Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Any Show of Warmth

It's easy at times to sympathise with Brookner's detractors, that small army of reviewers who delighted in reporting she'd written the same book for the umpteenth time with just a few punctuation changes. When we get to late Brookner the echoes of earlier works have become deafening. It could be seen as a service to the fans. We might take pleasure in the evocations of Paris, in the London place names, in a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to someone from an earlier favourite... But the process - Brookner's obsessive retreading and reworking and reimagining - also yields discoveries none of us would be without. Elizabeth in chapter 2 of The Rules of Engagement is 'excluded by some sort of biological misunderstanding'. It's the culmination of a passage that casts back as far as Frances Hinton and Look at Me, and yet manages to be new, and full of new hurt:
...I also knew, or came to know, that I was not the kind of woman who sent out the right messages. This puzzled and saddened me, but I accepted it. I was quite nice-looking, and I thought I behaved like everybody else, but I began to suspect that women are either instantly recognisable as potential lovers or somehow fail the test in ways so subtle that there seems no possibility of adjustment. The result was that however many times I went to the same restaurant I was not greeted with any show of warmth and was left to eat my meal more or less unattended.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Middlemarch: Books Seven and Eight and Finale

[Completing a series on Middlemarch, Book by Book:]

'It's rather a strong check to one's self-complacency to find how much of one's right doing depends on not being in want of money,' says Mr Farebrother in chapter 63. Middlemarch, masquerading as a provincial Trollope-style novel, is strikingly political. Previously, in chapter 60, Eliot satirises the parochialism of the Middlemarchers, 'who sneered at [Will's] Polish blood, and were themselves of a breed very much in need of crossing'. I can think of nothing so Left-leaning (even in Dickens) elsewhere in Victorian fiction.

*

I'm interested in how the writing of one book leads to another. My favourite Eliot is Daniel Deronda, which follows Middlemarch. It begins with a memorable scene of gambling in a German resort - and surely the billiards scene in chapter 66 of Middlemarch has some connection with what its author would come to in her next novel. Likewise the Middlemarchers' reaction to rumours over Ladislaw's possible Jewish heritage points forward to Deronda.

*

'[Bulstrode] went on with the same interrupted enunciation - as if he were biting an objectionable leek' (ch. 67). Earlier in the chapter Lydgate privately objects to a 'broken metaphor' used by Bulstrode. But what are we to make of Eliot's leek simile? Is it meant to be funny? This isn't a humorous scene. When exactly does anyone bite into a leek, and what would an objectionable leek be like?

*

Middlemarch is indeed political throughout. Even in the personal it is political. The perfectibility of human nature is a matter of debate between Farebrother and Dorothea in chapter 72. Farebrother, we know from an earlier scene, is Whiggish, but his views are jaundiced, almost Tory, and he gives a jaundiced view on this topic. But ultra-progressive Dorothea rejoins, 'Then [character] may be rescued and healed'. No one could mistake her for a Tory.

*

Eliot is certainly good with working-class characters - but not with servants. There's a Master Bunney, Dorothea's gardener, and there's Tantripp, her faithful housekeeper or lady's-maid. Both are presented either comically or rather like children. Trantripp is the classic household 'treasure', beloved of the conservative imagination.

*

A young Henry James, reviewing Middlemarch in 1873, found it a 'treasure-house of details, but [...] an indifferent whole'. He thought Dorothea a magnificent but wasted figure. Casaubon dies too early; Dorothea's story stagnates. It all becomes a matter of whether she will or won't marry Will Ladislaw, whom James dismisses as a dilettante.

But at least we have chapter 76, Dorothea and Lydgate's meeting, in which the nobility of Dorothea is able to bloom without check: 'a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity'.

*

It's a mark of Eliot's judgement that the novel's final chapter, prior to the magisterial Finale, focuses on Mary and Fred. The Olympians have left the stage, and the story ends sweetly in comedy.

*

Anyone who has ever wandered the art museums of Germany and Austria will be familiar with the work of Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller. It probably says rather too much about my views and tastes that I gravitate towards the stagnant bourgeois world of the Biedermeier period. But I finish my rereading of Middlemarch with an indulgent look at some Waldmüller paintings that might easily illustrate Eliot's novel - not exactly, but perhaps in terms of tone.

Prince Esterházy’s Councillor Mathias Kerzmann
with his second wife and daughter, 1835
(Detail of above)
Seated girl in white satin dress, 1839
Dr Josef August Eltz and family, 1835
Woman in iridescent green and
salmon-pink gown, 1837

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Rules of Engagement: '...sans que de tout le jour...'

Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse / Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice…
Racine, quoted in Brookner, The Rules of Engagement, ch. 1


The line is associated with dewy-eyed Betsy rather than with the harsher narrator. Yet it seems suitably Brooknerian. Behind every cynic lies a wounded romantic.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Late Style

With the award of the Booker Prize [for The Old Devils] and a knighthood in 1990, Sir Kingsley Amis was set up to become a grand old man of English letters, but his last years were not serene. He developed a 'late style' which was almost as syntactically intricate as Henry James's, but without the latter's compensatory poetic eloquence or the wit of his own earlier novels...
[...]
In an obituary of him I said that Kingsley Amis's vision was in its way as bleak as Samuel Beckett's, but cushioned and concealed by the conventions of the well-made novel.
David Lodge, Lives in Writing (2014)

Lodge adds a caveat to the last remark to the effect that he meant only Amis's later novels were as bleak as Beckett's. As for the bit about Amis's 'late style', Lodge disappointingly doesn't exemplify - in part I suspect because the observation is an impression rather than anything easily demonstrable.

But Lodge's comments interest me as I embark on a reread of Brookner's late novel, her antepenultimate, The Rules of Engagement (2003) - a singularly wintry read (originally published in the depths of winter, the annual 'summer Brookner' by then a thing of the past), and written with the brittle coldness and abstraction of Brookner's own 'late style'. There's an example in the opening chapter:
[Betsy's] eyes would widen with something like shock if she encountered anything less than the plainest of speech, the slightest deviation from the truth. [...] She never entirely lost that faculty, and whatever one knows to be the desirability of honesty, one lives long enough to regret its persistence in others, particularly in those who knew one when one was just as honest oneself.
A lengthy few lines come between those two sentences. One has to search back to find what 'faculty' refers to. An opaque word. Then we have the odd or ambiguous deployment of the word 'regret'. The syntax doesn't help, nor the unusual use of the simple present in the line 'one lives long enough', where we might expect 'one has lived long enough'. Then there's the last clause, which dazzles, confusing us, diverting our attention from Betsy and towards the narrator.

Not that I deplore any of this. I adore it. And why does Brookner do it? Why isn't she plainer? I think it's because she deals in horrors, in things that can only be looked at a little bit askance.

UK first paperback edition

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Middlemarch: Book Six: The Widow and the Wife

[Continuing a series on Middlemarch, Book by Book:]

Rereading Middlemarch, indeed any novel, throws one into communication with one's earlier self. I used to love chapter 54, Dorothea and Will's sad parting, their slowly turning to marble in one another's presence, while their hearts were conscious and their eyes were yearning... Now I respond quite differently, want to hurry on. The feelings, as Brookner says in Fraud, wither somewhat in the middle years.

Will seems very much a less sympathetic figure, and the chapter has bathetic elements I hadn't previously noted. Altogether the parting feels stagy and artificial, as if Eliot were deliberately performing an exercise in this kind of writing. At one point Will is said to require 'a narrative to make him understand [Dorothea's] present feeling'. This is close to being metafictional.

*

Caleb Garth, land agent and Mary's father, is an interesting character - said to be based on George Eliot's own father. Not only is he endearing personally, but also, for Eliot, politically:
It must be remembered that by 'business' Caleb never meant money transactions, but the skilful application of labour. (Ch. 56)
*

The indebtedness to Scott is made clear in chapter 57's epigraph, a sonnet by Eliot that celebrates her childhood love of Waverley and Scott himself, who sent, from 'far away', 'this wealth of joy and noble grief'. We must leave such books behind, she says - somehow 'In lines that thwart like portly spiders ran' (the grammar of that line is slightly muddy) we still live the book, still in our own lives write the tale day by day.

*

Will Ladislaw is once more presented less than sympathetically in chapter 61, in his confrontation with Bulstrode. How could I have missed these things on first reading? On first reading, Will was for me the hero of Middlemarch. But now? Now I see he is 'too arrogantly merciless towards a man of sixty, who was making efforts at retrieval when time had rendered them vain'.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

But Tidy


James Lees-Milne, sharp, catty, camp, Edwardian-born gentleman of letters, one-time Country Houses Secretary at the fledgling National Trust, sported in his later years a slightly risible halo-style 'do'. When, in June 1986, he goes with an old chum to the Royal Society of Literature to listen to Anita Brookner's lecture on the Brothers Goncourt, he finds himself distracted by her hair: 'like a bird's-nest, but tidy,' says he.

He calls her 'a funny little woman, sharp, delicate features, slight of build, soft-spoken'. Her lecture is excellent, and inspires him to read the Goncourts' novels. But, he tells his friend, afterwards he remembers little of what she said (perhaps because he was thinking rather too much about her riah).

It often surprises me (but it probably shouldn't) how infrequently Brookner's name crops up in the diaries and letters of her contemporaries. A couple of mentions in the Roy Strong journals, but practically nothing elsewhere.

