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'.)

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Undue Influence: the Power of Tenses

Anita Brookner's protagonists often indulge in speculation and hypothesis, but none has an imagination as 'aberrant' as Claire Pitt's in Undue Influence. The long passage in chapter 8, where she imagines the Gibsons' wedding, is thick with past modals. There's a 'would have' or, just as likely, a 'would not have' in practically every line. The reader quickly falls under the spell, believing the picture to be 'true', till Brookner reminds us a page or so later that it's all merely 'probable'.

The power of tenses in Brookner. This is worth some study. I've previously considered the apparently muddled time scheme of Look at Me (see here), and something similar is at work in Undue Influence. Take the following, also from chapter 8:
She found it safer to treat me as the joker I had become, but she is concerned for me, as if she knew that I was in danger, that I deliberately, from time to time, courted danger.
Precisely when is the narrator writing? Long after the event, or at the time? That present tense 'is' unsettles us, and this is perhaps deliberate. These matters aren't cosily over and done with. They're still current, still potent, still perilous. Nothing in Brookner is ever quite safe: even a reread is rarely a comforting experience.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Undue Influence: My Black Heart

Undue Influence, which starts out so breezily, so lightly, with its short chapters and rapid character brushstrokes, gradually reveals darker undertones. It's very much a transitional novel. Coming at the end of the 1990s, it says goodbye to the greater substantiality of Brookner's novels during those years. We're heading now into more perilous uncertain territory. Claire Pitt, with her 'black heart' and her secret liaisons in French cathedral cities, never fully revealed or even clearly indicated, is a forerunner of Zoe in The Bay of Angels and far more disaffected and dysfunctional than any of her forebears, Rachel in A Friend from England, for example, or Frances in Look at Me.

There's a growing opacity in the writing. Claire, that 'merry adventurer' (ch. 8), brings back from her mysterious holidays postcards and photos for her mother: rood screens, tympanums, choirstalls, misericords, clerestories, elevations: Brookner takes a perverse pleasure in listing such arcane details. 'As if these had had exclusive claims on my attention,' jauntily adds Claire. But Brookner soon pulls away the rug:
I faltered when I found that [my mother] had compiled several albums of the postcards, which she kept in her bedroom. She was so innocent herself that I am sure she managed to think me innocent as well. (Ch. 3)
For in Undue Influence we're getting towards late dark comfortless Brookner, the bleakness of The Bay of Angels, the harsh clarity of The Rules of Engagement, the empty, barely mediated despair of Strangers. Uplifting masterpieces, every one.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Undue Influence: Nothing would come of such manoeuvres

I was resigned to the laws of this rough world. I would take my chance, and with it the penalties, for there are always penalties. I had spent that morbid Sunday wondering if simple happiness were available to all and had come to the conclusion that it was not. One had to make a determined bid for it, and I did not quite know how this was to be done. [...] I had taken the only options I thought I had, and had considered myself secure against disappointment. The disagreeable element in all this was that I knew that nothing would come of such manoeuvres, invigorating though they were. I returned every time to the status quo ante [...] If my way of looking at the world was hazardous, it was, by this date, largely unalterable.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 5


Why was Brookner such a prolific writer? She was scarcely a 'born storyteller'. Rather I find the answer in passages such as the one above. There's a recursiveness in the argument, a basic irresolvability. And however many times Brookner returns, there is no loss of potency, there is no entropy. The power resides in what is withheld or in what cannot be expressed. What exactly is wrong with Claire Pitt, the narrator of Undue Influence? Brookner doesn't know, but remains fascinated. And what to do when the novel comes to an end, and nothing is concluded, and the mysteries are still compelling? Well, then you have to do it all over again.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Undue Influence: Echoes

One of the fun things about reading a writer as prolific as Anita Brookner is seeing how she reuses material. And not just themes, though this is the obvious place to start. Early in Undue Influence, for example, when Claire Pitt emerges from the Gibsons', she gets the authentic Brooknerian feeling of escape: 'The dear street!' How many others have exclaimed over such a release?

More concretely we get references to Blakeney in Norfolk. We're always alert when Brookner's characters venture from London into the English provinces, where danger often lurks. Blakeney features also in Brookner's 1992 novel Fraud, and there's another intriguing detail found in both books. In Fraud Dr Halliday (very similar to Martin Gibson in Undue Influence) must endure trips in his odious father-in-law's boat, and in Undue Influence Martin Gibson's stepfather takes him on a boat trip, which he finds an emetic experience (and we know from A Friend from England that water is rarely to be trusted). The Fraud father-in-law is also called Gibson.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Undue Influence: Sir Gerald Kelly

My mother had been an art student when girls at the Slade wore long belted smocks and had waved and curled hair. I know this - about the hair, that is - because there is a portrait of her by Sir Gerald Kelly in our dining-room. He seemed to have caught her essence, although she was very young at the time: she is seated in three-quarter profile, with her hands in her lap, the hair caught with particular precision. She has that absent-minded dreaming look that women had in those days, and which must have been de rigueur for girls of a certain class.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 2


I don't know whether Brookner ever met Sir Gerald Kelly, who died in 1972, a celebrated portrait painter. He painted the Royal Family, T. S. Eliot, Marie Stopes, among others. The following, from 1921, is part of the celebrated 'Jane' series of portraits of his wife:

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Undue Influence: a Hunger Artist

I could sell you anything in the shop, since I am so familiar with the stock. But I prefer the living flesh and its ambiguity. I am in my element there, a hunger artist whose hunger is rarely satisfied.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 2


Kafka's hunger artist is a man who performs and showcases his fasting, his abnegation, his sadness. But his life involves endless indignities: he is suspected of cheating; his public loses interest. It is suggested his unhappiness may simply be caused by his self-denial.

