Saturday, 22 April 2017

Vaguely Baronial

Rereading dredges up memories. Rereading Chapter 1 of A Friend from England, I was a student again and it was a sleepy afternoon in a lecture hall in the early 1990s.

I attended a traditional university. English Literature meant Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth. The canon crept tentatively into the twentieth century and finished in about 1950. There was a seminar called Contemporaneities, taking in Derrida, Lacan, et al, but it was after hours and considered rather daring. I went several times, and left baffled.

But I remember a linguistics course I took, and one amazing session when our lecturer carried out a close reading of a Brookner passage. It was the paragraph in Chapter 1 of A Friend from England that runs from 'The house - a substantial but essentially modest suburban villa' to 'For she was daintily houseproud'. The lecturer (who is, I think, now a presenter on BBC Radio 4) wanted to show how Brookner communicated her sophisticated horror at the Livingstones' vulgar excesses. Brookner, she said, heavily premodified her nouns, loading each one with as much opprobrium as it could reasonably carry. Thus we have 'inlaid marquetry tables of vaguely Pompadour associations', 'a Boulle-type sideboard' and '"Regency" wallpaper', as well as a 'shell-pink bedroom with ... extravagant expanses of white shag-pile carpet' and (this was a favourite) 'the vaguely baronial gas fire'. (The ungainly repetition of 'vaguely' was cause for some head-shaking.)

The joke was on Brookner: we were invited to smile at her snobbery, her outmoded obsession with social class. But if I'm right about the identity of the lecturer I seem to remember, I know she's an Anita Brookner fan, so perhaps the joshing was affectionate.

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