Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Next Big Thing: Closing Remarks

Over the years The Next Big Thing has come to be, for me, not just my favourite Brookner but the novel I consider her masterpiece.
  • It's an analysis of the effects of the Holocaust on different people: Herz, who has lived his whole life 'as if it were under threat', and Fanny Bauer, who has chosen forgetfulness, who has 'dropped out of history'.
  • It's a study, rarely matched in modern fiction, or indeed in any fiction, of age and then the only end of age.
  • It's a misalliance tragedy, a study of disastrous love. One reads the Sophie Clay episode with one's heart in one's mouth. And yet towards the end of the novel Brookner humanises Sophie, makes her vulnerable, turns the tables.
  • It's a novel about the inner life - 'his own interior drama took precedence' - with pages of deep analysis of which Henry James would have approved. But it's also a novel in which art fails: Herz, as if suffering a loss of faith, favours, at the last, nature over art. And yet The Next Big Thing contains some of Brookner's best art criticism.
  • And it's a novel 'for the fans'. It has echoes of, among others, Latecomers, A Private View, Visitors and Falling Slowly - even, in Fanny's residence at the Beau Rivage, of Hotel du Lac.
But I won't be rereading The Next Big Thing again any time soon. I may have said I didn't much like it on publication, and that was true. I wonder how I'll find it if, with luck, I'm able to return to it in another fifteen or twenty years' time.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Next Big Thing: In Poppelsdorf

Flowers in the botanical gardens, Bonn

The Next Big Thing (2002), like many Brookners, seems to be set in the present day of the book's publication. (The recent Penguin photographic covers, however, generally suggest vaguely antique - 1950s, 1960s - settings.) There's a mention of email (or 'e-mail', as Brookner puts it) and mobile phones.

But Fanny's letter from Bonn (admittedly received after a delay, but only a short one) in chapter 13 complains of property prices having rocketed since so many government agencies set up shop in the city. Yet by 2002 German reunification was well established, and such bodies would surely have departed. Nowadays Bonn has a sleepy, sedate, slightly posthumous air.

But dating problems of this kind are not unusual in the novels of Anita Brookner. One learns to glide over them. What is important is the atmosphere of the novel, the texture - here the whole mittel-European world Fanny's letter so richly creates.

Or do I romanticise? Would an equivalent English city be so evocative? What would an equivalent city be? Leeds?

You may remember I visited Bonn in the summer, seeking out the suburb of Poppelsdorf where Fanny lives for a time. I remember the morning as strange, magical - and I think there's something of that feeling in the photographs I took.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Next Big Thing: May or Might

He knew that he was in danger of losing his head, may already have lost it, but submitted to the experience, even welcomed it.
The arrival of Ted Bishop, accompanied by his infant grandson, roused him from what may have been a brief trance. 
There may even have been jealousy behind the iron closeness that united Fanny and her mother; neither was allowed to break their primitive agreement.
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, chapters 10, 11, 17

Now reread those sentences. Is there a problem? I'm not so sure. Plainly they're in the past tense. And 'may' is certainly the present tense modal of which 'might' is the past tense version. Yes, yes. But should Brookner really therefore have written 'might' instead of 'may'? Many writers would, without misgivings, have written those sentences.

The problem, I think, is with the additional meanings or functions of 'might', i.e. its use not just as the past tense of 'may' but also as a means of expressing simple future intentions or possibilities in a language devoid of a future tense (I might go to the shops later), plus its common deployment in sentences expressing the hypothetical future or past (I might go to the shops later, if it doesn't rain / I might have gone to the shops if circumstances had been different). Use of 'may have' rather than 'might have' in sentences such as Brookner's above avoids these associations.

But here's Adam Mars-Jones on the subject, in a review that's not untypical of the way Brookner was received in some quarters during parts of her career:
The only sign of an awareness of contemporary language in The Next Big Thing is an unconscious one: for all her fastidiousness she succumbs to the confusion about 'may' and 'might'. He knew that he may have lost his head. He saw that she may have known. If her prose is to be lifeless, let it at least be correct.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Next Big Thing: Unlived Lives

He saw his madness for what it was, the final upheaval of an unlived life...
Anita Brookner, A Private View, ch. 10

Such signs, such frustrated gestures, were surely evidence of a cruel joke, perpetrated on him by his own unlived life. 
The Next Big Thing, ch. 11

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Next Big Thing: At the NPG arresting image from the National Portrait Gallery of a dressmaker pinning the skirt of an impassive client who resembled Fanny Bauer (black hair, dark eyes, prominent crimson mouth, and bad-tempered expression)...
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 9

Brookner in her late work - when, as it were, a decent time had passed since her retirement from the Courtauld - returned in something like earnest to her earlier calling*. There were the books of criticism, Soundings and Romanticism and Its Discontents. And there were novels like The Next Big Thing, with its numerous art references. Here Herz is looking through his collection of old art postcards. But I confess I can't identify the image of a dressmaker and her impassive client. Can anyone help?

