Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Top Ten Brookner

The much-loved Backlisted podcast (here) returns with a 'lockdown' episode that includes a lot of Anita Brookner talk. Prompted by discussion about Hotel du Lac, never the most representative Brookner, the chat meanders pleasantly on to the potential for compiling an Anita Brookner 'Top Ten'. At a loose end myself, though this week at the chalkface entertaining the children of keyworkers, I considered the question myself. I'm sure there are similar such lists elsewhere on this blog - I forget, and I don't particularly want to consult them anyhow.

Of course, Brookner - like Henry James, like Trollope, indeed like many prolific authors - passed through phases. Brookner's novels, I contend, fall into three, neatly divided by the decades she wrote in: the raw, vital 80s; the settled magisterial 90s; the bleak, experimental 2000s. A Brookner novel from the 80s seems very different from any of her final works - just as 'James I', 'James II' and 'the Old Pretender' can sound like quite distinct authors.

Another thing: I read Brookner's novels over time, more or less as she wrote them. My affection for certain works is determined by memories of my own life; my preferences at a particular time; associations the novels conjure.

But anyway...

10. A Start in Life (1981). Not actually a favourite, but surely indispensable, if for the astonishing opening chapter alone.

9. Visitors (1997). An elegant character study, and with such a sense of the English summer.

8. A Friend from England (1987). One of Brookner's most disaffected protagonists. Despite all appearances, this is extreme writing.

7. Strangers (2009). Brookner's last, and as bleak as lockdown.

6. Family and Friends (1985). A superior saga, told in the most exquisite and stylish prose.

5. Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995). A deeply affecting study of regret and missed opportunities.

4. The Next Big Thing (2002). Often so well-heeled, Brookner's protagonists seem immune from real harm. But for Julius Herz the abyss is opening at his very feet.

3. A Family Romance (1993). 'Magisterial' is indeed the word.

2. Look at Me (1983). If only for the heroine's seemingly endless night trek through London: almost apocalyptic.

1. A Private View (1994). Poor George Bland, and his unsuitable passion. Yet Brookner's sympathy is boundless.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

The Rev. Henry Fitzackerley Chamberlaine

From The Vicar of Bullhampton, another delicately spiced character sketch to break up your day:
He was a very handsome man, about six feet high, with large light grey eyes, a straight nose, and a well cut chin. His lips were thin, but his teeth were perfect,—only that they had been supplied by a dentist. His grey hair encircled his head, coming round upon his forehead in little wavy curls, in a manner that had conquered the hearts of spinsters by the dozen in the cathedral. It was whispered, indeed, that married ladies would sometimes succumb, and rave about the beauty, and the dignity, and the white hands, and the deep rolling voice of the Rev. Henry Fitzackerley Chamberlaine. Indeed, his voice was very fine when it would be heard from the far-off end of the choir during the communion service, altogether trumping the exertion of the other second-rate clergyman who would be associated with him at the altar. And he had, too, great gifts of preaching, which he would exercise once a week during thirteen weeks of the year. He never exceeded twenty-five minutes; every word was audible throughout the whole choir, and there was a grace about it that was better than any doctrine. When he was to be heard the cathedral was always full, and he was perhaps justified in regarding himself as one of the ecclesiastical stars of the day. Many applications were made to him to preach here and there, but he always refused. Stories were told of how he had declined to preach before the Queen at St. James's, averring that if Her Majesty would please to visit Salisbury, every accommodation should be provided for her. As to preaching at Whitehall, Westminster, and St. Paul's, it was not doubted that he had over and over again declared that his appointed place was in his own stall, and that he did not consider that he was called to holding forth in the market-place. He was usually abroad during the early autumn months, and would make sundry prolonged visits to friends; but his only home was his prebendal residence in the Close. It was not much of a house to look at from the outside, being built with the plainest possible construction of brick; but within it was very pleasant. All that curtains, and carpets, and armchairs, and books, and ornaments could do, had been done lavishly, and the cellar was known to be the best in the city. He always used post-horses, but he had his own carriage. He never talked very much, but when he did speak people listened to him. His appetite was excellent, but he was a feeder not very easy to please; it was understood well by the ladies of Salisbury that if Mr. Chamberlaine was expected to dinner, something special must be done in the way of entertainment. He was always exceedingly well dressed. What he did with his hours nobody knew, but he was supposed to be a man well educated at all points. That he was such a judge of all works of art, that not another like him was to be found in Wiltshire, nobody doubted. It was considered that he was almost as big as the bishop, and not a soul in Salisbury would have thought of comparing the dean to him. But the dean had seven children, and Mr. Chamberlaine was quite unencumbered.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Never glad confident morning again

