Monday, 23 October 2017

Stendhal Again and Again

If Anita Brookner's Collected Journalism were ever published it would run to several volumes. One discovers things all the time. I've been looking through the Guardian / Observer archives, and today I come across some fresh Stendhal material.

Was there ever a more Brooknerian figure? Writers, in writing of other writers, not invariably write about themselves, and this is surely the case with Brookner and Stendhal.

Her review in June 1994 of Jonathan Keates biography is a straightforward retread of familiar ground, including an outing for that favourite line of Brookner's, about the after-dinner cigar. (See here.)

But a piece from January 1991, about a translation of Lucien Leuwen, delivers the most authentic hits. We find here the Brooknerian ideal just as much as the Stendhalian. And note how Brookner undermines everything with her little line within brackets.
The idea that fulfilment can be achieved by courage, chivalry, a resolute indifference to past events, and what he called gaîeté de coeur is the reason why all should read him, for his singular and unique lesson is that heroism is easily available, and that one can, by feeling correctly, achieve the upper hand, even over disastrous situations. The lesson once learnt (but it takes a lifetime) will bring a freedom which no shock or reversal can palliate.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Just Do Mention Jane Austen

I never felt very easy about Jane Austen: I think she made a tremendous, far-reaching decision to leave certain things out. She forfeited passion for wit, and I think that led her to collude with certain little strategems which are horrifying in real life. She wrote about getting husbands.
Anita Brookner speaking to John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview, Methuen 1985

Observer: What did you read as a child?
Brookner: Ah! Dickens. My father fed me Dickens. Two novels for my birthday, two novels for Christmas until I'd read the lot. And after that I think it was H.G. Wells, for some reason. I've been talked about in the same context as Jane Austen. I didn't stick that label on myself, other people did. Quite inaccurate. I've never got on very well with Jane Austen.
2001 Observer interview 'Just don't mention Jane Austen'

I decided to reread Pride and Prejudice - tried to read it with an innocent eye, as if for the first time, as if I didn't know anything about it.

Something of an impossible task, I found. For one thing I felt haunted by film and television Darcys and Elizabeths. Just couldn't shake them off. So I tried, as Nabokov would have advised, to focus on the author.

What does Jane Austen think of the limited and oppressive world she depicts or rather creates? She's both an insider and an outsider, at once disaffected and invested in it. Take the interaction between Mr Bennet and Elizabeth on first meeting Mr Collins:
Mr Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in the occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure. (Ch. 14)
This is subtly but not radically subversive; it is subversion from within, and probably as far as Austen is prepared to go. Her world is simultaneously cosy and comfortless. She's a satirist, but a conservative satirist.

Pride and Prejudice isn't comic throughout. It shows its eighteenth-century, Richardsonian roots in its sombre passages, in extended discussions and conversations about friendship and conduct. Austen might be said to achieve a balance between the modes of that century, between the comedy of Smollett and Sterne and the high seriousness of Samuel Richardson.

Additionally Austen is good at undercutting her comedy. Mr Bennet's 'You have delighted us long enough', aimed at the talentless Mary, is a famous put-down, but Austen's quiet authorial follow-up renders Mr Bennet a cynic and Lizzy ever more the human and moral centre of the book:
Mary, though pretending not to hear, was somewhat disconcerted; and Elizabeth, sorry for her, and sorry for her father's speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good. (Ch. 18)
What is there in Brookner's cavils? Austen does indeed write about getting husbands, but the lives of the Bennet sisters and their circle are far more socially precarious than the existence of anyone in Brookner. Miss Lucas's 'pure and disinterested desire of an establishment', for example (ch. 22), carries with it the burden of rather shocking knowledge. Jane Austen may have left certain things out, but they're never far from the surface.

