Sunday, 11 November 2018

Poynton, Utz and the Mania for Collecting

I had a James wobble not so long ago. James's last, unfinished novel, The Ivory Tower, in a nice NYRB edition, had been sitting on my shelves for some years, and at last I gave it a try. The first couple of chapters were OK, but then James started introducing characters willy-nilly, and when I'd read a dozen or so pages thinking 'Gussy' was a man, only to find she wasn't, I decided life was too short for what Martin Amis once called the arctic labyrinth of late James.

I don't elsewhere concur with Amis's views on James, but he seems to nail it when it comes to The Ivory Tower. And so? Give up? No! I chose The Spoils of Poynton, an old favourite - and it had only grown richer and more elegant and delightful. Published in 1897, it's a transitional novel, cementing the 'late style' and 'scenic method' that characterise James's last major phase.

Mrs Gereth, a recent widow, must leave Poynton, her home for more than twenty years and a monument to her mania for collecting. Owen, her mild but philistine son, wants to marry the even more vulgar Mona. How can Mrs Gereth save her antiques from the predations of this unsatisfactory pair? Enter Fleda Vetch, dreamy and Jamesian: 'no one in the world was less superficial than Fleda'. Mrs Gereth loves Fleda, loves her with a collector's eye. Fleda in her turn loves Mrs Gereth's old things - and soon loves Owen too. What's more, Owen loves her back, and says he'd be more than happy to break with Mona, if only... But Fleda will not yield. And why? Here rests the pleasure of the text. Is Fleda principled or perverse - motivated by her own mania? It's an ambiguity that is, as David Lodge says in his Introduction to my Penguin edition, irreducible.

Here's Anita Brookner on The Spoils of Poynton:
The best sure cure for homesickness, which can strike at any point on a foreign holiday, is a detective story. I shall unashamedly take Patricia Highsmith, whom I am re-reading, and who does not seem to date in the very least, and hope that Ripley - her amoral character - will give me the independence to sail through any uncomfortable encounter. I shall also take Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton, which is a kind of detective story, and read breathlessly until the new owner of the property is revealed.
'Holiday Reading', Observer, 4 July 1993

One book always leads to another. Poynton is rich fare, and I admit I found myself, midway, picking up something a little lighter - Bruce Chatwin's Utz (1988)I'd love to know whether Brookner read it. Its mittel-European atmosphere would surely have appealed.

I'm always a little slow on the uptake. Of course Utz is, like Poynton, about collecting, so it all in its way meshes together. I have, too, my own fascination in this regard. Take a look at my own modest collection of porcelain, acquired over several years from various locations in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, and from an excellent place in London's Cecil Court that always makes me think of the little shop in The Golden Bowl:

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Deserted, and in want of me

Fibich in Brookner's Latecomers travels to Berlin. It is before 1989, which adds to the peril. He wanders homelessly the scenes of his abbreviated early life. He visits certain streets. He views a Gainsborough. It is only later, back in England, while eating in a London restaurant, that he breaks down. He should have stayed, he realised. As the Kindertransport began to move, he should have opened the train door and run back to his mother as she waited on the platform and who, in truth, he never saw again.

Brookner had plans to visit her father’s home city, Piotrków Trybunalski in Poland, but did not. It would have been too difficult, especially before the fall of communism, and she mightn’t have found whatever she was looking for.

Brookner’s father, known as Newson, came to England before the First World War. Her maternal grandfather, also Polish, from Warsaw, was already established in the new country, and indeed supplied cigars to the Royal Family. This isn’t directly a story of the Holocaust.

Yet he retained, she said, all his life the simple incomprehension and unhappiness of an exile. So many of Brookner’s characters have such feelings, even those that are fully English, such as Zoë in The Bay of Angels. Newson Brookner, shy, quiet, diffident, compared unfavourably with the showy, effusive, successful men of her mother’s family. They found him difficult to talk to. His only comment on his translated life was that he missed the smell of pine forests. His sadness seemed unlovely to the young Anita, who was more easily attracted by her uncles’ expansiveness and jollity. Later she didn’t miss her father, or dream of him. But she came to feel as he had felt. He was encoded in her personality.

In writing of her father, Anita Brookner finished with a quote from Little Dorrit, from the letter Amy Dorrit writes to Arthur Clennam from Venice:
Another difficulty that I have will seem very strange to you. It must seem very strange to anyone but me, and does even to me: I often feel the old sad pity for – I need not write the word – for him. Changed as he is, and inexpressibly blest and thankful as I am to know it, the old sorrowful feeling of compassion comes upon me sometimes with such strength that I want to put my arms round his neck, tell him how I love him, and cry a little on his breast. I should be glad after that, and proud and happy. But I know that I must not do this; that he would not like it ... and so I quiet myself. Yet in doing so, I struggle with the feeling that I have come to be at a distance from him; and that even in the midst of all the servants and attendants, he is deserted, and in want of me.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Tales of Two Cities

Brookner’s ‘About the Author’ pieces, those little spiels of biography that adorned the dustjacket flap or the inside front cover of her books, and which in the early, primitive, pre-Internet days of my fandom were almost my only source of information about her, were brief and non-committal, often terse, and sometimes rather defiantly ludic. But one fact was never withheld: that Brookner, having been born in London and lived there most of her life, had spent three postgraduate years in Paris.

Brooknerians dream of Paris. They long for it. It lures them. The reality is often quite different. Julius Herz in The Next Big Thing, not in the pink of health, heads for the French capital for the day, and finds it exhausting, monumental. This isn’t the Paris he remembers, that place of charm, of charming youthful encounters. He doesn’t belong any more. It isn’t his Paris.

Key Paris episodes are to be found in A Start in Life, Family and Friends, Lewis Percy, Fraud, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Leaving Home and Strangers. One’s favourites shift and alter. I used to love the romance of the Paris scenes in Incidents – I even once visited the rue Laugier (it was oddly unevocative) – or Family and Friends. The scene in the latter, at the Hôtel Bedford et West End, where Mimi waits for her lover, who does not come, who never would have come, affected me deeply in my youth, and on early Paris visits I would walk up and down the rue de Rivoli in search of that hotel, which I didn’t find.

A Start in Life and Lewis Percy process memories of Brookner’s student days, in the Fifties. We know for certain that her first sojourn in the city was from 1950, when Anthony Blunt brokered for her a scholarship to the École du Louvre, and that her parents were against the plan. They thought she might be conscripted into prostitution! (No such luck, an older Dr Brookner later commented.) A plaintive cry went up: Come home! They tried everything. They kept her short of funds.She lived in poverty. But as she said elsewhere, sometimes you have to save your own life. But when exactly her famed three postgraduate years in Paris actually were is anyone’s guess. They were probably in the 1950s, but in her later brief memoir about her Paris landladies Brookner describes much later residences. She was probably shuttling fairly constantly between London and Paris, like characters in Falling Slowly and Leaving Home.

The two contrasting cities – the one dark, restrictive, costive, the other full of light and openness and good fellowship – function in Brookner’s novels much like the Old and New Worlds in the novels of Henry James. It’s Brookner’s International Theme. But the reality is often another matter, as it was for poor Julius Herz. He heads into a church in the Latin Quarter to see a favourite painting, but really nothing works. And in Brookner’s final novel, Strangers, we get, right at the end, our final Paris visit. The story’s over, Brookner’s run out of road, but she still has pages to fill, and this is where she comes into her own. She sends her protagonist on a wild goose chase to Nice, and then back up through Paris, where nothing is as he remembers it. And he’s old, like Herz, and gets alarmingly tired. It is always to the safety of London that Brooknerians must return.

