Brookner's critiques of other novelists always claim our attention. In the novels they're rather thin on the ground, in contrast to her extended references to the fine arts*. Proust, whom (thanks to Julian Barnes) we know Brookner read and reread avidly, is a case in point. There are mere scattered mentions of the writer in, for example, Strangers, and Proust's famous first line is quoted in Incidents in the Rue Laugier. These are, like Brookner's other literary references, conventional and less than illuminating.
For illumination we must go to her critical writings. I hope one day someone will publish a collected edition of Brookner's reviews and essays. There is the online Spectator archive, but its search facility is far from satisfactory. One comes upon Brookner essays more by chance than design. I found this the other day, a review of a volume of Proust's letters. As ever in her non-fiction Brookner makes brilliant points, not least in the way she brackets Proust with Freud, thus linking two writers of interest and relevance to herself:
One of the most interesting lacunae in Proust's overflowing correspondence was caused by an inauspicious lapse of time: he could not have read Marie Nordlinger's translations of Freud, for he died before they were published. On the other hand Freud might have read Proust, but probably did not. It might be objected that neither needed to read the other, since their discoveries and conclusions were remarkably similar, analysis and self-analysis being two sides of the same coin. Freud worked logically, Proust intuitively: the last line of Time Regained was written before the first line of the first volume, so Freudianly dependent on that personal pronoun. The story that Proust has to tell us is more complete than any that Freud might have elicited from his patients, but one which he would have understood for himself: the progress from childhood anxiety through the mutations of experience and sociability to recognition, perhaps haggard recognition, of the inevitability of death. Thus time regained is by virtue of the same process time foregone.
Elsewhere in the review her preoccupations become more personal still. One cannot but think that Brookner, in her essays, as elsewhere, is really talking only about herself.
Yet in these late letters, when time is running out, he remains a solipsist, defending his work against all comers. His fine manners never desert him, yet to critics he offers criticism in return. The novel sustained him through unimaginable discomforts. The life was the work. In every sense it was a life fully lived.
*Brookner's use of paintings in her novels is deserving of deeper study. In another Spectator review she praised the seductiveness and enlightenment of Eric Karpeles' Paintings in Proust.
References to painters and paintings are numerous in the novel, revealing an attention to detail with which Proust enhances - or, in the present author’s word, accessorises - his characters.