* though Julian Barnes believes art criticism and novel writing occupied quite separate parts of her mind. He speaks of how she would light up and be transformed when asked over dinner her views on, say, the painter Boucher.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Chinese Providence

One can turn up the most surprising things in this game. Take this recent Chinese edition of Brookner's Providence, which I discovered by chance on Amazon. The summary is rather brilliant, though with a flavour all of its own:
Born in an immigrant family, Kitty Maule is a half-French and half-English intellectual beauty teaching in a London college and studying on the romantic tradition in literature works. She longs to blend in the environment as a pure English and she falls in love with her handsome and charming colleague Maurice Bishop, a famous professor who undoubtedly conforms to her ideal about love and identity. However, they have the ambiguous partner relationship after the short love affair. The indifferent attitude of Maurice makes Kitty who wants to get rid of loneliness and comfort her grandparents with a marriage feel lost and anxious. For the ideal new life, Kitty takes the initiative to get close to Maurice. Can she win Morrison (sic) in the invisible war? The indifferent providence brings her a surprise.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Next Big Thing: The Wrong Country

After examining the photograph he had the fleeting feeling that he was in the wrong country.
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 6

The Next Big Thing links most obviously with Strangers and A Private View, but in its subtle and reticent treatment of the Holocaust its truest confrère is probably Latecomers. In particular one thinks of the restaurant scene between Hartmann and Fibich in that earlier work. It is so understated that one can almost overlook it as the novel's climax:
He dropped his head, made a helpless gesture with his hand and knocked over a glass of water.
'Fibich!' said Hartmann warningly, summoning a waiter.
'I should have gone back,' whispered Fibich. 'I should not have left. I should have got off the train.' (Ch. 14)

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Hypnotic: Muriel Spark's The Abbess of Crewe

I continue my random survey of Muriel Spark's works in her centennial year with her 1974 novella The Abbess of Crewe, 'A wicked satire on Watergate', as the cover teasingly but rather heavyhandedly puts it. Soon to be re-released (by Polygon in summer 2018), The Abbess of Crewe occupies a truly bizarre and striking place in Spark's bizarre and striking middle period.

Scandal has hit the Abbey of Crewe. Reporters are at the gates; police patrol the grounds. There has been an election: Sister Alexandra was victorious and is now the Abbess. Her rival, the younger Felicity, has run off with a local Jesuit and told her story to the papers. The new Abbess is accused and indeed guilty of orchestrating a robbery and of covertly and extensively electronically bugging the convent...

Abbess Alexandra is Miss Jean Brodie reborn: patrician, charismatic, amoral. Secretly, it is hinted, she believes in nothing - nothing but power. Or nothing, perhaps, but literature, which she intones in place of her prayers.
'I'm in love with English poetry, and even my devotions take that form, as is perfectly valid in my view.'
If the Abbess is Miss Brodie, the Abbey is the school. Though brief and slight, the novel conjures the nuns' enclosed regulated world expertly. Large parts of the narrative are set during the hours of darkness, for the convent is traditional, observing regular prayers throughout the night. This gives the novel a wakeful, edgy quality in keeping with the surveillance theme.

We last see the Abbess blithely travelling to Rome to face an inquiry. But she knows - and we know - that she'll get away with it, that she's luckier and more diabolical than her alter ego Tricky Dicky. Her sins, such as they were, she insists, have entered the realm of myth, of art. And good art - much like this very strange story - 'need not be plausible, only hypnotic'.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Verfall einer Familie: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

'I found your address in a letter from your mother to mine; it was tucked between pages 123 and 124 [*] of Buddenbrooks [**] which Mother was reading before she died. I have been unable to read the book since that awful day, but I recently took it down when I asked Doris, my maid, to dust the shelves.'
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 13 (Letter from Fanny Bauer to Julius Herz)

Who does not enjoy a family saga? Virginia Woolf, never a populist, had much success with The Years, and Buddenbrooks (1901) remains Thomas Mann's best-loved novel. It covers the years from high Biedermeier 1835 to the very different 1870s in the lives of the Buddenbrook family, a bourgeois*** north-German clan. I've visited Lübeck and the Thomas Mann museum (the 'Buddenbrookhaus') several times, but in my pre-blogging days, when I took no photographs. But I remember a sedate city, autumn leaves underfoot, and a vaguely marine atmosphere, as of cold seas not too far away.