Brookner's protagonists are hunger artists in that there's a degree of complacency in their austere self-presentation. But there's also, as here, a sense of insatiable and perhaps unsuitable appetites - appetites that must be controlled and circumscribed and to an extent suppressed. And the true Brooknerian wouldn't want it any other way.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Backlisted Podcast: Look at Me

The Backlisted Brookner team: John Mitchinson, Lucy Scholes,
Andy Miller and Una McCormack. On the bench beside Andy,
under the Look at Me paperback, is, I think, a copy
 of John Haffenden's excellent Novelists in Interview.

For much of my life as an Anita Brookner fan I never met or had contact with anyone who'd read her, let alone liked her as devotedly as I did. In the broadcast media there was a similar dearth. Over the years, while she was publishing, Anita Brookner was occasionally mentioned on BBC radio arts review programmes, Front Row and Kaleidoscope and the like, but the tone was often disappointingly slighting. It's only in this age of the Internet that I've become properly aware of other readers, other fans, and it was therefore with enormous pleasure that I listened today to the Brookner-themed Backlisted podcast.

An exemplary programme, packed with insight and not a few anecdotes. I'd never heard the one about the Routemaster bus. And a mention of The Brooknerian! A special day indeed. Dr B would have been 'most gratified'.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Undue Influence: Prelude

It was not the first time I had been guilty of a misapprehension.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 1


Chapter 1 of Undue Influence (1999) is a Brookner curiosity. It functions as a prelude, connected only thematically with the plot that will get under way in the next chapter. It sets me thinking of the Prelude to Middlemarch, which I first read in my teens. Why, I wondered, was George Eliot telling me about St Theresa?

Chapter 1 of Undue Influence, which ends with the ominous line above, concerns the narrator's failure to understand events in an upstairs flat. I am reminded of Jane Manning in Brookner's A Family Romance, who misconstrues the identity of a pair of French Canadians in a neighbouring apartment. I think also of Barbara Pym and her sister and their elaborate fantasies or 'sagas'. Inspired by the 1930s novelist Rachel Ferguson (The Brontës Went to Woolworths), the Pym sisters would all but stalk their unsuspecting neighbours and other strangers they observed out and about in the locale. The progress of several such sagas is covered cheerfully and in some depth by Pym's biographer Hazel Holt in A Lot to Ask: a Life of Barbara Pym.

Still vigilant:
Pym in 1979 in Finstock, Oxfordshire

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Autumn Reading: Undue Influence

The UK first edition's
magnificent cover image

One approaches the autumn with a Brooknerian mix of resignation and relief. What to read, when the long dark evenings come? After a little mental tussle I decided to give Undue Influence a try. It occupies an interesting position in the Brookner oeuvre. It's the last of the 1990s novels, but it harks back to the first three Brookners (A Start in Life, Providence, Look at Me) from the early Eighties. At the time it seemed like either an end or a new beginning. And the following year, 2000, was the first time Anita Brookner broke the annual publication pattern she'd established through the Eighties and Nineties. You must remember that from 1990 I read Brookner as she was published. When I first read Undue Influence, and when there was no new novel a year later, it really did seem possible she might have given up fiction, as she had more than once threatened to do.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Ivy Compton-Burnett: Two Worlds and Their Ways

'And it is not true that people have nothing to fear, if they speak the truth. They have everything to fear.'
Ivy Compton-Burnett, Two Worlds and Their Ways (1949)


No blame should attach to the telling of the truth. But it does, it does. We know that from Anita Brookner, before whom there was Ivy Compton-Burnett. In fact she's quite a different kind of artist, though there are a number of congruences. Both began publishing regularly and in earnest in the second part of their lives. Both presented the public with a carefully maintained and very austere public image. Both had what can at best be described as a less than rosy view of the world.



Just as I became interested in Brookner during the time I worked in a public library, so I came to Ivy Compton-Burnett among the stacks. The Penguin A First Omnibus always attracted me, and I tried to read it. It baffled and defeated me. I tried again years later, and registered a similar response. For those who aren't initiated, let me set out the basics. ICB was an English writer who wrote her major works between the 1920s and the 1960s. They're predominately set in upper-middle class households during the last years of the previous century. They have highly sensational and even shocking plots. They're written almost completely in stilted, aphoristic, and faintly camp dialogue. The narrator mainly stays 'on the surface', but allows herself random access to characters' less admirable thoughts. Physical descriptions are brief and formulaic. Descriptions of settings are practically non-existent. The tone of most of the characters' exchanges is harsh, astringent, cruel. ICB's novels are extremely frustrating, extremely odd, but rather addictive. They're unlike anything else. Henry James's The Awkward Age and the novels of Henry Green come near, in that they rely on dialogue, but no one gets close to Ivy's brutality.

