Sunday, 10 December 2017

Something in Their Lives: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.
Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn (1977), ch. 1


A look at the subject matter of several novels of the time may suggest otherwise. But this was Barbara Pym's personal experience; it's a cri de coeur. Pym, writing Quartet in Autumn after years of rejection, saw little prospect of its being published. The novel has a recklessness: she's perhaps writing for herself alone, or for a coterie of fans such as Philip Larkin, who read and commented on the manuscript. The heartening and miraculous story of the novel's eventual publication, after Pym was celebrated in a TLS article, is well known. A Booker nomination followed, and the reissue of her 1950s novels, along with the release of several works that had failed to find a publisher in the meantime.

Quartet in Autumn is the story of four office workers near retirement, conventional Letty, eccentric Marcia, churchy Edwin, and chippy Norman. But '[T]he curious intimacy of the office is very definitely not repeated outside it,' comments Edwin at one point. All four are single; two of them live in bedsitters, and the question of their future in a changing world - 'all the uncaring intricate rented world', as Larkin called it - is approached head on. This isn't the cosy Pym of the Fifties:
How had it come about that she, an English woman born in Malvern in 1914, of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians? It must surely be because she had not married... (Ch. 7)
Not that this is a racist novel: the Nigerians are kind and dignified; it's Letty who's out of step. Pym charts the changing social scene, but her eye is equable, ironic. Any less than sympathetic comments are given to the less than sympathetic Norman, always on hand with a hackneyed expression, which Pym records with detectable though silent relish.

Pym guides the story towards a fairly traditional satisfactory conclusion, but there's no disguising the bleakness of much of what has gone before. Deprivation was to Larkin what daffodils were to Wordsworth, and the atmosphere is at times strongly Larkinian - the Larkin of High Windows in particular. A line from an earlier poem 'Ambulances' is directly quoted, and Letty wonders about the validity of being 'deprived', of 'not having'. As a reader of Anita Brookner, I wonder also about connections with this later author. Certainly the novel's anxieties about housing and property have echoes in some later Brookners, especially The Next Big Thing.

But Quartet in Autumn is a comic novel. High comedy - that's what Lord David Cecil called Pym's humour. I'm not sure this quite applies to Quartet in Autumn, but in spite of its darkness it's often very funny. Pymish comedy seems to have to do with accumulation, and with deadpan deftness of pacing. I don't mean just accumulation of telling detail but of language too:
By profession he was a driving examiner and his present stay in hospital was the result, not of an accident with a middle-aged woman driver on test, as was jokingly assumed in the ward, but of a duodenal ulcer brought about by the worrying nature of life in general, to which the anxieties of his job must surely have contributed. (Ch. 1)
Successive parts of this sentence modify and undermine the reader's response. We might take exception to the line about the middle-aged woman driver on test, but the next clause cuts this away, revealing the jokey sexism to be the ward's, not Pym's. The mention of the ulcer shocks us into a seriousness that's swiftly demolished by the prim faux-seriousness of 'the worrying nature of life in general'. The final clause acts as a pay-off, linking the sentence back to its beginning and satisfying the intelligent reader by confirming his or her initial suspicions.

By a similar token, Pym's darker moments are edged with humour:
Even Marcia had once hinted at something in her own life, long ago. No doubt everybody had once had something in their lives? Certainly it was the kind of thing people liked to imply, making one suspect that a good deal was being made out of almost nothing. (Ch. 4)
Wistful? Mocking? Bleak? The tone here is hard to catch, and this is the case time and again. It makes it a novel you can never quite 'get'. It's an ambiguity found in other Pyms, but mostly in the later ones. It's something that goes some way to explaining the Pym critical industry, now prodigious.

Another example: Marcia and her plastic bags:
The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place, because there was a note printed on it which read 'To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children'. From middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves. So Marcia took the bag upstairs into what had been the spare bedroom where she kept things like cardboard boxes, brown paper and string, and stuffed it into a drawer already bulging with other plastic bags, conscientiously kept away from babies and children. It was a very long time since any such had entered the house, children not for many years, babies perhaps never. (Ch. 13)
The comedy builds slowly, grimly. Pym does not falter, steadily piling on the pressure, drawing out every last nuance, however dark.

I came to Barbara Pym's novels via Philip Larkin, and Quartet in Autumn, which I remember reading on a trip to Paris in the early 1990s, remains my favourite. The incomparable Larkin/Pym correspondence contains much discussion of the writing of the novel as it developed:
It would be wrong to say I enjoyed it in the simple sense of the word, because I found it strongly depressing, but I seem to recall some Greek explained how we can enjoy things that make us miserable. It's so strange to find the level good-humoured tender irony of your style unchanged but dealing with the awful end of life: I admire you enormously for tackling it, and for bringing it off so well.
Larkin to Pym, quoted in Hazel Holt's A Lot to Ask: a Life of Barbara Pym.


Old beloved Granada edition

My not quite complete Pym collection
*

The Brooknerian will now be taking a break. Back in the New Year. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Providence: Closing Comments

(I'm not over-fond of these 1980s
British paperbacks, though their rather
curious cover paintings strike
me as worthy of study.)

  • The rest of the novel is taken up with preparations for Kitty's make-or-break lecture, which, we are told, she once envisaged as a 'sort of open exchange' but now becomes 'yet another solo performance of high strain' (ch. 13). Everything seems to depend on the outcome of this event: she fantasises about weddings, and about married life as an accepted Englishwoman in Gloucestershire. But by this stage the novel is tense with foreboding. None of this can end well. '[L]ater that night she burned in fires.'
  • There's a misstep at the start of chapter 13. Several pages are spent with two minor characters, while Kitty is elsewhere. This gives Brookner the chance to show us at length what other people think of her protagonist, but for me the scene's artistic infelicity cancels out any gain.
  • Chapter 14 opens meanderingly - we see the dreamy days before Kitty's lecture. Brookner goes into some detail. Why? I think she's showing us the reality of Kitty's life, and Kitty's failure to grasp it. Kitty nourishes high hopes of Maurice, but he is completely absent. The painful focus on these empty days before the approaching cataclysm are equivalent to the terrible time that comes after the similar discovery in Look at Me.
  • The lecture goes well, but there is Maurice's dinner party to come. Again we see Kitty alarmingly alone. Brookner's gaze is steady.
  • The hot weather is brilliantly conveyed, giving the novel's last chapters a special, momentous quality. Old Church Street bears 'a passing resemblance to a deserted Mediterranean port' (ch. 15). Kitty breathes the stale evening air 'as if she were on the shore of a distant sea'.
  • The novel moves like clockwork towards the revelation in its final pages. The reader, like Kitty, is left horrified and without markers. A similar trick is pulled in a later Brookner, Undue Influence. One is aware in these novels of Brookner masterminding almost diabolically the humiliation of her heroines.
  • And we're left wondering: What exactly is wrong with them? What is wrong with Kitty? Why didn't Maurice choose her? Why didn't she win the game? As ever, Brookner hasn't quite got the answers - and that's why we know she'll be back at her writing desk before too long.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Providence: Waving to Me Ardently