Thomas Mann and his wife Katja
revisiting the otherwise destroyed
house in 1953

The novel, like many great novels (or long novels), conquers by stealth. Slowly, slowly it works its magic. The novel's main character is probably Antonie (Tony) Buddenbrook, first seen as an eight year-old. Rather like Trollope's Plantagenet Palliser, Tony, while remaining the novel's emotional heart, is never wholly emotionally accessible, though we see the key moments of her life: an adolescent holiday romance, her two less-than-successful marriages, her triumphs and humiliations and compromises.

Tony's brother is Thomas, who becomes, like his father, the head of the Buddenbrook business and a politician. At the height of his success he builds a new house in another part of the town - a house across the road from a little flower shop - the florist's in which, twenty years before, his first love worked. And she's still there:
'Oh,' the senator said, raising his head with a little jerk, and with clear, friendly eyes gazed straight into Frau Iwersen's face for a second. And then, without saying another word, he took his leave with a polite wave of the hand.
The gradual accumulation of narrative power and import over time (the flower-shop romance was several hundred pages back) is again Trollopian. But the impressionistic moment of recognition between Senator Buddenbrook and Frau Iwersen, which the reader must attempt to understand and interpret alone (Did he build that new house in order to regain contact with the woman? Did he remember her secretly all those years?), is more modernist.

The novel's subtitle, 'The Decline of a Family', is significant, and an ominous presence over earlier, more prosperous passages. The family's deterioration, when it comes, is seen in forensic detail. And where and when do the problems truly begin? Thomas Buddenbrook thinks he knows. Things never went well after that move to a new house. And it was he, his own mood, that was to blame. And how far is everything connected to the presence of that little flower shop across the way?
'My mood has not sunk to below zero because of a business loss. It's just the other way around. I truly believe that, and that's why things are as they are.'
Nothing will ever be glad confident morning again. He is aware of having reached a summit, and that 'the tangible tokens of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline'. From this point in the novel all bourgeois cosiness vanishes, and one reads on anxiously into territory Mann would colonise in later works. The intensity with which Mann scrutinises Thomas Buddenbrook renders him almost a prototype for the agonised protagonist in 'Death in Venice'.
Sometimes he would look out at the gray gables and to the passersby or let his eyes rest on the centennial plaque hanging on the wall, the one with the portrait of his father, and he would think about his family's history and tell himself that this was how it all ended, that what was happening now was the final chapter.
Contrasting with Thomas's conservatism and concern for the world of commerce (with which he has in any case lost faith) is Hanno, his sensitive artistic son. The opposing values of father and son are dramatised as brilliantly as E. M. Forster would do a decade later in Howards End. A memorable chapter late in Mann's novel covers Hanno's summer holiday on the Baltic coast. At the end, back home, Hanno speaks to his aunt Antonie, who remembers her own youthful experiences on vacation in the same resort. But now it is stylised, a formalised memory without freshness or urgency. The moment is deeply affecting. Buddenbrooks is a long, long novel, but sometimes a novel has to be long if it is to earn such power, such resonance.

It ends with another tour de force, a forty-page chapter covering a day in the life of Hanno, now a teenager at school. Gradually we realise what Mann is about. The school, Prussianised, brutal, macho, utilitarian, represents the modern world, or rather the new confident united Fatherland that has come into being during the course of Buddenbrooks. Injustices are meted out against the innocent. The weak collude with the strong. The boys side collectively with their aggressors, thankful for their own deliverance. Difference is roundly punished.

It is, of course, deeply, chillingly prophetic.


* I suspect this may be a reference to the early scenes with Herr Grünlich, Antonie Buddenbrook's importunate and unwanted suitor. For Grünlich (perhaps) read Julius Herz; for Antonie, Fanny. Or perhaps Herz is Morten Schwarzkopf, the young man Antonie has a holiday romance with at about the same point in the novel. In any case, the connections between Buddenbrooks and Brookner's The Next Big Thing, and particularly between Tony Buddenbrook and Fanny Bauer, are of interest. There are, for example, their marriages, which end poorly. I note that both characters have second husbands (Permaneder in Mann, Schneider in Brookner) who are named Alois. Alois Permaneder and Alois Schneider both turn out, after the wedding, to be worth less than seemed to be the case before.

There are other parallels. Brookner's Herz has a musical brother who ends in a sort of asylum. In Buddenbrooks Thomas's brother Christian is committed to an institution, and Hanno is a promising pianist.

** I recommend John E Woods's translation for Everyman's Library.

*** '[T]he landscape, so well remembered, so totally familiar, of the bourgeois past', comments Brookner in relation to Thomas Mann in The Next Big Thing (ch. 12).