Two Worlds and Their Ways is a middle-to-late period Ivy. She had her heyday in the second war: Elizabeth Bowen wrote, in 1941, 'To read in these days a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up one of these London mornings after a blitz.' The wartime public seemed to appreciate the formality and honesty of Compton-Burnett's novels: 'the effect of stiffness and surface distortion no longer seemed a problem in a world where the comforting half truths, cliches and conformist platitudes of conversations were temporarily in abeyance,' writes Hilary Spurling in her introduction to the Virago edition of the novel.

After the war Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels became shorter and even more rarefied and concentrated. Two Worlds and Their Ways is heading in that direction. Nothing is wasted, though there are long passages that seem to be heading nowhere. She's like a pianist improvising. Only she knows where she's going. Where she's usually going is in the direction of revelations, realisations and discoveries that can be profoundly horrifying.

Compton-Burnett's theme in Two Worlds and Their Ways, as ever, is power and its misuse:
Clemence lifted her eyes in incredulous consternation. Surely human beings could not have such power over each other and yield it thus without thought or mercy.
The 'two worlds' are home and school. Both are charnel houses. The child Clemence and her younger brother Sefton are sent away to boarding establishments, where both commit similar offences - offences that eerily mirror the behaviour of their relations at home. There are lessons for everyone, lessons in the true nature of what one character calls 'this hard, unhappy human world'. By the end of the novel all pretence has been taken away, all shameful secrets revealed, including a particular secret involving the theft and sale of an earring, which Compton-Burnett, not without relish, covers in inordinate and painful detail. No one, at the close, can be in any doubt about anything. 'And that is hardly an enrichment of our family life,' comments one of the children.

My (incomplete) Ivy collection.
Sourcing ICB books isn't
remotely easy. Get them when you see them.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Brookner Interview Discoveries #3: Novelist with a Double Life

The last of my discoveries, 'Novelist with a Double Life', admittedly more of a 'profile' than a fresh interview, is from the Observer on 7 August 1988, marking the publication of Latecomers.

Latecomers, we learn, has no author biography on its dustjacket, no rundown of the recently retired Brookner's academic achievements. 'That's over,' she says. 'It is no longer relevant. I've consigned it to the past.'

But that past is celebrated, in particular her kindness as a teacher. 'To be taught by Anita was to be loved by Anita - you had to accept both,' says an unnamed ex-student.

Balancing the academic and novel-writing sides of her life became like 'schizophrenia'. A friend recalls: 'In the same week that she published her scholarly monograph on David, on which she'd been working for years, she got far more publicity about a review she'd written in the TLS about a cookery book ..., saying "Yuk!"'

A colleague remembers her elation at winning the Booker Prize, speaking of the 'kilowatts coming off her': 'She positively glowed.'

Brookner 'considers herself a person of extravagance and excess', and is unfailingly generous: 'If you go out for a coffee, you find it quite hard to pay for the KitKats* when it's your turn,' says a friend.

Though not religious she 'likes and shares the "geniality" of her race. "I don't think anyone could call me cheerful. But I'm quite content."' On Christmas Day she helps serve lunch to patients in a nearby hospital.

She continues her search for the 'ideal, perfect, appropriate home': 'But I think the great step forward is the knowledge that I will never find it. But I will always seek it.'

*

*Oddly enough, this is not the only mention in the Brookner literature of this popular biscuit. See also here.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Brookner Interview Discoveries #2: Great Expectations

The second of my interview discoveries, 'Great Expectations', is from the Observer on 27 March 1983, marking the publication of Brookner's Look at Me. The interview was conducted by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, who would continue an interest in Brookner's works. Here she is on Brookner's 1998 novel Falling Slowly:
She is one of a handful of living writers who can turn a sentence so graceful that to read it is a lascivious pleasure, and she can string those sentences together to make paragraphs - whole chapters even - that unfurl surely and musically until they climax, or fall away into silence with a superbly exact authority to which it is delicious to submit. There is a constant delightful tension between the austerity of her message and the voluptuousness of her medium.
Brookner interviews have ritualistic tendencies, and Hughes-Hallett's certainly covers the usual ground: 'I regard myself as being completely invisible'; how the young Anita learnt false lessons from the classic books she read in her solitary childhood:
I grew up thinking that patience would be rewarded and virtue would triumph. It has been demonstrated to me that this is not true. It was a terrible realisation.
and her reasons for starting a second career as a novelist:
I thought if I could write about it I might be able to impose some structure on my experience. It gave me a feeling of being in control.
But of greatest interest are some unfamiliar biographical details. For many years, we learn, Brookner allowed her life to be determined by someone else's needs. 'A man. He became very ill. He has since died.' There was also, Hughes-Hallett tells us, another lost love in Brookner's past, 'on which she is not to be drawn, but she divulges clues':
Perhaps I was naive in expecting that these matters would be less complicated than they prove to be. As an art historian I am accustomed to reading signs, but sometimes I forgot to do so in real life. [...] People who are going to be good at reading the signs can do it at the age of 18 months. The others never learn.
We see her in her 'attic' at the Courtauld, on which the world 'doesn't impinge'. And we see her still hopeful:
I have great expectations. One waits to be sprung.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Brookner Interview Discoveries #1: Finding the Art of Fiction

Regular visitors to this blog will know of my devotion to Anita Brookner's interviews. Five are available on the web - the Paris Review interview, the 1990s Independent interview, and three from the 2000s (the Observer, the Independent again, and the last interview in 2009 in the Telegraph). In printed form there are the Olga Kenyon and the John Haffenden interviews, both from the 1980s. The Haffenden exchange remains to my mind the best Anita Brookner interview.

