Thursday, 11 October 2018

Wuthering Heights

'No books!' I exclaimed. 'How do you contrive to live here without them? If I may take the liberty to inquire - Though provided with a large library, I'm frequently very dull at the Grange - take my books away, and I should be desperate!'

The other day I found myself publicly asked (the circumstances needn't concern us) what I was currently reading. Caught off guard, I replied honestly, adding 'I'm afraid' or 'believe it or not'. That's what you do with Wuthering Heights: you get all embarrassed, all apologetic. It's one of those books. One of those books everyone knows about, but no one actually reads?

I read it in my teens and never felt any need to revisit what was, I recalled, a baffling experience of time shifts, multiple narrators, narratives within narratives, and too many characters with similar or identical names.

But I've a fondness for those 1990s World's Classics covers. I kind of collect them. So I bought this rather nice Wuthering Heights...


...and, stuck for something to read one day, actually got around to opening it.

It's a revelation. The plot is a dream. The characters are vivid. The settings are completely convincing. The violence is shocking. The love story is powerful and affecting. Yes, a dream of a book. One to return to again and again, and this time not after a gap of thirty-odd years.

But one thing I take issue with. It crops up time and again. It's in my edition's blurb. This thing about Wuthering Heights being 'imaginative'. Yes, I see what is meant, but I prefer to see the book differently, as a work of literature. I prefer to see Emily Brontë's whole project as a uniquely literary endeavour. Let's take one example from the second half of the novel. Young Catherine corresponds secretly with Linton. We learn much about the mechanics of the correspondence. The secret missives themselves are all but fetishised. Others seek them, but they're hidden away. Their purloining is an intimate trespass.

Imaginative, yes. But literary too. The chapter is, of course, pure Clarissa.

No - no one should feel ashamed of reading Wuthering Heights.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Married Brookner

She had, she said, offers of marriage, but none she could accept. Whom could she entrust her life to? And how could she be married while at the same time living the life she wanted to live? How could she be married while also being an art historian? She told one interviewer she never seriously thought the puzzle was solvable.

At some point, she said, a wariness sets in, an understanding of other people’s motives – of men’s motives, the agendas of men. She didn’t want to be someone else’s prop. She said she never came close to marrying, because she never wanted to be married to the men who asked her. But she would have liked companionship and she would have liked children. Six sons, she said. One of her favourite pictures was David’s Oath of the Horatii in the Louvre, an image of three heroic brothers willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of Rome.

Her parents wanted her to marry. When she didn’t marry, they wanted her to nurse them. If she had married she wouldn’t have been so accessible – an irony that wasn’t lost on her.

And if she had married, she wouldn’t have been able to write. Or have wanted to, or needed to. But how does one spend the time in marriage? – the years and the months and the days and the hours? The novels of the past, ostensibly novels of marriage, are in fact concerned only with courtship and provide little instruction on what comes afterwards. Or indeed on what follows a failed courtship.

Brookner was as clear-eyed here as everywhere. She didn’t think she’d have been a good wife, a good mother. She was, she said, too self-absorbed, too inward. But she still valued the idea of marriage, and in her later, more reckless interviews she said she wished she had married several times. You should, she more than once said, play Russian roulette with your own life.

And marriage is a major theme in Brookner’s fiction. From the middle period onwards many of her protagonists are married. A Misalliance, Latecomers, Lewis Percy, Brief Lives, A Closed Eye, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Altered States, Visitors, Falling Slowly, The Next Big Thing, The Rules of Engagement and ‘At the Hairdresser’s’ all feature heroes and heroines who are married, widowed or divorced. So much for Brookner’s novels being only about lonely spinsters.

But in Brookner the ending of a marriage is only a matter of time. You can come across the most shocking scenes, especially in the later novels, where the iron has entered the soul, and the screw is turned and turned. Take Altered States: the decline and suicide of the narrator’s wife Angela. I read it aghast, my heart in my mouth. One’s heart is often in one’s mouth when one reads these later works, such is the atmosphere of dread.

A third of the way through The Rules of Engagement, as another example, the heroine’s heavy but inoffensive husband dies: the experienced Brookner reader has probably already suspected Digby’s time will soon be up. But the manner of his going is appalling. He is brought home by his secretary, having obviously suffered a stroke, though this isn’t named. No medical attention has been sought, and none is enlisted by his wife, the narrator, who maintains a vigil over him through the few dark days and nights that follow. Then he dies. These scenes are set, at a guess, in the 1970s, in an age perhaps less medicalised than today. But would you really not at the very least have called a doctor? The narrator doesn’t, and there’s no further comment on this. In Brookner we’re beguiled into such acceptances. Why? Is there a reason? Or is it just a part of the true weirdness and uniqueness of the Brookner world, the enigma that keeps us reading and kept her writing?

