Thursday, 29 March 2018

Family and Friends: Closing Remarks

Her fiction is noted for its subtlety and technical skill but this can be deceptive, and has indeed deceived an odd ghetto of English critics who greet her novels with delighted misunderstanding. Elsewhere it is recognised that in ambush behind her classically beautiful prose, rooted in the territory of small lives, is a devilry that works on her stories like lemon zest. Family and Friends, in Alfred's final revenge,* provides a finale so delicate and precise that you can almost see the keen eye of the author slowly blinking at you.
Callil and Toibin, The Modern Library ['the 200 best novels since 1950'] (1999)

*I'm not sure I really noted this ending on earlier readings. It concerns Alfred and Nettie and occurs in the last few lines. Brookner does love her last-minute reversals, reveals and surprises.

*

The Brooknerian will now be taking a break of a few weeks. Back soon. Thanks for reading!

Family and Friends: A True Chronicle

Brookner spoke at length about Family and Friends to Olga Kenyon in Women Writers Talk (1989).

'It's my family,' she said. 'Of course they're rendered into fiction because I didn't know them till I was about seventeen - when I began to see them as separate people.'

It was indeed a family photo that sparked the novel: a cousin showed her a wedding picture with her grandmother dominating the group. 'I gave the photograph back, but the following day I began to write Family and Friends. I had always avoided writing about my family. They had given me a good deal of trouble in real life.'

Although, largely from lack of knowledge, she fictionalised the early lives of the uncles and aunts in the novel, 'somewhere in the course of this invention, I discovered I was writing what amounted to a true chronicle. Whether this was an obscure form of unconscious memory, whether it was intuition, or whether it was the exhilaration of disposing of these characters whom I had always seen as immensely powerful, I have no idea.'

She felt 'freed' by the writing - she wrote 'without qualms'.
As I neared the end I was too frightened that I might lose the conclusion - which I did not know yet - and so I merely sat in the garden and wrote in a notebook. I felt an enormous tension; but my ending, when it came, surprised me into laughter. I felt like a spectator at my own game.
The novel 'laid many ghosts for me. I hope I've given those ghosts something new to talk about'. It was 'the only one of my books I truly like'.

Being in control was a motive in writing the novel. 'Maybe as in psychoanalysis you abreact the whole thing and it comes out right.'

The main characters in Family and Friends had their analogues in life. Mimi was Brookner's mother; there was an Alfred, and there were two who broke free, as in the novel.
And free will is a heavy burden to lay on anyone, particularly if they are not too bright.
Brookner's characters, Kenyon suggested, 'don't always seem in touch with the twentieth century'.

Brookner's reply:
Yes. They are nineteenth-century families, without the nineteenth century to give support.

Family and Friends: The Years of Danger

'I never thought he would marry, like the others,' thinks Sofka of her son Alfred in chapter 9 of Family and Friends. 'I thought he had passed the age of danger.'

It's a markedly literary novel, in the sense of its allusiveness to other works. The set-piece scene in Wren House with Dolly (a soon-to-be self-allusive choice of name for Anita Brookner) and the scrambled eggs suggests several such rural house-parties in English literature. Howards End, perhaps? L. P. Hartley? There is, additionally, specifically a reference to Dickens.

Brookner disdained comparisons with Jane Austen. But doesn't the quote above recall a line from the opening of Persuasion - Elizabeth Elliot hoping to be propositioned by a baronet within a twelvemonth, recognising as she does her approach to 'the years of danger'?

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Family and Friends: Private Meanings

I don't altogether shy from making links between an author's life and her fiction, though perhaps I ought to. Brookner's media critics, especially the hostile ones, never down the years showed any reluctance. But Family and Friends must have seemed resistant to such analysis. The four novels she'd written up till then had been of the classic Brookner 'lonely heroine' type. But here we have a family portrait, even a family saga. And yet I keep finding parallels and analogues. Brookner, like Dickens, seems not to have been able to avoid investing her work with private meanings.

Take Mimi and her hospital work in chapter 8. We know from an early interview (here) that Brookner did voluntary work at a local hospital, even on Christmas Day. Or Alfred and his purchase of Wren House in the same chapter. Perhaps readers wouldn't, on publication of Family and Friends, yet have recognised the significance. But gradually over the course of Brookner's writing career we would come to appreciate the dangers and horrors to be expected in the English countryside, provinces and even suburbs.

