Saturday, 25 December 2021

That Punitive Meal

For Christmases of the classic Brooknerian sort, one heads to Fraud (see here and here) and A Family Romance (here). A later Brookner, The Rules of Engagement, offers variations on the theme.

...her happy voice on the telephone, as she told me that she had been invited to the Fairlies on Christmas Day for lunch, or was it dinner? whatever that punitive meal was called...

The narrator's own seasonal plans are at this point 'obstinately' shapeless, and later resolve into an organised walk with baffled Japanese students. In the narrator's, or Brookner's, hesitancy over what to call the Yuletide feast, one learns everything about her sense of exclusion - though here the narrator, unlike so many Brooknerians, is solidly English. In A Family Romance the celebratory meal is firmly 'lunch'. I'm not sure what I'd decide. The meanings, in England at least, of lunch, dinner, tea and supper are determined by class and slippery as eels. One plumps for one or another at one's peril.

Sunday, 19 December 2021

Book of the Year

When I arrived in the college, I had already moved about a good deal among the layers of society; and I had not come to the end of my journey yet. I had the luck to live intimately among half a dozen different vocations. Of all those I had the chance to see, the college was the place where men lived the least anxious, the most comforting, the freest lives.
This very nearly became a book of a few days. I'd never read C. P. Snow before, assuming him a bargain-basement Anthony Powell. The novel sequence Strangers and Brothers was always going to be compared with A Dance to the Music of Time. Snow's roman fleuve is less literary, flatter in tone, less continuous. One can dive in at any point, rather as with Trollope. The Trollope analogue is apposite: politics, in several arenas - here, those of a Cambridge college - are the novel's themes. More, Snow said he wanted to write as it were a nineteenth-century novel about the twentieth.

But I was not immediately won over. The fellows of the college are engaged in electing a new Master. All are white men - it's 1937 - and there are a lot of them. I found myself irritably flicking back and forth to remind myself who was who. Snow, again like Trollope, specialises in character, and the reader perhaps shouldn't hope to keep up with all the details.

Gradually, though, I became involved. Who would win the vote? Who was up, who down? The atmosphere of the novel seduces too. That atmosphere is hermetic: not a single scene takes place outside the college. In something of a further iteration of the classical unities, a year passes, winter to winter; this is a wintry novel, right from the start.

It is probably also a novel for one's later years. Snow is interested in middle and old age, which he expertly dissects:

Just as a mature man dismisses calf love with a smile, because he can no longer feel it (though it may once have caused him the sharpest pain), so Pilbrow, that vigorous old man, smiled indifferently at the triumphs and sufferings of the middle-aged. Suddenly one encountered blankness at a point where one expected sympathy and response. He looked just as he had looked ten years before; he could still feel passionately about his deepest concerns; but those concerns were narrowing, and one knew at last that he was growing old.

'Half a dozen different vocations': I have since treated myself to two further Snows. Corridors of Power is said to be Yes Minister minus the jokes; and The Conscience of the Rich is about an Anglo-Jewish family in what we - or I, at least - would now call Brooknerian London.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

An Abominable Process

Clowns do not make one laugh. Undersized, deliberately grotesque, on the verge of tears, they induce discomfort. Their function is to be humiliated, by powerful men and pretty girls, aided and abetted by the audience, and the process by which this is accomplished is a diabolical set-piece of collusion... We are supposed to identify with clowns because they appeal to the undersized innocents we all know ourselves to be. I suspect this process to be abominable.

Brookner, Soundings, 'The Willing Victim' (TLS review)

Witness, there, in 1979, before a single novel was written, perhaps as neat an insight into the Brookner world as one is ever likely to find: think of Frances in Look at Me, trampled underfoot by the careless and effortless Frasers. Yet Frances is clear-eyed, though her knowledge is of little use. In an early interview Brookner said she felt sorry for her characters, poor things, and yet knew as little as they. '[T]he guileless unfortunate from whom nothing is really hidden', is how Brookner earlier describes Pedrolino, later Pierrot, of the commedia dell'arte (Watteau, 1967). Forever potent, forever unresolved, these were the tensions that would keep Brookner at her desk for decades to come. Take the opening of a late novel, The Bay of Angels (2001) in which the narrator writes of her seduction by and awakening from the fairy tales of childhood, fantasies of transformation and miraculous but fated redemption and ennoblement: 'This strikes me now as extremely dangerous,' avers the Brooknerian avatar.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Mild to Moderate