It's a realistic, unromantic world. As such it is unBrooknerian. For all its apparent bleakness and astringency, Brookner's world is strongly glamorous and full of art. Brookner heroines are not realistic, not given to compromise - not least because they don't need to compromise. The resources of Austen's personages, both inner and outer, are more limited. In the unusually lengthy chapter 43 Elizabeth visits Pemberley for the first time and her views on Mr Darcy undergo a change, not only in response to the positive comments she hears of him from his servants but also because, having seen his magnificent and tasteful house, she realises what a thing it would be to become its mistress. This is certainly honest, but also mercenary, and we might well register some disapproval (and indeed at the end of the novel Austen returns to the moment, giving a less objectionable interpretation). A little later in chapter 43 Elizabeth shows scant regard for Pemberley's 'many good paintings'. 'Elizabeth knew nothing of the art,' Austen tells us. Sketches of the Darcy family are more to Elizabeth's taste - more interesting, more intelligible. There is always irony in Austen but here it doesn't seem to be directed at Elizabeth but more at those (such as a lady or gentleman in an Anita Brookner novel) who might prefer Darcy's great pictures. Jane Austen is no bluestocking, and nor is Lizzy: that is the message. But Austen is possibly a philistine - and I wonder whether that's one of the reasons she's now such a national treasure. (Poor Mary's bookishness is likewise a matter for ridicule and disdain.)

I ended my revisiting of Pride and Prejudice slightly baffled, and more than slightly awed. Jane Austen made, perhaps, a tremendous, far-reaching decision to leave certain things out. But one might equally suggest she merely withholds those things, and the pleasure of the text lies in tracing their outlines. A thing I would say for sure: I do not always enjoy the novels I read. But I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, enjoyed it with a continuous pleasure. And it is a pleasure that's to be found, as Nabokov correctly said, in the company of the author.

To me at least, please do mention Jane Austen.

* * *

One reason I've been reading Pride and Prejudice again (not having read it since my teens) is that 2017 is the bicentenary of Jane Austen's death - an event marked by the Bank of England in its own special way. Of course no one really knows exactly what Jane Austen looked like: she lived before the age of photography, and her sister Cassandra's sketch in the National Portrait Gallery is not very accomplished. But the Bank of England chose instead a mid-Victorian prettified portrait created for a relation's memoir of the author. But this is in keeping. The designs on English banknotes since the mid-1990s have, it seems to me, tended towards the fussy and the chintzy. And the portrait of the Queen on the front is neither idealised nor a perfect likeness.

(The Pride and Prejudice quotation on the note is also worth a word or two. See a well-considered Guardian piece here.)

Friday, 20 October 2017

Orphans by Definition

When Eileen Simpson, who has written a remarkable and moving book, went back to visit the convent, which she now realised for the first time was an orphanage, she was told by the gardener that it had been turned into an old people's home. Old people are orphans by definition. Thus those who were spared the experience at the beginning will come to it at the end. She avoids this reflection. She remains a wise and resilient adult in her middle years. The rest may be too difficult to contemplate.
Anita Brookner, review of Orphans: Real and Imaginary
by Eileen Simpson, Observer, April 1988

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Undue Influence: Closing Remarks

After Undue Influence (1999) there came an unprecedented gap in the publication pattern Anita Brookner had established over nearly twenty years. There was something in 2000, but it was a book of art criticism, Romanticism and Its Discontents. In 2001 the fiction resumed, but Brookner told Robert McCrum she hadn't intended to write the novel of that year. Undue Influence might well therefore have been Brookner's last novel.

We read Undue Influence now, or I do, as pointing forward to the darker novels of the 2000s. For sure it is a bleak tale, all the more so for the breeziness of its opening chapters. The sly author lulls you into the impression that this is some kind of easy-going Brookner-lite, before steadily turning the screw. Towards the end you realise you're keeping company with a narrator who may well be mentally ill, and a writer who's intent on ruthlessly clearing the decks of extraneous plot so that she can concentrate on heaping the maximum humiliation on her hapless protagonist.

How Claire Pitt suffers! Brookner deprives her of every support. I always find very terrible that moment when she considers spending an entire holiday in Hyde Park. The novel's ending, as grim but more concise than the conclusion to Look at Me, never fails to shock, even though on rereading the reader has probably been able to spot the careful way Brookner has seeded the whole novel with clues.

