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.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

This Disciple

As for the written word, this disciple of Marcel Proust and Henry James re-reads the classics, but scorns the 'negligible' fiction of today. Nabokov – dandy, émigré, melancholy wit – is the last great novelist for her.

Taking it slowly, savouring its Jamesian rhythms, I've at last got to the end of my reread of A Family Romance. Dolly, its focus, appears at intervals throughout the novel, in different iterations or manifestations. Take this memorable vignette from chapter 7:
...her bitter European face, as revealed in sleep, in the half light of the car, the effervescent mask for once cast aside and the grim working woman revealed.
And in chapter 8 we see her later still, at sixty-eight, reduced, all but friendless, with navy-blue hair and no make-up and wearing flat shoes.

This late incarnation of Dolly is very striking and the scene well handled. One is reminded of Nabokov and the end of Lolita, when he presents Lolita as grown-up, pregnant, ruined, and this is the version the narrator at last falls in love with.

Or one hears echoes of Proust's Swann when Dolly, explaining the attractiveness of her worthless paramour, says, 'Harry was my type; do you understand?'

Near the end of A Family Romance is a line that some critics at the time found difficult to accept, but which seems to grow in integrity as the years go by. As I've said before, Brookner's are novels for the future.
But I realised then that love was unpredictable, that it could not be relied upon to find a worthy object, that it might attach itself to someone for whom one has felt distaste, even detestation, that it is possible to experience an ache in the heart because the face that responds to one's own circumspect smile is eager, trusting.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Dreamy Nature of this Retreat

The Prerogative Court, Doctors' Commons
Illustrated London News 1 June 1850

The languid stillness of the place was only broken by the chirping of this fire and by the voice of one of the Doctors, who was wandering slowly through a perfect library of evidence, and stopping to put up, from time to time, at little roadside inns of argument on the journey.
David Copperfield, ch. 23

David begins work, apprenticed to Doctors' Commons, a legal backwater that seems very agreeable: he commends the 'dreamy nature of this retreat'. Such undemanding havens have attractions for Brookner's characters too, not least Jane Manning in A Family Romance, who goes to work at a press cuttings agency (somewhat unimaginatively called ABC Enterprises), where she is immediately looked after by 'the dearest women', Margaret and Wendy (ch. 5). But this is Brookner, not Barbara Pym, or for that matter Dickens. Nothing can be allowed to remain too cosy for long. Class tensions start to intrude: Margaret and Wendy also live in Battersea, but in council flats, not Prince of Wales Drive. Later the agency changes hands and Margaret and Wendy move on, and all the charm is lost. But Jane remains loyal in her way to the now renamed JH Enterprises. When questioned by some American academics about her workplace experiences, Jane is recalcitrant:
Any discrimination? I am demanded. Only being taken out to dinner by the boss, I reply, by which time I am regarded with the purest suspicion. (Ch. 9)

Friday, 11 August 2017

Mr Bennett and Mrs Woolf

In 1924 Virginia Woolf published a pamphlet called 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown'. Mrs Brown was a sample fictional character. Woolf imagined conjuring her out of the ether, and the woman's challenge: 'Catch me if you can.'

Mr Bennett was the popular novelist Arnold Bennett, representative for Woolf of an older generation of writers. He was famous for a range of novels, especially those set in the 'Five Towns' of the Staffordshire Potteries. 'The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else': Woolf, apparently approving, quoted these words of Bennett's, only to dismantle them in a fashion that affected his reputation for generations to come.

He, along with his confreres Wells and Galsworthy - 'Edwardians' she called them - simply couldn't offer truths about human nature. Only 'Georgians' could, in which camp she placed Mr Lawrence, Mr Forster, Mr Joyce and Mr Eliot. Mrs Woolf too, no doubt. And why? Because 'in or about December 1910 human character changed'.