As she turned to give them a last wave, as she always did, she saw their two faces at the window, white masks that dwindled as she walked backwards down the hill, still waving.
Anita Brookner, Providence, end of ch. 12


Scenes of waving in Brookner: a topic for a minor study. There will be a leave-taking, the protagonist will depart, and he or she will look back at some significant other or others, often parents. A chapter usually ends here, or, in the case of A Family Romance, a whole book ('waving to me ardently, as if I were her best beloved.'*). There are examples in A Closed Eye and Altered States, and probably elsewhere. Waving? Drowning?

*Lovely deployment of the were-subjunctive there. (I once wrote a dissertation on the use of the were-subjunctive in British English. Brookner made an appearance.)

Monday, 4 December 2017

Providence: Kitty's Last Seminar

Notes on the seminar scene in chapter 11 of Brookner's Providence:
  • Says Kitty of Adolphe's ending: 'For the first time we are aware of the author's consciousness rather than his recital.' Later she says Adolphe is interesting for its juxtaposing of intense emotion with very dry language. And Brookner? 'There is a constant delightful tension between the austerity of her message and the voluptuousness of her medium,' wrote Lucy Hughes-Hallett in 1998.
  • '[I]t is characteristic of the Romantic to reason endlessly in unbearable situations, and yet to remain bound by such situations. [...] For the Romantic, the power of reason no longer operates. Or rather, it operates, but it cannot bring about change.' The Romantic dilemma, or indeed the Brooknerian, in a nutshell.
  • 'We are dealing with a work of fiction, and I simply want to make the point that in this period fiction, indeed all creative endeavour, becomes permeated with the author's own autobiography.' How far is Brookner's fiction permeated with her own autobiography?
  • 'Déclassée women like myself frequently are [well-dressed]'. Was Brookner 'déclassée'?

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Providence: Rien ne vaut la France

It doesn't yet feel like mature Brookner, but in Providence you do get the sense of an author finding her feet. The middle stretches are of interest: Brookner seems to proceed through indirection, sending Kitty Maule to a clairvoyant; to a colleague's cottage in Gloucestershire; on an outing with her grandparents; and to Paris. But the focus on the heroine and on the main plot is tighter than in A Start in Life, and this is an advance. The tone, accordingly, is more consistent. There is still humour - the schoolgirls and their teacher in Paris, for example - but it's better integrated and less distracting. The pace is, however, slack. It works in Trollope, this lessening of the tempo in the middle, but readers often need a breather in the course of a long Victorian tome. In a novel as short and slight as Providence the reader may feel uncertain as to where the story is going, may even suspect the writer of not really having a story to tell.

But the Paris scenes ('Rien ne vaut la France') are fresh and full of incident and authenticity. I well remember travelling there as a youngster myself: the ferry crossing, that cafeteria in the rue de Rivoli. Later Maurice arrives, secure and complacent in his faith. He proves a disruptive, alienating presence. He somehow, for all his Englishness, manages to appropriate France, a country Kitty might have thought of as her own.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Providence: At Madame Eva's

In chapter 6 of Brookner's Providence we find ourselves in uncertain and unfamiliar territory. Kitty, persuaded by her neighbour Caroline, visits a clairvoyant. Kitty is appropriately sceptical - '[s]he was intellectually, as well as morally, uneasy' - but she goes through the experience all the same. The visit is fully described and dramatised; there's even a crystal ball. And Madame Eva's vouchsafements? They're stunningly close to the truth.

What are we to make of all this? I've really no idea. It puzzles me. It's a strange intrusion into the normal rationality of the Brookner world. It seems obvious to me that Caroline, before the visit, fed Madame Eva with details of Kitty's life. But Brookner doesn't acknowledge such a possibility, and the episode is allowed to pass away. Why?

Friday, 1 December 2017

Marginalia

Always an interesting topic, this. I live in hope of picking up some old volume and finding fascinating annotations within, clues to the past, remnants of old lives. I've got a number of very old books - eighteenth-century editions of Tristram Shandy, the Rambler, and the original Spectator - but their previous owners seem to have been careful, reticent folk.

Looking back at one's own jottings is another matter. I think I last read Brookner's Providence in the 1990s, and I'm using the same copy for my reread. I find disappointingly few marks, and no notes. But the few marks intrigue me. I responded, back then, to passages that leave me cold now. I don't wish to go into too much detail here, but in general I seemed to 'identify' (hateful word, but unavoidable) more with Maurice than with Kitty. Now the opposite is true. As I say, interesting - but probably only to myself, so we'll leave it there.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Providence: Kitty Maule's Seminar

Some notes on the seminar scene in chapter 4 of Brookner's Providence:
  • Kitty's '[A] novel is not simply a confession, you know. It is about the author's choice of words' reminds me of Evelyn Waugh's line, 'I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in language, and with this I am obsessed.' When the Paris Review asked Brookner about Kitty's comment, she replied, 'I am not conscious of having a style. I write quite easily, without thinking about the words much but rather about what they want to say. I do think that respect for form is absolutely necessary in any art form - painting, writing, anything. I try to write as lucidly as possible. You might say lucidity is a conscious preoccupation.'
  • The key quote from the Preface to the Third Edition of Constant's Adolphe, 'ce douloureux étonnement d'une âme trompée' is given in the Penguin translation as 'the pain and bewilderment of a soul deceived' and by Brookner's tutee as 'the painful astonishment of a deceived soul'. John Haffenden, interviewing Brookner, commented on this line, saying that he thought it was what Providence was about. He also remarked on the end of the chapter, where Kitty recalls a line of Adolphe but cannot remember what follows it. In fact what comes next is none other than 'the painful astonishment of a deceived soul'. 'How clever of you to pick that up,' said Brookner.
  • Kitty is notably indulgent towards her students. 'To be taught by Anita was to be loved by Anita': see Brookner Interview Discoveries #3.
  • We have a mention of Mme du Deffand, who later features in Altered States (see here).
  • Larter speaks of Existentialism as a Romantic phenomenon. Asked about this by John Haffenden, Brookner replied, 'I would now say that it is anti-Romantic: it gets rid of all the hopes and the beliefs that things are worth pursuing'. For more on this, see here.
  • Kitty sets a task for next time. Her students are to list key words in Adolphe, starting with imprudences, règles sévères, faiblesse and douleur profonde. That's Brooknerian homework for you.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Providence: A Strange Exoticism