One of the novel's concluding lines:
It was the greatest failure of my life and no future success could ever obliterate it.
- brings to mind again the question of the time scheme. The suggestion here is of a long retrospect, which is at odds with the closer focus at work throughout the novel. But if this suggests a lack of novelistic polish, it also, I think, successfully evokes the unfinished rawness of the heroine's truly terrible experience.


The Brooknerian will now take a break, returning in a week or two with consideration of, among other things, Brookner's relationship with a writer who's currently in her bicentenary year. Yes, just do mention Jane Austen!

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Undue Influence: Transitional

'Of course. Goodbye, Muriel. I hope it all...' All what? Goes well? How could it? They were finished, that was manifest. And they had done so well! Such spotless lives, shipwrecked at the last, when they had not expected it! Even Muriel had now given in, or rather given up. Applause erupted from the television. 'Don't see me out, Muriel. You must be rather tired.'
'Yes,' she said. 'I am tired. Thank you, Claire. Goodbye.'
'Goodbye,' I said. But she had already turned away.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, end of ch. 15

Undue Influence is truly a transitional novel, linking the 1990s Brookners with the markedly darker works she wrote in the new century. Age and then the only end of age would now be more clearly than ever before her unfashionable but necessary themes, and was there ever a more affectingly restrained depiction than the one above? That laughter, 'erupting' from the TV, and that little flurry of exclamation marks. Always look out for exclamation marks in Brookner.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize pleases me greatly, and it would have pleased Anita Brookner, who championed Ishiguro’s work, especially his earlier novels. She particularly liked his much maligned fourth novel The Unconsoled (see her Spectator review here), a work I’ve never quite plucked up the courage to reread. It infected my dreams.

I saw Ishiguro in Edinburgh in August 2000. He was a short, slightly plump figure with long mobile fingers and a clipped, patrician voice. He was speaking about his fifth novel, When We Were Orphans, which, like The Remains of the Day, is set around the second world war. He worried, he said, that the war might be a ‘technical convenience’ these days, but felt that the great questions of our age might be tackled better by not setting a novel in the modern affluent free world.

Servitude had been the theme of The Remains of the Day. The English and the Japanese soul were, he said, similar, in their reverence for order, though he was ‘never aware of making deep comments on the Japanese or British class system’. The starting point for Remains had been a universal metaphor: we’re all butlers – butlers in our position vis-à-vis power.

Some people said he was very English, others that he was very Japanese. But it was all surface mannerism. We all avoid or hide dangerous emotions, he said - even in California, where they seem so ‘open’. But really they’re not. Therapy-speak self-presentation is merely another mask behind which we hide.

He went on: Nostalgia has had a bad press, but it’s a very pure emotion, and harks back to childhood. What idealism is to the intellect, so nostalgia is to the emotions. It’s about remembering when the world was a kinder place and making the journey into the adult world, and feeling with regret that that world isn’t such a sunny place. Mine, he said, is a peculiarly motivated fictional world. I will take a notion people have of, say, someone who’s ‘looking for a father figure’ – and then bend reality so that a character actually is looking for her father.

My writing, he said, is about the urge to mend something you can’t possibly mend through writing. Memory is endlessly fascinating – it’s the filter through which we tell things about ourselves. Not what happened but what we tell ourselves happened. In my novels the viewpoint is really a long way inside the narrator's head.

Reminds me of something...

Undue Influence: Moths That Fly by Day

It was only August, but the summer was virtually finished. Thick cloud was rarely pierced by anything resembling normal sunshine, and what heat there was was excessively humid, spoiled. Only that morning I had found a large moth spreadeagled on my bedroom wall, with no tremor at my approach. This attitude seemed to mirror my own inertia, although inertia now seemed to me something of a luxury I could no longer afford.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 15

That moth: one is reminded irresistibly of Virginia Woolf and that late essay of hers.
Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species...
Virginia Woolf, Anita Brookner: moths that flew by day.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Undue Influence: a Certain Opacity of Behaviour

I was disheartened by the fact that he was entirely at home in this place, and furthermore in places where a certain opacity of behaviour was the norm - restaurants, luxury hotels, sojourns in other people's houses. There would be little room for spontaneity, for direct exchange, even for a kind of honesty.
Anita Brookner, Undue Influence, ch. 11

Claire Pitt has at last cornered Martin Gibson, but he's insisted on squiring her to a top restaurant: she feels awkward; he is in his element; the evening is the typical Brookner meal-related disaster.