We have a vignette of Brookner herself outside her habitual London milieu, when she visited Rosamond Lehmann in Suffolk (here). Carmen Callil recalls 'Anita sternly going for walks and drinking tea'. The 'sternly' is telling.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Family and Friends: Lili and Ursie

Lili and Ursie come to the Dorns' as maids - 'harsh' and 'hectic', given to weeping when certain pieces of music are being played. The girls are 'foreign', but Brookner will go no further. Something similar is in the air when an impoverished woman arrives on Sofka's doorstep, selling small items, and Sofka recognises her as one Irma Beck, whom she knew 'in the past, in another country'.

We're in chapter 8 by now, more than halfway through the novel, and Brookner cannot any longer step around the realities of her story. But the stories of Lili and Ursula, of Frau Beck, are told with great subtlety: restraint, Brookner suggests, is the only correct response to such horror.

We know the episodes have an autobiographical origin. Here she is talking to the Independent in 1994:
There was the added complication that in the 1930s the house filled up with Jewish refugees, who could come if they found a sponsor, I think, and if they went into domestic service. In the war, again, there were refugees living in the house, until such time as the police turned up to take them off to the Isle of Man and they went to be interned and were never seen again: history does not relate what happened to them. There was a tragic element in childhood. My parents weren't religious, but you couldn't help but be conscious of being Jewish at that time. I knew terrible things were going on, and were coming close, and I suppose that couldn't help but seem menacing.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Family and Friends: The Finished Product

The finished product is attired in a cunning little violet wool dress with a peplum, shiny high-heeled shoes, and a great deal of Schiaparelli's Shocking dabbed behind her ears and on her wrists.
Anita Brookner, Family and Friends, ch. 7

By all accounts elegant in real life, if not dressy, Brookner in her writing always goes to town with her clusters of clothes-modifying adjectives, but here I want to point to the specificity of her references to scents and perfumes. Even Brookner's men get their smells. Think of George Bland and his Eau Sauvage. The precise significations of such aromas is beyond me, but might be worthy of study.

Brookner herself, we know, was always fragrant:
The fact that there was one woman there – called Anita Brookner – who you used to go up for private, individual tutorials with her and she was in the top of the building of number nineteen next door. And she was always feeding the pigeons, had an open window and feeding the pigeons, and I remember her I’d knock on the door and she said ‘Come in’ and her back was turned to me feeding the pigeons. And she said ‘You know one day Flavia I’m going to be a novelist.’ And of course she was. Hotel du Lac which I think is the second book but the one that first really made her name in 1984 and how many did she publish since then? Fifteen? But she did write beautifully I mean she was a very good art historian too. So in a sense I suppose she was a bit of a role model. She was very beautiful. Well she’s still alive actually, in her eighties. Very beautiful very elegant French, French dressed. And people didn’t wear scent – scent was very expensive in those days – but she always had the latest or the most exclusive scents from Paris. I mean you couldn’t go into Boots in those days and buy you know, Channel [sic] or Armani or whatever you just couldn’t and it was far too expensive but you could always tell where she was and I if I couldn’t find her I’d just walk round the Courtauld [sniffs] using my nose and I’d always find her, because she'd wear this beautiful scent.
Transcript of interview with Flavia Swann, Association of Art Historians, Oral Histories Project, 2010 (Link)

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Family and Friends: A European Family

Brookner, like James, is reluctant to show her hand. Just what exactly, for example, in Family and Friends, does the Dorns' firm manufacture?  And when are the early scenes of the novel set? Things are looking up for the Dorns, the 'unpromising debris of a European family'; the factory is beginning to thrive again. But when, historically, is all this taking place? The wedding scene in chapter 1 suggests the 1920s*, or even earlier. The songs being sung in the house in chapter 2 - Massenet, Delibes - hardly indicate the prevalence of modern popular culture. And yet we could well be post-1945.** Time passes so unchartably, so elastically in Brookner, and in this book more dizzyingly than most. Much of this is owing to the narrative method, where everything is viewed by a cool, urbane, magisterial eye, as if from Olympian heights.

*The novel's first chapter was published in Granta (here), with an accompanying photo of a plainly interwar wedding.