Thursday, 1 February 2018

A Damaging View of Life

Not since Anita Brookner has such an accomplished novelist so skilfully put forward such a wrongful, damaging, view of life.

David Sexton has form in this area. There are varied references to Anita Brookner in his reviews over the years, including a complimentary one of Strangers in 2009. But his major contribution came in 1991 with a full-page article on Brookner in the Standard, 'Daring to question the morals of Miss B'. I was a newish fan in those days, and this was probably the moment when I fully realised Anita Brookner was a controversial writer, a subversive writer, a writer who could provoke outrage.

I've covered Sexton's 1991 J'accuse in an earlier post here.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: The Present and the Past

That world no longer existed, or if it did would have undergone a change...
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 6

With almost Nabokovian ardour Brookner conjures Herz's past, that ride down the Lichtenthalerallee in Baden-Baden, coffee in the Kurhaus gardens. A remarkably similar scene occurs in Falling Slowly, suggesting perhaps an autobiographical origin. Baden-Baden is indeed different now: a resort for the super-rich, no longer for the merely bourgeois. The bourgeois past, Herz finds, is to be found only in his reading: in Thomas Mann's short stories or in Buddenbrooks. Elsewhere in The Next Big Thing the modern world intrudes. Mobile phones, email. Globalisation. People trafficking? The seamstresses who work in a neighbouring flat at the start of the novel appear to be illegal immigrants. Their employer, Mrs Beddington, admits as much to Herz. He notices the girls' absence during the summer: perhaps they've gone home ('to homes he had difficulty in imagining' (ch. 6)) or on holiday, though later the repellent Mrs Beddington tells him, laughing, 'Girls like that don't go on holiday'. In fact she's shut up shop: 'they're on their own' (ch. 9).

The past in The Next Big Thing has a 'refulgence' (ch. 5), but Brookner is a realist too, especially in this, one of her later novels, into which a cheerless and subtly horrifying new world impinges more and more.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Euro Brookner

Brookner is making waves in Spain at the moment. An article in today's El Mundo (here), 'Anita Brookner, Style and Loneliness', marks the publication of a translation of her first novel A Start in Life. The article speaks of Brookner as one of the finest British and European novelists of the twentieth century. The translation itself is introduced by a Julian Barnes essay, which seems to be the one he wrote for the Guardian in 2016 (here).

El Mundo complains that Brookner has been absent since the 90s from Spanish publication schedules. A similar situation obtains, I think, in France. I recall many happy long-ago evenings browsing yellow-canopied Left Bank bookstores for Brookner translations, and finding lots. L'automne de M. Bland was one title I managed delightedly to decipher. But more recently - nothing. One hopes the Spanish will lead the way.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Lines of Beauty

What's your favourite Brookner line? Something positively freighted with many things Brooknerian. Something perhaps only Anita Brookner could have written.

Look at Me
A novel replete with quotability. I'm going to choose one of the most extreme, almost self-parodic lines, from the truly chilling chapter 11: Frances's desolate trek through a hostile nighttime London:
This must be the most terrible hour, the hour when people die in hospitals.
(Larkinian too. Think 'Ambulances' or 'The Building' - each room farther from the last and harder to return from.)

Falling Slowly
Miriam is imagining the thoughts of her contemporaries, those with lives more conventional than her own. You are not one of us, she imagines them thinking. You do not shop for cornflakes, fish fingers, baked beans. You will not grow fat. You do not take family holidays, the car loaded with junk. You only look astonishingly young, but you must be getting on.
Too late for you, then. You will just have to make do with the rest of your life, with only yourself for company. (Ch. 9)

Fibich, years later, safe in middle age, remembers getting on the Kindertransport, leaving his mother behind in Berlin. They would never meet again. Now in England, in the 1980s, in a London restaurant, he breaks down.
'I should have gone back,' whispered Fibich. 'I should not have left. I should have got off the train.' (Ch. 14)

A Misalliance
Now for something a little (but only a little) lighter:
Since living alone she had experienced varying degrees of exclusion, and, out of sheer dandyism, had made an ironical survey of the subject. (Ch. 3)
Out of sheer dandyism. All those hate-filled unthinking critics all those years: how could they have got Anita Brookner so wrong? How could they have overlooked her impeccable but subversive dandyism?

'At the Hairdresser's'
I am not lonely except in company. (Ch. 3)
What can one say to this? Echoing Larkin again, I think: 'nothing to be said'. Other than 'Brooknerianism in a nutshell', perhaps?

For my next, a touch of aphoristic robustness.
Mrs May knew what families were for: they were for offering endless possibilities for coercion. (Ch. 2)

A Private View
Katy Gibb has gone, leaving George Bland disconsolate. Katy was an impossible proposition; their lives were incompatible. But he had been in love.
He made tea and drank it gratefully, yet in the act of eating a biscuit his face contracted once more with grief. (Ch. 11)
George Bland and that biscuit.

