I grew cold and sick reading this remarkable narrative, which embodies a sense of displacement so radical that it would seem to preclude a safe return to everyday existence. This is not vulgar Holocaust literature, still less a witness statement: this is dislocation of a kind most of us are privileged not to know.
Cold and sick ... displacement ... dislocation. High praise indeed, from Brookner. Time and again in her reviews, especially in the later ones, she commends novels for the unease they induce in the reader. Followers of this blog will know I'm of the opinion that in her writings on other writers Brookner is really writing about herself. I'm a few chapters into a re-read of The Bay of Angels at the moment, and already my heart is in my mouth. In no way is it a cosy or comforting read. The critic John Bayley was of the opinion that even the gloomiest art could be comforting, 'by the paradox implicit in achieved art', as he said of A Private View (Spectator, 1994). Bayley, a Brookner fan, was much more of a fan of the likes of Larkin and Pym, and sought to align her with them. In an essay on the pair he sets out his stall:
This paradox of gloom as its own form of comfort is, in its way, a comic transformation of the old Romantic appetite for despair – Shelley's 'sweetest songs that tell of saddest thought'. Only in our own time, our own epoch of Romanticism, has comfortable gloom taken over from picturesque despair, and become domesticated in a homely need for humour and sympathy, the kind by which the human heart can live.
This isn't Anita Brookner. There is nothing sweet or comforting or even particularly domesticated about Brookner. Her novels are like ghost stories without the ghosts. The reader is constantly on edge, fearful, uneasy, uncertain of a safe return to everyday existence. But then as Brookner herself apparently said, art doesn't love you and cannot console you.