** Not till quite a bit later in the book (in chapter 6) does Brookner allow herself (or give in to) the exophoric reference we've been looking for:
Evie's papa has warned her privately of conditions in Europe and what they mean for families such as theirs. Wars, and rumours of war.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Family and Friends: Ambassadors

Brookner is the poet of Paris de nos jours, and chapter 5 of Family and Friends is a true tour de force. Alfred and Mimi are in the French capital to rescue their sister Betty from a life of sin. The situation is of course profoundly literary: we can't but think of Lambert Strether. Staid Alfred is horrified by the place, but Mimi is more susceptible, and for a moment it seems she will, like her Jamesian counterpart, be seduced. By which I mean culturally and emotionally seduced - though Mimi has for the moment a more basic seduction in mind. But the chapter ends in failure and horror, a horror akin to those moments in several other early Brookners, the closing chapters of Look at Me in particular.

But the charm of the great city remains, and though Mimi will never return, Brookner herself will go back to it time and again in her fiction over the years. The pearl-grey Parisian morning. Brushing the whitish dust from one's shoes after a walk in the Tuileries. The iron chairs.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Family and Friends: The Westminster Bridge Road

Brookner, as I've said before, doesn't always like too much detail, or not in a narrative as finely spun as Family and Friends. I'm on chapter 4, and still we don't know what the Dorns' factory manufactures. But we do now know its location: the Westminster Bridge Road. Nearly a decade later, in 1994, in interview (here), Brookner would reveal perhaps this detail's autobiographical origin.
She was, she says, 'born into the purple of trade' in Herne Hill, a suburb near Dulwich, on 16 July 1928. Her maternal grandfather had come to England as a young man from Warsaw, and had set up as a tobacco importer, with a factory on Westminster Bridge Road. 'I didn't know him: he'd already died when I was born. My mother said that in his last illness he raised a Corona cigar to his lips, and drew on it. He supplied Edward VII with his cigarettes. There was an engraved cigarette case from the King, which vanished with one of the maids.'

These things are always intriguing. In some novels, maybe even here, Brookner can be very specific in her references. Chapter 4 moves towards events in Paris - and the 'ineffable blue Parisian evening' is memorably conjured. Her characters find themselves at the Hôtel Bedford et West End. It's some time since I read Family and Friends, but I register great personal nostalgia as I encounter these scenes again, remembering as I do my own youthful Parisian afternoons and evenings, walking up and down the rue de Rivoli in search of that hotel, and not finding it.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Family and Friends: Everybody Marries

Will the boys marry? Well, of course they will, in so far as everybody marries.
Anita Brookner, Family and Friends, ch. 1


Perhaps a little more than loneliness - too awkward a subject? - marriage is a recurring theme in Brookner's interviews. Everyone should marry several times, Brookner tells Boyd Tonkin in 2002. Or consider the interview with Blake Morrison from 1994:
…a recurrent dilemma of her novels is: Should I marry? This has also been the dilemma of much great (not merely romantic) fiction of the past. But Brookner's characters often receive the wrong kind of proposal, or bolt from the impending ceremony, or marry in haste and repent at leisure. The choice between lonely self-possession and companionable self-immolation - this is her theme. How much has this to do with her own life?
'What can I say? I have had offers of marriage but I didn't accept them. I possibly never met anyone to whom I could really entrust my life. I suppose it stems from early childhood.'
In what way?
'Well, I was always wary of my parents' plans for me. And I never really wanted to be taken over, or to have to give up anything else. It would have meant giving up work.'
But did she never think: working as an art historian need not rule out marriage - I could have both?
'No, I never thought that. From the outset the work absorbed me and I felt passionately about it. Of course I fell in and out of love like anybody does, but I think I knew that I was always going to live on my own.'
Yet she was attracted by the idea of marriage? 'I thought when I was young I would give everything up to be happily married. But you grow out of that, I think. By 30 a sort of wariness had crept in - I began to recognise men and what they were doing it for. These are people with their own agenda, who think you might be fitted in if they lop off certain parts. You can see them coming a mile off.'
In this sense she's like her heroines, then, who tend to receive unsuitable proposals, unsuitable because they have nothing to do with love? 'Yes. Or even sex.'

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Middlemarch: Book One: Miss Brooke

[First in an occasional series on Middlemarch - Book by Book:]


'I doubt whether any young person can read with pleasure either Felix Holt, Middlemarch, or Daniel Deronda,' wrote Anthony Trollope in his Autobiography. Well, I'm not a young person any more, and when I first read Middlemarch, twenty-five years ago, I possibly wasn't the young person Trollope had in mind. In any case he probably had a minor axe to grid against the clever Mrs Lewes. Middlemarch is, after all, a Trollope novel deconstructed; it is The Last Chronicle of Barset with an advanced degree from Heidelberg; it's Barsetshire on acid (or laudanum at the very least).

