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.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Analysis

The character of Nigel, dignified and likeable at first, but given to psychobabble, gradually falls victim to a sort of novelistic passive aggression. The existence somewhere in his background of an analyst* is inferred by the narrator, indeed imagined in some detail, though never confirmed. For her part she's 'too proud, or too ashamed (they are the same thing) ever to have confided, to have confessed in any company' (ch. 14).

Brookner herself was asked by at least one interviewer whether she'd undergone analysis. She hadn't. And she wasn't about to start. It would take too long. And she might doubt the intelligence of the interrogator. It's a breathtaking answer.

But she was a devotee of Freud. Her novel Strangers has an epigraph by Freud, a rare honour in Brookner. One thinks of Herz too, in The Next Big Thing, talking to an uncomprehending GP of Freud's experience on the Acropolis, of having 'gone beyond the father' (ch. 7). Or one remembers this treasurable line from chapter 13 of Incidents in the Rue Laugier:
...those who did not rely on their inner resources, as she had been obliged to do, were forever condemned to weep in other women's drawing-rooms...

*We learn that a similar character, Patrick, in A Misalliance, also has an analyst, and the revelation is something he never quite recovers from.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Labyrinthine

The Rules of Engagement is late Brookner, and there are moments of true neo-Jamesian opacity, even evasiveness. I shared some time ago on Twitter a massive 117-word sentence I found in the novel. And here's another passage, not quite on the same scale but still labyrinthine:
One fears for the loss of one's innocence, even when that innocence is little more than ignorance. And also the blamelessness that blinds one to the superior sophistication of others and makes of that very sophistication a mystery which might reveal itself to have some value, even some merit, a capacity which one had been denied but which it might have been in one's interest to have acquired. (Ch. 12)

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: English Jokes

Whether the constant evasiveness and jokiness were a particularly English feature I could not decide, but I did miss the sort of overheard remark I had so relished in Paris, the willingness to discuss first principles and to invest passion in one's own arguments.
The Rules of Engagement, ch. 10

This is a theme of Brookner's: the shallow jokiness of the English. Not that it works too well here: the narrator of The Rules of Engagement is, after all, English herself, however much she might feel like an exile. Brookner's protagonists can be divided into those who are (if such a thing were possible) fully English, and those whose identity is more complex. Brookner's was complex, and she was persuasive when she said (in interview with John Haffenden in the mid-1980s):
I've never been at home here... People say I'm so serious and depressing, but it seems to me that the English are never serious - they are flippant, complacent, ineffable, but never serious - and this is maddening.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Contiguity

If I were to live the life of an exile I could do so much more comfortably by remaining where I was, surrounded by familiar possessions, my position unambiguous.
The Rules of Engagement, ch. 9

Brookner's novels, as well as falling into phases (I propose the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s as reasonably distinct periods: not quite James I, James II and the Old Pretender but just a little along those lines), can be grouped thematically into pairs and groups. The reader who might baulk at the notion of a well-heeled Englishwoman feeling like an exile in the heart of London should read Brookner's previous novel The Next Big Thing about a real exile. The two novels are in communication with one another: it's a kind of auto-intertextuality.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Betsy's Blitheness

The word is used three times in The Rules of Engagement. It might pass without notice were it not for the following, from some years later. In The Rules of Engagement 'blithe' describes the innocent, romantic Betsy. Here, in Brookner's 2009 Telegraph interview the word takes on more equivocal associations:
In Strangers it is the tentative, introspective Sturgis who is confronted with the impulsive, carefree and monstrously self-obsessed Vicky Gardner, whose only interest in him is in what he can provide for her.  The person who thinks seriously about life, Brookner's books suggest, who proceeds cautiously and conscientiously, will be punished for their virtue, end up alone and dissatisfied, while the person who takes a wholly unreflecting and rather selfish view of life pays no price for it. 
'But haven't you noticed that?' 
She gives an amused smile. 'Think of Tony Blair. Unrealistic. Selfish. Happy as a clam!'  Didn't Plato say the unexamined life is not worth living?  She gives the faintest smile. 'Plato could be wrong too. I think the unexamined life is much better. Much more comfortable.' So you wish you had been…  'Blithe…' It rolls off her tongue, wrapped in longing. A lovely word, I say.  'It's an old-fashioned word. You don't hear it much.'  So you envy the blithe?  'Oh yes.'