You will conceive of my delight at discovering several fresh interviews on the Guardian/Observer archive website. I propose to cover these over the coming days.

We start with a piece in the Guardian on 27 May 1981, 'Finding the art of fiction', published to coincide with the publication of Brookner's first novel A Start in Life.

As well as giving in remarkably finished form her later familiar responses to questions about her motivations for writing ('Socially she has always had the sensation of being invisible') and her love of Dickens and 'her idol' Stendhal, Brookner also speaks at some length about the art criticism for which she was then best known: David, Delacroix, Ingres, Greuze. For her study of the latter, she 'had to visit almost every French provincial city, usually in the dead of winter. I was young, I thought the discomfort exhilarating'. Her parents, we learn, were against the expedition. The interviewer writes:
They were sure she would be recruited into prostitution. Had she told them very few academics are? 'No such luck,' she replies.
Brookner speaks further of her mother, once a concert singer; she gave it up to marry. When she sang at home friends would exclaim at the choice she had made, and Brookner's father's face would blacken. In her singing her passion showed. The young Anita would start to cry. 'She, and not I, should have been the liberated woman.'

Brookner says she would like to write a biography of Ingres, a passionate happy man. Her students, she says, start by liking Delacroix and come round to Ingres. A biography of Ingres would 'take her to Montauban where she might start French life all over again, and this time, stay there'.

Her lives of Watteau, David and Greuze offer cheer: 'if they got their lives wrong they got their pictures right'.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

At the Courtauld

The Courtauld used to be in Portman Square.

[This piece of Brookneriana dates from the mid-70s.
It found it inside a printed copy of a celebrated lecture Brookner gave
on Jacques-Louis David. I don't know who 'Louise' is or was.]

I remember visiting the Courtauld in perhaps late 1989 or early 1990. And it was gone. Visit research had been wanting. The Courtauld moved into Somerset House about that time, a year of so after Brookner retired.

Brookner attended the Courtauld's 75th anniversary celebrations at Somerset House in the mid-to-late 2000s:



I myself visited the Courtauld Gallery a few weeks ago, nearly thirty years after my first attempt. I wasn't sure whether I'd find much of interest. The place is famed for its Impressionists collection, and I'm not keen on them. Nor can I think of a single mention of the Courtauld in Brookner's novels. She probably didn't like to mix business with pleasure.

The gallery is medium-sized and not too popular. You also have to pay, which is usually a good sign. I visited alongside several tourists and lots of old and middle-aged folk who seemed to be up for the day from the suburbs and provinces.

One or two paintings made me think of Brookner's 1994 novel A Private View. I've always loved the bit where George Bland imagines himself in future years being consoled by the memory of the corner of a Rubens landscape. I thought Brookner might have had in mind the Rainbow Landscape in the Wallace Collection or the View of Het Steen in the National Gallery, but she might equally have meant this Landscape by Moonlight, 1635-40, acquired in the 1980s:


In other rooms I found a small collection of Sickerts - Portrait of Mrs Barrett, 1906, and Dawn, Camden Town, c. 1909 (though this one's only on loan) - which reminded me of Bland's trip to see a Camden Town Group exhibition, and also of Sturgis's similar later visit in Strangers.



I was interested to learn that the artist and critic Roger Fry supported the founding of the Courtauld in 1932. The gallery holds his Portrait of Nina Hamnett, 1917. I remembered the character in Brookner's Providence known only as the Roger Fry Professor. (The gallery also has a Fry self-portrait, acquired in the 1990s.)

Monday, 4 September 2017

Brookner at School

A fascinating piece from the website of the James Allen's Girls' School:
Alumna Kath Davies was in the same class as Anita Brookner. 'During our last year at JAGS, a group of us chose to spend time on holiday, helping with a farmer's harvest in Kent. We shared a large tent as accommodation. Anita, a very quiet girl, did not readily join in with us all, especially when we put on a singing and dancing* show (being silly, I'm sure!). I saw her again at an old girls' meeting. Her friends there very much admired her career – and she always wore glamorous clothes!'
The site includes a photo of Brookner as a prefect at the school in 1945-6:



*She would have disappointed Dolly.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

David Copperfield: Concluding Remarks


Followers of this blog may remember my main motivation for re-reading David Copperfield this summer. My other reason was a preference for immersing myself in long Victorian fictions during the vacation, but my chief impulse derived from an interest in reacquainting myself with Anita Brookner's A Family Romance, a novel that connects with Dickens's both directly and obliquely.

