Friday, 17 January 2020

Sheer Sharpness and Elegance of Mind

Rupert Christiansen in this week's Telegraph:
For sheer sharpness and elegance of mind, I have never encountered anyone to match the art historian and novelist Anita Brookner. I used to sit next to her on a tedious committee otherwise stuffed with blowhard civil servants: the way she could cut through their pompous waffle with a single pithy point was awe-inspiring. 'Idiotic men!' she would mutter furiously under her breath when the meeting was over. 
[She left the bulk of her estate to] Médecins Sans Frontières, the no-nonsense charity that sends doctors to war‑torn areas. There was nothing sentimental about Anita, but her kindness ran as deep as her intelligence.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Brookner's Will

Anita Brookner featured somewhat incongruously in the British media this weekend when details of her last will and testament were emblazoned across a page of the Mail on Sunday and here on the Mail Online site. No other papers picked up the story, though I think the Express may have run with it on the following day. Incongruous again.

In fact it was thin enough to be a non-story. The main point seemed to be that she'd left the bulk of her estate to the medical charity Médecins sans Frontiéres. Quite why this might be of interest is anyone's guess. There's possibly an undercurrent in the reporting, given that the subject of foreign aid isn't particularly flavour of the month at either the Mail or the Express.

Brookner's interest in MSF was already known, as an earlier Brooknerian post makes clear (see here). The reason for her interest in the charity isn't clear. But should it be?

Other details in the Mail article are in any case more salient: the references to artworks by Manet, Lear and Romney. I knew about the first two, but not the Romney.* The Manet was his portrait of Baudelaire.** It can be seen on the wall in one or two photos of Brookner.

And then this. Tantalising indeed.
Brookner left her literary agent Bill Hamilton any 'manuscripts, letters, art books and unfinished literary material' which he wanted and requested that all her other papers be destroyed.

* 'I was greeted with a welcoming smile and led into her small, bright drawing room. It overlooks a long, pleasant communal garden, with a huge chestnut tree on one side. On the walls are a few pictures by Edward Lear, an etching portrait of Baudelaire by Manet, and rows of bookshelves.'
 Shusha Guppy, 'The Secret Sharer: A Profile of Anita Brookner', World and I, July 1998

** 'Baudelaire's main criticism of Manet was the latter's desire to arrive and be accepted, a quality far removed from the detachment of the true dandy.'
Brookner, 'Baudelaire', The Genius of the Future

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Legends of Brookner

A measure of the addictiveness of an author is the quantity of legendary material that surrounds her. Dickens does not inspire the Dickensian life, nor Trollope the Trollopian. One doesn't long to be subject to a Bildungsroman, living in a world where everyone has a funny name*; nor to be a provincial clergyman or a British parliamentarian. But one follows yearningly the course set out by Brookner, odd and unique as it may prove. She is uncompromising: this is the life, and it is the only life to live.

To Germany again, for she perversely visited small towns and cities in France and Germany, the more obscure the better. To Karlsruhe, to the Staatliche Kunsthalle, where I saw a Hans Baldung Grien exhibition...

...along with favourites from the permanent collection: this Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck...

...and this Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Loose Living:

The St Anthony, one of the most arresting paintings, is hidden away and uncelebrated. You can't even buy a postcard of it.

In Stuttgart I had to race round the picture gallery and the Tiepolo show before it closed early for New Year's Eve. In the evening I saw La Cenerentola at the rather dowdy opera house - but a riotous and joyous performance, with singers invading the stalls, cross-dressing, quotes from the 'Dinner for One' TV sketch Germans love so much, and general Silvester horseplay.

*Enjoined by her emigrant father to read Dickens from an early age, that she might discover the key to Englishness, she was, she said, surprised to find, at school, that not every English person had 'a funny name'.

Addictive Reading

Too often disappointing, sometimes one's reading truly works, in the way it worked in childhood. How often as an adult does one experience that? When I first read Hotel du Lac, at seventeen, one summer. When I read The Small House at Allington, another summer, in Rome. When I read Anthony Powell, tears smarting in my eyes in an Amsterdam hotel breakfast-room as I learned, via a throwaway remark, of poor Stringham's death.

Rereading almost never matches up. Or else one identifies with new things. In Great Expectations I am cold now to the story of Pip's love for Estella. But I break down when Pip tells Magwitch, at the last, that his lost child lives and is now a lady. Or when old Pip returns to the forge to find Jo and Biddy and their own little son - and Pip sees himself: 'sitting on my own little stool looking at the fire, was - I again!'

Guilty reading can be compulsive too. I'm halfway through May at 10, Anthony Seldon's almost day-by-day account of the Theresa May premiership. It's a horror story. I wince on every page. Why would anyone with so few of the required skills put herself through the hell of being Prime Minister? It's the human details that shine through: a shattered Mrs May falling asleep during a meeting; May's too rare moments of largesse - wine and crisps from Waitrose; her unlucky encounter with a rowdy stag-party of Englishmen at a tourist spot in Estonia. Her security team feared the worst, but the revellers were delighted to meet her, and all wanted selfies.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

The Captain and the Enemy

My school librarian (I spent most lunchtimes in the school library), a Mrs Davies, very Welsh, was a literary woman. Gradually down the years one pieces together one's prehistory. She was over the moon when Graham Greene wrote what was to be his final novel, The Captain and the Enemy; she even had a publisher's promotional poster, which she displayed in the library. This was in, I now learn, 1988.