The Rules of Engagement: Marls

I should be re-admitted if I exhibited all those marls of benign normality - holidays, dinner parties - that are the province of the maintained and protected...
The Rules of Engagement, ch. 8

I've checked that sentence in both the printed first edition and the electronic version. Both show 'marls'. Surely 'marks' is meant? You don't really expect compositorial errors in a modern book, but it isn't the only example in Brookner. See an earlier post here.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Normal

'Normal': that dread and difficult word resonates through The Rules of Engagement. A quick search reveals thirty-nine uses. Many writers avoid it, or put it in quotes, or make fun of those who espouse its importance. Think of Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

But Elizabeth is one of Brookner's most debilitated protagonists. At her lowest point, grieving, she writes:
I should have to invent a life that others would see as normal... (Ch. 8)
Her lover Edmund is 'normal'. Not just of a better class, and more moneyed, but somehow superior in some essential and unquestionable way. In earlier novels Brookner might have railed against this state of affairs, this 'normality'. But we're in the late phase here. There's a real sense of defeat and acceptance.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Rules of Engagement: I did not call the doctor

You can come across the most shocking things in Brookner. A third of the way through The Rules of Engagement the narrator's heavy but inoffensive husband dies: the experienced Brookner reader probably suspected Digby's time would 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. It's like something from a Victorian novel. 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? Why? Is there a reason? Or is it just part of the weirdness of the Brookner world, the enigma that keeps us reading and kept her writing?

The Rules of Engagement: Russian Roulette

I have come to believe that there can be no adequate preparation for the sadness that comes at the end, the sheer regret that one's life is finished, that one's failures remain indelible and one's successes illusory.
The Rules of Engagement, ch. 5

These lines were quoted on the flyleaf of the UK first edition. They come amid what amounts to a Brooknerian manifesto of belief, taking in such familiar themes as the gods of antiquity; the notion of living a posthumous life; the pointlessness of living a virtuous life; the need to take chances and defy safety. We even get a line about playing Russian roulette with one's life, which echoes a practically identical comment in Brookner's 2002 Independent interview:
I think you should play Russian roulette with your life, frankly [...] because there's so little time.

Monday, 28 May 2018

The Rules of Engagement: A Genuine Shadow

I knew that, in comparison with Edmund, I had few assets of my own. This was one factor that seriously divided us. Sometimes I felt poor when I was with him, and this was a genuine shadow on my happiness.
The Rules of Engagement, ch. 4

She wonders, further, whether this aspect of the affair is apparent to him. Brookner, as author, might have similar concerns. It's easy to see all Brookner characters as well-heeled, comfortable, beyond money concerns. But there are subtleties, gradations, and Brookner is careful to trace them, urging the sympathetic reader to view the likes of Edmund as safely bourgeois and the narrator as faintly but certainly déclassée. In more than a few novels Brookner gives her protagonists real financial and property worries. Not that some critics would ever be persuaded her ostensible privilege, and that of her heroines and heroes, didn't disqualify her from their serious consideration.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym

An elegant sufficiency, content,
Retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books...

Lines from Thomson's refined poem 'The Seasons' open each chapter of Barbara Pym's 1987 novel Civil to Strangers. Except that it wasn't written in 1987 but in 1936. Rarely do authors enjoy such prolific afterlives as Pym, who died in 1980. Civil to Strangers, her second novel, written in her twenties (her first was Some Tame Gazelle, not published till 1950), has a slightly uncanny timeless quality, not only because of its unusual publication history, but perhaps because of the way Barbara Pym saw the world, or did then. There is no sense of the passing of time, of time being finite. Everything has the potential to be comfortable and contented. Young characters dream of genteel retirement, but it's a state they envision lasting for ever.

The novel, published as part of a longer collection, is short and light. It tells the story of Adam and Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon, a young married couple living in a Shropshire village. Adam, a not too popular novelist, is kindly but vain and absent-minded. Cassandra is sensible and Pymish. Other characters include the local rector and his wife, a curate (of course), a Mrs Gower, a Mr Gay - and a Hungarian interloper Mr Tilos, who falls (moderately) in love with Cassandra. There follows a trip to Budapest, which promises much but ends decorously. The journey includes a stop in Frankfurt in Germany, of which Pym says little. And this is 1936. But Cassandra has met a party of English tourists, including one Canon Coffin, so naturally there are other things to draw her attention.

