Saturday, 15 December 2018

'We shall never see these shores again...'

All comes together in Scott, said Virginia Woolf - 'tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole, a complete presentation of life, which ... Scott creates carelessly, without a word of comment, as if the parts grew together without his willing it, and broke into ruin again without his caring'.

Nowhere is this truer than in the closing pages of Redgauntlet, Scott's last major Scottish novel. A third, fictitious, Jacobite uprising has foundered; the Hanoverian ascendancy is merciful; two minor characters kill each other; two major figures find love; and an ageing Bonnie Prince Charlie bids an affecting farewell to his native land. The novel ends as Von Karajan said of Brahms's Fourth, in 'complete catastrophe', and yet it somehow also completes a whole, though we can't quite know how. And afterwards? Afterwards it dissolves - dissolves into history or a fantasy of history, leaving not a rack behind but lingering long in the imagination.

Celebrity Historicals

Fulfilling in some way the BBC's injunction to entertain and educate, the earliest days of the time-travelling sci-fi show Doctor Who featured, alongside tales of bug-eyed monsters in outer space, a number of stories set in Earth's past. The travellers met Marco Polo, visited Ancient Rome, were caught up in revolutionary France's Reign of Terror, and even landed in Scotland during the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden.

Fans have several ways of classifying these stories. The early stories, for example, tend to be classed as 'pure historicals', meaning that the only science fiction element is the Tardis and its crew. Stories of this kind became less frequent as the show developed. Indeed The Highlanders (1966) was the last such serial until Black Orchid in 1982. As far as I can recall, there have been none since.

There have, however, throughout the programme's long run, been many further historical stories. But these, known as 'pseudo-historicals', have included alien or sci-fi elements other than the Tardis crew. An example, set in the time of Rosa Parks, was broadcast recently.

This was also an example of another fannish sub-class: the 'celebrity historical'. This was a feature of many, though not all, of the earlier tales. The Highlanders, for instance, doesn't include a role for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

But over the years the Doctor and his/her companions have met Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, Dickens, Nero, etc., etc.

Who invented this kind of story? Plays and novels have often been based on real historical events. Many of Shakespeare's plays centre on actual lives and choices.

But it was probably Sir Walter Scott who wrote the first 'celebrity historicals', i.e. stories in which ordinary people have adventures at key moments of history, and in the course of events encounter the celebrity players. Queen Elizabeth has a walk-on part in Kenilworth, Richard the Lionheart in Ivanhoe, and of course the Young Pretender in Scott's debut novel Waverley: each episode offers moments of genuine frisson and readerly delight. But it is in Redgauntlet, which tells of a third, fictional Jacobite attempt, and is thus divorced from the demands of the historical record, that Scott delivers his greatest punch. Now the Chevalier has a complicated love life; he's older; and he's nowhere near so bonnie as he was in Waverley.
He was a man of middle life, about forty or upwards; but either care, or fatigue, or indulgence, had brought on the appearance of premature old age, and given to his fine features a cast of seriousness or even sadness. A noble countenance, however, still remained; and though his complexion was altered, and wrinkles stamped upon his brow in many a melancholy fold, still the lofty forehead, the full and well-opened eye, and the well-formed nose, showed how handsome in better days he must have been. He was tall, but lost the advantage of his height by stooping; and the cane which he wore always in his hand, and occasionally used, as well as his slow though majestic gait, seemed to intimate that his form and limbs felt already some touch of infirmity. 
Only later, some time later, does Scott confirm the identity of this man: 'It is needless to add,' says Scott, flattering the reader. Who was fooled? Did Scott suppose anyone would be?

