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.