I wonder: was the behaviour of the guests at the Hotel du Lac similarly opaque? But that was in 1984, and this is 1999. Brookner, in her critique of the luxury lifestyle, is acknowledging a new world, quite divorced from the sort of traditional establishment she celebrated in her earlier novel. It's the world of big business, the world of corporate wealth. 'Money would have schooled these people,' she says a little later; ', rather than anything as vulgar as class.' As vulgar as class? The old Hotel du Lac was riddled with class, but now it would be quite different. (And indeed it is, as my visit this summer attested.)

Brookner moves on. With Undue Influence we're leaving the old century, but Brookner isn't fazed. She mightn't have kept up to date with all aspects of the modern world, but like Virginia Woolf she did know that things change, even human nature.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Six Spectator Sparklers

Anita Brookner's hack work output was prodigious. Here's a selection from three decades of her Spectator reviews and articles. Many more are freely available on the Spectator archive and main sites.

(Click on the titles below to link to the original articles.)

'A Stooge of the Spycatcher', July 1987

The painful astonishment of a deceived soul: that line from Adolphe, via Brookner's Providence, might well be applicable here. Her dismay at being mentioned in Peter Wright's notorious Spycatcher is palpable even at this distance. But the dignity with which she sets out her 'great and steady anger' in this Spectator reply awards Brookner the undoubted moral victory.

'Repose is taboo'd by anxiety', October 1993

This piece on Oliver Sacks's Migraine is magisterial. An essay both restrained and candid.

'Even less fiction than Stranger', May 1994

Brookner, Kafka, Camus, Existentialism: who could ask for more? The 'grandeur de l'homme sans espoir': not for the first time, one senses Brookner writing about herself while ostensibly giving her invaluable verdict on others.

'The master of the indirect', December 1999

Brookner, 'our Henry James' according to one critic, here reads the Master's tales. Her views are as ever instructive, not only as to James's work but also as to her own. She has something to say on being English and being European. The English, she says, are for James synonymous with the Europeans. One doesn't think Brookner herself believed this.

'Sexual tourism à gogo', September 2001

I choose this not just for its rather treasurable title. It also represents an aspect of Brookner's review work that can be ignored: her willingness to engage with writers who would seem, at first blush, rather dissimilar from herself. But wait - look at her words here on Houellebecq's 'paganism' and think of all those references in Brookner's novels to the gods of antiquity. And think of Claire Pitt in Undue Influence, or George Bland in A Private View, and their adventures in foreign climes.

'A singular voice', July 2011

One of Brookner's last reviews. Here she considers Barbara Pym, with whom she was herself bracketed, certainly in the early days. Brookner's judgement on Pym, a 'domestic ironist', is markedly cool. There are mentions of Jane Austen, never a good sign in an Anita Brookner essay.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Undue Influence: Claire Pitt's Holidays

'My mother was the least prurient of women' (Undue Influence, ch. 10): that mother chose not to enquire too deeply into how Claire spent her mysterious holidays. Claire isn't the only Brookner character who has her foreign breakouts, her adventures in out-of-the-way locations. George Bland in A Private View has a fondness for off-grid liaisons. None of this quite comprises sex tourism, but it's something close.

The rather wonderful cover of the latest edition
of A Private View illustrates, perhaps, the beginning
of one of Bland's illicit foreign adventures.

'It occurred to me that one could spend an entire holiday in Hyde Park,' says Claire later in Undue Influence (ch. 18). That she can have such a thought, such lowered expectations, indicates her growing debility, her descent into vagrancy. Claire is one of Brookner's most marginalised protagonists, and Undue Influence one of her rawest novels. And it is all the more unsettling because of the lightness of the opening few chapters. After a certain point the novel gets bleaker and bleaker with every passing line.