But it isn't, as Trollope goes on to say, an easy read. It is Eliot's style he criticises her for. It is affected, it lacks ease, he says. Style is the great Trollope thing: that sly tolerant tone keeping the reader company through the inevitable longueurs of a classic three-decker. Eliot's voice is altogether more bracing. She does not compromise. There are indeed passages in Book One where the reader is on his or her mettle. Take the first half of chapter 10, which proceeds from a challenging epigraph to a supersubtle comparison between Casaubon and Ladislaw, and their differing approaches to artistic endeavour. But midway through the chapter the novel sharply shifts gear and we find ourselves enjoying the banter of a group of Middlemarch worthies at dinner. This serves to introduce Dr Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, and in the next chapter we're treated to a fast-talking breakfast scene between Rosamond and her brother Fred. This veering between high and low, or perhaps high and middle, between seriousness and comedy, is a feature of the book, and the contrasts aren't assimilated in, say, the Trollopian fashion. But George Eliot probably doesn't want it that way.

Middlemarch is a political book, and not just in its depiction of the passing of the Reform Bill. I like, as a sort of parlour game, to track the political sympathies of the Victorian novelists. I like to imagine them in the political world of Britain today. Would Dickens have voted New Labour? Would George Eliot be a Corbynista? We know Trollope stood for Parliament as a Liberal, but nowadays we'd probably call him a liberal conservative. I sense Henry James too would be a centrist Tory - just centrist enough for the tastes of some modern readers. Whereas some of poor Thackeray's current neglect is possibly owing to the jaundiced Right-leaning tone of his novels. Not that George Eliot doesn't send up from time to time the earnest Miss Brooke, who is disappointed to discover the tenants of her betrothed aren't disgracefully poor and therefore in need of her social work:
The small boys wore excellent corduroy, the girls went out as tidy servants, or did a little straw-plaiting at home: no looms here, no Dissent... (Ch. 9)
But the irony is also at the expense of those comfortable folk who might think straw-plaiting a suitable occupation for anyone.

'Fred's studies are not very deep,' says Rosamond of her brother in the final chapter of Book One; 'he is only reading a novel.' George Eliot might have been more comfortable prosing away in some Whiggish paper, but we should be grateful she chose instead the novel, even if her handling of the form feels at times a little schizophrenic.

Family and Friends: Cover Stories

Brookner's Family and Friends (1985) British editions in approximate order. A veritable history of art - proof if ever it were needed that no one has yet quite worked out what to put on the cover of an Anita Brookner novel.






Friday, 16 March 2018

Burlington Brookner


I owe my start in life as a writer to Benedict Nicolson, who was editor of the Burlington Magazine from the end of the War until his death in 1978.
Anita Brookner, 'Benedict Nicolson', Independent Magazine, 10 September 1994


Hearing that Anita Brookner, an all but unknown graduate student, was to be living in Paris, Nicolson 'mentioned that [she] might like to send him reviews of the major exhibitions'. It was, Brookner recalls, an amazing act of generosity. She looked forward to her monthly assignment, making herself known to dealers and collectors, tackling the 'dreadful Salon d'Automne with something like enthusiasm'. Her biggest cheque was for £19.

My copy of the Burlington Magazine dates from May 1962 and finds Brookner, then in her thirties, in London. (She seems to have migrated regularly between the Two Cities, rather like Emma in Leaving Home.)

At the Hazlitt Gallery she is predictably delighted and beguiled by an exhibition called 'Baroque and Rococo'. Immediately she gets to work critiquing a painting by Berchem, Allegory of the Seasons. The tone is learned, amused, ironic, the language a clever mix of the mandarin and the slightly demotic. Things are 'faintly adumbrated' and 'surprisingly overt', a lion is 'rather tame'. Do we hear the authentic Brookner voice, a little in embryo? Take this, of a Vernet View of Marseilles in another exhibition:
In the way that an imitation sometimes does better than the real thing, I found the steady margarine of this sunset more poignant than the careful golden ripples of the archetypal Claude that lies behind it.
The steady margarine... But what we probably also hear is the voice of the kind of patrician art critic into whose heady company a spell at the Burlington surely propelled the young Brookner.