I first went to Paris when I was about twenty, with a couple of friends. We drove, took the ferry – this was before the Channel Tunnel opened – and stayed in a pure dive of a youth hostel in one of the banlieues. Later, and many times, I returned by myself, staying in various small hotels closer to the centre. Once I met Marie, my French friend, the woman I’d been with in London when I met Anita Brookner. Marie had lived in Paris in her student days, possibly during the événements of 1968. (Brookner wasn’t a soixante-huitard, was most likely completing her year as Slade Professor at Cambridge at the time, and looked back rather sceptically on those allegedly heavenly, blissful days. There’s a critique in her novel The Rules of Engagement.)

Marie took me to the rue Mouffetard, where she had lodged. She showed me Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame, and we wandered along the Seine and browsed the booksellers’ wares. We ate omelettes in a Left Bank crêperie called something like Miam-Miam. She took pleasure in pointing out at another table a group of students who were, she said, involved in a deep philosophical discussion. This was real life, this was real living. That was her lesson.

I was in Paris alone in 2002, when I bought the newly released The Next Big Thing from the W. H. Smith store on the rue de Rivoli and took it back to my dark little hotel room to read with horrified, enervated delight. I was in Paris another time, on a summer’s evening, reading Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Magical long-ago days. But during those later visits the disenchantment was unignorable. I think I last went there in 2009, and I hated it. It was so large, so adamantine, and so international. There were still all the old movie-set locations - but take a step away from them and you might be anywhere. I saw it was a city to which, like Mimi in Family and Friends, I would never return.

How often Anita Brookner went back there in her later years we don’t know, though Herz’s dismal daytrip on the Eurostar in The Next Big Thing has an air of authenticity. But in her fiction, in almost every book, there is at least a mention, some memory of heady days. But precisely when those days were in her real life, and what they comprised, and who was there, and what happened, we’ll probably never know. Brookner wasn’t averse to speaking of her past, but she spoke legendarily. She was good at covering her tracks and she was never going to reveal all.

Friday, 26 October 2018

The Comforts of Scott

Mr Ramsay, the patriarch in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, loved it. Nineteenth-century families would act out tableaux from it. The Antiquary (1816), to the Victorians, meant comfort and nostalgia - but of the highest order. It cannot be ignored. Sir Walter Scott, of course, can't be ignored, but The Antiquary in particular must not be lost - however scantly its manifest eccentricities might recommend it.

For one thing it isn't a costume drama with a fast plot. This isn't Ivanhoe. Instead it is the story of a mysterious young Englishman, calling himself Lovel, who arrives in a Scottish seaside town in the 1790s, only twenty years before the novel was written. Lovel comes in contact with Jonathan Oldbuck, the antiquary of the title, a uniquely entertaining and frustrating character, obsessed with books and history. There's a violent storm and a heroic rescue, and it becomes clear that Lovel has some back-story that involves Isabella, a local aristocrat's daughter. But Scott is chary with the details, and the reader must read on, once more fascinated and frustrated.

It's a flimsy story, but weirdly alluring. 'It was early in a fine summer's day, near the end of the eighteenth century...' the novel begins, and who cannot be charmed by such a line? Possibly, I concede, those whose imaginations are less conservative may not be enamoured by Scott's view of the world and the past. They might gasp in disbelief at the minutiae with which the novel concerns itself. They might despair of Scott's depiction of, celebration of, the settled order - typified by the honourable beggar, Edie Ochiltree. But Scott isn't for everyone, and certainly isn't appreciated by most readers nowadays, though he was by many of the Victorians who came after him, and that's why we can't and shouldn't avoid him. We think of the novels of his time and we think of Jane Austen. The Victorians would have said 'Who?', and thought only of Sir Walter. He was a major European phenomenon.

Like her own father Virginia Woolf had a passion for Scott and for The Antiquary. She praised its 'complete presentation of life'. Her father, and perhaps also she herself, always shed tears towards the end of the novel, when Scott's plot meanders (but Scott proceeds through indirection) into an episode of loss in a fisherman's family:
the scene in the cottage where Steenie Mucklebackit lies dead; the father's grief, the mother's irritability, the minister's consolations, all come together, tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole ... which, as always, Scott creates carelessly, without a word of comment, as if the parts grew together without his willing it, and broke into ruin again without his caring.
Sometimes I fear I may be getting to the end of the nineteenth century. But there is always Scott. If you have never read him, start with Waverley. My favourites are Ivanhoe (I'm in good (?) company here, as Tony Blair was known to keep Ivanhoe by his Downing Street bed) and Kenilworth, as I'm partial to a spot of Merrie England.

Henry Liverseege, Edie Ochiltree,
Sir Arthur Wardour and Isabella in the Storm,

Whitworth, Manchester

Friday, 19 October 2018

Who Else Should I Read?

  • Read Trollope. For decent feelings, she said. In her own novels she references He Knew He Was Right and Orley Farm. I'm not keen on either. I love the later works, not all of which are the gloomy old things of repute. I think the likes of Ayala's Angel are among my favourite novels of any writer.
  • Read Roth and Updike. And the rest of the great American warhorses. Brookner always made a thing of her devotion to these most unBrooknerian writers. She was putting it on a bit, no doubt; but she made a good case.
  • Read Wharton. Brookner made a case for Wharton too. But I'm not sure she was right. She said she thought of herself as much more like Wharton than James. Again, I don't think she was right.
  • Read Sebald. She valued Sebald's sudden emergence, fully formed, on to the literary scene. She liked especially his evocation of old-style life and feelings.
  • For much the same reason, read Mann. The bourgeois past, European angst - and Switzerland.
  • Read Stendhal. I reckon he wasn't so much her favourite writer as her favourite person. His style, his attitudes, his insouciance.
  • Read Goncharov. Brookner said Oblomov was her favourite novel, and she quoted from it twice in her own novels. She liked it, she said, because it was about a man who failed at everything. This was probably something of the truth, but also a bit of a posture. I found Oblomov a dull read, and that line about the meads and kvasses brewed at Oblomovka was a lucky find of Brookner's, but not really representative.
  • Read Chekhov. For true Brooknerian sadness and nostalgia, that is. Not that Brookner recommended any particular Chekhovs, though she approved of his life. She approved in particular of his death - in Switzerland, wasn't it, and after a glass of champagne? A stylish way to go, at least in imagination. Brookner wasn't herself a drinker, and champagne gives a number of her characters a headache.
  • Read James. Well, of course. She loved The Portrait of a Lady, with its depiction of the passage from innocence to experience. She loved, of the later novels, The Spoils of Poynton, but found The Golden Bowl a little too redolent of the madness of art. For my part, I love that early late period of James's typified by Spoils: short brief astonishing novels, made for the future.
  • And of course, of course, read Dickens. She read one a year, having been introduced as a child. Her father saw the author as the key to Englishness. An only and perhaps lonely child, she was surprised when she went to school to find not everyone had a funny name.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Wuthering Heights

'No books!' I exclaimed. 'How do you contrive to live here without them? If I may take the liberty to inquire - Though provided with a large library, I'm frequently very dull at the Grange - take my books away, and I should be desperate!'