Brookner, speaking through her heroine Jane, focuses on Dickens's characterisation (though she is aware that such an interest might not pass muster in the academic world). Jane loves Betsey Trotwood, but finds the Micawbers tiresome. She has an almost visceral fear of Uriah Heep.

I too love Betsey Trotwood. Her gradual softening as David Copperfield proceeds, and the story of her doomed marriage, are affectingly told. The characters of Uriah and his mother ('Be umble, Ury! Make terms!') are likewise masterful. Uriah's slipperiness, his writhing and general fishiness, are triumphs of literature.

But I don't agree on the subject of the Micawbers. For me Mr Micawber ranks with Thackeray's Major Pendennis as among the language's finest comic creations.
'Gentlemen,' returned Mr Micawber, 'do with me as you will! I am a straw upon the surface of the deep, and am tossed in all directions by the elephants - I beg your pardon; I should have said elements.' (Ch. 49)
If you don't find that funny, I can't help you. It probably wouldn't work if Mr Micawber was always using malapropisms. It has been said (by Forster, for instance) that Dickens's characters rely on empty repeated catchphrases. The subtlety of their discourse in individual scenes and at the sentence level, and their adaptability to different conversational contexts, are often ignored. Mrs Micawber comes in for particular criticism. Brookner finds her pretentious. Forster presents her as the epitome of what he calls 'flat' characterisation. But what of the last poignant glimpse we get of Mrs Micawber - on board a ship bound for Australia, but even yet looking out for her long-lost superior family, hoping they'll come through for her at last? From comic beginnings Emma Micawber grows in humanity.

I have, I guess, no particular aversion to Dickens's 'sentimentality', though there are moments towards the end that call for some indulgence. I find the scenes with Agnes trying, and I find the last chapters devoid of jeopardy. David is by then a famous and successful man. It's the likes of the emigrants - the Micawbers, Mr Peggotty, Emily - who face true trials, saying goodbye to the last of England. David seems more authentic and sympathetic in the earlier part of the novel, during his catastrophic childhood and youth. No wonder Brookner's Jane Manning in A Family Romance finishes David Copperfield with relief, but at once returns to the beginning.

I shan't be doing that, but I'll return to David Copperfield some day.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Singing and Dancing

'Let them think of you as always singing and dancing.'
Anita Brookner, A Family Romance, ch. 1

Characters in Dickens have their catchphrases, which help to establish them in the reader's mind, distinguish them from others among a cast of hundreds, and re-establish them when they return after an interval away. Catchphrases are also a staple of comedy writing, especially in TV sitcoms - something we're used to nowadays, which possibly makes us more forgiving than E. M. Forster was in Aspects of the Novel: he castigated the practice as an indicator of 'flat' characterisation. 'I never will desert Mr Micawber,' says Mrs Micawber time and again in David Copperfield. 'Forster is generally snobbish about flat characters, and wants to demote them, reserving the highest category for rounder, or fuller characters,' says James Wood in his entertaining How Fiction Works, an Aspects of the Novel for today.


Dolly in Brookner's A Family Romance, replete with catchphrases as she is, always enjoining the narrator to sing and dance, nevertheless defies Forster's binary distinction. But A Family Romance is still strongly Dickensian, with many references to and echoes of David Copperfield in particular, and it is with interest that I note the following in chapter 37 of the latter:
After tea we had the guitar; and Dora sang those same dear old French songs about the impossibility of ever on any account leaving off dancing, La ra la, La ra la...

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Miss Mowcher

'They are all surprised, these inconsiderate young people, fairly and full grown, to see any natural feeling in a little thing like me! They make a plaything of me, use me for their amusement, throw me away when they are tired, and wonder that I feel more than a toy horse or a wooden soldier! Yes, yes, that's the way. The old way!'
'It may be with others,' I returned, 'but I do assure you it is not with me.'
David Copperfield, ch. 32


One of the fascinating things about Victorian fiction is the way some authors stray into areas that have since become hot topics. Terrorism, for example. One reads James's The Princess Casamassima or Conrad's The Secret Agent differently now, from a twenty-first century perspective. Or feminism: James's The Bostonians, or the likes of Baroness Banmann in Trollope's Is He Popenjoy?, take on new dimensions. Or attitudes towards Jewish people. What do we bring to a reading of Daniel Deronda, knowing what we know?

Phiz, I make the acquaintance of
Miss Mowcher
(David Copperfield
illustration)

Here I want to think about authors' treatment of disability and difference. In David Copperfield Miss Mowcher is at first a mere grotesque, but in chapter 32, on her second appearance, she takes on greater complexity (and later still, near the end, she's given a surprise heroic role). One thinks of other differently abled characters in Dickens: my favourite is Jenny Wren, the dolls' dressmaker, in the late novel Our Mutual Friend. In essence, Dickens's attitudes soften and broaden as his career progresses: think of Quilp in the early work The Old Curiosity Shop, who is simply a monster - a splendid monster, but a monster all the same. In the same way Dickens's portrayal of Jewish characters improves in later novels.