Monday, 1 October 2018

Frontiers

Brookner died on 10 March 2016, ‘peacefully in her sleep’, according to the death notice in The Times. One thinks of Mrs March in Fraud, daily scanning the columns. The piece continues less conventionally. At Anita’s request, we learn, there would be no funeral. Donations should be addressed to Médecins sans Frontières.

(It is disappointing to find ‘Médecins’ spelt ‘Medicins’.)

No funeral? This was subject to some comment at the time. It was becoming fashionable – a green alternative to the expense and waste of a traditional ceremony.

One senses in Brookner other motives. Feelings of dread and shame. The thought of all those gushing tributes, perhaps from people who were little more than strangers. The absence or near absence of family. The shame?

Peacefully in her sleep? But we know Anita Brookner’s death was far from benign, that her flat was on fire, and she had had to be dragged from it, that she survived for a time afterwards in hospital, but that adequate rehabilitation wasn’t perhaps at hand. Again and again I think about those circumstances. She had money enough to afford private care, but probably there was no one to speak for her. One needs spokespeople, advocates. How conscious was she? How lucid? Dying among strangers, what were her thoughts? Did anyone know who she was? Did anyone care?

(In 2009, in her last interview, she had spoken of the inspiration for what was to be her final novel Strangers. She had had, two years back, a spell in hospital. She had never been in hospital before. She had been, she said, literally dying among strangers. Yes, she said, she was frightened.

But she recovered. God’s little joke, she said.)

Emma Roberts, heroine of Leaving Home, Brookner’s penultimate novel, is one of her most dejected. Young, she maintains a relationship with an older doctor, stoical Philip Hudson, who has a son. Earlier in the novel Emma witnessed the son sleeping, experienced a coup de foudre. But she didn’t act, and Brookner, perversely, doesn’t explain why. And of course she doesn’t need to.

It is the son’s intention, we discover, to join Médecins sans Frontières. It is, Philip Hudson says, what he would have done at the son’s age. Henry James is recruited. Live all you can! says Dr Hudson.

Will we ever know what private memories or experiences prompted Brookner to choose MSF as her chosen charity after death?

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Insiders / Outsiders

Insiders out. Outsiders in, ran the header to a review of one of Brookner’s novels. But was she so much of an outsider? Did she not praise the reckless, the feckless, the careless? Did she not promote the riotous lives of the gods of antiquity? Didn’t she reject other, kinder philosophies? Whose side was she on? With whom, ultimately, did she throw in her lot?

The way to proceed, she once told us, was to start as an outsider, briefly to become an insider, and at last to resume the status of an outsider. That way the work got done.

Brookner said that in a review of Edmund White’s biography of Marcel Proust in the Sunday Times in 1999. Outsiders chiefly, sometime insiders too, consummate dandies both. As always Brookner chose her subjects with extreme precision.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Grey and without Interest

Brookner's first novel, A Start in Life, was nearly turned down by the publisher Jonathan Cape, who received from a reader a very negative report. Her characters were apparently 'grey' and 'without interest'. Fortunately Liz Calder worked at the house and took a look at the manuscript. She read the novel's now-famous opening sentence, 'Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature', and realised she was in the presence of greatness. Calder and Cape went on to publish many of Brookner's novels.

An intriguing anecdote, which I found by chance. I was browsing the Brookner signed novels on the Internet bookstore sites, and came across several editions with a note by Calder in which she described her association with the author. I've no idea why Calder wrote the note, but we can be grateful that she did.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

16th June 1994



I think I'd just finished my Finals and was heading off for a short break in Paris. I seem to recall seeing the book in the Paddington Menzies. I didn't in those days buy hardbacks (unlike Brookner, who was famed for it), but was first on the waiting list at my local library. By the end of the month I'd finished it, and it remains one of my favourites. I bought this copy recently. It is pristine. Brookner's dating of her signature is unusual.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

A Brookner Break

You may have noticed I'm taking a break from Anita Brookner at the moment. Everything palls after a time, and of course there's nothing new. I remember the years when I read her year by year, the excitement of receiving those Jonathan Cape, later Viking, hardbacks. A Proustian vouchsafement is still mine whenever I hold, say, A Closed Eye, with its view of Lausanne, or A Private View, with its blue Ian McEwanish female silhouette. I get the very touch and taste of youth again.

Where now? I'm reading Spenser's The Faerie Queene right now. ('The day is spent, and commeth drowsie night...') But I'm tempted perhaps to sink into middle Brookner sometime soon - A Private View, Incidents in the Rue Laugier... What extraordinary novels they were and are. Almost unremarked at the time, except for the regulation polite or disparaging notices in the quality dailies. But no one seemed to recognise how truly odd they were, how strange and revolutionary the Brookner project was. She wrote as it were clandestinely, knowing she would be overlooked, or not closely read, knowing she could say whatever she wanted, and safe in the knowledge that by then she was hidden in plain sight.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Who Reads Her?