And Miss Brookner reveals her alliances most strongly when viewing a show called 'British Painting and Sculpture Today and Yesterday'. She advises the visitor to seek instruction beforehand in a recent 'B.B.C.' (how antique, those full stops) television programme Monitor a few weeks back, 'Pop goes the Easel', which showed 'young painters having themselves a wonderful time round the rifle ranges, pin-tables, and sex magazines of their native Shepherds Bush': one might as well congratulate a child on its first piece of knitting, she adds. One Peter Phillips 'simply copies in paint the kind of crude device one occasionally sees bobbing between the shoulder blades of a bogus leather jacket'. Plainly this won't do; plainly this doesn't pass Brooknerian muster. But fortunately Miss Brookner is on hand to suggest other places one might 'like to take the young people'.

She was only thirty-four. But this was, we must remember, 1962.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Indistinguishable from the Real Thing


Henry James rated highly the work of John Singer Sargent, and towards the end of his life was depicted by him in the famous, appropriately magisterial painting (above) that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Some decades previously in an 1887 essay, republished in 1893 in the collection Picture and Text, James had written a substantial appreciation of the artist. Words such as 'splendid', 'brilliant' and 'masterpiece' abound. Of the 'superb' Dr Pozzi at Home (below), for example, James writes:
This gentleman stands up in his brilliant red dressing-gown with the prestance of a princely Vandyck.

Brian Sewell once complained of how a reference of Anita Brookner's to the 'threadbare' religious imagery of Caspar David Friedrich had forever ruined for him the work of the painter. Likewise we might look differently at Dr Pozzi after reading John Updike's assessment of the painting, quoted by Brookner in her review of his art essays collection Just Looking (Observer, 29 October 1989): Updike speaks of Sargent's 'shameless romantic flattery' of the 'bright-eyed subject', the 'cozy crimson aura of satanic drag'.

But it is probably Brookner's own devastating line on Sargent that comes closest to challenging my own appreciation of the artist. I'm pleased she liked his Henry James ('an authentic masterpiece') but more generally, she says, Sargent 'painted perhaps a handful of masterpieces and many more which he thought would be indistinguishable from the real thing'.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Fundamentally Alarming: The Finishing School by Muriel Spark


Muriel Spark, a 'fundamentally alarming' author, was, Anita Brookner goes on to say, greatly admiring of Ivy Compton-Burnett, to whom her novels 'owe something' (Observer, 19 July 1992).

One thinks of those schools in Compton-Burnett, in Two Worlds and Their Ways and others, establishments that bear next to no resemblance to any in reality and yet which somehow get at the strange, often extreme microclimatic atmosphere of all educational institutions.

The school in Spark's last novel The Finishing School (2004) is odder than most. Sited on the banks of Lake Geneva,* the place is run on the most liberal of lines by a young man Rowland Mahler and his wife. There are a handful of pupils, including an aspirant novelist called Chris. Rowland, who is himself, as Spark puts it, one of those people who can't get by without writing a novel, is deeply envious of Chris. Chris, he believes, shows great talent, whereas Rowland, only a decade older, seems at the outset to be more or less washed up - 'finished', we might say.

Spark was never much interested in realism, and at this stage in her career anything goes. As always she's in the driver's seat, casually revealing facts about characters' past and and future lives, delivering weird set-piece scenes as the whim takes her, and riffing on the life of Mary Queen of Scots, the less than promising topic of Chris's novel-in-progress.

The 'ruthlessness of art' is probably the novel's theme, if it has one. Rowland is jealous of Chris, and gradually as the story progresses Chris becomes obsessed with Rowland: they hate and fear but also need and perhaps desire each other. All this culminates in an act of violence, as so often in Spark, and there's a surprising ending. But nothing and no one in the novel is as anarchic or as ruthless as Spark herself, ever sharp and wicked and laughing behind her hand.

Is The Finishing School, as my copy's blurb suggests, the 'perfect partner' to Muriel Spark's more famous school novel? Possibly. But it's a dark and riotous twin, and in some ways a truly preposterous book. But presented with such carelessness, such freedom, we should rather, I think, marvel and be in awe.

*
* The novel opens with a creative writing class, with Rowland Mahler discussing the best way of setting a scene. The scene in question is the view from the window, of the lake and the far French shore. Is Muriel Spark having a bit of a laugh here? For of course what famous and Booker-winning (Spark missed out on that award) novel begins with just such a description of that very view?!