Mahoney, She shook that emphatic little
forefinger of hers at parting
,
(Our Mutual Friend illustration)

But Dickens's younger pal and comrade Wilkie Collins is probably the Victorian novelist most interested in and sympathetic to disability and difference. Blindness, deformity and mental instability all feature in his novels, and not always sensationally.

In Anita Brookner's Look at Me Frances's friend Olivia is disabled, and Frances, compensating for others' prejudice, is at pains to emphasise Olivia's saintliness and inoffensiveness. Of course the Frasers' highly contrasting attitude towards Olivia, especially Alix's attitude, gives fresh insight into their cruel carelessness:
'Sounds delirious,' Alix broke in. 'What exactly is the matter with that girl?' (Ch. 5)

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The Challenge of the Multiplot Novel

In Dickens what I marvel at more than anything is his management of different plot strands. He maintains control throughout, but there is also a freedom, an unpredictability, a sense of one plot merging into another. David Copperfield hasn't the wild free-wheeling quality of, say, a Thackeray novel (Pendennis acts as an excellent comparison), but nor has it the rigidness of structure of early- and middle-period Trollope. (Can You Forgive Her? is an example of this sort of schema at work: three women, three love plots, a few chapters given over to each in rotation.)

Anita Brookner's plots, while never predictable, tend towards the schematic, especially in those that focus on a cast of characters. Olga Kenyon asked Brookner about this in Women Writers Talk in 1989, in relation to Family and Friends:
Kenyon: You've chosen a family saga, but concise, controlled, through a series of family photographs. Why did you choose that form?
Brookner: Because it was easier. It was not a difficult book to write; it was almost entirely free of anxiety. A chapter to each one is almost the easiest form.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Mixed Motives

'It must be a mixed motive, I think,' said Mr Wickfield, shaking his head and smiling incredulously.
'A mixed fiddlestick!' returned my aunt. 'You claim to have one plain motive in all you do yourself. You don't suppose, I hope, that you are the only plain dealer in the world?'
David Copperfield, ch. 15

[Brookner:] Motives are never unmixed, are they?
[Haffenden:] Your own heroines are given to be unmixed.
[Brookner:] Poor little things, I feel sorry for them. They're idiots: there's no other word for them. And I don't know any more than they do.
John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview, 1985

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Any Hour You Like: The Shelbourne by Elizabeth Bowen

A curiosity among Elizabeth Bowen's works, The Shelbourne (1951) is the history of a famous Dublin landmark. It is also a celebration of hotel life - 'a world revolving upon itself'. For Bowen the Shelbourne was a place of safety and stability in a time of uncertainty.

We begin in the early nineteenth century with the original building, where Thackeray stayed. He found the Shelbourne quirky, was famously disconcerted to find his bedroom window held open with a broom: 'Thackeray-lovers ... still prowl around the Shelbourne asking which of these windows the Broom propped up. Knowing so much, they should know enough to know that the hotel has been rebuilt since the author stayed there.' Though Bowen is sniffy about such literary pilgrims, it is clear that she herself has a more than sentimental attachment to the Shelbourne.

The hotel was reconstructed and modernised in the 1860s: the dimensions of its interiors, not least, were expanded to accommodate the huge clothes of the time - a 'more roomy age'. A typical Bowen reflection, on the topic of the Shelbourne's wardrobes:
Of these many still survive: in their cedar-scented, cavernous insides to-day's wispy clothes hang like ghosts.
The hotel reached its peak in the late Victorian period - 'gay days at once ephemeral and immortal' - and featured directly in a novel of the time, George Moore's A Drama in Muslin, which Bowen discusses at length.

Into the twentieth century, and politics intrude. We see guests, fearful of insurgents, sleeping in corridors, a scene not unlike the London Underground during the Blitz. But the Shelbourne comes through, and Bowen ends with a hymn of praise delivered from the top of the hotel, looking out over Ireland, 'under a world of sky':
Sea gleams in the distance; cloud shadows bowl softly over the mountains; below, Dublin spreads out its humming plan, shading off into the empty horizons [...] In the heart of this stands the Shelbourne, four-square, stout and surviving, scene of so many destinies which might seem to be transitory yet become immortal when one considers how they have left their mark. Nothing goes for nothing. Here, in these floors of rooms, under my feet, hopes in the main have triumphed, behaviour and order have stood firm. Now in the haze over the city clocks begin to strike. Beads of traffic run round the Green. A car detaches itself, slows down, pulls up in front of the glass porch. The porter comes out - someone is arriving. It is any hour you like of a Shelbourne day...
This, then, is no regular history. It's an Elizabeth Bowen jeu d'esprit - original, eccentric, unconfined. It's peculiarly rather akin to Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Like Woolf, Bowen traces her subject thrillingly through time - and through literature.

The Shelbourne survives into the present day.
It is possible to sleep in the
Elizabeth Bowen Suite.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

German Notebook

I chose out of the way places, out of season: almost any town in France or Germany, however devoid of scenic interest, provided the sort of ruminative space which I seemed to require.
Anita Brookner, A Family Romance, ch. 8

1.
To Düsseldorf: out of the way, though in season. To the Kunstpalast, in rain, under a heavy sky. Some Cranaches, older and younger, some Rubens, one or two Caspar David Friedrichs, some very engaging nineteenth-century history paintings, some Kirchners. But altogether the collection seemed slightly at a low ebb. Unprepossessing building: red-brick, monumental, 1930s: 'degenerate art' was exhibited here once, for purposes of ridicule.