In the absence of more reliable signposts one seeks parallels in literature. In the time ahead, when every day, for many, will seem like Christmas Day, one thinks of Anna Durrant in Anita Brookner's Fraud (1992), the lonely walk Anna takes across a deserted, Pompeii-still London in windless air under a low grey sky.

Later in the novel another character, the elderly Mrs Marsh, nurses her son Nick through a bout of the flu. His convalescence is powerfully described, the reduction in his routine, his devotion to the predictable rhythms of the Radio 4 schedule.

A recent New Yorker piece (here) considered episodes of social distancing in Victorian novels: Bleak House, Jane Eyre. Elsewhere in Brookner there are more than several chapters on illness and recovery. One recalls the end of Look at Me (1983), Frances cared for like a child after her traumatic night walk; or the horribly extended migraine that afflicts the protagonist in A Misalliance (1986) and the blessed ministrations of a saintly neighbour, with her gifts of lemon barley water and a cold chicken.

In Altered States (1996) Alan Sherwood gets the flu and is looked after by Angela, who soon, almost inevitably, becomes his wife. Somehow his world has changed, his options narrowed:
Illness serves as a corrective: one emerges from it sober but diminished. One learns that one's continuation cannot be taken for granted, or, as the poet puts it, never glad confident morning again.

Saturday, 21 March 2020


Among several scuppered plans was a visit to see the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery, now closed. Seven late masterworks were included, reunited for the first time since they sat in Titian's studio in the second half of the sixteenth century. Paintings would take years, returned to after long absences. 'According to eye witnesses,' writes Martin Gayford, lucky enough to see the show, in this week's Spectator, 'Titian would begin a work, then lean it against the wall. Some time later he would scrutinise what he had done as if it were a "mortal enemy", add a touch or two, set it aside again to dry - and so on until he was satisfied ... there is a controversy about whether some of his late works ... were finished or not.'

Brooknerians will know Titian from the much earlier Bacchus and Ariadne, part of the National Gallery's permanent collection. In The Next Big Thing Julius Herz, one of Brookner's later and most debilitated protagonists, finds consolation and also challenge in front of the painting, its 'shock of blue' and the 'charged glance' that passes between the truant god and the mortal abandoned woman on Naxos. Herz feels 'suddenly faint', excluded from such a world of youth and easy conquests. Other gallery 'pilgrims' (a Brookner word - she spoke of herself as one such) pause before the picture, puzzled but moved to recognition: the recognition that what Bacchus and Ariadne have found is 'the real thing'. 'Quite simply', Brookner tells us, 'nothing could take its place.' 'Even to see it, to hear about it at second hand, was enough to cause wonder. Or indeed dismay.' Bacchus, of course, will grow into a 'sozzled wreck'; the story ends badly. Even so, Brookner honours the matchlessness Herz witnesses in Titian's image. And love, as she said in interview, was ever her theme: all the rest was mere literature. Her standards were always the highest: and there's something joyous - never bleak - about that.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Miss Marrable