Is Civil to Strangers anything more than a literary curiosity? Probably not, but it's interesting certainly to see how early Barbara Pym found her authentic 'voice', which is difficult to define - cosy? ironic? - but evident in every line. But I don't think she found her subject until later, in darker novels where the passing of time is an ever-present threat.

(Anita Brookner, in one of her last reviews (here), gave an assessment of Civil to Strangers. Brookner was appreciative of Pym, if a little lukewarm.)

Friday, 25 May 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Obliquity

For the sense of exile I had experienced in Paris had a maturity about it which I had begun to recognise at the time: perhaps adulthood is a sense of exile, or rather that in exile we are obliged to act as adults.
The Rules of Engagement, ch. 3

Brookner's novels, especially the contiguous ones, are often in dialogue with one another. Exile, true exile, was the major theme of her previous, The Next Big Thing. Here, in The Rules of Engagement, she discusses a more figurative sort of exile. Elizabeth, the narrator, is profoundly alienated, but as often with Brooknerian disaffection it isn't easy to say exactly what's wrong with her or where her malaise has its origins. Indeed such questions might take up a whole book, and at the end we're scarcely any the wiser.

A fine example of late-Brookner obliquity comes a little later in the chapter:
I had achieved the kind of stasis that my situation demanded, and if I ever again wandered haplessly through uninhabited afternoons I should do so by my own decree, and with the assurance that I could at any time call upon the sort of companionship that would assure me dignity if nothing else.
Why won't she make herself clear? But such chariness is essential. Any other way, there wouldn't be a novel.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Any Show of Warmth

It's easy at times to sympathise with Brookner's detractors, that small army of reviewers who delighted in reporting she'd written the same book for the umpteenth time with just a few punctuation changes. When we get to late Brookner the echoes of earlier works have become deafening. It could be seen as a service to the fans. We might take pleasure in the evocations of Paris, in the London place names, in a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to someone from an earlier favourite... But the process - Brookner's obsessive retreading and reworking and reimagining - also yields discoveries none of us would be without. Elizabeth in chapter 2 of The Rules of Engagement is 'excluded by some sort of biological misunderstanding'. It's the culmination of a passage that casts back as far as Frances Hinton and Look at Me, and yet manages to be new, and full of new hurt:
...I also knew, or came to know, that I was not the kind of woman who sent out the right messages. This puzzled and saddened me, but I accepted it. I was quite nice-looking, and I thought I behaved like everybody else, but I began to suspect that women are either instantly recognisable as potential lovers or somehow fail the test in ways so subtle that there seems no possibility of adjustment. The result was that however many times I went to the same restaurant I was not greeted with any show of warmth and was left to eat my meal more or less unattended.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Middlemarch: Books Seven and Eight and Finale

[Completing a series on Middlemarch, Book by Book:]

'It's rather a strong check to one's self-complacency to find how much of one's right doing depends on not being in want of money,' says Mr Farebrother in chapter 63. Middlemarch, masquerading as a provincial Trollope-style novel, is strikingly political. Previously, in chapter 60, Eliot satirises the parochialism of the Middlemarchers, 'who sneered at [Will's] Polish blood, and were themselves of a breed very much in need of crossing'. I can think of nothing so Left-leaning (even in Dickens) elsewhere in Victorian fiction.


I'm interested in how the writing of one book leads to another. My favourite Eliot is Daniel Deronda, which follows Middlemarch. It begins with a memorable scene of gambling in a German resort - and surely the billiards scene in chapter 66 of Middlemarch has some connection with what its author would come to in her next novel. Likewise the Middlemarchers' reaction to rumours over Ladislaw's possible Jewish heritage points forward to Deronda.


'[Bulstrode] went on with the same interrupted enunciation - as if he were biting an objectionable leek' (ch. 67). Earlier in the chapter Lydgate privately objects to a 'broken metaphor' used by Bulstrode. But what are we to make of Eliot's leek simile? Is it meant to be funny? This isn't a humorous scene. When exactly does anyone bite into a leek, and what would an objectionable leek be like?


Middlemarch is indeed political throughout. Even in the personal it is political. The perfectibility of human nature is a matter of debate between Farebrother and Dorothea in chapter 72. Farebrother, we know from an earlier scene, is Whiggish, but his views are jaundiced, almost Tory, and he gives a jaundiced view on this topic. But ultra-progressive Dorothea rejoins, 'Then [character] may be rescued and healed'. No one could mistake her for a Tory.