The other day I found myself publicly asked (the circumstances needn't concern us) what I was currently reading. Caught off guard, I replied honestly, adding 'I'm afraid' or 'believe it or not'. That's what you do with Wuthering Heights: you get all embarrassed, all apologetic. It's one of those books. One of those books everyone knows about, but no one actually reads?

I read it in my teens and never felt any need to revisit what was, I recalled, a baffling experience of time shifts, multiple narrators, narratives within narratives, and too many characters with similar or identical names.

But I've a fondness for those 1990s World's Classics covers. I kind of collect them. So I bought this rather nice Wuthering Heights...

...and, stuck for something to read one day, actually got around to opening it.

It's a revelation. The plot is a dream. The characters are vivid. The settings are completely convincing. The violence is shocking. The love story is powerful and affecting. Yes, a dream of a book. One to return to again and again, and this time not after a gap of thirty-odd years.

But one thing I take issue with. It crops up time and again. It's in my edition's blurb. This thing about Wuthering Heights being 'imaginative'. Yes, I see what is meant, but I prefer to see the book differently, as a work of literature. I prefer to see Emily Brontë's whole project as a uniquely literary endeavour. Let's take one example from the second half of the novel. Young Catherine corresponds secretly with Linton. We learn much about the mechanics of the correspondence. The secret missives themselves are all but fetishised. Others seek them, but they're hidden away. Their purloining is an intimate trespass.

Imaginative, yes. But literary too. The chapter is, of course, pure Clarissa.

No - no one should feel ashamed of reading Wuthering Heights.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Married Brookner

She had, she said, offers of marriage, but none she could accept. Whom could she entrust her life to? And how could she be married while at the same time living the life she wanted to live? How could she be married while also being an art historian? She told one interviewer she never seriously thought the puzzle was solvable.

At some point, she said, a wariness sets in, an understanding of other people’s motives – of men’s motives, the agendas of men. She didn’t want to be someone else’s prop. She said she never came close to marrying, because she never wanted to be married to the men who asked her. But she would have liked companionship and she would have liked children. Six sons, she said. One of her favourite pictures was David’s Oath of the Horatii in the Louvre, an image of three heroic brothers willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of Rome.

Her parents wanted her to marry. When she didn’t marry, they wanted her to nurse them. If she had married she wouldn’t have been so accessible – an irony that wasn’t lost on her.

And if she had married, she wouldn’t have been able to write. Or have wanted to, or needed to. But how does one spend the time in marriage? – the years and the months and the days and the hours? The novels of the past, ostensibly novels of marriage, are in fact concerned only with courtship and provide little instruction on what comes afterwards. Or indeed on what follows a failed courtship.

Brookner was as clear-eyed here as everywhere. She didn’t think she’d have been a good wife, a good mother. She was, she said, too self-absorbed, too inward. But she still valued the idea of marriage, and in her later, more reckless interviews she said she wished she had married several times. You should, she more than once said, play Russian roulette with your own life.

And marriage is a major theme in Brookner’s fiction. From the middle period onwards many of her protagonists are married. A Misalliance, Latecomers, Lewis Percy, Brief Lives, A Closed Eye, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Altered States, Visitors, Falling Slowly, The Next Big Thing, The Rules of Engagement and ‘At the Hairdresser’s’ all feature heroes and heroines who are married, widowed or divorced. So much for Brookner’s novels being only about lonely spinsters.

But in Brookner the ending of a marriage is only a matter of time. You can come across the most shocking scenes, especially in the later novels, where the iron has entered the soul, and the screw is turned and turned. Take Altered States: the decline and suicide of the narrator’s wife Angela. I read it aghast, my heart in my mouth. One’s heart is often in one’s mouth when one reads these later works, such is the atmosphere of dread.

A third of the way through The Rules of Engagement, as another example, the heroine’s heavy but inoffensive husband dies: the experienced Brookner reader has probably already suspected Digby’s time will soon be up. But the manner of his going is appalling. He is brought home by his secretary, having obviously suffered a stroke, though this isn’t named. No medical attention has been sought, and none is enlisted by his wife, the narrator, who maintains a vigil over him through the few dark days and nights that follow. Then he dies. These scenes are set, at a guess, in the 1970s, in an age perhaps less medicalised than today. But would you really not at the very least have called a doctor? The narrator doesn’t, and there’s no further comment on this. In Brookner we’re beguiled into such acceptances. Why? Is there a reason? Or is it just a part of the true weirdness and uniqueness of the Brookner world, the enigma that keeps us reading and kept her writing?

Monday, 1 October 2018


Brookner died on 10 March 2016, ‘peacefully in her sleep’, according to the death notice in The Times. One thinks of Mrs March in Fraud, daily scanning the columns. The piece continues less conventionally. At Anita’s request, we learn, there would be no funeral. Donations should be addressed to Médecins sans Frontières.

(It is disappointing to find ‘Médecins’ spelt ‘Medicins’.)

No funeral? This was subject to some comment at the time. It was becoming fashionable – a green alternative to the expense and waste of a traditional ceremony.

One senses in Brookner other motives. Feelings of dread and shame. The thought of all those gushing tributes, perhaps from people who were little more than strangers. The absence or near absence of family. The shame?

Peacefully in her sleep? But we know Anita Brookner’s death was far from benign, that her flat was on fire, and she had had to be dragged from it, that she survived for a time afterwards in hospital, but that adequate rehabilitation wasn’t perhaps at hand. Again and again I think about those circumstances. She had money enough to afford private care, but probably there was no one to speak for her. One needs spokespeople, advocates. How conscious was she? How lucid? Dying among strangers, what were her thoughts? Did anyone know who she was? Did anyone care?

(In 2009, in her last interview, she had spoken of the inspiration for what was to be her final novel Strangers. She had had, two years back, a spell in hospital. She had never been in hospital before. She had been, she said, literally dying among strangers. Yes, she said, she was frightened.

But she recovered. God’s little joke, she said.)

Emma Roberts, heroine of Leaving Home, Brookner’s penultimate novel, is one of her most dejected. Young, she maintains a relationship with an older doctor, stoical Philip Hudson, who has a son. Earlier in the novel Emma witnessed the son sleeping, experienced a coup de foudre. But she didn’t act, and Brookner, perversely, doesn’t explain why. And of course she doesn’t need to.

It is the son’s intention, we discover, to join Médecins sans Frontières. It is, Philip Hudson says, what he would have done at the son’s age. Henry James is recruited. Live all you can! says Dr Hudson.

Will we ever know what private memories or experiences prompted Brookner to choose MSF as her chosen charity after death?

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Insiders / Outsiders

Insiders out. Outsiders in, ran the header to a review of one of Brookner’s novels. But was she so much of an outsider? Did she not praise the reckless, the feckless, the careless? Did she not promote the riotous lives of the gods of antiquity? Didn’t she reject other, kinder philosophies? Whose side was she on? With whom, ultimately, did she throw in her lot?

The way to proceed, she once told us, was to start as an outsider, briefly to become an insider, and at last to resume the status of an outsider. That way the work got done.