It's a devastating statement, and delivered with customary acid archness. Virginia Woolf goes on to suggest how the novels of Arnold Bennett et al might approach the problem of the imaginary Mrs Brown. She speaks of Edwardian novels' obsession with the 'fabric of things', with Mrs Brown's material circumstances. '[T]hey leave one with so strange a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction. In order to complete them it seems necessary to do something - to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque.' Bennett's vision of Mrs Brown is archetypal: 'Mrs Brown is eternal, Mrs Brown is human nature'. But Mrs Brown herself, 'an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety', somehow escapes. A new sort of writing is called for: spasmodic, obscure, fragmentary. A sort of writing that might be supplied by a certain Mrs Woolf?

Wells, Galsworthy and Bennett somehow survived Woolf's hatchet job. Bennett has a society dedicated to him, and many of his novels remain in print. I find that 2017 is the 150th anniversary of his birth. But before now I've never actually read him.

The Grand Babylon Hotel (1902)
is currently in print,
published by Vintage Classics,
but I rather like this 1970s Penguin edition.

And so was brought to a close the complex chain of events which had begun when Theodore Racksole ordered a steak and a bottle of Bass at the table d'hôte of the Grand Babylon Hotel.

I don't think I'm guilty of any spoilers in starting this review with the last line of what amounts to a mystery novel. Except that the incongruous order of beef and beer, which, when haughtily declined, prompts the American millionaire Racksole to purchase the whole hotel, is merely coincidental with the coming to fruition of the rightly named 'complex chain of events' - a fairly preposterous set of conspiracies involving European princelings, the millionaire's plucky daughter, disguise, revolvers, secret passages, Jewish financiers (the novel is casually antisemitic), and high jinx on boats at sea.

It's a thriller. It's a potboiler. It's what Graham Greene would have called an entertainment. It probably wasn't the Bennett novel Virginia Woolf had in mind. But it might have been. I can see what she meant about his handling of character. He gives us plenty of solid detail, but characters' interior lives are those of types rather than of real people. This has the effect of making them oddly unmemorable. The Grand Babylon Hotel (1902) is, like all such books, probably best read 'in one sitting'. But I'm too slow a reader for that, and it's a problem here. For example, I read one chapter one day about a woman in a red hat, and the next day I picked up the book again and read the next chapter, and the woman was referred to, and I found I had no memory of her at all.

Bennett is at his strongest in his depiction of setting. The hotel (I read The Grand Babylon Hotel as part of my 'hotels in literature' series), a vast palace on the Embankment, is vividly present, as are other locations, including Ostend.

The Grand Babylon Hotel seems to have a stubborn resilience in print, and this will probably continue. There will always be people, fans of John Buchan and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who like this sort of thing and thrill to Bennett's belief that 'human nature remains always the same, and that beneath the thin crust of security on which we good citizens exist the dark and secret forces of crime continue to move, just as they did in the days when you couldn't go from Cheapside to Chelsea without being set upon by thieves' (ch. 10).

But I don't think I'll be reading any more Arnold Bennett. As ever - bravo, Mrs Woolf!

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Two Scottish Aunts and an American Academic

'Just till tomorrow, dear. Then we're off home to our garden. We've had a lovely show this past year. Even the apples were good. Could you take a few home with you, Jane? I know Mary has sufficient. If you come by tomorrow, dear, we can let you have a couple of pounds with pleasure.'
A Family Romance, ch. 8

Elsewhere the Scottish aunts speak of 'wee Marigold'. The word 'sufficient' recalls an earlier scene in which one or the other asks 'Have you had a sufficiency, Peter?' At one point Brookner examines the ladies' use of the verb 'to take', as in 'Will you take a scone, Jane?': 'their favourite verb, although no two people could have been more giving' (ch. 5).

'Janet's copper beech. I confess to a little envy: I haven't one of my own. But I can always look at hers. We have tea together at her house, when it's at its best, in October. Have you noticed that when the leaves fall they turn a dark ox-blood red. I dare say you have a fine garden at home.'
Ch. 9

I confess to; I dare say; a fine garden: we might be in Henry James. But I think Brookner missed a trick with 'in October': surely an opportunity for 'in the fall'? Note too the sentence 'I haven't one of my own', where a British speaker might say 'I haven't got' or 'I don't have'.