There's very possibly a further Brookner-related jest to be found later in the novel, when we meet a middle-aged woman who, Spark tells us, would have been and would be 'forty-five for many years'.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Second Act

I greatly enjoyed this week Rumaan Alam's appreciation of Brookner in the New York Times (here) and the Mookse and the Gripes' relaunched podcast, which focuses on Brookner's first four novels (here). Both make insightful reference to what Alam calls Brookner's life's 'remarkable second act', that period from 1981 when, in her fifties, she suddenly began writing fiction: the floodgates, as she said, were open. It gives hope to us all.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

The Faint Thrill of Horror

Brookner on James is always fascinating and often provoking, not least in her 1987 review of Leon Edel's classic biography of the writer (Spectator, 1 August 1987 here). Henry James crops up more than once in Brookner's novels. In Falling Slowly (1998), for example:
She marvelled that Henry James knew so much about women and children, yet remained a bachelor, and by all accounts a man of the greatest integrity. She liked that about him, that and his reputation for modesty. He had deferred to worldly friends, as if he were not more worldly than any of them. (Ch. 16)
I agree with the last bit, but take issue with the rest. Integrity, yes - but modesty is perhaps a step too far. Similarly in her Edel review her reading goes askew. Henry James: 'essentially timid, prudent, virginal, secret and pure'?! She seems at pains to absolve him of any accusation of impropriety; she seems to want to limit What Henry Knew:
[E]ven when using libidinal language, as he does in the truly awful novel called Watch and Ward, an early work, he does not appear to know what he is doing, and his late ardent friendships with young men are not so much homoerotic as pre-sexual.
I think we all, when reading the writers of the past, especially those we revere, construct them afresh for our own purposes and sometimes in our own image. Brookner, like Edel, sees a particular James, but such is James's inexhaustibility we might just as equally posit another: supremely the very opposite of timid, prudent, virginal, secret and pure.

But what interests me about her Leon Edel piece is the following passage, in which I seem to hear a more personal note, as if Brookner were writing about herself and her own devotion to art and to work. (But of course I may myself be guilty here of constructing an author for my own purposes.)
He was fully in charge of his life, yet saw, when he was two thirds of the way through it, that he had used it up, and that there was to be no second chance. This is the message of the story called The Middle Years, and is condensed in the phrase that might be his epitaph: the madness of art. For despite Henry James's essential sobriety, his industry, and his blamelessness, one is left with the impression that his is a supreme case of misdirection. And the faint thrill of horror that this life inspires, a horror that deepens to anguish as one reads on in this meticulous and loving biography, condensed from its original five volumes to a seamless new version, must surely spring from the dawning realisation that there is no second chance, a realisation with which James lived even as a famous and venerated public figure, surrounded by the love of friends and with the evidence of a lifetime's work in print.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Brookner Goes to the Movies

Once, I saw an announcement of an evening at the National Film Theatre that seemed made for Anita: an assemblage of the very earliest film footage shot in and around Paris. I rang her, and was a quarter of the way into my excited proposal when she cut in with, 'No, I think not…' I felt clumsy, blundering, as if I had crossed some social line. I had; and never made such a suggestion again. 

She wasn't someone you could ever really imagine at the cinema. None of her novels, as far as I can recall, contain visits to picture houses. But we know in her youth she accompanied her Paris landlady:
One of my duties, whenever I took up momentary residence in the rue des Marronniers, was to escort Mme de Blazac to the cinema in the rue de Passy. For these occasions Mme de Blazac wore a thin thread of lipstick and a dab of violet scent, but she rarely appreciated the film, preferring to hark back to films she had once enjoyed with her husband. Maria Chapdelaine: had I seen that? The question was always the same, as was the answer. By way of compensation I would indicate a table at a nearby café, and Mme de Blazac, greatly daring, would order a Dubonnet. This brought a little colour to her pallid cheeks, and I would imagine I could see the pretty and fatally innocent girl who had attracted the lounge lizard husband.
London Review of Books, 19 June 1997

And we have her slightly pained account of a visit to a screening of Abel Gance's epic silent film Napoleon, which she found disorienting and migraine-inducing. Getting outside was evidently a relief, but also a let-down:
Trapped in an auditorium as crowded as the National Convention, sustained only by an in-house sandwich which left one almost as starving as the Paris mob, one rose to cheer to the echo, prepared, if necessary, to sit it out to the end of time, and restored unwillingly to the smallest of lives, among the sex shops and pizza parlours of Leicester Square.
 LRB, 16 April 1981