Brookner said that in a review of Edmund White’s biography of Marcel Proust in the Sunday Times in 1999. Outsiders chiefly, sometime insiders too, consummate dandies both. As always Brookner chose her subjects with extreme precision.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Grey and without Interest

Brookner's first novel, A Start in Life, was nearly turned down by the publisher Jonathan Cape, who received from a reader a very negative report. Her characters were apparently 'grey' and 'without interest'. Fortunately Liz Calder worked at the house and took a look at the manuscript. She read the novel's now-famous opening sentence, 'Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature', and realised she was in the presence of greatness. Calder and Cape went on to publish many of Brookner's novels.

An intriguing anecdote, which I found by chance. I was browsing the Brookner signed novels on the Internet bookstore sites, and came across several editions with a note by Calder in which she described her association with the author. I've no idea why Calder wrote the note, but we can be grateful that she did.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

16th June 1994

I think I'd just finished my Finals and was heading off for a short break in Paris. I seem to recall seeing the book in the Paddington Menzies. I didn't in those days buy hardbacks (unlike Brookner, who was famed for it), but was first on the waiting list at my local library. By the end of the month I'd finished it, and it remains one of my favourites. I bought this copy recently. It is pristine. Brookner's dating of her signature is unusual.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

A Brookner Break

You may have noticed I'm taking a break from Anita Brookner at the moment. Everything palls after a time, and of course there's nothing new. I remember the years when I read her year by year, the excitement of receiving those Jonathan Cape, later Viking, hardbacks. A Proustian vouchsafement is still mine whenever I hold, say, A Closed Eye, with its view of Lausanne, or A Private View, with its blue Ian McEwanish female silhouette. I get the very touch and taste of youth again.

Where now? I'm reading Spenser's The Faerie Queene right now. ('The day is spent, and commeth drowsie night...') But I'm tempted perhaps to sink into middle Brookner sometime soon - A Private View, Incidents in the Rue Laugier... What extraordinary novels they were and are. Almost unremarked at the time, except for the regulation polite or disparaging notices in the quality dailies. But no one seemed to recognise how truly odd they were, how strange and revolutionary the Brookner project was. She wrote as it were clandestinely, knowing she would be overlooked, or not closely read, knowing she could say whatever she wanted, and safe in the knowledge that by then she was hidden in plain sight.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Who Reads Her?

I've long been a studier of reading habits. In my youth I worked in a public library, which had a functional if primitive computer system. This enabled me, illicitly, to track the borrowings of my peers. (In those days borrowing books from a public library was quite a regular activity.) Or I would stand at the issue desk - wanding barcodes, but scrutinising titles. I worked in that library system for six or seven years - and do you know, I don't think I ever issued or discharged an Anita Brookner. Or do I misremember?

Yet Brookner date labels were full of stamped dates, so people must have been reading her. It's just I never encountered them. And in the years since, I don't think I've ever seen anyone reading a Brookner. On the train. On the bus. On the beach. Of course the prevalence of Kindles and tablets makes spying on others' reading harder now. But still.

I know people do read her. I know you do. I know it from Twitter. But I've never met another reader. Or rather I have. I've met folk who say they once read Hotel du Lac and didn't progress further. But have I ever met another fan?

All this no doubt says much about me. But I think it also says something about reading Anita Brookner, and about readers of Anita Brookner. We read, as it were, in secret. We prefer the private view. Almost as if there were something disreputable on offer. I venture to suggest there's certainly something very subversive and shocking and not quite suitable for polite society.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Of Wolves and Winterson

Some writers get all the approbation. There was a BBC documentary about Angela Carter last month: 'Of Wolves and Women'. It's pleasant viewing: lots of archive, talking heads, amusing dramatisation. Carter proves very digestible.

What of writers whose messages are less palatable, less fashionable, less easy? Let's dismiss them, ignore them, misrepresent them.

Enter Jeanette Winterson with her Brian May hairdo. Nights at the Circus (1984), we are told, received glowing reviews but was deliberately overlooked for the Booker Prize.

'What won', says Winterson sourly, 'was Hotel du Lac, which was Anita Brookner, which is an insipid novel by any standards.' Here we cut to a particularly prim scene from the Hotel du Lac TV film. Winterson goes on: 'It was typical of the way that the establishment at the time rewarded women who are compliant.'

Such lazy sneering is, for my money, typical of the way the critical establishment often categorises Anita Brookner. The distaste with which Winterson utters the words 'Hotel du Lac' and 'Anita Brookner' is treasurable. There is also of course a political subtext. Carter equals the Left and all that is good and true. But Anita Brookner? Some kind of wicked Tory?!

Friday, 7 September 2018

Where I Went in the Holidays

To Hamburg, Lübeck and Travemünde

I came to the conclusion some time ago, after years of puzzlement, that I don't really like any weather. My favourite sort of day is a dry day, a little chilly, in spring or autumn. I was once in Dallas, and the temperature was more than 40⁰C. My day at the Southfork Ranch was a trial.

We had a miserable English winter this year, then a heatwave from June. I suffered. In Germany it was worse - even in the north, supposedly subject to sea breezes. In Hamburg I hunkered close to the Kunsthalle, discovered Cranachs, appreciated an exhibition about disasters.

Lübeck and Travemünde: no Brookner connection, other than Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks in particular, which plays its role in The Next Big Thing. I've been to the Buddenbrookhaus before. It is, like many such buildings in Germany, largely a reconstruction. Then to Travemünde, where the Buddenbrooks took their holidays, now a sizable port serving destinations as far away as Helsinki. I stayed a little along the coast at Timmendorfer Strand, a long beach, almost exclusively German. One could hire a Strandkorb, of which there were thousands, like a larger wicker porter's chair. This is apparently a great tradition.

Below: Planten un Blomen, Hamburg; Eugène Isabey, Wreck of the Emily; Cranach the Elder, Christ Blessing the Children; detail of last; Timmendorfer Strand; parched England

To Brussels and Ghent

A much milder, pleasanter break in Belgium at the end of the holidays. Ghent is a discovery. Previously I've been only to the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, where I like to visit the Géricault portrait it is my pleasure or burden to use as an Internet avatar. (Click on the Géricault label below for more posts relating to the artist.) The museum retains its charm (it's virtually unvisited), despite a rather savage recent rehang.

Ghent itself is a delightful bourgeois city, with much in common with Bruges: a medieval centre, canals, churches. Then to Brussels - edgy as always, edgier still this time, or so it seemed to me. But I had my usual mooch around the art museums, revisiting the Bruegel that inspired Auden's poem, the Davids Brookner revered - all those.

Below: [Ghent] an old friend in new company; Casorati, Girl on a Red Carpet, 1912; Navez, St Veronica, 1816; Paelinck, Anthia Leading Companions to the Temple of Ephesus, c. 1820; detail; De Vigne, Fair in Ghent in the Middle Ages, c. 1862

Below: Ghent by night and day

Below: [Brussels] Khnopff, Listening to Schumann; Jordaens's Bacchus, a lesson for us all

Wednesday, 5 September 2018


The skill with which John Banville deploys Jamesian vocabulary and syntax in his recent James-inspired novel Mrs Osmond (2017) is constantly stimulating and often brings a smile to the grateful reader's lips. It is the principle pleasure of the book. I'm interested by Banville's use of the word 'vastation', meaning spiritual emptying. Has he been reading Brookner?