The scene had, for her, a strange exoticism: the hideous room, the north light, the dull atmosphere, compounded by the smells of cigarette smoke and sheets of photocopied paper, the muted and rumpled appearance of everyone except Maurice and herself, the enormous amount of luggage they managed to bring in - bags, briefcases, mackintoshes - the ceremonial plate of chocolate biscuits handed round by Jennifer's assistant, all this seemed to her stranger and more desirable than the home life of her grandparents with their variants on normal dress and erratic impromptu meals.
Anita Brookner, Providence, ch. 3


Anyone who has ever, in a British educational setting, sat through a staff meeting or committee meeting will recognise and enjoy the description above. But it isn't just the precision of the detail, and the period detail at that - the pungent photostats, the smoke. It is also the exoticism of the scene that gives it its savour and makes us see it afresh. Brookner's is the eye of an outsider, or else she occupies the fascinating position of being both outsider and insider. Either way, it's a novelist's ideal.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Providence: Too Dangerous

Some day, unless a miracle took place, she would spend all her time in this kitchen and it would become her permanent and only home, instead of the temporary staging post she had always thought it might be. But this was too dangerous to contemplate...
Anita Brookner, Providence, ch. 2


Providence, in its opening stages, seems light and witty: any jeopardy is manageable, within bounds, or wistfully past. But we get these little shafts of steel. This is, after all, even so early in the oeuvre, fully and absolutely Brookner.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Providence: Reading

Chapter 2 of Providence focuses on Kitty's university life. Both she and her lover Maurice have flats in London, from where they commute to their 'provincial' university; we are told the financial supporters of the institution, the Friends, hail from the 'surrounding countryside'.

I suspect Brookner means Reading. She was a visiting lecturer at the University of Reading from 1959 to 1964. It gives Providence a particular, perhaps rather charming non-Londoncentric air. Campus life, the provinces: this could be David Lodge.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Providence: the rue Saint-Denis


What a strange, assured, idiosyncratic beginning. No action, practically no dialogue, all retrospect and introspection. We find ourselves in the Parisian world of Kitty Maule's grandparents. There's a hint, too, as ever, of something 'further east'.

Providence (1982) was Anita Brookner's second novel, published a year after her first. Reading it now - now that we have the entire corpus - we recognise many things from later works. But Providence is an urtext.

Take the grandmother's dressmaking workroom in the rue Saint-Denis, with its seamstresses and its 'young and outrageous girls'. What does this recall? And of course, yes, the rue Saint-Denis appears a decade or so later, and similarly, in A Family Romance. See an earlier post here.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Adolphe by Benjamin Constant



I'm planning a reread of Providence, which makes use of Adolphe, but let me consider Constant's 1816 novel from another angle:
...he thought he might have done better, even prospered, in another era, or even another place, where the natives, the citizens, were more helpful, more curious, and indeed more candid. He longed to have lived in one of those confessional novels he had read as a young man - The Sorrows of Young Werther, Adolphe - in which whole lives were vouchsafed to the reader, with all their shame, yet as if there were no shame in the telling. Here, now, one was consciously checked by a sort of willed opacity, a social niceness that stalled one's attempts to make real contact.
Brookner, Strangers, Ch. 7


As Brookner said in interview, Adolphe is the story of a moral catastrophe; it's about what you do when you're the cause of a disaster. Adolphe is a bored, ennui-laden young man: he decides the time has come for him to fall in love. He chooses his woman, the mistress of an aristocrat, and she returns his simulated affection - which soon and suddenly becomes the real thing. The 'magic of love' is his, a feeling 'closely allied to religion'.

The woman, Ellenore, leaves her Count, and this is where the problems really begin. Adolphe fast falls out of love, though Ellenore remains devoted - or dependent. He suffers regret, mistakes pity for love, laments his squandered youth, longs to escape, and all the while the years pass by. He's stuck with Ellenore, and she's ten years older, and her attractions for Adolphe can only fade. The novel is unsparing in its presentation of differing male and female desires and expectations. The novel is also about guilt: 'I had crushed the one who loved me, broken this heart which like a twin soul had been unfailingly devoted to mine in tireless affection, and already I was overcome by loneliness.' This is the disaster Brookner speaks of, and naturally there's no good ending.

Adolphe is fairly autobiographical, and this is probably why it's a difficult read: the material hasn't been fully shaped; the story is raw and perhaps therefore rather shocking. There is no payoff: no lesson learnt, no satisfying moment of clarity - though there's one effort in the direction of an epiphany, a Caspar David Friedrich moment ('Daylight was waning, the sky was still, the countryside was becoming deserted) that relieves the narrator a little of his self-absorption but ultimately leads nowhere.

Brookner once spoke of a (male) reader who said to her something like 'You write French novels, don't you?' She took it as a high compliment. One can see what was meant. Adolphe, not just in its subject matter and its psychological intensity, is Brooknerian in its style too: its tendency to show rather than tell; even little things like the habit Brookner has in some of her early novels of not paragraphing direct speech.

Not having picked up Providence for some time, I'll be interested to see how my revisiting of Brookner's second novel is informed by reading Constant's Adolphe.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Or The Whale

The 'great flood-gates of the wonder-world' are swung open: the reader is 'world-wandering' like the crew of the Pequod through the 'lashed sea's landlessness': 'How I snuffed that Tartar air! - how I spurned that turnpike earth!'

I do not read only Anita Brookner. I like to have, in the background, a monumental, old, preferably nineteenth-century novel on the go. This has long been my habit. I don't think any of us would really cope if we were actually transported back to that long-lost time, but I like to think some of us would know some of the ropes.

Moby-Dick, or The Whale, which I'm about a third of the way through, is a departure for me. It reads like Dickens, Joyce and Shakespeare. It's a deeply strange and addictive book. It's also very straightforward, with, as Martin Amis says in his recent essay collection, an enormous amount of padding. It's highly literary ('I have swam [sic] through libraries and sailed through oceans') - as well as being obviously authentic. It has breathtaking language and some astonishing flights of fancy. Last night I read a passage in which the narrator wondered whether the same whale might be capable of being in different oceans simultaneously. I wasn't expecting theoretical physics.