What a joy is this passage from Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton. I love the sideswipe at Dickens, and the bit about Wycherley's plays is a sophisticated treat.
As to Miss Marrable herself nobody could doubt that she was a lady; she looked it in every inch. There were not, indeed, many inches of her, for she was one of the smallest, daintiest, little old women that ever were seen. But now, at seventy, she was very pretty, quite a woman to look at with pleasure. Her feet and hands were exquisitely made, and she was very proud of them. She wore her own grey hair of which she showed very little, but that little was always exquisitely nice. Her caps were the perfection of caps. Her green eyes were bright and sharp, and seemed to say that she knew very well how to take care of herself. Her mouth, and nose, and chin, were all well-formed, small, shapely, and concise, not straggling about her face as do the mouths, noses, and chins of some old ladies—ay, and of some young ladies also. Had it not been that she had lost her teeth, she would hardly have looked to be an old woman. Her health was perfect. She herself would say that she had never yet known a day's illness. She dressed with the greatest care, always wearing silk at and after luncheon. She dressed three times a day, and in the morning would come down in what she called a merino gown. But then, with her, clothes never seemed to wear out. Her motions were so slight and delicate, that the gloss of her dresses would remain on them when the gowns of other women would almost have been worn to rags. She was never seen of an afternoon or evening without gloves, and her gloves were always clean and apparently new. She went to church once on Sundays in winter, and twice in summer, and she had a certain very short period of each day devoted to Bible reading; but at Loring she was not reckoned to be among the religious people. Indeed, there were those who said that she was very worldly-minded, and that at her time of life she ought to devote herself to other books than those which were daily in her hands. Pope, Dryden, Swift, Cowley, Fielding, Richardson, and Goldsmith, were her authors. She read the new novels as they came out, but always with critical comparisons that were hostile to them. Fielding, she said, described life as it was; whereas Dickens had manufactured a kind of life that never had existed, and never could exist. The pathos of Esmond was very well, but Lady Castlemaine was nothing to Clarissa Harlowe. As for poetry, Tennyson, she said, was all sugar-candy; he had neither the common sense, nor the wit, nor, as she declared, to her ear the melody of Pope. All the poets of the present century, she declared, if put together, could not have written the Rape of the Lock. Pretty as she was, and small, and nice, and lady-like, I think she liked her literature rather strong. It is certain that she had Smollett's novels in a cupboard up-stairs, and it was said that she had been found reading one of Wycherley's plays.

Monday, 16 March 2020


Seeking solace can be a tricky business. As the news worsened I immersed myself in the novels of the past; but the serpent of unease wriggles beneath the seemingly most innocent of flowers. Yet literature is perhaps only great when it is also subversive.

Scott's Quentin Durward depicts a young Scottish gentleman abroad in the forests of fifteenth-century France. So far so sylvan and romantic, but Scott has other ideas: at pains to emphasise the anachronism of Durward's devotion to chivalry in a world of low politics that has left such ideals behind.

Trollope's The Warden should be safer territory, I thought. I read it years ago. Indeed it retains much charm: Trollope, we might recall, conceived the novel while wandering one midsummer evening the tranquil environs of Salisbury Cathedral. But modernity intrudes, the eschewing of tradition and the beginnings of a soulless corporate sensibility in Mr Harding's ejection from his comfortable but unjustifiable wardenship.

I next read Victory by Joseph Conrad, the tale of Axel Heyst, who has 'perceived the means of passing through life without suffering and almost without a single care in the world - invulnerable because elusive.' But the book's tone, as so often with Conrad, shifts constantly and unsuccessfully, and by the end a contemplative novel has become a rather repellent violent thriller.

In 'The Madonna of the Future' Henry James takes us to Italy in the 1880s and the full lucidity of his nevertheless supremely sophisticated middle style. The narrator befriends a fellow American who once planned to become an artist. But he hasn't noticed the lapse of the years, the withering of his talent, and of his muse, now a vulgar matron. A delightful bonne bouche.

I turn finally to The Vicar of Bullhampton, a mid-to-late Trollope I've somehow never read before. And again, what promised to be idyllic is actually rife with trauma and disruption, as the well-meaning eponymous hero struggles to improve the lives of his parishioners - including, daringly, the 'castaway' Carry Brattle - and gets precisely nowhere.

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.