Sunday, 24 June 2018

Moral Puzzles

A 'pure' novel, said Anita Brookner in interview, should cast a moral puzzle; everything else is mere negotiation. '[T]o follow a scruple to its ultimate conclusion is Edith Wharton's whole concern,' she writes in her Introduction to that author's novel The Reef. '[I]t is a chance to see what can be achieved in the pursuit of moral truths.'

Brookner's 'Wharton phase' centred on the 1980s, when, following her Booker win, she was much in demand. She wrote Introductions to The Custom of the Country and to two volumes of Wharton's short stories. In 1994, when she introduced the 'less popular, and indeed less well known' novel The Reef, Brookner's star was arguably on the wane.

How do Brookner's Introductions read? Do they, as some have claimed, feel like essays on her own fiction? Certainly the Introduction to The Reef is different in emphasis from the earlier Intros cited above, which are happy to recount the details of Wharton's life and to give quotable summaries of her various plots. Brookner's main approach to The Reef is to recruit Henry James. It's the 'most rigorous', 'the most finely wrought' of Wharton's novels. It marks the peak of Wharton's 'most brilliant period of creativity'. It is the 'most Jamesian'. One reads, she says, with 'rapt attention', admiring, with James, its 'dramatic unity'.

What does all this sound like? For me and for many fans the 1990s represent a high point of Brookner's career as a novelist. Her Reef Introduction could well indeed be adapted to describe the finely wrought moral investigations of those years. Think A Private View. Think Visitors. It has been truly said that authors, when writing of other novelists, not infrequently write only about themselves.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Finishing The Custom of the Country

The Custom of the Country is blessed with 'a most intricate and satisfying plot', according to the blurb on my Brookner-curated Penguin edition. The novel is certainly intricate. Things just keep on happening. In the constant edgy changefulness of her narrative Wharton is closer to a modern like Thomas Hardy than a modernist like Henry James. James's plots are more ordered and formal - never loose, never baggy. As for Brookner, hers are sometimes of the one sort, sometimes of the other. Her most Jamesian plots are to be found in the tight focus of novels like A Private View, whereas the likes of, say, Lewis Percy proceed with a Hardy-style 'one damn thing after another' unpredictability.

When she wrote an Introduction to the contemporaneous The Reef, Brookner called The Custom of the Country 'the broadest and most jovial of Edith Wharton's novels', in contrast with which The Reef was praised for its Jamesian 'dramatic unity'. The two impulses - the expansive and the controlled - perhaps exist side-by-side in Wharton - as they do in Brookner's fiction too.

And what a broad and expansive novel Custom is. What starts out as a classic tale of courtship, quickly becomes one of marriage and then of divorce and later of further divorce. And divorce of a particularly modern kind, divorce that finds its way into the vulgar press. All seems rather endless until a late twist brings the whole farrago into definition: the novel is about Undine, and the modernity she represents. Above the various shenanigans she glides, oblivious, cool - indeed, as we learn in a revealing moment, sexually rather cold. The Custom of the Country is ultimately neither tragedy nor comedy but an heroic effort to understand a not very interesting or talented but very modern girl from Apex. It is, for Edith Wharton, an admirable experiment, an awe-struck descent from Olympus.

Another Brookner-introduced Wharton

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Continuing The Custom of the Country

There were two Edith Whartons, the grand New York lady ('every inch a lady,' says Anita Brookner in her Introduction to The Custom of the Country), and the artistic, almost bohemian European: we see something of the latter in action in the novel, when Undine and Ralph are on their honeymoon in Italy, Switzerland and Paris. '[S]trange specimens from the depths slip through the wide meshes of the watering-place world' - the Baroness Adelschein, who is tolerated because she is amusing but would be dropped at home, and the 'Parisianized' Mrs Shallum and her 'wax-featured' husband. Such figures point towards The Age of Innocence and Ellen Olenska, who knows that world too well, and realises it is no place for Newland Archer.

Brookner's Continent was altogether less raffish. She went to the same sorts of places, but gone were the louche outcasts of society Wharton depicts. And they're surely gone now. Go to Switzerland now, and you'll find only the super-rich. In Brookner there are hints of past times, in the guests at the Hotel du Lac in the novel of that name, or in Fanny Bauer and her mother in Nyon in The Next Big Thing.

Brookner hasn't been the only critic to deplore the lack of classic novels about marriage, in contrast with the very many about courtship. Wharton is an exception, in her depiction of Undine and Ralph's marriage. As Brookner says:
As long as men and women seek to use each other - and to use each other badly - Edith Wharton can be counted upon to provide the ideal commentary.
And indeed Wharton is unsparing in her portrait of a marriage on the skids, the obsession with money, the moments of anger, the compromises, the concessions, the mercies. But it is also her business to show a changing culture, the modern world coming on. Undine, marrying into minor New York aristocracy, 'found out that she had given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and the promiscuous'.

Wharton's Collected Stories, another
Brookner-curated volume (1988)

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Starting The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country (1913) isn't one of Wharton's novels of 'Old' New York. Forensically it depicts the twentieth-century world, and the reader is struck by just how modern it feels. Where in British novels of the time would one find such a reverence for celebrity, such an impulse towards instant communication, such a rejection of anything out of date? Where would one find characters called Indiana Frusk? Where would one find chewing-gum?

Modern it might be, but it isn't modernist. It's told in steady deliberate sentences, heavy with irony, Jamesian in shape. You need to read the novel slowly, not because it is difficult to read, but because it seems too easy. You need to slow down, weighing each carefully deployed word.