Objectively speaking, I was not too badly affected by Covid. I stayed out of hospital. I got better. But I had it before it was a common experience for many, and before vaccines were available; my system met the virus as it were innocently. A colleague who caught it at the same time, indeed in the same room, told me she'd ever afterwards been unable to concentrate on her reading. I ask myself now, nine months on, whether I've weathered similar doldrums.

After Klara and the Sun and Dryden, mentioned in an earlier post, I reread The Bostonians, was admiring, but not enchanted. I tried reading Our Mutual Friend again, but found, as ever with Dickens, the higher-class scenes unpersuasive: my reading grew desultory, eventually broke down.

I read some of a novel called Maxwell's Demon, till it got too postmodern even for me, and all of Martin Amis's The Zone of Interest, but more out of horrified fascination than any real appreciation.

I read Kipling: Stalky and Puck of Pook's Hill and 'Mrs Bathurst' and 'The Gardener', the latter two in nice editions I bought in the hope they might add piquancy to my reading. I read Scott's The Monastery and its sequel The Abbot, and enjoyed them to an extent. And I now find myself trolling through the last few chapters of E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia books. Mild to moderate indeed.

I recently bought a 1770 edition of Richardson's Grandison. Readers of this blog will recall my love of Clarissa. I may report back, but I may be some time.*

* In an early essay, Brookner calls Samuel Richardson one of Diderot's 'less defensible enthusiasms', alongside the artist Greuze, and Diderot's own 'terrible middle-class, middle-brow dramas', Le Père de Famille and Le Fils naturel. Even the finest have their blind spots. (Brookner, The Genius of the Future, 1971)

Saturday, 31 July 2021


'Mute oblongs' Brookner calls the photographs Herz lugubriously sifts in The Next Big Thing. A photo sets the ball rolling in Family and Friends; and a Brookner favourite, W. G. Sebald, of course, began the vogue of actually interspersing tracts of text with wordless rectangles that at once somehow reveal and remystify the past.

All photos, of whatever age, are both accessible and resistant. I've considered this in recent weeks as I've traded a collection of cartes de visite I picked up in a job-lot years ago. Patented in the 1850s, this species of visiting card became extremely popular in the following decade. (Oddly enough, I cannot think of references to cartomania in novels of the time, though the likes of Trollope and Thackeray both trotted down to one of the numerous studios that sprang up everywhere. There is an image of Thackeray wearing trousers so aged they have patches on them.) Suddenly the past bursts into the light. The thousands of people, famous and unknown, who posed have a watchful look, not unlike the Tudor noble men and women we see in the drawings of Holbein.

Also fascinating is the community of collectors, and what appeals. I sold cheaply a fishwife scene, little realising Victorian tradespeople were much sought after. A face with character, something indefinable, sells fast, full-length images are preferred, older men are hard to shift, a pet will be snapped up.

The cartes below range from the 1860s to the 1900s. The gentleman in the centre is named, an undistinguished man, but his dates are to be found on the Internet. The girl in the bottom right is one Clair Barth of Bern. The scrawl on the back is otherwise inscrutable. But it is something. Most of these oblongs, of which there are many hundreds on auction sites, remain entirely mute.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Brookner Puts Her Feet up

Christopher Hampton's film of Brookner's 1984 Booker-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, was broadcast on BBC2 on Sunday 2 March 1986 at 10.05 p.m. Brookner would be watching it 'at home, with my feet up, just like anyone else'. The interview she gave the Radio Times on the occasion of the broadcast is light and airy, as befits the medium. But Brookner is Brookner, and darkness glimmers.

'People like the Puseys always win ... You can't keep them at bay. You can only repossess yourself from time to time by examining things really clearly.'

'I like writing, but it's a nerve-wracking, dangerous business.'

'Writers are like stateless persons. They can't easily be absorbed.'

'I don't aspire to anything. I'm non-aligned, I'll settle for being marginal.'

