Thursday 22 December 2016

A Brooknerian Christmas

'The loneliest Christmas Day on record,' said one reviewer of Chapter 8 of Fraud.

There are episodes in many novels - Trollope has not a few - when the plots are up and running and the author simply marks time. These can be interesting moments, and Anna Durrant's lonely Christmas has its perverse charms.

I don't think I've read Fraud since the 1990s, and what comes across now, in comparison with the harsher, more raw novels of the succeeding decade, is the evenness, even the gentleness of the tone. 'Like all successful characters, [Anna] could only exist in a book, but the author is perhaps too wryly conscious of the fact,' said John Bayley in the London Review of Books, and I can see what he meant: there's an enchanted, unreal, fairytale aspect to Anna's terrible Christmas Day.

She wakes early, at 5.45, after a blessedly chemical sleep. For a moment she considers staying in bed; but for Brooknerians this is an intolerable fantasy.

She bathes, dresses, drinks tea, aware all the while of the 'oppressive silence of the streets'. She remembers the undemanding, harmonious Christmases she spent with her mother. 'Fatal alliance!' comments Brookner.

Then a marvellous thought comes to Anna: 'there is no need to live like this!' This, then, after all, is perhaps a chapter that advances the plot, such as it is. She thinks about living in France, remembers boyfriends of the distant past: 'She would walk by the Seine, alone now, but no longer lonely.'

There follows, at ten o'clock, a meeting with a neighbour, a Mr Harvey. Mr Harvey has plans for the day, and doesn't want to waste time with Anna. But he's also achingly desperate not to give offence. The pair enact an elaborate, comic pavane about one another, hovering at one point behind their respective front doors, as a second meeting would be embarrassing.

Miss Carter, Anna's mother's old dressmaker, lives with her cats in a basement flat in Brompton Square. The streets, we learn, are 'as still as Pompeii'. Miss Carter, 'more timid than anyone knew ... really only comfortable when undisturbed', does not take kindly to Anna's visit, which is brief and ends in awkwardness and indignation.

Anna, 'resigned now to the empty day', returns home across the park. It isn't yet two o'clock, but the sky seems to be darkening towards evening. There are one or two determined joggers. It starts to rain. 'Bleak, bleak, she acknowledged, under the leaden sky...' But she knows she need spend no further winters in this way.

At home she boils two eggs, but can eat only one; then she gets ready for bed and listens to a concert on the radio. She feels 'almost at peace, but dangerously so, as if waiting for death'. At last she judges it acceptable to retire, allowing herself the luxury of a pill. Thus a 'beautiful peace began to loosen her limbs, and she lay back on the pillows, a smile of anticipation on her face'.

A Merry Christmas to you all!

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