Brookner suggested she was a 'devotee' of Lees-Milne when she chose Michael Bloch's biography of the diarist as one of her 'Christmas Books' in the Spectator in 2009 (here). She took the opportunity to set out what were perhaps her own preferred criteria for the genre of life-writing:

Absolute discretion combined with extensive knowledge make this a dignified achievement.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Middlemarch: Book Five: The Dead Hand

[Part of a series on Middlemarch - Book by Book:]

Public and private: Not every novelist tells us about the public and working lives of characters. Trollope does so, and in detail, and George Eliot excels in it. Middlemarch comes alive when politics comes into play, or when such apparently prosaic events occur as Mr Garth taking on more land-agent duties. The hustings scene in chapter 51 is vividly horrible, especially to anyone who, like me, regularly has to speak to large groups.

*

Changes: Eliot continues to trace forensically the changes big and small that society is subject to:
At that time young ladies in the country, even when educated at Mrs Lemon's, read little French literature later than Racine, and public prints had not cast their present magnificent illumination over the scandals of life. (Ch. 43)
It's interesting to realise that Eliot thinks her own age so sexually knowledgeable. The mention of Racine recalls another innocent character, Betsy in Brookner's The Rules of Engagement, who is always quoting idealistically from Bérénice: 'Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse / Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice…'


*

Style:
It may seem strange, but it is the fact, that the ordinary vulgar vision of which Mr Casaubon suspected [Will] - namely, that Dorothea might become a widow, and that the interest he had established in her mind might turn into acceptance of him as a husband - had no tempting, arresting power over him; he did not live in the scenery of such an event, and follow it out, as we all do with that imagined 'otherwise' which is our practical heaven. (Ch. 47)
I hesitate to say this, but I don't altogether get on with Eliot's style. Again and again I come across passages like the above - passages that, well, kind of work but not quite. There's a metaphor at work in the second part - the 'scenery' - but why would it be 'followed out'? And what exactly is a 'practical heaven'?

*

Edward and Dorothea: Thackeray and Hardy pushed at the limits of what was expressible. Eliot is more high-minded. But we really would benefit from more information; it would not be gratuitous. What exactly does or doesn't go on in the Casaubons' bedroom?

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Ratner Word

There was always something facile, even hysterical, about these [early] reviews (I should know; I wrote one). The annual Brookner offered a cheap shot to young critics, eager to savage a scandalous bearer of bad tidings about ageing and loneliness. Yet now she agrees with those snapping puppies. 'I hate those early novels. I think they're crap. Maybe I needed to write them. I far prefer what I'm doing now.' Yes, she does use the Ratner* word. It's like hearing a duchess cuss. Why are they crap? 'They're morbid, they're introspective and they lead to no revelations.' Has she a favourite among her works? 'I don't like any of them very much.'


Elsewhere Brookner said she wrote only a first draft. There were no revisions. There just wasn't time.

There just wasn't time. This is significant. She came late to fiction. She was fifty-three when A Start in Life was published. Had she started earlier, might she have considered a wider kind of revisionism - something of the kind undertaken by Henry James, who, in the last years of his career, took on the punishing task of revising and republishing the bulk of his output? It was indeed onerous - it made him ill - and the New York Edition didn't sell well. There are stories of remaindered copies being used for waste paper, or kindling, or something (my memory's vague), during the Great War.

James was a born writer, like Edith Wharton (Brookner calls her that in her Introduction to Wharton's short stories), and Brookner probably wasn't. It seems only born writers, writers who start alarmingly young, are likely to play the revising game. Brookner was content to write off chunks of her early work, but she wouldn't have considered rewriting it. She still had work to do. There just wasn't time.

Revisions, anyhow, can be disastrous. I won't hear a word against James, early, mid or late, original or revised - but I would like to consider a poem by W. H. Auden, 'Brussels in Winter', which exists in two versions:


Wandering the cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains silent in the frost,
The city still escapes you, it has lost
The qualities that say ‘I am a Thing.’

Only the homeless and the really humbled
Seem to be sure exactly where they are,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like the Opera.

Ridges of rich apartments rise tonight
Where isolated windows glow like farms:
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn the stranger right
To warm the heartless city in his arms.

(1938)


Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains rigid in the frost,
Its formula escapes you; it has lost
The certainty that constitutes a thing.

Only the old, the hungry and the humbled
Keep at this temperature a sense of place,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like an Opera-House.

Ridges of rich apartments loom to-night
Where isolated windows glow like farms,
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn a stranger right
To take the shuddering city in his arms.

(1966)


What is lost? Some conversational idiosyncrasy, I think. Some immediacy. But clarity is gained. 1960s Auden wants to be clear; he wants to avoid what he calls in the Foreword to his Collected Shorter Poems 'slovenly verbal habits'.

Had Brookner revised her early novels she might perhaps have eliminated one or two minor inelegances. Issues with tone in A Start in Life. Clumsy shifts in point of view in Lewis Percy. But at what cost?