I wouldn't say Brookner has a tin ear for this sort of thing, but I do find these examples too studied and self-conscious. If she'd ever had a Welsh character, I guess he or she would once or twice have said 'look you'.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

On Brookner's Spelling

My own spelling isn't perfect. I consider perfect spelling a slightly spurious accomplishment. I'm possibly in good company here. More than once in A Family Romance, we get 'negligeable' (elsewhere in the same novel Brookner uses the more standard English spelling).*

But think about it: if you'd been an editor presented with an Anita Brookner manuscript, would you have had the nerve to question her spelling?

*As a fluent French speaker she probably had in mind the French négligeable.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Going out with the Tide

I was reading David Copperfield at the time and was aware that my mother, like Barkis, was going out with the tide.
A Family Romance, ch. 5

Not only was it of prime importance to a woman like Dolly to have a man of her own, but that same man, if he were willing (Barkis again), would, in marrying her, confer on her a status which she had not enjoyed for many years.
Ibid., ch. 6

Barkis is a relatively minor character in David Copperfield. He marries Peggotty (David acts as a go-between, delivering the 'if willing' message), is mean with his money, and fades away - going out like the tide. That wonderful phrase is probably what got Brookner's attention: it's more than a little Brooknerian.

The second Barkis reference, in chapter 6 of A Family Romance, is more demanding. I wonder: if I hadn't read David Copperfield, or I wasn't reading it alongside A Family Romance, would I have the faintest idea what Brookner was going on about?

I find Mr Barkis 'going out with the tide',
ch. 30 of David Copperfield

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Old Lady Card

'I'm rather tired, my dear,' said Toni, playing the old lady card. Suddenly she could not wait to get home.
A Family Romance, ch. 3

It is always amusing to catch Anita Brookner reusing material. Take this, from the 1994 Independent interview:
It pleases me to play the old lady card. It's quite useful at times. But if it were true, it wouldn't be a card, would it? I'd be a poor thing. I'd feel sorry for myself. Which I don't think I do.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

An Ideal Servant

I've explored the topic of servants before, and they're very evident in A Family Romance too. There's the Mannings' Miss Lawlor (an ideal servant: she barely speaks), and Dolly's Annie Verkade, who, like 'a butler in a grander establishment', takes a pride in 'expressionless efficiency' (ch. 4). Brookner admits it's unusual for someone to have a live-in maid in the period, which we have to be reminded is actually the 1980s. And indeed it would have been most surprising. But this is the Brookner world, cushioned from at least some of the harsher realities of life.

In David Copperfield Peggotty, like Miss Lawlor, is inherited, and ideal in her way. In Henry James's story 'Brooksmith' the eponymous butler is so perfect he's an 'artist'. The tale is, however, powered by an unspoken queer dynamic; it doesn't end well for Brooksmith.

But none of these writers, not even Dickens - the least conservative of the three, and hailing from a section of society only a little above what James unblushingly, at the close, depicts as 'servile' - ever truly questions the status quo.

Frank Reynolds
'Peggotty and Little David', 1910

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Reading as if for life

...and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life.
David Copperfield, ch. 4
Whatever I had within me that was romantic and dreamy, was encouraged by so much story-telling in the dark...
Ch. 7
[The old books] were my only comfort; and I was as true to them as they were to me, and read them over and over I don't know how many times more.
Ch. 10
And so I lost her.* David Copperfield's words not mine, but never bettered. During the days which followed I read the book urgently, obsessively, in order to reassure myself of David's eventual victory over circumstance.
A Family Romance, ch. 6

Strange how one book leads to another. David Copperfield's treasured books comprise the classics of the eighteenth century. Smollett's Peregrine Pickle is a favourite. One wonders: was David's an expurgated edition? For my part I've never read it, though I want to and indeed I've tried to. (I once downloaded an edition on to my e-reader, but it was bowdlerised - and I didn't want to miss the best bits.)

Reading obsessively, reading 'as if for life' - that's surely the grail.

Peregrine Pickle saves Emilia

*For comments on Brookner's use of this quote, see an earlier post.