Friday, 14 December 2018

The Fallen World

'Well, this dame had a daughter—Jess Cantrips, a black-eyed, bouncing wench—and, as the devil would have it, there was the d—d five-story stair—her foot was never from it, whether I went out or came home from the Divinity Hall. I would have eschewed her, sir—I would, on my soul; for I was as innocent a lad as ever came from Lammermuir; but there was no possibility of escape, retreat, or flight, unless I could have got a pair of wings, or made use of a ladder seven stories high, to scale the window of my attic. It signifies little talking—you may suppose how all this was to end—I would have married the girl, and taken my chance—I would, by Heaven! for she was a pretty girl, and a good girl, till she and I met; but you know the old song, “Kirk would not let us be.”
[...]
'But the best jest was behind—I had just power to stammer out something about Jess—by my faith he had an answer! I had taught Jess one trade, and, like a prudent girl, she had found out another for herself; unluckily, they were both contraband, and Jess Cantrips, daughter of the Lady Kittlebasket, had the honour to be transported to the plantations, for street-walking and pocket-picking, about six months before I touched shore.'
Sir Walter Scott, Redgauntlet (1824), ch. 14


A tale of the eighteenth century - it concerns a third, fictional uprising by the Jacobites - Redgauntlet is reminiscent of that earlier century in other ways: not only in formal terms - it has long epistolary passages - but also in its treatment of sexual matters. It is always instructive to see how pre-modern writers tackle such themes. David Lodge has marvelled at Dickens's ability to write so copiously but without a word of bawdy. Other Victorian novelists - Thackeray, in particular - manage the issue skilfully and subtly. Trollope, in The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870), caused a small stir with his use of the word 'prostitute'.

Scott wasn't a Victorian, and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by pieces like the above, part of a longer inset narrative spoken by a salty and attractive character called Nanty Ewart. Note Scott's use of indirection, evasion and euphemism. When by the end of the nineteenth century Scott's status had declined to that of a worthy children's author, were bowdlerised editions required?

In the next chapter we find Scott essaying something subtler still, as his adventurers approach the dwelling of a pair of religious ladies:
'The place they live in was some sort of nun-shop long ago, as they have them still in Flanders; so folk call them the Vestals of Fairladies—that may be, or may not be; and I care not whether it be or no.—Blinkinsop, hold your tongue, and be d—d!'
Scott doesn't tell us what this Blinkinsop, and others elsewhere in the speech, say. He doesn't need to. The innocent reader reads on, unconcerned. The knowing reader infers. But whose side is Scott on? Emphatically he was a denizen of the fallen world, yet his heroes and heroines remain virtuous and hopeful. With this author you're always in danger of sinking - as if, in this novel, into the sands of the Solway Firth - but somehow Scott always draws you clear, and your resultant gratitude is excessive.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

On e-reading

I listened to a rather hopeful piece on Radio 4 recently (I spend far too much time listening to Radio 4) about how consumers may be falling out of love with online retailers and returning to actual shops, and how Internet giants are beginning to set up bricks-and-mortar outlets in order to give shoppers the more tangible, human experience they apparently crave.

It set me thinking about e-books and e-reading. I was, as in most things, a late adopter. I bought a device in about 2014 because I wanted to read Clarissa. I'm like that. And I managed it. I simply never could have read the only print edition of Richardson's eighteenth-century masterwork available, the biggest Penguin ever. From then on, I was a convert. I read James on my Kindle, I read Dickens, I read Anita Brookner. And I found myself reading more smoothly and quickly - not least because I was able to adjust for my own comfort the size and spacing of the text. I suspect in myself a mild undiagnosed dyslexia.

But I also read more shallowly. I found I couldn't remember what I had read. I glided; I no longer plunged.

There are practical considerations. I like the search facility on e-readers; I like being able to highlight passages. But I don't like not always having a feel for the shape of a book. In a print edition, if I'm not quite enjoying it but reading it because it's worth reading and 'good for me' (this goes for almost all of my reading, truth to tell), I'm always doing things like flicking forward and finding out how much of a chapter remains or rereading an earlier passage to remind myself who a certain character is. You can't do any of that so easily with an e-reader.

A short while ago someone gave me several lovely 1990s World's Classics editions of Scott. (I'm a growing fan of Scott and a big fan of those particular liveries.) The print is small and the pages are yellowing, and I had Scott on my Kindle so I turned to that. But I could make little headway. Real books had reclaimed me at last. What's more, I found myself a different, better reader - a retrained reader almost.