Family and Friends
Mimi, wounded for ever by events in her past, mourns her life - though it is not Frank for whom she yearns but the missing element in herself that would have brought him to her side.
It is as much as she can do now to avoid pain, simply to avoid pain. (Ch. 10)
The formal construction. And that repetition. Compare Providence in the climactic scene:
I lacked the information, thought Kitty, trying to control her trembling hands. Quite simply, I lacked the information.

This could go on and on. Let me end for now with something evocative from Altered States (ch. 13) and something hopeful (yes, that) from Fraud (ch. 8) - both, I note, deploying exclamation marks. As I may have said before, always look out for Anita Brookner's exclamation marks.
The melancholy of London flats at nightfall! 
Then the marvellous thought struck her: but there is no need to live like this!
London flats, nightfall, melancholy

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Next Big Thing / Making Things Better

'...I'm looking at the end. The next big thing.' (Ch. 5) 
...the fallacious enterprise of making things better. (Ch. 15)

The Next Big Thing is Making Things Better in the States. Why? The publishing practice of sometimes altering titles to suit a particular audience has been the topic of an earlier post (see here), and it still intrigues me. Here both titles fit. The phrase 'making things better' is certainly noticeable for the frequency of its repetition; it appears in the text much more often than 'the next big thing'. 'Making Things Better' perhaps feels more upbeat, if also laced with irony. 'The Next Big Thing' is possibly the truer title, inasmuch as it sums up if not the main theme of the novel then certainly the plot's major thrust. But it's a brutal phrase - quite daringly inelegant. Brookner's choice of titles for her many novels never struck me as a strong point, and might even have served to put off potential readers. She never quite found a unifying 'pattern' for her titles - unlike, say, Ivy Compton-Burnett, another prolific writer. At best we can call 'The Next Big Thing' a brave title - and the novel is nothing if not brave.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: The Ideal Holiday

'I went to cities. At first I went to all the glamorous ones: Venice, Rome. But I did in fact feel rather lonely there. Then I realized that I didn't have to go to those places, that I was happier in small towns of no particular interest. So I picked the ones in which I could please myself, without witnesses. France, mostly. I was more or less contented when I could just amble round a church, and then sit down and drink coffee and read the local paper, half hear other people's conversations.'
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 4

'Sounds hilarious,' says Herz's ex, Josie, in response, confirming her function in the novel: the obverse not just of Herz's long-lost love Fanny Bauer, but also of many things Brooknerian. We know what Brookner's about here. The Next Big Thing is one of the most self-referential of her novels, referencing not only her many previous books but also what she told us about her own life. Think of that 1981 essay in Soundings, on Rosa Bonheur, which begins with a vignette of Brookner herself 'indolent and homesick' in a French provincial city, turning as ever to the museum, and 'from long experience' following the arrow which says Ecole française XIXe. siècle. The paintings found there match 'one's nostalgia for simple rules, simple illustrations, simple nourishment. But of course such things were never simple; they were at all times complex and sad'.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: Art Doesn't Love You

In chapter 4 of The Next Big Thing, Herz considers, and then rejects, a visit to the National Gallery to look at the Claudes and Turners - 'aware that art was indifferent to whatever requirements he might bring to the matter'. Art had proved 'fallacious' for his doomed brother Freddy, 'as if it were preferable to be the equivalent of a playground bully, a ruffian, rather than the suffering aesthete he had been in his former life'.

This isn't, however, for Brookner a late-life repudiation of her former calling. Even as a teacher she would (as we see below) tell her students, brilliantly and subversively, 'Art doesn't love you and cannot console you':
By nature a shy and reserved figure, Brookner had a great flair for self-analysis. She also understood her students and their motivations with keen psychological insight – she encouraged the viewer to articulate his own feelings, as well as a vision based on his own character. The work of a particular artist, say, David, had to be analysed within the larger framework of historical circumstances; yet subjectivity could not be avoided. In the case of David, she saw the revolutionary hope of creating a world of higher morality and virtue dashed as the artist anticipated the Romantic ideal by relinquishing intellectual control. Most crucially, Brookner believed that art had to be emotionally alive, and she advocated Baudelaire's 'impeccable naïveté,' which she termed the 'ability to see the world always afresh, either in its tragedy or in its hope.'
Her advice was invaluable. Nearly every sentence she uttered is engraved in my memory. My fellow student Cornelia Grassi remembers the last thing Brookner said to her before our written exams: 'Art doesn't love you and cannot console you.' As Baudelaire recognised, it provides temporary solace, at best.
Olivier Berggruen, Artforum, May 2016