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Smell of Pine Forests

Reviewing with disfavour a book about fathers and daughters (Fathers: Reflections by Daughters, ed. Ursula Owen, London Review of Books, 22 December 1983), Brookner is moved heavy-heartedly to offer her own report from the front:
My father, who has been dead for some years, was a man for whom I felt none of the standard daughterly emotions, either ancient or modern. An exile, modest, diffident, as honest as a child in a world of adult considerations, he seemed to me to compare unfavourably with the capricious, handsome, successful men of my mother’s family. These uncles, as tirelessly expansive as he was reticent, could not bother with a man whose only comment on his translated life was that he missed the smell of pine forests. It seemed to me that he was completely unhappy. This unhappiness did not recommend itself to me, for his vision of the world appeared unlovely when set beside the exciting games of favour, of pleasure, of cynical appraisal, to which the men of my mother’s family gave such vivid attention. My father’s entire morality – and it was entire – found an equivalence in the novels of Charles Dickens, with which he acquainted me at an early age: the uncles preferred me to read the gamesome tracts of George Bernard Shaw. At no time since my father’s death, which I watched, have I dreamt of him or longed for his advice or indeed consciously missed him. But now, strangely, I find my father, and his dreadful simplicity, encoded somewhere in my perceptions: I now feel as he felt.
Brookner ended her reading of Ursula Owen's book, as she ends the review, with a quotation from Little Dorrit, from that letter Amy writes to Arthur Clennam from Venice:
Another difficulty that I have will seem very strange to you. It must seem very strange to anyone but me, and does even to me: I often feel the old sad pity for – I need not write the word – for him. Changed as he is, and inexpressibly blest and thankful as I am to know it, the old sorrowful feeling of compassion comes upon me sometimes with such strength that I want to put my arms round his neck, tell him how I love him, and cry a little on his breast. I should be glad after that, and proud and happy. But I know that I must not do this; that he would not like it ... and so I quiet myself. Yet in doing so, I struggle with the feeling that I have come to be at a distance from him; and that even in the midst of all the servants and attendants, he is deserted, and in want of me.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Anita and the Landladies


Julian Barnes once said of Anita Brookner that it was hard to imagine a novelist less likely to write an autobiography. She was, he implied, too private, too discreet. And yet she wrote all those novels, none of which pull any punches. And though she gave few interviews, those she did allow are among the most honest and extreme writerly exchanges on record.

Brookner's memoir about her early Paris experiences, 'Mme de Blazac and I',* is extraordinary, unprecedented and sadly unrepeated. It's a long essay describing the author's years in the French capital and her interactions with a number of eccentric landladies.

Mme de Blazac, 'rather than formidable and omnicompetent, as I had imagined from the aristocratic name' proved 'small and tremulous', 'subdued and incompetent' and 'clearly more nervous than myself'. Brookner thus inaugurates a character portrait that wouldn't look out of place in one of her novels. Mme de Blazac is, in particular, Fraud's Amy Durrant in Frenchified form. We see Mme de Blazac's 'tiny hands' pressed to her eyes as, heartbroken, she recounts the details of her sad life. We see those 'still pretty blue eyes' widening with horror as she speaks of being jostled in the local Prisunic.

Like many a Brookner innocent, Mme de Blazac had been prey to a plausible man, now long gone, having 'dropped dead at the tables at Enghien',** and depicted in life as looking like 'a lesser member of the Gestapo'.

There had also been a disappointing daughter, Marie-Odile, who fled to South America, and whom the young Anita went some way to replacing. Anita is visible in glimpses in the memoir: her Englishness is emphasised (Mme de Blazac assumes that, being English, Anita would be 'used to a coarser way of life') - something we often forget when thinking of this most cosmopolitan of women. We hear of the embryonic writer's growing habits of 'concealment', and of her 'largely virtuous' diversions. And we see her looking ahead to her own later years:
our association was peaceable, and I could see myself in years to come much as she appeared to me then, reading the illustrated weekly papers which she enjoined me to buy, emerging cautiously to shop in the rue de Passy, contenting myself with a modest aura of Violettes de Toulouse, and eternally contemplating a journey which I should never make.
We also see Anita as viable and canny and an outsider - the eternal observer. She styles herself, significantly, as an attendant on her landlady:
This is a restful condition, but it precludes one from higher consideration. Attendants, however, can also be dictatorial. I would urge Mme de Blazac to go to bed early, after our frugal supper, if we happened to eat together: ‘Vite, au dodo!’ Mme de Blazac would smile and obey.
And we picture the youthful Miss Brookner, secretive, covert, slipping away into the nighttime streets, going who knows where.