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Honest Affection

Boulanger's Répétition du 'Joueur de flûte' et de la 'Femme de Diomède' chez le prince Napoléon, Musée d’Orsay, is one of those vast canvases in vogue in the middle years of the century before last, a loose baggy monster of the kind that is still found lurking in most art museums, or rather in their archives. There used to be a Hans Makart on display in Hamburg that was truly colossal. It depicted the entry of an emperor into a medieval town – or something like that.

In the Burlington, in 1962, we find a young Anita Brookner commenting thus:

There was, for me, a great reward in seeing precisely the kind of picture against which, we are always told, Manet reacted, although we rarely have an idea of what it looked like. This was La Répétition du 'Joueur de Flûte' dans la maison romaine du prince Napoleon, dated 1861, by Gustave Boulanger, the French Alma-Tadema and, within its limits, not half bad. I particularly liked the attention meted out to the tiger-skin rug on the marble floor, the reproduction of the pink, blue, and yellow Percier and Fontaine décor, and the painstaking red key-pattern painted dizzily around the cornice. It is about time we stopped being frightened of the so-called bad pictures of the nineteenth century (they are, after all, no worse than the so-called good ones of today) and allowed ourselves to expend a little honest affection on them.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Distinctly European

Clues as to Hermione Lee's approach as she begins the process of writing are to be found in the Bookseller. The proposal synopsis reads:

Anita Brookner (1928–2016) is a seductive subject for a literary biography. She was a writer like no other, of stylish brilliance, wisdom, passion, sadness and irony, and she was a magnetic, witty and complex woman, at once well-known and private, candid and secretive, loved by many and close to very few. Her personal style, more French than English, was impeccably self-concealing; her attitude to life was both romantic and grimly realistic.

The publisher adds:

The richness of Brookner’s life, which in recent years has been occluded by a reputation of quiet and isolation, more than warrants another look. Her life was multifaceted, distinctly European, and offers tantalising mysteries.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Brookner Biography Announced

A brief post to let Brooknerians know the moment has arrived: a biography commissioned by Chatto & Windus, to be written by Hermione Lee. Hermione Lee interviewed Brookner on television in the 80s. Brookner joins illustrious company. Lee has lifed, among others, Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Recent Reads

'Kazuo Ishiguro joins Jeanette Winterson and Ian McEwan in the AI debate'? Not quite. Ishiguro, in Klara and the Sun, is only really debating with himself. Klara, an 'Artificial Friend', is his latest defamiliarising narrator. Quite what the purpose is of all Ishiguro's defamiliarising has never been clear, but the ride is often pleasantly disconcerting. Ishiguro has learned from the reaction to The Unconsoled, and scaled back his subsequent narratives. Critics complained The Unconsoled induced nightmare and debility. Skewed perspectives and bizarre quests persist into Klara and the Sun, but jeopardy is lacking, possibly because Klara remains uncanny and unrealised. Is it allegory? Is it about autism? Is it about visual disturbance? It may well be that. I suspect Kazuo Ishiguro suffers from classic migraine. Klara's vision frequently pixelates, and she is driven to perform weird tasks in spite of the oncoming storm. At the centre of the novel is a long, long episode in which Klara tries to walk across a field at nightfall. It's reminiscent of the set piece in When We Were Orphans, where the narrator traverses a bombed-out city in search of his parents. I preferred that novel.

Rather sadly, part of the delight I took in reading John Dryden's translation of the Aeneid was the edition I was sent: a brand-new Penguin Classics, but in 90s livery. I never read Dryden at university. My syllabi were traditional; even so, I suspect Dryden was too Tory. I enjoyed his Aeneid greatly. It's in attractive couplets, and very easy to read. It slips down, though perhaps isn't too quotable.

Exhausted after Christmas - I had Covid, and am still easily fatigued - I read Kipling's Kim. Its episodic, picaresque qualities appealed. I do not recognise the charges often levelled against Kipling. I think he extended both the landscapes and the sympathies of the English novel.

I tried Joseph Andrews - another picaresque - but gave up halfway. I once did the same with Tom Jones. Both the comic and the psychological traditions emerged from the primeval soup of the 1740s, and I guess I'm just on team Richardson.