I've long been a studier of reading habits. In my youth I worked in a public library, which had a functional if primitive computer system. This enabled me, illicitly, to track the borrowings of my peers. (In those days borrowing books from a public library was quite a regular activity.) Or I would stand at the issue desk - wanding barcodes, but scrutinising titles. I worked in that library system for six or seven years - and do you know, I don't think I ever issued or discharged an Anita Brookner. Or do I misremember?

Yet Brookner date labels were full of stamped dates, so people must have been reading her. It's just I never encountered them. And in the years since, I don't think I've ever seen anyone reading a Brookner. On the train. On the bus. On the beach. Of course the prevalence of Kindles and tablets makes spying on others' reading harder now. But still.

I know people do read her. I know you do. I know it from Twitter. But I've never met another reader. Or rather I have. I've met folk who say they once read Hotel du Lac and didn't progress further. But have I ever met another fan?

All this no doubt says much about me. But I think it also says something about reading Anita Brookner, and about readers of Anita Brookner. We read, as it were, in secret. We prefer the private view. Almost as if there were something disreputable on offer. I venture to suggest there's certainly something very subversive and shocking and not quite suitable for polite society.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Of Wolves and Winterson

Some writers get all the approbation. There was a BBC documentary about Angela Carter last month: 'Of Wolves and Women'. It's pleasant viewing: lots of archive, talking heads, amusing dramatisation. Carter proves very digestible.

What of writers whose messages are less palatable, less fashionable, less easy? Let's dismiss them, ignore them, misrepresent them.

Enter Jeanette Winterson with her Brian May hairdo. Nights at the Circus (1984), we are told, received glowing reviews but was deliberately overlooked for the Booker Prize.

'What won', says Winterson sourly, 'was Hotel du Lac, which was Anita Brookner, which is an insipid novel by any standards.' Here we cut to a particularly prim scene from the Hotel du Lac TV film. Winterson goes on: 'It was typical of the way that the establishment at the time rewarded women who are compliant.'

Such lazy sneering is, for my money, typical of the way the critical establishment often categorises Anita Brookner. The distaste with which Winterson utters the words 'Hotel du Lac' and 'Anita Brookner' is treasurable. There is also of course a political subtext. Carter equals the Left and all that is good and true. But Anita Brookner? Some kind of wicked Tory?!

Friday, 7 September 2018

Where I Went in the Holidays

To Hamburg, Lübeck and Travemünde

I came to the conclusion some time ago, after years of puzzlement, that I don't really like any weather. My favourite sort of day is a dry day, a little chilly, in spring or autumn. I was once in Dallas, and the temperature was more than 40⁰C. My day at the Southfork Ranch was a trial.

We had a miserable English winter this year, then a heatwave from June. I suffered. In Germany it was worse - even in the north, supposedly subject to sea breezes. In Hamburg I hunkered close to the Kunsthalle, discovered Cranachs, appreciated an exhibition about disasters.

Lübeck and Travemünde: no Brookner connection, other than Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks in particular, which plays its role in The Next Big Thing. I've been to the Buddenbrookhaus before. It is, like many such buildings in Germany, largely a reconstruction. Then to Travemünde, where the Buddenbrooks took their holidays, now a sizable port serving destinations as far away as Helsinki. I stayed a little along the coast at Timmendorfer Strand, a long beach, almost exclusively German. One could hire a Strandkorb, of which there were thousands, like a larger wicker porter's chair. This is apparently a great tradition.


Below: Planten un Blomen, Hamburg; Eugène Isabey, Wreck of the Emily; Cranach the Elder, Christ Blessing the Children; detail of last; Timmendorfer Strand; parched England









To Brussels and Ghent

A much milder, pleasanter break in Belgium at the end of the holidays. Ghent is a discovery. Previously I've been only to the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, where I like to visit the Géricault portrait it is my pleasure or burden to use as an Internet avatar. (Click on the Géricault label below for more posts relating to the artist.) The museum retains its charm (it's virtually unvisited), despite a rather savage recent rehang.

Ghent itself is a delightful bourgeois city, with much in common with Bruges: a medieval centre, canals, churches. Then to Brussels - edgy as always, edgier still this time, or so it seemed to me. But I had my usual mooch around the art museums, revisiting the Bruegel that inspired Auden's poem, the Davids Brookner revered - all those.


Below: [Ghent] an old friend in new company; Casorati, Girl on a Red Carpet, 1912; Navez, St Veronica, 1816; Paelinck, Anthia Leading Companions to the Temple of Ephesus, c. 1820; detail; De Vigne, Fair in Ghent in the Middle Ages, c. 1862








Below: Ghent by night and day







Below: [Brussels] Khnopff, Listening to Schumann; Jordaens's Bacchus, a lesson for us all