I saw The Captain and the Enemy in a charity shop, and was at once transported. I had to have it. Such discoveries are like reclaiming the lost past.

The Captain and the Enemy concerns a conman. Who else does these plausible figures with such aplomb? Le Carré of course; Brookner has several too: an Ainsworth in Fraud, a Colonel in A Friend from England. An ersatz military moniker is often de rigueur.

Greene's Captain arrives at the narrator's boarding school, claiming to have won him from his father in a game of backgammon. The boy follows the Captain to a fading down-at-heel suburban address, where he lives for the rest of his childhood as the adopted son of a woman named Liza. The Captain visits infrequently, never without a tall tale or a promise of better times just around the corner. Later passages, when the narrator is grown up, take place in Panama (where else?), where the mystery of the Captain at last unravels.

I read most of Greene in my youth, but in recent years I've picked up the odd, less regarded, later novels and found them rather wonderful. The Captain and the Enemy is a bonne bouche, yet with unexpected moments of sympathy and pathos. Mrs Davies had taste.

Monday, 2 December 2019

And a fox coughed in Markham Square...

A curious anecdote, this, from the Chelsea Society (see here) - reminding us, as ever, that so reclusive a figure as Brookner was in some sense doomed to be constructed by such stories (as she surely knew):
A resident who was on greeting terms with the novelist, the late Anita Brookner recounts this very early morning exchange on a near-deserted summer King’s Road. Resident: ‘Good morning, Miss Brookner, and what an exceptionally bright and sunny morning it is.’ Anita Brookner: ‘Quite so. And passing Markham Square I heard a fox cough.’

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Home and Abroad

I was writing this book during the last year or so before Britain's deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union.
Julian Barnes, 'Author's Note', The Man in the Red Coat (2019)

Not a few critics of The Man in the Red Coat have made good use of Barnes's afterword, in which he makes tentative links between the Parisian fin de siècle world that is the book's topic and the troubled politics and discourses of today. Altogether, The Man in the Red Coat is something of a disappointment. Its art and literary criticism are second to none, and it is richly illustrated, but it is confusing book, with meanderings that mimic W. G. Sebald but without his unpredictability. I found it smelt a little too much of the lamp. I fear the red-coated Pozzi, whose Sargent portrait Dr Pozzi at Home, inspired Barnes's book, may simply not be very fascinating as a subject.

Ah, but when was Julian Barnes writing? That's what perversely interests me. Was it in 2015, the year before Britain's EU Referendum? That's when Barnes first saw the picture, in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. But the UK didn't 'depart' from the EU in 2016. The UK remains a full member to this day.

Perhaps Barnes means he wrote the book in 2018, the year before the first expiry of the Article 50 period? The book was published shortly after the next major departure deadline of the end of last month: so maybe Barnes believed the Prime Minister's 'do-or-die' pledge to extract the country from the European bloc by that date. I guess the 'Author's Note' was probably penned for posterity, for a future time when Barnes fatalistically supposes Brexit will be a fait accompli.

I note the absence of Anita Brookner's name from the book's Acknowledgements page. If ever something was written for her, or would have benefited from her input, this is it. She died in March 2016, and Barnes lamented the first year of her 'deathtime' in an article in the London Review of Books a year later (LRB, 27 April 2017), a piece in which he also inveighed against Brexit and the turbulence of the times. The Man in the Red Coat is, I reckon, a book to return to, but when the dust has settled.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Sensational Innocence

The novel of sensation, that mid-Victorian phenomenon typified in the novels of Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood and, to an extent, Dickens (Great Expectations) and Trollope (The Eustace Diamonds), grew out of the earlier success of the Gothic novel, though now the terror and disruption are domesticated, rooted in the modern world of the 1860s: railways, the telegraph, suburbs, the anxious middle classes and the rising lower orders.

East Lynne, Wood's breathless blockbuster of 1860, tells a story of murder, jealousy and unwise alliances. There are aristocrats, but they're on the way out. Like Collins, Ellen Wood knows better the grimy world of the middle classes, of anonymous uncertain suburbia. The novel is fast, slangy, sloppy, trashy - quintessentially 'sensational'.

Anita Brookner, a regular reviewer in the highbrow journals, once in a way was given a little something to tickle her fancy. Can we believe she was asked to write about Catherine Cookson (see post here) or The Thorn Birds (here)? She read them with a sort of fascinated awe, praising both for their innocence.

Monday, 28 October 2019

The Man in the Red Coat

One looks forward to Julian Barnes's forthcoming The Man in the Red Coat. The painting that inspires the book, Dr Pozzi at Home by John Singer Sargent, and Sargent himself, crop up interestingly in the Brookner literature.

For more, see here and here.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

The Observer Observed

Accounts of meetings with Anita Brookner are often treasurable. Julian Barnes (follow the 'Julian Barnes' label at the foot of this post) was a friend; Roy Strong enjoyed several chance encounters (ditto 'Roy Strong'); James Lees-Milne commented acidly on her hair (here); and even I once met her, not quite by chance, in a London street (here).

The artist Zsuzsi Roboz sketched a portrait of her, the experience of which Roboz wrote about in 2011:

In the case of my meeting with Anita Brookner, I felt this was an occasion for mutual observation; she didn't miss a thing and seemed to be storing up every detail of my character and appearance as much as I was hers. The 'face to face' project was, in a sense, a series of duels between myself and the sitter, and also an occasion to witness the observer observed.

The resulting picture, with its clairvoyant stare, complements the many memorable photographs of the author, and can be seen here.