*

*Gerald Ratner ran a British High Street jewellery chain. In 1991 he made an ill-advised speech in which he described his goods as 'crap', this being what he saw as the secret of his success. The comment wasn't well received, to say the least.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Middlemarch: Books Three and Four

[Part of a series on Middlemarch - Book by Book:]

Was it Barbara Hardy who spoke of Eliot's fondness for setting scenes of disenchantment in the full light of day? Eliot is the poet of disillusionment, and nowhere more so than in chapter 28 of Middlemarch, when the Casaubons return home. It's snowy, it's pitilessly daylit; and Dorothea is assaulted with the full force of her new knowledge. In particular she sees the limitations placed on her on account of her gender: 'the volumes of polite literature in the bookcase' that look like the 'immovable imitations of books'. She wants to be useful, to lead a useful and intellectual life, but she is allowed only 'the gentlewoman's oppressive liberty'. Even now these passages have the power to disturb.

Eliot tries to be evenhanded, or she gives a show of evenhandedness:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea - but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? (Ch. 29)
But what she finds out about Casaubon is devastating: he'll never be possessed, she tells us, by 'the glory we behold' (note the 'we'); his self is 'hungry' and 'shivering'; he is 'scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted'. So much for Casaubon's 'point of view'; one almost feels indignant on his behalf. He's no match for George Eliot - and how great the contrast between the steadily growing Books of Middlemarch, and poor Casaubon's hopeless notebooks. Sometimes a limited view has greater integrity.

One thing worthy of note in Books Three and Four is George Eliot's playing with the narrative conventions beloved of her contemporaries. Old Mr Featherstone's deathbed scene, his venal mourners, and the issues with his will invoke the cliches of, among others, Dickens and Trollope. I'm not sure Eliot does anything with them, other than view them with a superior and slightly mocking eye. But only slightly mocking. The love lives of her characters, for example - she's as much invested in them as is the most innocent reader.

A further point I may have overlooked on my original reading: the care with which Eliot delineates the social classes in the novel. This is most clear at Featherstone's funeral, when Mrs Cadwallader speaks to the Chettams condescendingly of the Vincys. It's a sharp surprise to find that these characters, whom we know so well, not only don't know each other, but wouldn't think or choose to.

Book Four ends with a night scene between Dorothea and Casaubon that prefigures the relationship between Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond. The connections between Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady are fruitful.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

On a Winter's Afternoon with a Slight Temperature


January 1962 finds Miss Brookner viewing the work of Réquichot in the rue de Miromesnil. His main invention, she sees, is a sort of 3D collage box: animals, birds and flowers cut from glossy magazines. The spectator 'gazes back through the glass as into an aquarium':
This is basically the Victorian scrap-book or screen re-thought and equally absorbing on a winter's afternoon with a slight temperature.
Not perhaps the highest art, she concludes. But she foresees for the fellow a bright future in window-dressing:
All rather ridiculous but, to quote Henry James, 'the French spirit is able to throw a sort of grace even over a swindle of this general order'.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Mai 1968: Crates of Overturned Cherries

Where was Anita Brookner during the Paris événements of May 1968? Evidently not in Paris, to judge from her review of Mavis Gallant's Paris Notebooks (Observer, 10 January 1988). (Brookner was probably in Cambridge, working out her year as Slade Professor.)

Brookner knew about revolutions - the French kind in particular - and was in no doubt that this was one. But was it, in Wordsworth's words, 'very heaven'? Probably not, but it makes for 'excellent reading'. And so too does the Brookner account, even if not firsthand, of that strange Parisian moment from fifty years ago:
Certain scenes were so surreal that they seem to have been enacted from 'A Tale of Two Cities', such as the incident in Les Halles when truckdrivers, wading through crates of overturned cherries, fought with manifestants, then gave up and pressed the fruit to their mouths, chins running with juice, to be joined by the whores of the district: Dickens shading into Zola. Most surreal of all was the behaviour of De Gaulle, re-enacting the Orphic or Messianic myth, disappearing to Baden-Baden, and then reappearing to put an end to the whole thing, timing his return to the exact moment when the euphoria had run out.
(In Brookner's novel The Rules of Engagement (2003) we are given another vision of Paris in May 1968.* It is Betsy, the novel's narrator's wide-eyed friend, who experiences and reports the events. Comparisons are duly made with 1789 and 1848. There's an older man who talks of the bliss of being young at such a time. The narrator, like Brookner, consigned to England, views things with a more sceptical eye. When Betsy says, 'It was like La Bohème', Elizabeth cannot but rejoin, 'Which ends badly.')

* At least we assume it's 1968. Brookner's novels are notoriously sketchy as to dating. Not long afterwards we're told it's the 1980s, yet there's no sense that such a period has passed.