I shall still keep my Kindle for vacations, for lounging in foreign climes, sipping a gin and tonic and darting promiscuously between a piece of James travel writing, a Shakespeare play, and an essay by Sebald. But at home, when the long dark autumn and winter evenings come, one looks for consolations more homely, more timeworn.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Book Dreams

Last night I dreamt of Wingfield Park, a thousand-page Trollope novel published in 1861. I got no further than this information, and found out even less about Lord Grey, the book beside it on the shelf in the sitting-room of the little seaside caravan I found myself in. Both were substantial 1990s World's Classics paperback editions - pale lemon spines with pictures. I remember being disappointed by Wingfield Park's publication date. I prefer later Trollope.

From time to time I also dream of a lost Anita Brookner, published in some other universe between, say, Visitors and Falling Slowly. It has a photographic cover. I have the book in my hand, open it - and wake up.

Even less graspable is that early Victorian author whose name I can never remember. A lesser George Eliot, a lesser Trollope, but a prolific source of reading pleasure all the same. In dream after dream I take down his books and start to enter into his world - rural, bourgeois, endless.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 10, 11

  • Bland, with Katy, sees himself almost as a novelist with one of his characters. Compare Bland with Mrs May in Visitors, who experiences a similar creative thrill, though the circumstances of her shipwreck are less extreme, more sublimated.
  • One is lost in admiration at the excellence of Brookner's clairvoyance: 'The strange odyssey that he had planned for them had indeed something childlike about it, proof of his own childlike wishes, in which sex and sin played no part.'
  • The books we read in our youth retain a special magic, and A Private View is one such for me. I read innocently then, or more innocently than I might now - by which I guess I mean I 'identified' with George Bland. Reading the novel again, I identify again, and again sink back in sheer admiration at the fineness of the writing, the intensity and ingenuity of the analysis. There really are some masterful passages. Is it, then, my favourite Brookner? I couldn't say. I thought that was The Next Big Thing. But it is a thing to marvel at, a thing to be grateful for.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 7, 8, 9

  • By the time she wrote A Private View Anita Brookner was well established and in mid-career. The novel shows great ease and confidence. Its long passages of introspection are masterly. In chapter 7 we get a metafictional line she probably wouldn't have risked in an earlier novel: 'It was like a detective story, or a novel by Henry James'. Indeed.
  • Bland's walk into the suburbs of Fulham is precisely recorded, and the interested reader can now follow his journey on Google Earth.
  • The stakes are high for George Bland - but not as high as they are for later Brookner oldsters: in The Next Big Thing, Strangers and 'At the Hairdresser's'. They're in real jeopardy, and so (perhaps) was their creator.
  • Bland's vision of a rakish life with Katy in foreign locales 'might have been the supreme emotional adventure'. Supreme emotional adventure: this is a favourite phrase. See an earlier post here.
  • 'The beauty of the plan was that each would think he had the best of the bargain': there's something wonderfully antique about this sentence, something you probably wouldn't read very often now, or indeed then. It's the use of 'he' to refer to 'each'. Here 'each' means George and Katy, male and female. What would another writer write? 'They'? 'She'?
  • How much time passes? A Private View is surely the most condensed of Brookners, but so involved and 'exhausting' are George Bland's thoughts that the reader loses all track of the days. How much time separates the opening in Nice from, say, the scenes in chapters 7, 8 and 9, more than halfway through the book? Two or three? But no, chapter 1 takes place in November and chapter 9 on 18 December. I could of course go back and trace the time-scheme, but I actually haven't the time - and in any case I reckon it's completely off-kilter. This isn't the only Brookner novels where time is confused and confusing.
  • But the dates given in chapter 9 are very specific to December 1992.
  • I note Brookner's use of the phrase 'undue influence', which would be called into service again as the title of her 1999 novel.
Cranach, Das Ungleiche Paar,
Akademiegalerie, Vienna