Wharton is both insider and outsider, and in this she resembles her disciple Anita Brookner who provides an Introduction to my Penguin edition. Brookner went through a Wharton 'phase' in the 1980s, and it's fun to spot in The Custom of the Country examples of what I've previously called Brooknerese: 'saurian', 'suzerainty'.

Book One introduces the brilliantly named provincial heroine Undine Spragg - shallow, affectless, materialistic, but also somehow sympathetic - as she enters the 'labyrinth of social distinctions' that is New York. Wharton ably skewers Undine's preferences and pretensions, but is also slightly baffled by her. The novel reads like early Brookner; the Introduction dates from 1987, the year of A Friend from England, a novel also loaded with the semiotics of wealth and vulgarity, and containing in Heather a character as innocent but also as opaque as Undine.

Countering Undine is her lover Ralph, idealistic and romantic - and surely heading for a fall.
 

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Seismic Revelations

The Rules of Engagement closes with a sequence equivalent to the more celebrated conclusions to some of Brookner's earlier novels. Betsy, who has shadowed or haunted the narrator through the novel, and through life, is gravely ill. It's unsettling news: the 'seismic revelation' that nothing is secure. Betsy's decline is affectingly told. What other writer would or could have written of Betsy, as she recalls her adopted, adored family, who have abandoned her, 'This last was an exhalation of pure longing'? And it's blazingly hot, just like the final moments of Providence: Brookner is never afraid to use the weather to ramp up the tension. But in The Rules of Engagement she pulls the rug from under us. We fully expect the novel to end with Betsy's death, and so it does, but it occurs offstage. The final, brief chapter unexpectedly moves forward in time, giving Brookner further opportunities to turn the screw. (There's even a motorcycle accident, not by any means the only such crash in Brookner, though I can't for the moment remember the other examples.) And the novel ends with a sentence that perhaps isn't quite earned, but never fails to move me.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Julian and the Crab

I last saw [Anita Brookner] in the summer of 2010, when the publisher Carmen Callil brought her to lunch. She was frailer, and needed a stick. I had made potted crab, to which she said she was allergic, to my embarrassment (should I have known?). Instead she took a little cheese, some green salad and a roast tomato; she declined the beetroot.
Julian Barnes's Guardian obituary tribute, March 2016


Should he have known?* Well, perhaps he had some residual memory of The Rules of Engagement:
'Are you brave enough to eat seafood?' I asked. 'I believe it's good here, although I've never liked it. I once had a bad experience with dressed crab.'** (Ch. 14)

*(The issue wasn't one of religion; Brookner wasn't an observant Jew.)
**I'm not really sure whether dressed is the same as potted. I've never eaten crab, let alone put it in a pot or given it a dress.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Analysis

The character of Nigel, dignified and likeable at first, but given to psychobabble, gradually falls victim to a sort of novelistic passive aggression. The existence somewhere in his background of an analyst* is inferred by the narrator, indeed imagined in some detail, though never confirmed. For her part she's 'too proud, or too ashamed (they are the same thing) ever to have confided, to have confessed in any company' (ch. 14).

Brookner herself was asked by at least one interviewer whether she'd undergone analysis. She hadn't. And she wasn't about to start. It would take too long. And she might doubt the intelligence of the interrogator. It's a breathtaking answer.

But she was a devotee of Freud. Her novel Strangers has an epigraph by Freud, a rare honour in Brookner. One thinks of Herz too, in The Next Big Thing, talking to an uncomprehending GP of Freud's experience on the Acropolis, of having 'gone beyond the father' (ch. 7). Or one remembers this treasurable line from chapter 13 of Incidents in the Rue Laugier:
...those who did not rely on their inner resources, as she had been obliged to do, were forever condemned to weep in other women's drawing-rooms...

*We learn that a similar character, Patrick, in A Misalliance, also has an analyst, and the revelation is something he never quite recovers from.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Labyrinthine

The Rules of Engagement is late Brookner, and there are moments of true neo-Jamesian opacity, even evasiveness. I shared some time ago on Twitter a massive 117-word sentence I found in the novel. And here's another passage, not quite on the same scale but still labyrinthine:
One fears for the loss of one's innocence, even when that innocence is little more than ignorance. And also the blamelessness that blinds one to the superior sophistication of others and makes of that very sophistication a mystery which might reveal itself to have some value, even some merit, a capacity which one had been denied but which it might have been in one's interest to have acquired. (Ch. 12)

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: English Jokes

Whether the constant evasiveness and jokiness were a particularly English feature I could not decide, but I did miss the sort of overheard remark I had so relished in Paris, the willingness to discuss first principles and to invest passion in one's own arguments.
The Rules of Engagement, ch. 10


This is a theme of Brookner's: the shallow jokiness of the English. Not that it works too well here: the narrator of The Rules of Engagement is, after all, English herself, however much she might feel like an exile. Brookner's protagonists can be divided into those who are (if such a thing were possible) fully English, and those whose identity is more complex. Brookner's was complex, and she was persuasive when she said (in interview with John Haffenden in the mid-1980s):
I've never been at home here... People say I'm so serious and depressing, but it seems to me that the English are never serious - they are flippant, complacent, ineffable, but never serious - and this is maddening.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Contiguity

If I were to live the life of an exile I could do so much more comfortably by remaining where I was, surrounded by familiar possessions, my position unambiguous.
The Rules of Engagement, ch. 9

Brookner's novels, as well as falling into phases (I propose the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s as reasonably distinct periods: not quite James I, James II and the Old Pretender but just a little along those lines), can be grouped thematically into pairs and groups. The reader who might baulk at the notion of a well-heeled Englishwoman feeling like an exile in the heart of London should read Brookner's previous novel The Next Big Thing about a real exile. The two novels are in communication with one another: it's a kind of auto-intertextuality.