Eliot is certainly good with working-class characters - but not with servants. There's a Master Bunney, Dorothea's gardener, and there's Tantripp, her faithful housekeeper or lady's-maid. Both are presented either comically or rather like children. Trantripp is the classic household 'treasure', beloved of the conservative imagination.


A young Henry James, reviewing Middlemarch in 1873, found it a 'treasure-house of details, but [...] an indifferent whole'. He thought Dorothea a magnificent but wasted figure. Casaubon dies too early; Dorothea's story stagnates. It all becomes a matter of whether she will or won't marry Will Ladislaw, whom James dismisses as a dilettante.

But at least we have chapter 76, Dorothea and Lydgate's meeting, in which the nobility of Dorothea is able to bloom without check: 'a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity'.


It's a mark of Eliot's judgement that the novel's final chapter, prior to the magisterial Finale, focuses on Mary and Fred. The Olympians have left the stage, and the story ends sweetly in comedy.


Anyone who has ever wandered the art museums of Germany and Austria will be familiar with the work of Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller. It probably says rather too much about my views and tastes that I gravitate towards the stagnant bourgeois world of the Biedermeier period. But I finish my rereading of Middlemarch with an indulgent look at some Waldmüller paintings that might easily illustrate Eliot's novel - not exactly, but perhaps in terms of tone.

Prince Esterházy’s Councillor Mathias Kerzmann
with his second wife and daughter, 1835
(Detail of above)
Seated girl in white satin dress, 1839
Dr Josef August Eltz and family, 1835
Woman in iridescent green and
salmon-pink gown, 1837

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Rules of Engagement: '...sans que de tout le jour...'

Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse / Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice…
Racine, quoted in Brookner, The Rules of Engagement, ch. 1

The line is associated with dewy-eyed Betsy rather than with the harsher narrator. Yet it seems suitably Brooknerian. Behind every cynic lies a wounded romantic.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Rules of Engagement: Late Style

With the award of the Booker Prize [for The Old Devils] and a knighthood in 1990, Sir Kingsley Amis was set up to become a grand old man of English letters, but his last years were not serene. He developed a 'late style' which was almost as syntactically intricate as Henry James's, but without the latter's compensatory poetic eloquence or the wit of his own earlier novels...
In an obituary of him I said that Kingsley Amis's vision was in its way as bleak as Samuel Beckett's, but cushioned and concealed by the conventions of the well-made novel.
David Lodge, Lives in Writing (2014)

Lodge adds a caveat to the last remark to the effect that he meant only Amis's later novels were as bleak as Beckett's. As for the bit about Amis's 'late style', Lodge disappointingly doesn't exemplify - in part I suspect because the observation is an impression rather than anything easily demonstrable.

But Lodge's comments interest me as I embark on a reread of Brookner's late novel, her antepenultimate, The Rules of Engagement (2003) - a singularly wintry read (originally published in the depths of winter, the annual 'summer Brookner' by then a thing of the past), and written with the brittle coldness and abstraction of Brookner's own 'late style'. There's an example in the opening chapter:
[Betsy's] eyes would widen with something like shock if she encountered anything less than the plainest of speech, the slightest deviation from the truth. [...] She never entirely lost that faculty, and whatever one knows to be the desirability of honesty, one lives long enough to regret its persistence in others, particularly in those who knew one when one was just as honest oneself.
A lengthy few lines come between those two sentences. One has to search back to find what 'faculty' refers to. An opaque word. Then we have the odd or ambiguous deployment of the word 'regret'. The syntax doesn't help, nor the unusual use of the simple present in the line 'one lives long enough', where we might expect 'one has lived long enough'. Then there's the last clause, which dazzles, confusing us, diverting our attention from Betsy and towards the narrator.

Not that I deplore any of this. I adore it. And why does Brookner do it? Why isn't she plainer? I think it's because she deals in horrors, in things that can only be looked at a little bit askance.

UK first paperback edition

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Middlemarch: Book Six: The Widow and the Wife

[Continuing a series on Middlemarch, Book by Book:]

Rereading Middlemarch, indeed any novel, throws one into communication with one's earlier self. I used to love chapter 54, Dorothea and Will's sad parting, their slowly turning to marble in one another's presence, while their hearts were conscious and their eyes were yearning... Now I respond quite differently, want to hurry on. The feelings, as Brookner says in Fraud, wither somewhat in the middle years.