I take the novel slowly, look forward to it. I'm just so pleased to have discovered something new. And one other thing: like many great novels it focuses on a little enclosed world. Greatly to my surprise, it's very cosy.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Fraud: Closing Remarks

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

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

Monday, 20 November 2017

Fraud: Strangely Contented

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


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

Saturday, 18 November 2017

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


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

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

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

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

*

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

Friday, 17 November 2017

Fraud: Padding

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Fraud: Brookner Takes a Holiday

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

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

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


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Fraud: Midlands Idyll

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

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

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Fraud: Vorfrühling


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


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

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

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Fraud: Christmas Day

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Fraud: Night Thoughts

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

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

Friday, 10 November 2017

Fraud: No Voice

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


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

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

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Fraud: the Tangle of Life

Since then Anna had maintained her ambiguous poise, although she knew that it was brittle.
Anita Brookner, Fraud, ch. 4


In her middle period - and Fraud sits more or less at the centre of the corpus - Brookner seems to revel in her unexpected second career. She delights in fiction, almost in what we might call storytelling. She writes about characters like Anna Durrant, who might have been invented by that born novelist Henry James. Anna's a lot like Fleda Vetch in The Spoils of Poynton - that deep little person for whom happiness is a pearl-diving plunge, that deep little person who really can only exist and survive in fiction, and Jamesian fiction at that. Henry James of course isn't content with the fairy tale, and at the end of the novel Fleda emerges into 'clearer cruder air'. Brookner too seeks to break into Anna Durrant's ambiguous poise, render it brittle. But as with James it's an affair of style. Style buoys up Anna and Fleda, creating out of almost nothing a complex web we never quite understand, and which their creators too never quite grasp. And that's why they keep on writing: it's why they must write; and it's a duty that compels them. Fleda Vetch advises her friend Mrs Gereth not to 'simplify' too much - for the tangle of life 'is much more intricate than you've ever, I think, felt it to be'.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Fraud: the mystery which she both contained and partly concealed

Mrs Marsh was intrigued in spite of herself. Anna, she reflected, was not without power, even if that power were confined to the mystery which she both contained and partly concealed.
Anita Brookner, Fraud, ch. 3


This reminds me of both Visitors and Strangers (see an earlier post here). It's postmodern metafiction à la Brookner. For at this stage of the novel this is precisely how the reader sees Anna Durrant. Henry James has already been evoked, and it's a strongly Jamesian tale. Anna's mystery - not least the mystery of her disappearance - is a mystery to be solved, but it is also what makes her potent, a mystery to be appreciated and delighted in and perhaps maintained.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Anniversary

Today, 6 November, marks a year since I started The Brooknerian. I shall celebrate, I think, with a weak tisane.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Fraud: Mrs Marsh

Mrs Marsh. Let's think for a moment about that name. To refer to a character so formally, and a character to whose inner life the reader is given full access, is surely unusual and even subversive. It's determinedly old-fashioned. Its male equivalent is the simple surname, as in the cases of Bland in A Private View or Sturgis in Strangers.

Mrs Marsh has more than a little in common with Mrs May in Visitors: similar names, both widows, both fond of the painter Turner. Mrs May is the central consciousness in that later novel, and at the time critics reacted with some consternation to a character whom they were invited to know so well and yet whose authorial denomination seemed so antique, so distancing. But none of this is about propriety but about how such characters think of themselves: some people think of themselves in one way, others in another - a point Brookner makes about Miriam at the start of Falling Slowly:
On her way to the London Library, Mrs Eldon, who still thought of herself as Miriam Sharpe...

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Fraud: appartements solennels

Mrs Marsh, in Fraud, may not be Brookner, but Brookner has awarded her several Brooknerian tastes. Only three chapters in, and already Mrs Marsh has referred to Proust and Henry James (the famous line from The Ambassadors), and now Baudelaire:
Mes ancêtres, dans des appartements solennels, tous idiots ou maniaques.
One wonders: what do we gain? what does such a line bring to the novel? Not a great deal, in part because it is unreferenced, unexplained. But this is perhaps the point. Brookner is a writer who is very artful, by which I mean full of art. She is also a writer who's exclusive, elitist, but in the best way. She demands: Keep up with me, meet my standards. She isn't going to condescend, she isn't going to make allowances. And we, as readers, are surely grateful for her forbearance.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Fraud: Englishness

In Fraud's second chapter Brookner focuses on Mrs Marsh, sturdy, viable, rough-hewn, taciturn, sensible. Mrs Marsh, one senses, isn't quite a self-portrait. Mrs Marsh is a character who turns up from time to time in Brookner: the no-nonsense Englishwoman.

Not that her obverse, Anna Durrant, is in any way not English. Anna is no Kitty Maule, no Edith Hope. There's no Jewishness, no Mitteleuropa, in Anna's background.

But Anna and her mother don't quite fit. They live a fairy-tale life in Albert Hall Mansions; the atmosphere, brilliantly, is described as 'eerily emollient'. Anna's arrival on the scene is preceded by the sound of a sewing machine, as if she were the Lady of Shalott.

Anna's father was a musician in the pit at Drury Lane. One has visions of almost Thackerayan artistic penury. Privately Mrs Marsh considers the Durrants rather common.

One little mystery about Mrs Marsh - whether she's a Catholic - is cleared up in chapter 3. In the previous two chapters we've had mentions of her visits to the Brompton Oratory. But no, she only goes there because it's convenient and she likes the ritual. I'm sure Barbara Pym, in Mrs Marsh's shoes, would have done the same.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Fraud: the Rules of Engagement

They were handicapped, and although this might not matter for Amy Durrant it mattered terribly for the daughter, who had, past infancy, never known a father, and was thus eternally unprepared for the rules of engagement between the sexes in the least predictable and sentimental of games.
Brookner, Fraud, ch. 2


The rules of engagement... Always interesting to find Brookner utilising or, as here, anticipating the titles of her other novels.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Fraud: roman policier


Fraud, Anita Brookner's twelfth novel, was published in 1992. I was then, I guess, in the early stages of my fandom. I ordered the book from the library I worked in part-time, was first on the waiting list. When I met Anita Brookner by chance (or design - see here) a month or so later I was able to tell her I'd finished her latest. She was, I recall, surprised. 'Already?' she said.