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: Dispossession

...their new cramped quarters.
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 3

Dispossession - 'translation' from one home to another lesser home - is a major theme from the beginning. As in Latecomers, the Holocaust - ghettoisation - isn't directly referenced, but nevertheless is present throughout, Brookner's reticence and subtlety only serving to intensify the Herzes' despair. The Next Big Thing, like Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, is about the decline of a family, and there are sundry other comparisons to be drawn in this most literary of Brooknerian openers. Published the previous year, W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz is possibly an influence. Reading of Herz and his family in Hilltop Road and later in their inferior flat above the shop in the Edgware Road, one thinks of Austerlitz in Bloomsbury:

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: Memento Mori

Liliane Louvel's scholarly essay 'Reading with Images: Anita Brookner's The Next Big Thing as Memento Mori' is recommended. It takes an 'intermedial' view of the novel, comparing it with a range of memento mori artworks. The essay sheds fresh light on several key relationships in the book - with Herz's brother and with his neighbour Sophie Clay. It is heartening to find such a sympathetic and respectful reading of a Brookner novel, and intriguing that it comes from outside the anglophone literary world.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing presents a hero shaken by lust after a lifetime of humbly 'making things better'. Seventysomething Julius Herz, the third male protagonist in recent novels, is a self-effacing childhood émigré from Germany. Late in life, he finds release from the family ties that bound him to a solitary stoicism. Passive, obedient, too keen to please, Julius shares more than his Mitteleuropa background with some of his female forerunners. As I list his traits, Brookner breaks in: 'He's me, really. You were longing to say that, weren't you? And I thought I was making him up. That's what happens. That's where Freud is right.'

'He's me, really.' The Next Big Thing - Anita Brookner's Madame Bovary 'C'est moi!' novel? It's a tempting notion. The novel is probably my favourite Brookner, though when I first read it, in 2002, I thought it a reheating of several previous works, A Private View in particular. I see it differently now. I see it in the context of what would prove to be a late flowering, a late phase. We now see The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl as a magnificent whole, but they probably read differently as they came out: inaccessible, odd, the product of a talent on the skids.

Observer: Where do you think your ideas come from?
Brookner: I wish I knew. I'd tap into them straight away. I think it's mostly dreams and memories, isn't it, as with all novelists? And a certain amount of observation, obviously. 

'Herz had a dream': it's a forthright beginning - not wholly elegant, but it does the job. Interesting that two later works - Leaving Home and 'At the Hairdresser's' - also begin with dreams. Would she have considered doing that in earlier novels? Would she have cited dreams so highly? Those early works, one feels, were written in the white heat of experience, or something close to it. The later works - the works of the 2000s - are no less arresting, but they are different, and should be recognised as such: strange, difficult at times, but representing for Brookner a kind of Indian summer. Or winter, perhaps.

UK first edn. paperback:
note the low perspective,
as if Herz were a child, or
Sophie Clay's inferior.

Friday, 12 January 2018

The Humbling by Philip Roth

The book may be short but the style is long: loping conversational sentences convey and dignify the story of Simon Axler, a famous actor in his middle sixties. But his abilities have deserted him: 'Something fundamental has vanished. Maybe it had to go. Things go.' And then his marriage fails and he checks into a psychiatric hospital. Later there's a liaison with a much younger woman, who was once a lesbian, and some risky sex, and the story ends in disaster. 'A man's way is laid with a multitude of traps, and Pegeen had been the last. He'd stepped hungrily into it and taken the bait like the most craven captive on earth.'

The Humbling (2009) was criticised (and ridiculed) on publication for its graphic depictions of sex between the mismatched pair. In fact the scenes are both brief and pertinent, always presenting Axler in a fresh guise: at one point 'spying, lascivious' - perhaps like the greybeards in that Tintoretto painting, Susannah and the Elders, which Brookner invokes more than once. Axler, like Brookner's George Bland or Julius Herz, both is and isn't a 'dirty old man', and this is the book's strength. Like Brookner, Roth doesn't hold back on the physical horrors of ageing, but, again like Brookner, refuses to deny his hero the gift of self-knowledge and self-awareness:
The failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled.
Brookner (surprisingly?) loved her Roth. Surprising? Scarcely. We don't know whether she read The Humbling, but if she did she would have recognised thematic (stylistic too) connections with, inter alia, her own A Private View and The Next Big Thing. The Humbling is indeed a shocking read, but shocking in the best way: as in Brookner, it's the depth of the psychology, the analysis, the clairvoyance, that truly astounds and confounds the reader.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Chapter by Chapter #2

I wish there were a word-count facility on my e-reader: it might yield some interesting results. I noticed during my recent reread of Fraud (1992) something I'd only half-recognised before: how Brookner's chapters have a tendency towards being extremely regular in length. I reckon if I were to count the words in each of Fraud's chapters the results would be remarkably close.