Brookner uses the word in her novel Visitors (1997)A character lies sunk in an armchair, as though subject to a 'Jamesian vastation'.

In a review in 2005 of Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, Banville refers to Mantel experiencing 'by her own account' a Jamesian vastation at the age of seven. I cannot date Mantel's account.

But Henry James doesn't use the word (though in Notes of a Son and Brother we read of the author being 'vastated of my natural vigour').

('Vastation' in fact derives from the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic to whose doctrines Henry James's troubled father was devoted.)

(A tip for whenever you next update your dictionary (if you have one, these days): look up 'vastation'. If it's present, the dictionary's a contender; if not, then it isn't. Never fails.)

Saturday, 1 September 2018

What I Read in the Holidays

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark

A very short novel, told almost entirely in dialogue, Not to Disturb (1971) has much in common with The Abbess of Crewe (1974) (see here). Both have preposterous plots, a devious central character, and themes of surveillance and control. In Not to Disturb, Lister is the butler of a grand Swiss establishment. Relations among his employers are such that a murder or murders are imminently expected. The servants - theirs is the only view we get - must make future plans, which include deals with the newspapers and unlikely marriages. Structured in five chapters over the course of a night, the novel is an exercise in form, with debts to the Elizabethan dramatists as well as to moderns like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green. I didn't much like it.

Mrs Osmond by John Banville

A 'niche' read, this, if ever there was one. Mrs Osmond, formerly Isabel Archer, has left Italy to attend the funeral of Ralph Touchett. As she wanders a midsummer London and heads back through Paris to Italy, we encounter old friends - Caspar Goodwood, Henrietta Stackpole, the maid Staines - and are reminded of scenes earlier in the story, by which of course I mean Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. I've never been especially keen on John Banville, finding his prose rather precious and sub-Jamesian, but Mrs Osmond (2017) is surely the book he was destined to write, though it probably wouldn't have been published if he hadn't written it. When it first came out critics scoured the text's consciously Jamesian ventriloquism for solecisms and wrong notes. But the stylistic successes and failures are really all part of the fun and the book's major draw. It is a joy.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

A reread, and my summer treat. School spoilt Charles Dickens for me. I remember long lessons doing comprehensions on the supposedly funnier passages, or slogging through Oliver Twist. (One of the problems with teaching Dickens is explaining his use of irony. Too often his tone is taken at face value.) Into my twenties, after an English degree too, I still avoided the author. I made one final effort with Bleak House - and the magic happened. It's a startling book, engrossing and varied, with a wonderful double narrative. I veer between preferring Esther's memoir and the omniscient sections. What I took from this reread was the way Dickens evokes his own past: the 1830s, the pre-railways age, coaching days - as long ago from the mechanised Victorian era of the novel's production as the comfortable analogue age is from our anxious digital world. I was also, on rereading, unnerved by Mr Jarndyce, who seems to modern eyes a creepy character - all that 'little woman' and 'Dame Durden'. Dickens is aware of this (I believe great writers are always as aware as we are, often more so), and anticipates it, making another character, Richard, suspicious of Mr Jarndyce's motives. Dickens continues to insist on Mr Jarndyce's goodness, but the issue remains troubling. And I guess Dickens knows this.

Afternoon Men by Anthony Powell

Powell, best known for his twelve-volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, was nothing if not a stylist. The style develops over his career, all the way to the exquisite abstraction of his two post-Dance novels of the 1980s. Here, in Afternoon Men (1931), his very first novel, we find everything in place or in embryo - the bohemian demi-monde of artists and writers, the randomness of events, the wonderful set pieces, and, in the writing, Powell's curious combination of voluptuousness and astringency. It's the story of a group of party-goers in early 30s London. As in Dance there's a Powell avatar, here called Atwater (not sure if the closeness of 'avatar' and 'Atwater' is deliberate - probably not), distanced but still involved. The conversation is clipped, maddening, but also suggestive and sad. It's an accomplished debut and makes me want to reread Dance. (I'm a particular fan of Dance, and especially like the wartime trilogy, volumes 7, 8 and 9 - more than a match for Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trio.)

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner

I've read and enjoyed Ben Lerner's 2014 novel 10:04. But it's autofiction, so while there's an exhilarating sense the thing might go anywhere you also read with a sinking feeling, knowing there'll be no resolution. In The Hatred of Poetry (2016), a novella-length essay, Lerner discourses on the 'fatal problem with poetry: poems', the disconnection between our transcendent notion of 'poetry' ('the ideal Poem') and the limited artefacts ('the ideal Poem we cannot write in time') very few of us produce and many of us (Lerner, it seems, included) rather hate. Lerner's thoughts on the likes of Dickinson, Keats and others is illuminating, but I'm not sure any of it is particularly original (and his understanding of poetic metre is, I'd suggest, a little askew). But the essay ends well, ends novelistically, ends ... poetically (?), in a defence of 'a vocation no less essential for being impossible'. Well worth a read (and the Fitzcarraldo Edition livery makes it extra toothsome).

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Loitering with Muriel

What a subversive joy it is to discover Muriel Spark. Of course I knew The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but I left it at that. But this Spark centenary year I've delved further, and Loitering with Intent (1981), Spark's sixteenth novel, is easily the most pleasurable so far.

On one level it's because of the story, a social comedy about a fairly ridiculous organisation called the Autobiographical Association. Why has Sir Quentin Oliver set it up? Why does he want to entice old friends to commit their scandalous secrets to paper? Has he blackmail in mind? And what are the connections between these events and those to be found in the novel the beady-eyed narrator is writing? The plot is intriguing; the atmosphere of post-war London is precisely evoked; the characters ('which resembled more and more the bombed-out buildings that still messed up the London street-scene') are funny and surprising; and the narrator, a true Spark avatar, is sharp and engaging.

But it is Spark on writing that gives the reader pause:
I wasn't writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person, but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder...
Warrender Chase [the main character in the narrator's novel] never existed, he is only some hundreds of words, some punctuation, sentences, paragraphs, marks on the page.
Such utterances are as disturbing as they are thrilling. They seem to stretch the reader's good faith. There's something diabolical about Spark; there always is, but elsewhere it has more to do with her manipulation of her characters, who nevertheless exist, aren't in quite so much doubt.

What sort of writer was Muriel Spark? 'The true novelist, one who understands the work as a continuous poem, is a myth-maker, and the wonder of the art resides in the endless different ways of telling a story...' I think of Brookner as I read this, though she was a writer who made many fewer claims for her work. Spark's headstone, in Italy, reads 'poeta'. If Anita Brookner had wanted one (she didn't) the same word might have applied.

And lastly, what is the relation between Spark and autobiography? Is Loitering with Intent 'autofiction'?
People often ask me where I get ideas for my novels; I can only say that my life is like that, it turns into some other experience of fiction, recognisable only to myself.
The awkwardness of the phrasing suggests a straining at the limits of expression - suggests the expression of something authentic, personal, radical.


The Polygon centenary editions of Muriel Spark's twenty-two novels are highly recommended.


The Brooknerian will now be taking its summer break. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, 19 July 2018

A Misalliance: Closing Remarks

And so we come to the end of A Misalliance. A minor Brookner in some ways, a little under-powered, and tonally variable. A novel other writers probably wouldn't have written. Others would have let a fallow year go by. But not Anita Brookner.

