue des Bains, in Geneva, is almost certainly unreliable. (Ibid.)
But I am persuaded of neither interpretation. Brookner as M. R. James? Brookner as W. G. Sebald? No. She'll only ever be herself. One must beware not only of falsely intelligent summaries but also of Brookner's many traps.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Tessa Hadley

Boston Globe: What are you reading currently?
Tessa Hadley: Rather old-fashionedly, I’ve just finished an Anita Brookner novel. I found one in a secondhand bookstore, a rather good one, Fraud. It has a happy ending, which is amazing because it stars one of her characteristically hopeless women.
Boston Globe: How many of Brookner’s books have you read?
Tessa Hadley: I thought most of them so it was a treat to find this. I love one of her first ones, A Start in Life, which is also one of her funniest. I’m a fan of hers. It’s hard to say why because she is a great skeptic about life, yet in her sentences one feels this wealth. That’s one of the enigmas about books. You can have lovely, warm books that leave you a little bit bored. Then you can have cruel books that seem like a feast because of the sentences and the intelligence.
'British writer drawn to books that are cruel . . . in the best sense', Boston Globe, 11 May 2017


Friday, 12 May 2017

Brexit Brookner

The woman on the station platform was smartly but not fashionably dressed, in a sober chestnut-coloured suit and the sort of brown felt hat still favoured by certain middle-aged middle-class women in Germany. I doubted whether this woman was German, although she certainly looked European. This much was attested to by her shoes, which were smart without being fashionable: narrow brown brogues, with a medium heel. I noticed that they were brilliantly polished.
Altered States, ch. 1

(Brexit Brookner: A provocative post title: prepare to be disappointed.)

In Altered States (1996) Brookner gives voice to a rather staid Englishman, with a very English name, Alan Sherwood. The success or otherwise of this project will be a discussion for another day, but for the moment I want to think about notions of Europe and Europeans.

Henry James was clear. 'Europe' meant the Continent, but also the British Isles. It meant the Old World, in contrast to the innocence and puritanism of America. ('I have been to England and Holland,' says New Englander Mr Wentworth in The Europeans (1878) 'Ah, you have been to Europe?' cries the Baroness in reply. (Ch. 3))

But in the opening pages of Brookner's Altered States (and I shall be interested to see whether this is traceable through the novel) 'Europe' is distinct from Britain; Britain isn't perceived to be a part of Europe.

I well remember how the Brexit debate or what would become the Brexit debate began to come to the fore in the 1990s, with all those dreary and protracted disputes over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

Can we find here, in Altered States, a minor and forgotten novel from those years, the seeds of something much larger - something that may leave the states of Europe at least a little altered?

(There. Not too painful, I hope)


As an aside, let us consider again the mystery of Brookner's politics. Had she lived to see June 2016, what would she have voted in the EU Referendum? I've no idea. Older people tended to vote Leave. More moneyed people generally voted Remain. But nothing was definite. (Kicking my heels one lunchtime recently, I looked up Brookner's borough - Kensington and Chelsea - and nearly 69% of the votes cast were for the Remain side.)