How did she do this? She wrote in longhand, and cleanly, with few corrections (a page of the MS of Family and Friends (1985) is to be found online alongside the Paris Review interview) - so it was probably just a case of her allocating herself a set number of sheets of paper per chapter.

But why did she do it? She was certainly a writer, and probably a person, who lived according to her routines. Imposing such structures and patterns on the job of composition would have given momentum to a writing process that, as John Bayley says somewhere, possibly wasn't experienced at the full fever pitch of passionate engagement.

In the 1990s, in A Family Romance (1993) and A Private View (1994), Brookner experimented with chapter length. The chapters in those novels are approximately double the usual Brookner length. She returns to her old pattern in some later novels.

In the 2000s things seem to be up in the air again, matching perhaps the edgier tone of those last novels. Brookner's first and final chapters had always been subject to irregularity, but chapter 3 of The Bay of Angels (2001) is intriguing and a little disconcerting for being only four pages long.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Chapter by Chapter

A somewhat arcane post this, but I guess arcane is what I'm all about here. A look at the way Brookner or rather the publishers of her British first editions styled and designed her chapter headings.

In the 1980s there was a wide variation: digits; numbers in words; Roman numerals. Also varied were the accompanying devices, or lack of. The 1990s were the more consistent, also more expansive years, and this accords with the style and tone of the novels of that time. The Incidents in the Rue Laugier design pictured below is found throughout the decade (in A Closed Eye, A Family Romance, A Private View, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Altered States and Falling Slowly), and seems to have been a favourite. It's certainly mine. And finally the 2000s: the years of minimalism: again, matched in the tone of those novels.

From the 1980s:
A Start in Life


Look at Me

Hotel du Lac

Family and Friends

A Friend from England

Lewis Percy

From the 1990s:

Brief Lives

Incidents in the Rue Laugier


Undue Influence

And from the 2000s:


Thursday, 4 January 2018


I last saw [Anita Brookner] in the summer of 2010, when the publisher Carmen Callil brought her to lunch. She was frailer, and needed a stick. I had made potted crab, to which she said she was allergic, to my embarrassment (should I have known?). Instead she took a little cheese, some green salad and a roast tomato; she declined the beetroot. We asked about her life. She said that she went out early every morning to her Sainsbury's Local for 'a croissant, a petit pain and a loaf'. 'Every day, Anita?' 'I eat a lot of bread.' She had been rereading Stefan Zweig and applauded that most Brooknerianly-titled novel Beware of Pity. She agreed with Carmen that the one advantage of age was that the trials of the heart were behind you. She stated that she had no religious feelings or beliefs at all. She still rented her television (no digibox or Freeview), and still smoked eight or 10 cigarettes a day. 'Do you have your first after breakfast, Anita?' 'Of course.' She had the Times delivered, but when she went out for her hamper of bread she also bought the Independent, Mail, Guardian and Telegraph. She read them all, which took until 10.30. 'There's never anything in them.' I suggested that perhaps she could in future buy just one newspaper, but could tell she was not open to changing her ways, or her expectation of life, at this stage. ('How are the newspapers, Anita?' 'Disappointing').

Elsewhere in this exemplary article Barnes comments: 'I can't think of a novelist less likely to write an autobiography'. Those who are so wary of self-exposure are destined or doomed to be subject to the reminiscences of others. And yet we know how the Brooknerian mind works, because we have all those novels - and it's somehow at odds with the comedy found here, and indeed in most anecdotes told of this most fascinating and elusive of women. By making of her not quite a figure of fun but certainly a lovable eccentric, society renders a difficult person manageable and acceptable: it is a process of enforced assimilation.

But it's a collusive process too. Herz, in Brookner's The Next Big Thing, finds himself giving 'an edited view of oneself that would prove acceptable' (ch. 6). Yet he longs for a fuller and deeper conversation, and bizarrely fantasises about engaging in television interviews, in-depth expansive exchanges in which he might enlarge upon his 'artistic delights' and perhaps at last be himself.

Over Christmas I read Ma'am Darling,* Craig Brown's amusing 'quasi-biography' of Princess Margaret. The book is made up of anecdotes, many of them detrimental to the reputation of the late Princess, who is depicted variously as vain, arrogant, temperamental, lazy, spiteful, ridiculous, stupid, etc., etc.** But at one point Brown wonders:
But might there be another story? It has been said that history is written by the victors, but, on a most basic level, that is not quite true: it is written by the writers.
These 'writers', he goes on (Nancy Mitford, for one), might equally be depicted as nasty and intolerant, resentful of a beautiful, innocent, ignorant young princess. Princess Margaret was no writer, so her account is largely missing from the archives: she was never going to write an autobiography. She was never, at least in print, going to be able properly to answer back.