2.
Chapter 40 of David Copperfield. Mr Peggotty - a wanderer in search of Little Em'ly - speaks of his journey through France and into Italy. He returns via Switzerland, responding to a tip-off. As with other pre-aviation era narratives, one is aware here of the great distances involved, the sense of the Alps as a barrier to be overcome. One thinks of the Dorrits travelling south, or of Palliser and Lady Glencora on their wedding tour.

3.
To Cologne, to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum. I know it well and like the layout. A room of Courbets: Lady on a Terrace (1858), Breakfast after the Hunt (also 1858), The Beach (1865) and Château de Chillon (1873). The Beach is particularly fine, could be a piece of abstract expressionism.





(Brookner, when she saw an exhibition of his paintings in 1978, commented not wholly approvingly on the sleepiness and duskiness of Courbet.)

Cologne in summer had a party atmosphere: dense crowds, wedding parties, costumed stag and hen groups. I was once in Cologne at Christmas, and outside the cathedral were gathered hundreds of children dressed up as the Three Kings. I was there another time, during the carnival, and I was the only person not in a lurid costume.

4.
To Bonn, to see the Beethoven statue.
Beyond Kentish Town lay Cologne, their Sunday drives to Bonn to contemplate the statue of Beethoven... 
Brookner, Falling Slowly, ch. 8





Bonn has other Brooknerian associations:
'At first all went well; we had a beautiful house in Poppelsdorf, a suburb of Bonn, and Alois's sister, Margot, was very welcoming and attentive. The surroundings were pleasant and there were servants who looked after everything, so that it was quite easy to adjust after life in the hotel.'
The Next Big Thing, ch. 13

From the Hauptbahnhof I walked down Meckenheimer Allee, past townhouses, mansion blocks, trees meeting in an archway over the narrow road. An air of Sunday calm. Ghostly, fairy-tale dwellings. My pictures don't do justice to the quality of the light.





5.
To Frankfurt: I took a break from Dickens and read James's The American Scene. It's the most dazzling and difficult of James's works, and a glass or two of something or other usually helps. I read of 'impudently new' New York, the skyscrapers like extravagant pins in a cushion, the boats on the Hudson moving like bobbins in a great tapestry. All the while, on screens, today's America underwent an eclipse.

Frankfurt am Main, a.k.a. Mainhattan

6.
David Copperfield again: Mr Peggotty is still questing after Emily, who absconded with Steerforth. At no point is the possibility properly entertained of Emily's agency in the affair, though Mrs Steerforth is roundly condemned for suggesting Emily 'seduced' Steerforth. The narrative, the discourse, has only such terms. And Emily must be found and saved - and she shall be thankful for such salvation. Now we learn she's left Steerforth, and David fears she may have ended up on the streets. The precise nature of such a life is conveyed by Dickens with dog-whistle subtlety. How sad and limited Little Em'ly's options are, and also how limited are the ways in which her story is presented.

7.
To the Städel Museum, one of my favourite collections. A good set of nineteenth-century paintings and a fine range of Old Masters. Also a floor of post-1945 art. The museum's small exhibition space is often well used, offering detailed, quite specialist shows. On my last visit I saw some Watteau drawings. This time: another Brookner fan-pleasing show: French lithographs by, among others, Delacroix (Shakespeare illustrations) and Géricault (typically challenging subject matter: a beggar, a bare-knuckle fight, soldiers in retreat from Moscow).

In the main collection: a View of Frankfurt by Courbet, and a photo by Julia Margaret Cameron of Mrs Herbert Duckworth, later Virginia Woolf's mother. Oh, Mrs Ramsay!



And to prove I don't only look at old art, here I am (with Warhol's Goethe) reflected in a work comprising a wall of mirrored tiles:


8.
Going back to Düsseldorf after several days in Frankfurt felt like returning to a gentler world.

The natural banks of the Rhine at Düsseldorf:



I thought I might give the Kunstpalast another look, and indeed I was better disposed towards it. This time I found an exhibition of Andreas Achenbach's paintings and drawings, the same show I saw in Baden-Baden last year: scenes oddly full of the atmosphere of the Yarmouth sections of David Copperfield: shore life, fishermen, shipwrecks.

A highlight of the collection proper, though made little of, is Cranach's Das ungleiche Paar / Der verliebte Alte (c. 1530), nowhere near as exquisite as the Frankfurt Venus but still stylishly planar and yet very human. One thinks of George Bland and his reckless passion for Katy Gibb in Brookner's A Private View. Brookner's comparison is with Tintoretto's Susannah and the Elders in Vienna, but it could be this too.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

More Summer Plans

The Brooknerian will be taking another break for a week or so. I'm off to Mitteleuropa once more, to Düsseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt, Bonn.