Even then, and in spite of the training I was receiving at the hands of my university tutors, I was always on the lookout for parallels between an author's life and works. Fraud struck me as rather interestingly close. The physical description of Anna Durrant in chapter 1, for example, could be of Brookner herself. And then there's the proximity of Anna's and Brookner's flats. Anna moves to Cranley Gardens, a mere stone's throw across the Fulham Road from Elm Park Gardens.

All of which lent a frisson to my first reading of Fraud. Beginning a reread, all these years later, I find it fresh and atypical. It starts like a police procedural. Anna has gone missing, and two detectives are investigating. Maigret is name-checked. Brookner loved her Maigret, was an avid reader of crime fiction. Her introduction to the NYRB edition of Simenon's Red Lights is very fine and was covered brilliantly in the recent Backlisted podcast. As has been pointed out by Ewan Tant on Twitter the following could be Brookner speaking of herself (or indeed of Anna in Fraud):
The formula is simple but subtle. A life will go wrong, usually because of an element in the protagonist’s make-up which impels him to self-destruct, to willfully seek disgrace, exclusion, ruin in his search for fulfillment and a fatal freedom which take on an aura of destiny. […] This divergence from his normal pattern of behavior will lead him to abandonment all safety, all caution, in the interest of that illusory freedom.

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Best Sure Cure for Homesickness

The best sure cure for homesickness, which can strike at any point on a foreign holiday, is a detective story. I shall unashamedly take Patricia Highsmith, whom I am re-reading, and who does not seem to date in the very least, and hope that Ripley - her amoral character - will give me the independence to sail through any uncomfortable encounter. I shall also take Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton, which is a kind of detective story, and read breathlessly until the new owner of the property is revealed.
'Holiday Reading', Observer, 4 July 1993


I've mentioned The Spoils of Poynton before. I vaguely remember Brookner saying she reread it regularly, even annually, marvelling at its technical qualities. But I've never found the reference. Perhaps this is what I remember, though I didn't take the Observer in those days.

The Spoils of Poynton is one of James's transitional works, the first or one of the first of the later 1890s novels he wrote after the problems he'd had during his playwright phase. It's an intense little drama, full of quotable writing. It's one of James's most Brooknerian novels.

We're nearly in November now, and the piece above belongs to an earlier season. What an atmosphere of summers past it evokes! That vignette of Brookner heading off abroad (where? where?) and suffering homesickness! Her hard-won independence in the face of uncomfortable encounters!

I love these celebrity vox pop pieces. Here she keeps company with Craig Raine, Adam Thorpe, Katharine Whitehorn and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Brooknerland Trip Advisor

Some obvious and not so obvious ideas for a winter break...

St-Sulpice, Paris
Paris is classic Brookner territory, but where to go? The rue Laugier? The old Bibliothèque Nationale, where a young Brookner was once the recipient of a magnificent bunch of flowers? The Luxembourg Gardens, to sit on an iron chair? The Crillon, where, according to Julian Barnes, Brookner was given a maid's room? No, head for the Latin Quarter and the church of St-Sulpice. Once inside, look carefully around the gloomy interior for Delacroix's Jacob and the Angel. It will help if you have a copy handy of Brookner's masterpiece, The Next Big Thing.

Hyde Park, London
Perhaps you want to re-enact Frances Hinton's nightmarish trek across the park and down the Edgware Road towards Maida Vale in Look at Me? Or, for brighter moments, you might wish to drive through the park, like Mrs May on that heady summer evening in Visitors? Hyde Park has it all. Poor Claire Pitt in Undue Influence even wonders whether she might spend an entire holiday there, emerging only for lunch and dinner.

Dijon, France
Provincial France is everywhere in Brookner, from the cathedrals in the north to the Bay of Angels in the south. Choose Dijon because it was there, at a rickety cafe table, that Jane Manning in A Family Romance first 'stealthily' began to write.

Baden-Baden, Germany
Referenced in A Start in Life, Falling Slowly and The Next Big Thing, Baden-Baden is pure mittel-European Brooknerland. Take a ride in a fiacre down the Lichtenthaler Allee to the Casino, where a band will play, or might have done once.

Vevey, Switzerland
The obvious, the essential choice. Spend a night at the Grand Hôtel du Lac. Visit Edith's room. Look out at the Dent d'Oche or, more likely, at a receding area of grey. Walk along the lake, admiring the cutlery.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

John Bayley

John Bayley, old-style gentleman of letters, consort to Iris Murdoch, controversial chronicler of her decline, cuts a not wholly satisfactory figure in the Brookner literature. He's a fan, but he's more of a fan of the likes of Barbara Pym and Jane Austen, and this pushes his Brookner criticism a little off centre.

Here he is in the Guardian in December 2003, yet again getting it just that little bit wrong:
Anita Brookner is on top form with The Rules of Engagement, which carries a plot line as strong as any of Jane Austen's (after reading a Brookner I always want to re-read a Barbara Pym and I chose her last and in some ways best, A Few Green Leaves)...
 

Friday, 27 October 2017

These Pleasures

In Brookner's Hotel du Lac Edith Hope picks up a volume of short stories, the 'beautifully named' Ces plaisirs, qu’on nomme, à la légère, physiques. Colette, she reflects, will see her through: 'that sly old fox'.

Asked by John Haffenden whether Colette's book had significance for her, Brookner replied, 'Only the title.' It was Colette's extreme adamantine viability that attracted her. She admired the author as all the characters in her own fiction flock to those on whom the gods smile and who have the gift of living successfully.

Colette's 'virility', her 'innocent' sensuality, are themes in Brookner's piece in the Observer in March 1991 on Herbert Lottman's biography of the writer. But as ever with Brookner's reviews of such works, some hesitation is evident as to the validity or even the decency of the art of biography:
Her life is contained in all her works, where it is described with exquisite discretion. Herbert Lottman has read her books diligently, and has extracted as many facts as the general reader needs to know. He has also consulted a prodigious number of newspapers, and interviewed the handful of contemporaries who have survived her [...] The result is amiable and lively. It should, however, be pointed out that the book contains not one single attempt to review Colette's work as literature. [...] [T]he effect, happily, is to send one back to the books themselves, where Colette needs no mediation.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Overlapping Fandoms

There are in this world of ours many separate fandoms, and sometimes they overlap. Often they overlap fairly predictably. So an Anita Brookner fan is probably also going to be at least some sort of a devotee of Henry James (that's me) or Edith Wharton (not me). Other authors who crop up in this regard include Barbara Pym (a not too enormous yes) and Jane Austen (ditto), writers whose world views perhaps aren't quite so aligned with Brookner's.