And yet I'm glad we have it.

The closing chapter is a classic Brookner conclusion, though you probably wouldn't have known it in 1986. But now we see all the familiar things. The urgent desire to travel. Seasonal change. The wistful ending of a misalliance and the throwing in of one's lot with altogether safer concerns. And a sudden last-paragraph reversal.

No, I rather like A Misalliance. Unlike its creator I wouldn't dismiss it with the Ratner word.

A Misalliance: Far Gone

He is far gone, she thought.
A Misalliance, ch. 11

Early Brookner, later Brookner. What are the differences? Chapter 11 of A Misalliance comprises a three-way conversation between Blanche, her ex-husband, and her old admirer Patrick Fox. The tone, typical of the early novels, is witty, comic, sarcastic, aphoristic. It reads a little like Wilde or Coward.

And Patrick Fox's love with Sally, one of the novel's several unsuitable attachments, is played for laughs. But fast-forward just a few years to A Private View, and we have George Bland and his obsession with Katy Gibb - and few laughs, and no repartee. A Misalliance summarises several early Brookner themes - flirting with other lives, mismatched pairs - but we must look to later novels for truly serious analysis.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

A Misalliance: Je redoute l'hiver

Je redoute l'hiver, parce que c'est la saison du confort.
Arthur Rimbaud, Une Saison en Enfer

Brookner, like Scott, had a well-stocked mind, and she had her favourite quotes, just as we Brooknerians have favourites of hers. Lines recur interestingly in the novels. This Rimbaud line ('I dread the winter, because it is the season of comfort') is invoked in both A Misalliance (Ch. 10)
...the temperature had noticeably dropped; perhaps the season had ended. The darkness that had filled her vision the night before had perhaps been the true darkness of night falling, rather than the fading vision brought about by her headache. 'Je redoute l'hiver, parce que c'est la saison du confort,' thought Blanche...
and The Rules of Engagement (Ch. 16):
Je redoute l'hiver, parce que c'est la saison du confort. Rimbaud had said that, and, perhaps wisely, cut his winters short. But death, even when not entirely involuntary, was not the ideal solution.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

A Misalliance: Blanche's Migraine

My thing with Brookner goes back exactly 25 years ago when Hotel du Lac won the Booker prize. To an aspiring literary critic, this frail, thin book about a frail, thin heroine coming to terms with loveless solitude at a Swiss hotel seemed the epitome of the bloodless, sexless, plotless English novel that had led us to study American literature at college. 
Subsequently, one of the subjects for my debut appearance on the Radio 3 chatshow Critics' Forum turned out to be the latest Brookner, in which another west London spinster didn't quite get it together with a semi-comatose widower. What passed for a plot twist was the heroine experiencing a severe migraine. I have a memory of a moment when the central character was forced to return early from a stroll because the weight of the spectacle frames on her nose had become unbearable.

Mark Lawson's review of Brookner's 2009 novel Strangers isn't the only example of a critic recanting on his former dislike of the author. But what interests me is the depiction of an earlier critical climate. The book under discussion on Critics' Forum was surely A Misalliance.

Blanche's migraine (in which a pair of spectacles plays no part - and who the semi-comatose widower is, I don't know) arises out of probably Brookner's oddest set piece, a negotiation with a moneyed American pair, the Demuths, at the Dorchester Hotel. It is brilliantly described and very atmospheric - Brookner's handling of weather is as good as always - but it is also, well, odd. And though the object of Blanche's misalliance, Sally, is involved - it is Blanche's peculiar job to negotiate on behalf of Sally's flighty ('volage' ) husband Paul - she is absent from the scene, and this perhaps weakens the focus of the novel.

But Blanche's subsequent migraine is every bit as harrowing as Frances's nighttime trek down the Edgware Road in Look at Me. As a migraine sufferer myself, I approached a reread with trepidation. And sure enough I felt, in sympathy, a minor throbbing pain over my left eye - and took some pills - and all was well. All isn't well for Blanche, who knows what is in store for her.

Her triggers are fairly standard: champagne, stress, smells, atmospheric conditions. The natural history of Blanche's migraines, which Brookner clinically records (and which I shrink from quoting), is similar to her own experience, as revealed in a 1993 review in the Spectator of Oliver Sacks's book, Migraine:
I learn from this book (and I allow that this may occur from actually reading the book) that my headaches are in fact migrainous and not untypical, and that the sensation of waking from a dream with the onset of a migraine is fairly standard. In fact it is probable that the precipitating dream, which is accompanied by a feeling of panic or horror, may be implicated in the migraine itself. Waking, which is always abrupt, is not caused by anything as specific as the alarm going off or the radio coming on. A rapidly beating heart may continue for an hour, to be succeeded by a pain over the left eye. More interesting than the pain, which is unpleasant but endurable, is the feeling of extreme dejection, and of unwelcome rumination. This too, it seems, is characteristic. The attack is therefore less of an attack than a defeat, an invasion of unpalatable memory. This will last for 12 hours and be cancelled by a night of sleep without dreams. Thus I learn that I suffer from common migraine, as opposed to classic migraine, which may be accompanied by more radical distortions, including the saw-toothed aura or blot in the centre of vision which afflict major sufferers. I have also learned to look away from flashing blue lights which punctuate the opening sequence of The Bill on television. It would be interesting to know how many are felled by a night in the disco. Coffee helps.

A Misalliance: Not a Night Club

'Life is not a night club,'
says Blanche to her old friend Patrick in chapter 8 of A Misalliance when he reveals unwise feelings for the flaky Sally and an even flakier association with an analyst. It's a good line, and I've pointed out before that A Misalliance is a quotable novel. And here's Anita Brookner herself in interview in 1994:
...if someone said to her, not that she was gloomy and sad, but that her novels were, how would she reply? 'I'd agree. I don't intend them to be like that, but I think they're an accurate reflection. Life is not a nightclub, and some of the reviews I've had, particularly from women, which assume that it is, seem to have been quite defensive. These women are angry. They believe they can get what they want from life. Maybe they're just lucky enough not to have found that out that they can't.'

Friday, 13 July 2018

A Misalliance: An Essential Commentary

A Misalliance, disowned by Brookner, out of print for years in the UK, is a minor but significant novel. It might be called transitional. The character of Sally, feckless, sybaritic, entitled, is a preparation for the monsters to come: Julia in Brief Lives, Dolly in A Family Romance, both more fully realised. Blanche's marriage lays the ground similarly for those stories of marriage Brookner would tackle in later books: in Lewis Percy, in A Closed Eye, to name only two. A Misalliance is not to be lost. And it is very quotable. One seems to hear Brookner working out her very philosophy.
The unease she felt at the National Gallery, the curious faintness that had overcome her at the sight of the archaic smile of the kouros in the Athens Museum, seemed to her an essential commentary on her own shortcomings. I could have saved my own life, she thought. But I was too weak, shackled by the wrong mythology. (Ch. 7)

Thursday, 12 July 2018

A Misalliance: Fantasies of a High Order

Brookner was perhaps always a sceptic. Art doesn't love you and can't console you, she would tell her art history students; and Blanche in A Misalliance has similar doubts as to art's transcendence. What do all her visits to the National Gallery yield but 'fantasies of a high order'? (Ch. 6)

Likewise with writing. For a time in the 1980s, after the Booker win, Anita Brookner was lionised. But publication of A Misalliance inaugurated a period of reassessment: Brookner was a one-trick pony; Brookner had nothing new to offer; Brookner's bloodless fiction sounded the death-knell for English literature: that kind of thing.

