Wednesday 23 November 2016

Brookner's Lapses

There are problems in Brookner's work: her attitude towards narrative point of view, for example. Let's consider, for instance, focalisation, the angle of vision through which a story is focused. It – along with its derivative, focaliser – is a modern term; Henry James spoke of reflectors. Brookner tends to switch among three methods: the first-person narrator; the third person narrator with a single focaliser (i.e. when everything in the novel is filtered through that character's consciousness, with no access possible to the thoughts and impressions of other people); and, lastly, the third-person narrator with access to the thoughts and feelings of a range of (though not all) characters. An example of this last method is Fraud, in which each chapter is given over to a particular focaliser. The characters to whose impressions the reader has no recourse are, importantly, those bold predators with whom the author has no empathy, though perhaps a lot of sympathy: the volcanic Vickie, say, Anna’s rival in love.

For most of the 1990s Brookner used these methods in sequence. Thus Fraud (1992) was a third-person, multi-focaliser narrative; A Family Romance (1993) was a first-person narrative; A Private View (1994) was a third-person, single-focaliser novel: the next five novels (Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995), Altered States (1996), Visitors (1997), Falling Slowly (1998), and Undue Influence (1999)) employed narrative methods in the same order year by year. Brookner lived by her routines. 

But there are problems. In A Family Romance, for example, the first-person narrator Jane has access to the unheard other side of someone else's telephone conversation; likewise she recounts the thoughts and emotions experienced by her parents during their courtship. And in Visitors, a novel ostensibly focalised entirely through the consciousness of Mrs May, but told by the author, the reader is informed on the third page that, unbeknown to the character, Mrs May is considered by others to be rather forbidding. The effect is jarring: it is as though Brookner has forgotten she is writing a post-James, post-Woolf interior monologue and instead fancies herself to be an omniscient narrator in the manner of Anthony Trollope. A similar lapse occurs at the end of the first chapter of Hotel du Lac, a text narrated otherwise through the eyes of Edith Hope: Edith goes up to her room to change for dinner, but the reader must remain in the lobby with M. Huber, the hotelier, to consider half a page of his internal musings on the pedigrees of his guests.

Lapses? John Bayley believed she didn't write at the white heat of creative production; rather she put down whatever happened to pop into her head. There is an unplanned feel to her novels: she said she started with no more than a few lines of notes. She was writing at speed: she had left it late; there was no time for elaborate invention. Nor did she redraft: not for Brookner the endless Proustian revision. The floodgates were open: there was no stopping the deluge of words released by that first novel at the start of the 1980s. She sat down, directionlessly, almost automatically, that summer, and put pen to paper. The words came, like Keats’s poetry, as leaves to a tree: novel after novel, miraculously, silently. As the journalist David Sexton once wrote, only Dick Francis could compete.

Perhaps the novels' unredrafted feel impel the reader to concentrate less on the style than on the substance. These are not intended to be works of art: the message, instead, is the important thing. One finds instances of ungainly repetition – of an adjective, for example – that a closer attention at the redrafting stage would have eliminated: in Visitors, the summer sun is thrice described as 'hectic'. Brookner’s reply, though, if traduced on the point, would surely have been all innocence, all ingenuousness: she had never intended to create an objet d’art!

Yet she was, conversely, so much of an artist that she could afford to be careless; she could afford to do precisely as she pleased. Hence the radical insouciance with which the timeline of Incidents in the Rue Laugier expands towards the end. Maud Gonthier is nineteen in 1971, Edward Harrison in his early twenties. Edward dies in his fifties, Maud some time afterwards. All this, according to the frame narrative (written by Maud and Edward’s daughter, Maffy) happened 'years ago'. Maffy, born in the late 1970s is, one senses, in her thirties at the time of writing. But Incidents in the Rue Laugier was published in 1995.

Brookner was perhaps a careless writer. There are noble precedents: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, is founded on a bungled chronology. But might not Brookner have had her intentions? Might not the normally so strait-laced author be having her go at postmodernism? The central story of Incidents in the Rue Laugier is admitted by Maffy, the frame's narrator, to be no more than a fabrication based on a few cryptic, possibly autobiographical jottings found in her mother's notebook. Might not Anita Brookner be reminding the reader of the fictionality of all fiction, the nothingness beyond the text? Or is she rather urging us to forget about the time scheme altogether, forget about the mechanics of the novel, forget about the style, and concentrate instead on the novel’s substance, the very timelessness of its themes: marriage, desire, loss, memory?

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