Brookner never wrote an autobiography either. But indubitably such an ultra self-aware writer wrote very much about herself. And where? As ever we find the real story in the novels. As she herself says somewhere, fiction writers are somehow the only people telling the truth.

* No mention of Brookner in Ma'am Darling. But the Princess swept into her orbit Anthony Blunt and Roy Strong, both of whom had Brookner connections. Here's Strong sitting next to Brookner at dinner:
Virtually her opening comment to me was, 'You have always been the victim of envy'. But later came the more significant exchange. I said to her that I didn't think I could face writing art history again. She looked at me with those extraordinary eyes and said, 'But that's wonderful. For the first time in your life you're free.' How often that sentence has returned to my mind and how grateful I have since been for its articulation, thanks to that chance encounter. (Splendours and Miseries: The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-1987)
** On finishing Ma'am Darling I decided to follow up footage and recordings of the Princess on YouTube. This was a slightly disconcerting experience. As she's presented in Craig Brown's book the Princess grows in one's mind into a comic, monstrous, but also, against the odds, rather sympathetic character. But in the recordings she seems smaller, more reserved and dignified, and also more self-conscious, self-deprecating, even self-parodying. One of the high points of the book is a passage on the Princess's appearance on Desert Island Discs. Brown attempts to transcribe her voice:
[Roy Plomley:] 'Ma'am, have you a big collection of records?'
[Princess Margaret:] 'Ears, quate.'
'Have you kept your old 78s?'
'Oh ears, they're all velly carefully...' - she pauses, as if searching for the right word - '...preserved.'
'They're very heavy of course - you've got them down in the cellar?'
'Eh hev them up in the ettic, eckshleh.'
But listen to the actual programme, and the impression is subtly different, more real, nowhere near as silly and pantomimic. As Anita Brookner once said of a topic that seemed simple, 'But of course such things were never simple; they were at all times complex and sad.'

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

A Bleakness of Brookners

I'm not really a fetishiser of my books. But at a loose end one of these drear days I decided to take stock of my rather limited collection and try to dedicate at least some of the year ahead to improving it. How I'd love some more of those 1990s Jonathan Cape hardbacks - the editions I first encountered, in my local library, during the earliest days of my fandom! Or maybe one or two from the Penguin posthumous reissue, of which I sadly own none. Those covers are really growing on me.

But anyway, for those of you who are interested, here are my Brookners in all their questionable glory. (And I hope you like the collective noun in the title of this post. I don't. I've never approved of collective nouns.)

Now for the different suits. A game of solitaire, you might say. The 1980s Triad Graftons:

The Jonathan Cape hardbacks:

The early 1990s Penguins:

The Flamingo reissues:

Some early-to-mid 90s Penguins:

A new livery for the later 1990s:

And lastly the Penguin Viking first edition hardbacks:

Monday, 1 January 2018

Viennese Brookner

References to the Austrian capital are scattered through Brookner's novels. The following is probably not a full list:
  • Hotel du Lac: Edith Hope has Viennese ancestry. She goes with her English father to the Kunsthistorisches Museum to see 'a picture of men lying splayed in a cornfield under a hot sun'. This is a puzzle. It sounds like Bruegel's Harvesters (which isn't in Vienna, though the museum houses several of the artist's surviving pictures of the seasons). See an earlier post here.
  • There's a Viennese background to that most Freudian of Brookners, A Family Romance, Toni Ferber hailing from (where else?) Berggasse. Later her granddaughter Jane visits the city, drops into Demel's, eats Sachertorte, finds it disappointing. Demel's is extant, but like many such establishments now a touristy Lacanian simulacrum of its probable former self. Getting inside looks to be no mean feat: one would have to elbow one's way through a crowd of snapping gawpers, and there's surely a waiting list months long. See an earlier post here.
  • George Bland, in A Private View, knows Vienna: the Tintoretto Susannah and the Elders sheds unwelcome light on his own private view of Katy Gibb.

  • Incidents in the Rue Laugier: Max Kroll, a minor character, one of Brookner's exiles, was a bookseller in old Vienna.
  • The Next Big Thing: Herz remembers visiting Vienna - in particular the modernist Wittgenstein Haus, one of his 'artistic delights'.

Pictures of my recent visit to Vienna can be found on Twitter @brooknerian. Feel free to like, retweet and, if you don't already, follow. Happy New Year!