But this was a second career, and this should never be forgotten. She wasn't starting out. She was simply trying her hand. She was playing. She could afford to do as she pleased. She made no claims for her fiction; in fact she often downplayed its significance. She probably knew her fantasies were actually of a high order. But she also knew they were mere fantasies.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

A Misalliance: Do not look to me to be Millie [sic] Theale

'I plan to become dangerous and subversive,' says Blanche in chapter 5 of A Misalliance, before (as she puts it) 'raving on about Henry James'.

'A silly girl,' says Blanche of Milly* Theale in The Wings of the Dove. 'She should have bought that rotter outright. What else is money for?'

And so Blanche continues to purchase the company of her own new acquaintances, Sally and her daughter. Quantities of ten-pound notes are placed under the lid of a chipped teapot in Sally's ruinous kitchen.

It is not the only time in Brookner that protagonists buy the time of others. One thinks of Elizabeth in 'At the Hairdresser's' or George Bland in A Private View. Each time the donation of funds is effected in clandestine ways, bringing analogous transactions into the mind of Brookner's knowing and fallen ideal reader.

Not that Blanche's wealth is really quite in the same ballpark as Milly Theale's. But Sally's former mythic existence is evoked in truly Gatsbyish terms: 'Morocco for breakfast, dinner in Venice': or, this being Brookner, in terms of the fêtes galantes of Watteau.

The Embarkation for Cythera, Louvre

* Brookner misspells the name. A rare slip.

A Misalliance: A Creator's Imagination

No wonder A Misalliance, when it was praised, as it was in the US, was called Jamesian. As the child Elinor is introduced in chapter 3 we get a flurry of literary vibrations: not just of James's Maisie but also, in her name, of Jane Austen, and in a mention of foundlings, of Tom Jones and Dickens's Esther Summerson.

Blanche finds herself thinking with 'something like a creator's imagination'. One remembers James again, The Sacred Fount, and 'the joy of determining, almost of creating results'.

It's a heady brew, and all the while there's the art: those nymphs in the Italian Rooms of the National Gallery, mocking Blanche's progress.

Tiepolo, An Allegory of Venus
with Time

Saturday, 7 July 2018

A Misalliance: What is the Matter with You?

'What is the matter with you, Blanche?' he said impatiently.
Anita Brookner, A Misalliance, ch. 2

It is a perennial quandary in a Brookner novel. We kind of know what's wrong with her protagonists, but it's never anything that can be easily expressed, never anything that can be explained in a lot less than seventy thousand words.

Blanche is possibly a more straightforward case. She longs for her ex-husband. She would have liked children. She drinks too much. This last detail distances her slightly. The Brookner world is usually very sober, but here we have Vouvray, Sancerre, Madeira. How persuasive is this? Julian Barnes had something to say on the topic:
In one of Anita's later [sic?] novels, the female protagonist, when having supper alone in her flat, regularly has a glass of white wine. Being interested in wine, I couldn’t help noticing that each time supper occurred, the wine was different: first a chardonnay, then a pinot grigio, then a sauvignon, and so on; but the last wine to be drunk in the book was, unexpectedly, sweet – a sauternes. I wondered if such changingness might be significant, intended perhaps as an emblem of the protagonist's volatility. At lunch I mentioned this theory, and referred to that puzzling late switch from dry to sweet. 'Oh no,' replied Anita unconcernedly, 'I just went into a shop and copied down the names.'

A Misalliance: Expertise

Look in any British bookstore and you won't find it. In fact I don't think it's been in print in the UK since the 1980s. It was Brookner's sixth novel, published in 1986, and it was the first to receive a significant degree of negative press. The Paris Review interview tackled this with Brookner, who spoke out against the often personal nature of such criticism, but suggested A Misalliance 'wasn't a very good book, but it wasn't that bad either. I've written it off'.

It has remained in print in the States, where it enjoyed a more favourable reception. Its 'Jamesian' qualities were praised - 'which I would not have dared to presume'.

It represents, perhaps, a turning point, and as the Paris Review exchange makes clear, the character of the protagonist is the main issue. The interviewer finds her boring and irritating; Brookner calls her 'aseptic'.

There is certainly, from the off, a sense of authorial distance. This is a new type of heroine. Blanche isn't the 'lonely spinster' lazy critics had perhaps come to expect. She's a divorcee. This is the first of Brookner's meditations on marriage.

It is also, even more than its predecessors, a notably stylish novel. One can understand the Jamesian tag. In the first chapter Brookner evokes the 'stony fastness' of Blanche's mansion flat, and her memories of holidays in warmer climes, with a brilliance that marks a new self-assurance. She's also confidently aphoristic:
The only child of parents long since dead and almost forgotten, Blanche had begun her apprenticeship of living alone from an early age, and was thus an expert. An expert is not necessarily contented with his or her expertise, and Blanche found her skill sorely tried as the days grew longer.

(I wonder: did Anita Brookner herself place some kind of embargo on A Misalliance? Authors have been known to make such rash decisions. Look at James, who wrote off The Bostonians. (He excluded The Sacred Fount also from the New York Edition, but that's very much more understandable.))

Friday, 29 June 2018

Jim, George, Walter and the RA

On Tuesday 1 December 1992 the diarist James Lees-Milne made one of his regular jaunts to London, where he visited Richard Shone's Walter Sickert exhibition at the Royal Academy. He had one or two things to say about the show, noting that the later paintings, done from photos, looked like photos, but were still fascinating - transient scenes immortalised - and liking the 'early stuff' -  'Whistlerish'. His main beef - he wouldn't be James Lees-Milne if he didn't have a complaint - was with the gallery lighting.

As I've explained before (see here), Anita Brookner's 1994 novel A Private View is set fairly precisely in late 1992. In chapter 4, one Sunday, the protagonist George Bland visits the Sickert exhibition at the RA. Bland's ruminations prove somewhat more extensive than Jim Lees-Milne's, though the gallery's lights aren't commented on.

If the visits to the RA of Lees-Milne and Brookner that winter had coincided, would the pair have acknowledged one another? Probably not. They weren't really acquainted, though Lees-Milne had heard Dr Brookner lecture in the 1980s. Much later, on the posthumous publication of a biography of Lees-Milne, Brookner indicated that she was a 'devotee' of his diaries.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Moral Puzzles

A 'pure' novel, said Anita Brookner in interview, should cast a moral puzzle; everything else is mere negotiation. '[T]o follow a scruple to its ultimate conclusion is Edith Wharton's whole concern,' she writes in her Introduction to that author's novel The Reef. '[I]t is a chance to see what can be achieved in the pursuit of moral truths.'

Brookner's 'Wharton phase' centred on the 1980s, when, following her Booker win, she was much in demand. She wrote Introductions to The Custom of the Country and to two volumes of Wharton's short stories. In 1994, when she introduced the 'less popular, and indeed less well known' novel The Reef, Brookner's star was arguably on the wane.