But the coincidences I look for are the stranger ones. Who would have thought the fandoms of Anita Brookner and, for example, Doctor Who might converge? But I find more than a few folk. Myself included. There - I trust I've succeeded in surprising you.

I have other enthusiasms. But I have yet to find Brookner fans who are also, say, Kingsley Amis fans or fans of certain 1980s sitcoms. But I live in hope.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Our Kate

One can easily imagine Anita Brookner meeting someone like Edith Templeton in somewhere like Bordighera. But Brookner and Catherine Cookson? They never actually met, but they might have. But we know Brookner read her - once. That alone inspires astonishment (and gives her an advantage over me).
I read one of her novels, which ran to over 500 pages, and did not entirely manage to crack the code of its popularity, but then the novel was not intended for soft southerners. I found it artless, seamlessly written, and plotted only in the sense that everything came out right in the end, yet I could see that it possessed a certain transparency which would inspire trust and loyalty in her readers.
Observer, 27 November 1988

Cookson's stories, Brookner goes on to say, are 'for the public library, destined to be read at home on a quiet afternoon', and indeed it was during my own library years that I came across Cookson. For those who do not now recognise the name, Catherine Cookson was the extremely popular author of many dozens of tales of Northern life. Tilly Trotter, I recall, was the name of a recurring heroine. Brookner, reviewing Cookson's 57th title, is more than slightly baffled, but she manages to avoid condescension. Cookson is 'entirely honourable', 'innocent', 'remarkable'.

It is Brookner's comments on the art of autobiography that are of chief interest:
Autobiography is traditionally a genre peculiar to the upwardly mobile, the socially insecure, those who have no context to explain them. Its purpose is to expunge pain, but more than this, to create a life myth, an alternative support system. In rewriting history and establishing causation a measure of control over circumstances is achieved. It is a daring and agonising task which may not fulfil its intended purpose.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Stendhal Again and Again

If Anita Brookner's Collected Journalism were ever published it would run to several volumes. One discovers things all the time. I've been looking through the Guardian / Observer archives, and today I come across some fresh Stendhal material.

Was there ever a more Brooknerian figure? Writers, in writing of other writers, not invariably write about themselves, and this is surely the case with Brookner and Stendhal.

Her review in June 1994 of Jonathan Keates biography is a straightforward retread of familiar ground, including an outing for that favourite line of Brookner's, about the after-dinner cigar. (See here.)

But a piece from January 1991, about a translation of Lucien Leuwen, delivers the most authentic hits. We find here the Brooknerian ideal just as much as the Stendhalian. And note how Brookner undermines everything with her little line within brackets.
The idea that fulfilment can be achieved by courage, chivalry, a resolute indifference to past events, and what he called gaîeté de coeur is the reason why all should read him, for his singular and unique lesson is that heroism is easily available, and that one can, by feeling correctly, achieve the upper hand, even over disastrous situations. The lesson once learnt (but it takes a lifetime) will bring a freedom which no shock or reversal can palliate.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Just Do Mention Jane Austen

I never felt very easy about Jane Austen: I think she made a tremendous, far-reaching decision to leave certain things out. She forfeited passion for wit, and I think that led her to collude with certain little strategems which are horrifying in real life. She wrote about getting husbands.
Anita Brookner speaking to John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview, Methuen 1985

Observer: What did you read as a child?
Brookner: Ah! Dickens. My father fed me Dickens. Two novels for my birthday, two novels for Christmas until I'd read the lot. And after that I think it was H.G. Wells, for some reason. I've been talked about in the same context as Jane Austen. I didn't stick that label on myself, other people did. Quite inaccurate. I've never got on very well with Jane Austen.
2001 Observer interview 'Just don't mention Jane Austen'


I decided to reread Pride and Prejudice - tried to read it with an innocent eye, as if for the first time, as if I didn't know anything about it.

Something of an impossible task, I found. For one thing I felt haunted by film and television Darcys and Elizabeths. Just couldn't shake them off. So I tried, as Nabokov would have advised, to focus on the author.

What does Jane Austen think of the limited and oppressive world she depicts or rather creates? She's both an insider and an outsider, at once disaffected and invested in it. Take the interaction between Mr Bennet and Elizabeth on first meeting Mr Collins:
Mr Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in the occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure. (Ch. 14)
This is subtly but not radically subversive; it is subversion from within, and probably as far as Austen is prepared to go. Her world is simultaneously cosy and comfortless. She's a satirist, but a conservative satirist.

Pride and Prejudice isn't comic throughout. It shows its eighteenth-century, Richardsonian roots in its sombre passages, in extended discussions and conversations about friendship and conduct. Austen might be said to achieve a balance between the modes of that century, between the comedy of Smollett and Sterne and the high seriousness of Samuel Richardson.

Additionally Austen is good at undercutting her comedy. Mr Bennet's 'You have delighted us long enough', aimed at the talentless Mary, is a famous put-down, but Austen's quiet authorial follow-up renders Mr Bennet a cynic and Lizzy ever more the human and moral centre of the book:
Mary, though pretending not to hear, was somewhat disconcerted; and Elizabeth, sorry for her, and sorry for her father's speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good. (Ch. 18)
What is there in Brookner's cavils? Austen does indeed write about getting husbands, but the lives of the Bennet sisters and their circle are far more socially precarious than the existence of anyone in Brookner. Miss Lucas's 'pure and disinterested desire of an establishment', for example (ch. 22), carries with it the burden of rather shocking knowledge. Jane Austen may have left certain things out, but they're never far from the surface.

It's a realistic, unromantic world. As such it is unBrooknerian. For all its apparent bleakness and astringency, Brookner's world is strongly glamorous and full of art. Brookner heroines are not realistic, not given to compromise - not least because they don't need to compromise. The resources of Austen's personages, both inner and outer, are more limited. In the unusually lengthy chapter 43 Elizabeth visits Pemberley for the first time and her views on Mr Darcy undergo a change, not only in response to the positive comments she hears of him from his servants but also because, having seen his magnificent and tasteful house, she realises what a thing it would be to become its mistress. This is certainly honest, but also mercenary, and we might well register some disapproval (and indeed at the end of the novel Austen returns to the moment, giving a less objectionable interpretation). A little later in chapter 43 Elizabeth shows scant regard for Pemberley's 'many good paintings'. 'Elizabeth knew nothing of the art,' Austen tells us. Sketches of the Darcy family are more to Elizabeth's taste - more interesting, more intelligible. There is always irony in Austen but here it doesn't seem to be directed at Elizabeth but more at those (such as a lady or gentleman in an Anita Brookner novel) who might prefer Darcy's great pictures. Jane Austen is no bluestocking, and nor is Lizzy: that is the message. But Austen is possibly a philistine - and I wonder whether that's one of the reasons she's now such a national treasure. (Poor Mary's bookishness is likewise a matter for ridicule and disdain.)