In Bonn I plan to visit the statue of Beethoven. I wonder if you can work out why.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

King Charles I

What is it with David Copperfield and Charles I? There's Mr Dick and his 'Memorial', into which the story of the doomed king keeps intruding. Then there's the statue of Charles I at Charing Cross, which David sees on his visit to London towards the middle of the novel.

But what of this? Adams, the head boy at Doctor Strong's school, calculates how long it will take the teacher to finish his Greek dictionary.
He considered that it might be done in one thousand six hundred and forty-nine years, counting from the Doctor's last, or sixty-second, birthday. (Ch. 16)
What's Dickens's game?

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A Central European Jean Rhys: Edith Templeton

 
I am apostolic about the novels of Edith Templeton, a Czech who writes in impeccable English: they are extremely restrained and tell strong stories about life in old-style central Europe, with recognisable passions and follies. Lovely, lovely novels.
Anita Brookner, interviewed by John Haffenden, 1985


In the 1980s Anita Brookner wrote introductions to several of Templeton's novels, published by Hogarth. I haven't read them, so cannot comment, but I recently got hold of The Surprise of Cremona (1954), a travel book reissued in the 2000s with an introduction by Brookner:
My only meeting with Edith Templeton took place in her flat in Bordighera some time in the mid-1980s. I found an isolated and eccentric woman: I saw from the expression on her face as we were introduced that the same judgement had been passed on myself.
Earlier, in the Spectator (here), Brookner had spoken of this rather delicious encounter (and in Bordighera too, a setting for Brookner's 1985 novel Family and Friends):
I met her once, in her flat in Bordighera, where I went to interview her; I found a tiny distracted woman with a plaintive voice, eager to talk about anything except her work. When guided towards literary matters she became icily and pungently intelligent. I carried away with me an impression of a central European Jean Rhys, a natural expatriate, but in this instance devoid of the self-pity which makes Jean Rhys so monotonous. Sly, well-born, homeless, but unflappable, it was easy to picture her taking up temporary residence in various old-fashioned watering places, sipping coffee, and training her gaze on the complacent residents. Bordighera, with its beneficent sunshine and well-ordered appointments, seemed as good a place as any, since she could be relied upon to discover, behind its temperate façades, evidence of malpractice, betrayal and opportunistic sex.
*

Like many travelogues The Surprise of Cremona is a little on the boring side - but pleasantly boring, stylishly boring. The tone is patrician but not grand. Edith Templeton is in several ways a Brooknerian traveller - an exile, alone, watchful, often to be found in art galleries - but also better connected, more social: always ready with her 'letters of introduction'. But we learn very little directly about Templeton herself. She stays on the surface, is restrained to the point of coldness. But her medium is clear: we can see, or may think we can see, through the ice to the likely emotions beneath.

She is good on café life and hotel life. She suffers setbacks but remains apparently blithe. She wears her learning lightly. She takes us not only to Cremona but through Parma, Mantua, Ravenna, Urbino and Arezzo, and in each place she knows exactly where to go. She is a sophisticate and a stylist and her descriptions are acute. A female hotelier has an 'air of devilment'; a professor gives 'a winsome leer with his dusky ruins of teeth'. But Templeton, though rakish and exceptional in the 1950s, has perhaps an uncertain literary status in the twenty-first century, as Brookner points out in her introduction. Templeton's over-confident self-consciousness, her self-sufficiency, may well render her extinct as a type.

The book finishes, and must finish, with the writer's arrival in Como, where she meets her Aunt Alice. The magic enchantment of lonesome travel is at an end.

Monday, 14 August 2017

I pick up my pen. I start writing.

I had not been walking long, when I turned a corner and met her. I tingle again from head to foot as my recollection turns that corner, and my pen shakes in my hand.
David Copperfield, ch. 26

A dread falls on me here. A cloud is lowering on the distant town, towards which I retraced my solitary steps. I fear to approach it. I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on.
Ch. 32


Dickens is clear. David writes David Copperfield at some distant point in the story's future - ostensibly the contemporary reader's present. He recollects the events of his life - though not quite always in tranquillity. At times, as above, we see him at his desk, affected in the here and now by the events of long ago.



Anita Brookner's handling of I-voice narration is, in places, a little less certain. Let's consider the closing pages of Look at Me, where Brookner, like Dickens, 'breaks frame':
After that last sentence, I moved to the bed and switched on the bedside lamp.
Up to that point she had been narrating, from a distance, the events of the story. Now we seem to be invited to see the narrator writing 'to the moment', in the manner of Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe, or the writer of a diary.

But wait - let's go back a few pages. Here we find the narrator wondering whether her tormentors will ring her again. 'Of course, this might not happen,' she writes, and repeats the famous lines from the novel's start: 'Once a thing is known...'

We're unmoored, unsettled. When is the time of writing? The beginning of the novel, with its trenchant, hard-learnt words, suggested a narrative written, like Dickens's, in long retrospect. But the end of Look at Me plays fast and loose with such comfortable notions. We're all with Frances now, temporally trapped - trapped in the thick of the terrible action: like her, we'll never quite leave this moment. The final lines compound our sense of having been cast into a dizzying abyss:
Nancy shuffles down the passage, and I hear her locking the front door. It is very quiet now. A voice says, 'My darling Fan.' I pick up my pen. I start writing.