How do Brookner's Introductions read? Do they, as some have claimed, feel like essays on her own fiction? Certainly the Introduction to The Reef is different in emphasis from the earlier Intros cited above, which are happy to recount the details of Wharton's life and to give quotable summaries of her various plots. Brookner's main approach to The Reef is to recruit Henry James. It's the 'most rigorous', 'the most finely wrought' of Wharton's novels. It marks the peak of Wharton's 'most brilliant period of creativity'. It is the 'most Jamesian'. One reads, she says, with 'rapt attention', admiring, with James, its 'dramatic unity'.

What does all this sound like? For me and for many fans the 1990s represent a high point of Brookner's career as a novelist. Her Reef Introduction could well indeed be adapted to describe the finely wrought moral investigations of those years. Think A Private View. Think Visitors. It has been truly said that authors, when writing of other novelists, not infrequently write only about themselves.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Finishing The Custom of the Country

The Custom of the Country is blessed with 'a most intricate and satisfying plot', according to the blurb on my Brookner-curated Penguin edition. The novel is certainly intricate. Things just keep on happening. In the constant edgy changefulness of her narrative Wharton is closer to a modern like Thomas Hardy than a modernist like Henry James. James's plots are more ordered and formal - never loose, never baggy. As for Brookner, hers are sometimes of the one sort, sometimes of the other. Her most Jamesian plots are to be found in the tight focus of novels like A Private View, whereas the likes of, say, Lewis Percy proceed with a Hardy-style 'one damn thing after another' unpredictability.

When she wrote an Introduction to the contemporaneous The Reef, Brookner called The Custom of the Country 'the broadest and most jovial of Edith Wharton's novels', in contrast with which The Reef was praised for its Jamesian 'dramatic unity'. The two impulses - the expansive and the controlled - perhaps exist side-by-side in Wharton - as they do in Brookner's fiction too.

And what a broad and expansive novel Custom is. What starts out as a classic tale of courtship, quickly becomes one of marriage and then of divorce and later of further divorce. And divorce of a particularly modern kind, divorce that finds its way into the vulgar press. All seems rather endless until a late twist brings the whole farrago into definition: the novel is about Undine, and the modernity she represents. Above the various shenanigans she glides, oblivious, cool - indeed, as we learn in a revealing moment, sexually rather cold. The Custom of the Country is ultimately neither tragedy nor comedy but an heroic effort to understand a not very interesting or talented but very modern girl from Apex. It is, for Edith Wharton, an admirable experiment, an awe-struck descent from Olympus.

Another Brookner-introduced Wharton

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Continuing The Custom of the Country

There were two Edith Whartons, the grand New York lady ('every inch a lady,' says Anita Brookner in her Introduction to The Custom of the Country), and the artistic, almost bohemian European: we see something of the latter in action in the novel, when Undine and Ralph are on their honeymoon in Italy, Switzerland and Paris. '[S]trange specimens from the depths slip through the wide meshes of the watering-place world' - the Baroness Adelschein, who is tolerated because she is amusing but would be dropped at home, and the 'Parisianized' Mrs Shallum and her 'wax-featured' husband. Such figures point towards The Age of Innocence and Ellen Olenska, who knows that world too well, and realises it is no place for Newland Archer.

Brookner's Continent was altogether less raffish. She went to the same sorts of places, but gone were the louche outcasts of society Wharton depicts. And they're surely gone now. Go to Switzerland now, and you'll find only the super-rich. In Brookner there are hints of past times, in the guests at the Hotel du Lac in the novel of that name, or in Fanny Bauer and her mother in Nyon in The Next Big Thing.

Brookner hasn't been the only critic to deplore the lack of classic novels about marriage, in contrast with the very many about courtship. Wharton is an exception, in her depiction of Undine and Ralph's marriage. As Brookner says:
As long as men and women seek to use each other - and to use each other badly - Edith Wharton can be counted upon to provide the ideal commentary.
And indeed Wharton is unsparing in her portrait of a marriage on the skids, the obsession with money, the moments of anger, the compromises, the concessions, the mercies. But it is also her business to show a changing culture, the modern world coming on. Undine, marrying into minor New York aristocracy, 'found out that she had given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and the promiscuous'.

Wharton's Collected Stories, another
Brookner-curated volume (1988)

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Starting The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country (1913) isn't one of Wharton's novels of 'Old' New York. Forensically it depicts the twentieth-century world, and the reader is struck by just how modern it feels. Where in British novels of the time would one find such a reverence for celebrity, such an impulse towards instant communication, such a rejection of anything out of date? Where would one find characters called Indiana Frusk? Where would one find chewing-gum?

Modern it might be, but it isn't modernist. It's told in steady deliberate sentences, heavy with irony, Jamesian in shape. You need to read the novel slowly, not because it is difficult to read, but because it seems too easy. You need to slow down, weighing each carefully deployed word.

Wharton is both insider and outsider, and in this she resembles her disciple Anita Brookner who provides an Introduction to my Penguin edition. Brookner went through a Wharton 'phase' in the 1980s, and it's fun to spot in The Custom of the Country examples of what I've previously called Brooknerese: 'saurian', 'suzerainty'.

Book One introduces the brilliantly named provincial heroine Undine Spragg - shallow, affectless, materialistic, but also somehow sympathetic - as she enters the 'labyrinth of social distinctions' that is New York. Wharton ably skewers Undine's preferences and pretensions, but is also slightly baffled by her. The novel reads like early Brookner; the Introduction dates from 1987, the year of A Friend from England, a novel also loaded with the semiotics of wealth and vulgarity, and containing in Heather a character as innocent but also as opaque as Undine.

Countering Undine is her lover Ralph, idealistic and romantic - and surely heading for a fall.

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Seismic Revelations

The Rules of Engagement closes with a sequence equivalent to the more celebrated conclusions to some of Brookner's earlier novels. Betsy, who has shadowed or haunted the narrator through the novel, and through life, is gravely ill. It's unsettling news: the 'seismic revelation' that nothing is secure. Betsy's decline is affectingly told. What other writer would or could have written of Betsy, as she recalls her adopted, adored family, who have abandoned her, 'This last was an exhalation of pure longing'? And it's blazingly hot, just like the final moments of Providence: Brookner is never afraid to use the weather to ramp up the tension. But in The Rules of Engagement she pulls the rug from under us. We fully expect the novel to end with Betsy's death, and so it does, but it occurs offstage. The final, brief chapter unexpectedly moves forward in time, giving Brookner further opportunities to turn the screw. (There's even a motorcycle accident, not by any means the only such crash in Brookner, though I can't for the moment remember the other examples.) And the novel ends with a sentence that perhaps isn't quite earned, but never fails to move me.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Julian and the Crab

I last saw [Anita Brookner] in the summer of 2010, when the publisher Carmen Callil brought her to lunch. She was frailer, and needed a stick. I had made potted crab, to which she said she was allergic, to my embarrassment (should I have known?). Instead she took a little cheese, some green salad and a roast tomato; she declined the beetroot.
Julian Barnes's Guardian obituary tribute, March 2016

Should he have known?* Well, perhaps he had some residual memory of The Rules of Engagement:
'Are you brave enough to eat seafood?' I asked. 'I believe it's good here, although I've never liked it. I once had a bad experience with dressed crab.'** (Ch. 14)

*(The issue wasn't one of religion; Brookner wasn't an observant Jew.)
**I'm not really sure whether dressed is the same as potted. I've never eaten crab, let alone put it in a pot or given it a dress.