I ended my revisiting of Pride and Prejudice slightly baffled, and more than slightly awed. Jane Austen made, perhaps, a tremendous, far-reaching decision to leave certain things out. But one might equally suggest she merely withholds those things, and the pleasure of the text lies in tracing their outlines. A thing I would say for sure: I do not always enjoy the novels I read. But I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, enjoyed it with a continuous pleasure. And it is a pleasure that's to be found, as Nabokov correctly said, in the company of the author.

To me at least, please do mention Jane Austen.

* * *


One reason I've been reading Pride and Prejudice again (not having read it since my teens) is that 2017 is the bicentenary of Jane Austen's death - an event marked by the Bank of England in its own special way. Of course no one really knows exactly what Jane Austen looked like: she lived before the age of photography, and her sister Cassandra's sketch in the National Portrait Gallery is not very accomplished. But the Bank of England chose instead a mid-Victorian prettified portrait created for a relation's memoir of the author. But this is in keeping. The designs on English banknotes since the mid-1990s have, it seems to me, tended towards the fussy and the chintzy. And the portrait of the Queen on the front is neither idealised nor a perfect likeness.

(The Pride and Prejudice quotation on the note is also worth a word or two. See a well-considered Guardian piece here.)

Friday, 20 October 2017

Orphans by Definition

When Eileen Simpson, who has written a remarkable and moving book, went back to visit the convent, which she now realised for the first time was an orphanage, she was told by the gardener that it had been turned into an old people's home. Old people are orphans by definition. Thus those who were spared the experience at the beginning will come to it at the end. She avoids this reflection. She remains a wise and resilient adult in her middle years. The rest may be too difficult to contemplate.
Anita Brookner, review of Orphans: Real and Imaginary
by Eileen Simpson, Observer, April 1988

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Undue Influence: Closing Remarks


After Undue Influence (1999) there came an unprecedented gap in the publication pattern Anita Brookner had established over nearly twenty years. There was something in 2000, but it was a book of art criticism, Romanticism and Its Discontents. In 2001 the fiction resumed, but Brookner told Robert McCrum she hadn't intended to write the novel of that year. Undue Influence might well therefore have been Brookner's last novel.

We read Undue Influence now, or I do, as pointing forward to the darker novels of the 2000s. For sure it is a bleak tale, all the more so for the breeziness of its opening chapters. The sly author lulls you into the impression that this is some kind of easy-going Brookner-lite, before steadily turning the screw. Towards the end you realise you're keeping company with a narrator who may well be mentally ill, and a writer who's intent on ruthlessly clearing the decks of extraneous plot so that she can concentrate on heaping the maximum humiliation on her hapless protagonist.

How Claire Pitt suffers! Brookner deprives her of every support. I always find very terrible that moment when she considers spending an entire holiday in Hyde Park. The novel's ending, as grim but more concise than the conclusion to Look at Me, never fails to shock, even though on rereading the reader has probably been able to spot the careful way Brookner has seeded the whole novel with clues.

One of the novel's concluding lines:
It was the greatest failure of my life and no future success could ever obliterate it.
- brings to mind again the question of the time scheme. The suggestion here is of a long retrospect, which is at odds with the closer focus at work throughout the novel. But if this suggests a lack of novelistic polish, it also, I think, successfully evokes the unfinished rawness of the heroine's truly terrible experience.

***

The Brooknerian will now take a break, returning in a week or two with consideration of, among other things, Brookner's relationship with a writer who's currently in her bicentenary year. Yes, just do mention Jane Austen!

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Undue Influence: Transitional

'Of course. Goodbye, Muriel. I hope it all...' All what? Goes well? How could it? They were finished, that was manifest. And they had done so well! Such spotless lives, shipwrecked at the last, when they had not expected it! Even Muriel had now given in, or rather given up. Applause erupted from the television. 'Don't see me out, Muriel. You must be rather tired.'
'Yes,' she said. 'I am tired. Thank you, Claire. Goodbye.'
'Goodbye,' I said. But she had already turned away.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, end of ch. 15


Undue Influence is truly a transitional novel, linking the 1990s Brookners with the markedly darker works she wrote in the new century. Age and then the only end of age would now be more clearly than ever before her unfashionable but necessary themes, and was there ever a more affectingly restrained depiction than the one above? That laughter, 'erupting' from the TV, and that little flurry of exclamation marks. Always look out for exclamation marks in Brookner.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize pleases me greatly, and it would have pleased Anita Brookner, who championed Ishiguro’s work, especially his earlier novels. She particularly liked his much maligned fourth novel The Unconsoled (see her Spectator review here), a work I’ve never quite plucked up the courage to reread. It infected my dreams.

I saw Ishiguro in Edinburgh in August 2000. He was a short, slightly plump figure with long mobile fingers and a clipped, patrician voice. He was speaking about his fifth novel, When We Were Orphans, which, like The Remains of the Day, is set around the second world war. He worried, he said, that the war might be a ‘technical convenience’ these days, but felt that the great questions of our age might be tackled better by not setting a novel in the modern affluent free world.

Servitude had been the theme of The Remains of the Day. The English and the Japanese soul were, he said, similar, in their reverence for order, though he was ‘never aware of making deep comments on the Japanese or British class system’. The starting point for Remains had been a universal metaphor: we’re all butlers – butlers in our position vis-à-vis power.

Some people said he was very English, others that he was very Japanese. But it was all surface mannerism. We all avoid or hide dangerous emotions, he said - even in California, where they seem so ‘open’. But really they’re not. Therapy-speak self-presentation is merely another mask behind which we hide.

He went on: Nostalgia has had a bad press, but it’s a very pure emotion, and harks back to childhood. What idealism is to the intellect, so nostalgia is to the emotions. It’s about remembering when the world was a kinder place and making the journey into the adult world, and feeling with regret that that world isn’t such a sunny place. Mine, he said, is a peculiarly motivated fictional world. I will take a notion people have of, say, someone who’s ‘looking for a father figure’ – and then bend reality so that a character actually is looking for her father.