Later we read of other landladies, Mme de Franqueville in the rue Jouffroy, to whom Anita was transferred through the good offices of her friend Louise,*** and Mme Martin in the rue de Tocqueville. At the home of the former, who was 'content to sit in her room reading the memoirs of the duc de Choiseul', there was a degree of antisemitism. At Mme Martin's there was a noisy unmusical son. Anita Brookner - it was by now 1970 - decided a change of circumstances was required:
I took the giant step of installing myself in a hotel. I have rarely been so happy. As a long-term resident I was treated like the lodger, which imparted to the whole exercise an air of continuity. Finally, at home, I continue to behave like the lodger, agreeably surprised that I am allowed to make myself a cup of tea. Heaven may turn out to be a sort of hotel, the bills being sent to another place. Entrance qualifications, however, will remain problematic, although one hopes that that original hotelier’s refusal to provide accommodation, on the grounds of there being no room at the inn, will have been corrected.
'Mme de Blazac' is among the most fascinating of Brookner's many writings. Distanced and ironical - an effect produced by liberal use of the passive voice - the piece nevertheless gives a vivid and rather moving account of an important part of this writer's early life, a part that would feed many of her subsequent fictions.

*

*London Review of Books, 19 June 1997 - available on the LRB website but unfortunately hidden behind a paywall
**There's a dubious Brookner character in one of the novels who drops dead at Kempton Park.
***I wonder about this Louise. I possess a note in Brookner's hand addressed to 'Louise'; it accompanied a copy of a lecture Brookner gave in the 1970s on Jacques-Louis David.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Cousin Henry by Anthony Trollope

It's funny what can put you off a book.

Harold Macmillan, it is said, liked to go to bed with a good Trollope, and indeed was often of an afternoon to be found lolling around Downing Street with an old novel. (David Cameron emulated Macmillan - but he called it chillaxing, and Trollope probably wasn't involved.)

I once went to a play in London about the Profumo affair, and the Macmillan character waxed patricianly lyrical about Trollope, saying he was currently flicking through Cousin Henry and finding it awfully jolly.

I'm a bit of a Trollope fan, or I was once. In fact I've read most of his novels, but some time back. The ones I haven't managed are the early ones (Castle Richmond and the like) and one or two from the later period that simply haven't appealed. Cousin Henry is one of these. It may be I just find its World's Classics cover slightly repellent.

Cousin Henry is one of Trollope's shorter novels. This is actually a point in its disfavour, as Trollope is famously a novelist who needs space. But Cousin Henry, unlike An Old Man's Love or Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite (both equally fun-sized, though far from fun), turns out to be something of a masterpiece.

Trollopes divide roughly into those that are about public affairs and those that focus on private life. The Prime Minister is an example of the former, its sequel The Duke's Children of the latter. When I say public affairs, of course I don't mean Trollope ignores their private effect on characters. Here, in Cousin Henry, the publication of an old gentleman's will has a devastating impact on several people's personal lives.

The plot is rather complex, but boils down to the following. Mr Indefer Jones is nearing the end of his life, and has no children. He has a nephew, Henry, whom he dislikes, but, conservative in his thinking, Mr Jones makes a will in favour of this male heir. But just before his death he changes his mind and wills his estate to another relative, a young woman named Isabel.

The later will is properly witnessed, but not by a lawyer. It's stowed away in the old man's book-room, and when he dies it isn't found. The earlier will is, and Cousin Henry inherits.

But then Cousin Henry finds the later will, and thus a classic Trollopian moral dilemma is set up. Will Henry reveal the new will? Will he destroy it? If he simply leaves the new will hidden in the book-room, can he remain innocent in his own mind, as well as in the minds of other people?

Cousin Henry's predicament is 'difficult and precarious'. With the lightest of touches, and with great sympathy and even-handedness, Trollope explores the vacillations of this troubled 'half-innocent' man. The result is a strong and original portrait.

Cousin Henry is a powerful exploration of conscience. It has convincing characters and a page-turning plot. And it's short. I liked it enormously. I'm back on the Trollope horse.

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

...an 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)

Latecomers
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?


Visitors
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.