Will seems very much a less sympathetic figure, and the chapter has bathetic elements I hadn't previously noted. Altogether the parting feels stagy and artificial, as if Eliot were deliberately performing an exercise in this kind of writing. At one point Will is said to require 'a narrative to make him understand [Dorothea's] present feeling'. This is close to being metafictional.


Caleb Garth, land agent and Mary's father, is an interesting character - said to be based on George Eliot's own father. Not only is he endearing personally, but also, for Eliot, politically:
It must be remembered that by 'business' Caleb never meant money transactions, but the skilful application of labour. (Ch. 56)

The indebtedness to Scott is made clear in chapter 57's epigraph, a sonnet by Eliot that celebrates her childhood love of Waverley and Scott himself, who sent, from 'far away', 'this wealth of joy and noble grief'. We must leave such books behind, she says - somehow 'In lines that thwart like portly spiders ran' (the grammar of that line is slightly muddy) we still live the book, still in our own lives write the tale day by day.


Will Ladislaw is once more presented less than sympathetically in chapter 61, in his confrontation with Bulstrode. How could I have missed these things on first reading? On first reading, Will was for me the hero of Middlemarch. But now? Now I see he is 'too arrogantly merciless towards a man of sixty, who was making efforts at retrieval when time had rendered them vain'.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

But Tidy

James Lees-Milne, sharp, catty, camp, Edwardian-born gentleman of letters, one-time Country Houses Secretary at the fledgling National Trust, sported in his later years a slightly risible halo-style 'do'. When, in June 1986, he goes with an old chum to the Royal Society of Literature to listen to Anita Brookner's lecture on the Brothers Goncourt, he finds himself distracted by her hair: 'like a bird's-nest, but tidy,' says he.

He calls her 'a funny little woman, sharp, delicate features, slight of build, soft-spoken'. Her lecture is excellent, and inspires him to read the Goncourts' novels. But, he tells his friend, afterwards he remembers little of what she said (perhaps because he was thinking rather too much about her riah).

It often surprises me (but it probably shouldn't) how infrequently Brookner's name crops up in the diaries and letters of her contemporaries. A couple of mentions in the Roy Strong journals, but practically nothing elsewhere.

Brookner suggested she was a 'devotee' of Lees-Milne when she chose Michael Bloch's biography of the diarist as one of her 'Christmas Books' in the Spectator in 2009 (here). She took the opportunity to set out what were perhaps her own preferred criteria for the genre of life-writing:

Absolute discretion combined with extensive knowledge make this a dignified achievement.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Middlemarch: Book Five: The Dead Hand

[Part of a series on Middlemarch - Book by Book:]

Public and private: Not every novelist tells us about the public and working lives of characters. Trollope does so, and in detail, and George Eliot excels in it. Middlemarch comes alive when politics comes into play, or when such apparently prosaic events occur as Mr Garth taking on more land-agent duties. The hustings scene in chapter 51 is vividly horrible, especially to anyone who, like me, regularly has to speak to large groups.


Changes: Eliot continues to trace forensically the changes big and small that society is subject to:
At that time young ladies in the country, even when educated at Mrs Lemon's, read little French literature later than Racine, and public prints had not cast their present magnificent illumination over the scandals of life. (Ch. 43)
It's interesting to realise that Eliot thinks her own age so sexually knowledgeable. The mention of Racine recalls another innocent character, Betsy in Brookner's The Rules of Engagement, who is always quoting idealistically from Bérénice: 'Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse / Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice…'


It may seem strange, but it is the fact, that the ordinary vulgar vision of which Mr Casaubon suspected [Will] - namely, that Dorothea might become a widow, and that the interest he had established in her mind might turn into acceptance of him as a husband - had no tempting, arresting power over him; he did not live in the scenery of such an event, and follow it out, as we all do with that imagined 'otherwise' which is our practical heaven. (Ch. 47)
I hesitate to say this, but I don't altogether get on with Eliot's style. Again and again I come across passages like the above - passages that, well, kind of work but not quite. There's a metaphor at work in the second part - the 'scenery' - but why would it be 'followed out'? And what exactly is a 'practical heaven'?


Edward and Dorothea: Thackeray and Hardy pushed at the limits of what was expressible. Eliot is more high-minded. But we really would benefit from more information; it would not be gratuitous. What exactly does or doesn't go on in the Casaubons' bedroom?