My writing, he said, is about the urge to mend something you can’t possibly mend through writing. Memory is endlessly fascinating – it’s the filter through which we tell things about ourselves. Not what happened but what we tell ourselves happened. In my novels the viewpoint is really a long way inside the narrator's head.


Reminds me of something...

Undue Influence: Moths That Fly by Day

It was only August, but the summer was virtually finished. Thick cloud was rarely pierced by anything resembling normal sunshine, and what heat there was was excessively humid, spoiled. Only that morning I had found a large moth spreadeagled on my bedroom wall, with no tremor at my approach. This attitude seemed to mirror my own inertia, although inertia now seemed to me something of a luxury I could no longer afford.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 15


That moth: one is reminded irresistibly of Virginia Woolf and that late essay of hers.
Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species...
Virginia Woolf, Anita Brookner: moths that flew by day.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Undue Influence: a Certain Opacity of Behaviour

I was disheartened by the fact that he was entirely at home in this place, and furthermore in places where a certain opacity of behaviour was the norm - restaurants, luxury hotels, sojourns in other people's houses. There would be little room for spontaneity, for direct exchange, even for a kind of honesty.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 11


Claire Pitt has at last cornered Martin Gibson, but he's insisted on squiring her to a top restaurant: she feels awkward; he is in his element; the evening is the typical Brookner meal-related disaster.

I wonder: was the behaviour of the guests at the Hotel du Lac similarly opaque? But that was in 1984, and this is 1999. Brookner, in her critique of the luxury lifestyle, is acknowledging a new world, quite divorced from the sort of traditional establishment she celebrated in her earlier novel. It's the world of big business, the world of corporate wealth. 'Money would have schooled these people,' she says a little later; '...money, rather than anything as vulgar as class.' As vulgar as class? The old Hotel du Lac was riddled with class, but now it would be quite different. (And indeed it is, as my visit this summer attested.)

Brookner moves on. With Undue Influence we're leaving the old century, but Brookner isn't fazed. She mightn't have kept up to date with all aspects of the modern world, but like Virginia Woolf she did know that things change, even human nature.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Six Spectator Sparklers

Anita Brookner's hack work output was prodigious. Here's a selection from three decades of her Spectator reviews and articles. Many more are freely available on the Spectator archive and main sites.

(Click on the titles below to link to the original articles.)


'A Stooge of the Spycatcher', July 1987

The painful astonishment of a deceived soul: that line from Adolphe, via Brookner's Providence, might well be applicable here. Her dismay at being mentioned in Peter Wright's notorious Spycatcher is palpable even at this distance. But the dignity with which she sets out her 'great and steady anger' in this Spectator reply awards Brookner the undoubted moral victory.



'Repose is taboo'd by anxiety', October 1993

This piece on Oliver Sacks's Migraine is magisterial. An essay both restrained and candid.


'Even less fiction than Stranger', May 1994

Brookner, Kafka, Camus, Existentialism: who could ask for more? The 'grandeur de l'homme sans espoir': not for the first time, one senses Brookner writing about herself while ostensibly giving her invaluable verdict on others.


'The master of the indirect', December 1999

Brookner, 'our Henry James' according to one critic, here reads the Master's tales. Her views are as ever instructive, not only as to James's work but also as to her own. She has something to say on being English and being European. The English, she says, are for James synonymous with the Europeans. One doesn't think Brookner herself believed this.


'Sexual tourism à gogo', September 2001

I choose this not just for its rather treasurable title. It also represents an aspect of Brookner's review work that can be ignored: her willingness to engage with writers who would seem, at first blush, rather dissimilar from herself. But wait - look at her words here on Houellebecq's 'paganism' and think of all those references in Brookner's novels to the gods of antiquity. And think of Claire Pitt in Undue Influence, or George Bland in A Private View, and their adventures in foreign climes.


'A singular voice', July 2011

One of Brookner's last reviews. Here she considers Barbara Pym, with whom she was herself bracketed, certainly in the early days. Brookner's judgement on Pym, a 'domestic ironist', is markedly cool. There are mentions of Jane Austen, never a good sign in an Anita Brookner essay.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Undue Influence: Claire Pitt's Holidays

'My mother was the least prurient of women' (Undue Influence, ch. 10): that mother chose not to enquire too deeply into how Claire spent her mysterious holidays. Claire isn't the only Brookner character who has her foreign breakouts, her adventures in out-of-the-way locations. George Bland in A Private View has a fondness for off-grid liaisons. None of this quite comprises sex tourism, but it's something close.

The rather wonderful cover of the latest edition
of A Private View illustrates, perhaps, the beginning
of one of Bland's illicit foreign adventures.

'It occurred to me that one could spend an entire holiday in Hyde Park,' says Claire later in Undue Influence (ch. 18). That she can have such a thought, such lowered expectations, indicates her growing debility, her descent into vagrancy. Claire is one of Brookner's most marginalised protagonists, and Undue Influence one of her rawest novels. And it is all the more unsettling because of the lightness of the opening few chapters. After a certain point the novel gets bleaker and bleaker with every passing line.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Undue Influence: Forget What Did

Claire Pitt in Undue Influence has one of those low-grade dilettante jobs that come up time and again in Anita Brookner's novels: she's employed to sit in the basement of a second-hand bookshop transcribing the articles and notebooks of one St John Collier, the late father of the pair of elderly sisters who have inherited the store.

St John Collier wrote innocent uplifting pieces for old-time women's magazines. Later, when a brasher world had arrived, he took to writing notes for a projected memoir about his London walks.

But Claire discovers the notebooks to be disappointingly empty of interest. His walks became, over time, limited and half-hearted. There was a suggestion of a secret liaison with a woman called Agnes. 'I cannot go on,' he wrote on the last page of the notebook. 'There were no words left,' concludes Claire.

St John Collier's predicament mirrors or anticipates the growing dislocation and disaffection suffered by Claire herself. It also recalls a poem of Philip Larkin's, 'Forget What Did' from the High Windows (1974) collection.

In 'Forget What Did', a rare unrhymed poem, Larkin describes the process of 'Stopping the diary': a 'stun to memory', a 'blank starting'. Such writing had done no good, had only 'cicatrized'. And the empty pages? Larkin sees himself filling them with the kinds of things that might have interested Brookner's St John Collier:
Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come,
And when the birds go.
(Philip Larkin himself was a diarist. But when he knew he was dying he instructed his secretary (and sometime lover) Betty Mackereth to shred them. Reportedly she sneaked a peek: they were, she said, 'too terrible'.)