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 5, 6

  • Chapter lengths: Brookner lived by her routines, and in most of her novels (though not the last ones) her chapters are noticeably even in length. A Private View is like this but (along with the previous one, A Family Romance) unlike too, in that its chapters are about double the normal Brookner length (twenty rather than ten pages). It suits A Private View in particular, which focuses on a short period of time in the protagonist's life. Chapter 5, for example, covers a single day. But why impose on oneself a chapter-length format anyhow? Such structure was necessary for the likes of Trollope, who was writing for serial publication, but not in the late twentieth century. I guess Brookner was one of those artists whom restriction rather than freedom made creative.
  • Sickert. For more on the Royal Academy's 1992 Sickert exhibition, click on the label below. (I find Bland pays a second, weekday visit to the exhibition, but on a Monday not a Tuesday, so, again, he failed to cross paths with Jim Lees-Milne.)
  • Brookner skewers with a passion Katy's 'airy Californian make-believe' of encounter groups and self-affirmation. In this way she places herself in a determinedly English tradition. Kingsley Amis does something similar in Jake's Thing.
  • There's a nod to Stefan Zweig in chapter 6, in the line about being 'beware of pity'. Zweig had a vogue in the early twenty-first century, but Brookner was there already.
  • Bland's upholstery - pink and green stripes - is rather jollier than Brookner's grey and white stripes, visible on the National Portrait Gallery website (here) in a photo of the time.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 3, 4

  • For so apparently metropolitan a writer suburbia exerts a curious lure. Lewis Percy was Brookner's explicitly 'suburban novel'. In other works - Visitors - the areas beyond the centre are foci for nostalgia and a sense of lost authenticity. In A Private View, Bland's London home, by comparison with his dreams of the past, seems 'flimsy, meretricious, unconvincing'.
  • The encounters with Katy Gibb in her differing guises - hippy, waif, courtesan - crackle with energy. Brookner hates her but is fascinated. The private view is under way.
  • Reading Brookner is an education in looking. Some might say she interprets too much from characters' outward appearances. But one would counter-argue that Brookner the art critic is at work - looking, looking, looking, and missing nothing. As a child, she said, she was very good at looking.
  • Bland isn't Brookner, but she sneaks in little details. He has, for example, large hands. Anita Brookner, one notices, also had large hands.
  • By chapter 4, Bland is 'near the edge'. His condition is persuasively depicted. As readers of this blog will know, A. N. Wilson in his Daily Mail obituary of Brookner recounted an incident at a party in the 1990s. Brookner was in her sixties; the host was twenty years younger and, Wilson claims, the object of Brookner's love. At one point she disappeared from the party. Wilson found her upstairs, sitting alone on the host's bed, among the guests' coats. She looked quite abject. It was, he thought, the closest she would ever come to the man's bed. An indiscreet, even a shocking anecdote. But it shows us that the likes of A Private View (1994) may well not concern emotion recollected in tranquillity, but instead may have been written in the very thick of the action.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 2

My copy of the UK hardback
  • The claustral atmosphere intensifies. Once inside his block of flats, Bland feels he has 'definitively left the outside world'.
  • Bland 'cautiously' watches soap operas, seeking knowledge of other lives, suburban lives like those of his forebears. For more on Brookner and television, click on the label below.
  • Bland's porter is called Hipwood, which I always thought of as a made-up name - the sort you might find in Dickens. But it is a genuine name.
  • I'm rereading A Private View alongside a piece of more recent literary fiction, which is lots of fun but reads like a children's book. (The title and author shall remain unsaid.) Brookner absolutely is an author for grown-ups.
  • The closeness of Brookner's observation is remarkable. She misses nothing. She's fully one of those on whom nothing is lost. Take Bland's sudden access of tears at the end of the chapter.
  • Also to be remarked is the extreme fineness of the language. Bland and his neighbours' 'Lilliputian concerns'.
  • While we may bracket A Private View with The Next Big Thing and Strangers, both also novels about older men, George Bland isn't so much old as on the brink of old age. The first of Brookner's truly old sole protagonists is Mrs May in Visitors, a few years later. But with A Private View Brookner enters a new phase. Over the remaining decades of her writing career she would commit herself more and more to a topic many novelists avoid.