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?

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Ratner Word

There was always something facile, even hysterical, about these [early] reviews (I should know; I wrote one). The annual Brookner offered a cheap shot to young critics, eager to savage a scandalous bearer of bad tidings about ageing and loneliness. Yet now she agrees with those snapping puppies. 'I hate those early novels. I think they're crap. Maybe I needed to write them. I far prefer what I'm doing now.' Yes, she does use the Ratner* word. It's like hearing a duchess cuss. Why are they crap? 'They're morbid, they're introspective and they lead to no revelations.' Has she a favourite among her works? 'I don't like any of them very much.'

Elsewhere Brookner said she wrote only a first draft. There were no revisions. There just wasn't time.

There just wasn't time. This is significant. She came late to fiction. She was fifty-three when A Start in Life was published. Had she started earlier, might she have considered a wider kind of revisionism - something of the kind undertaken by Henry James, who, in the last years of his career, took on the punishing task of revising and republishing the bulk of his output? It was indeed onerous - it made him ill - and the New York Edition didn't sell well. There are stories of remaindered copies being used for waste paper, or kindling, or something (my memory's vague), during the Great War.

James was a born writer, like Edith Wharton (Brookner calls her that in her Introduction to Wharton's short stories), and Brookner probably wasn't. It seems only born writers, writers who start alarmingly young, are likely to play the revising game. Brookner was content to write off chunks of her early work, but she wouldn't have considered rewriting it. She still had work to do. There just wasn't time.

Revisions, anyhow, can be disastrous. I won't hear a word against James, early, mid or late, original or revised - but I would like to consider a poem by W. H. Auden, 'Brussels in Winter', which exists in two versions:

Wandering the cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains silent in the frost,
The city still escapes you, it has lost
The qualities that say ‘I am a Thing.’

Only the homeless and the really humbled
Seem to be sure exactly where they are,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like the Opera.

Ridges of rich apartments rise tonight
Where isolated windows glow like farms:
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn the stranger right
To warm the heartless city in his arms.


Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains rigid in the frost,
Its formula escapes you; it has lost
The certainty that constitutes a thing.

Only the old, the hungry and the humbled
Keep at this temperature a sense of place,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like an Opera-House.

Ridges of rich apartments loom to-night
Where isolated windows glow like farms,
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn a stranger right
To take the shuddering city in his arms.


What is lost? Some conversational idiosyncrasy, I think. Some immediacy. But clarity is gained. 1960s Auden wants to be clear; he wants to avoid what he calls in the Foreword to his Collected Shorter Poems 'slovenly verbal habits'.

Had Brookner revised her early novels she might perhaps have eliminated one or two minor inelegances. Issues with tone in A Start in Life. Clumsy shifts in point of view in Lewis Percy. But at what cost?


*Gerald Ratner ran a British High Street jewellery chain. In 1991 he made an ill-advised speech in which he described his goods as 'crap', this being what he saw as the secret of his success. The comment wasn't well received, to say the least.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Middlemarch: Books Three and Four

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

Was it Barbara Hardy who spoke of Eliot's fondness for setting scenes of disenchantment in the full light of day? Eliot is the poet of disillusionment, and nowhere more so than in chapter 28 of Middlemarch, when the Casaubons return home. It's snowy, it's pitilessly daylit; and Dorothea is assaulted with the full force of her new knowledge. In particular she sees the limitations placed on her on account of her gender: 'the volumes of polite literature in the bookcase' that look like the 'immovable imitations of books'. She wants to be useful, to lead a useful and intellectual life, but she is allowed only 'the gentlewoman's oppressive liberty'. Even now these passages have the power to disturb.

Eliot tries to be evenhanded, or she gives a show of evenhandedness:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea - but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? (Ch. 29)
But what she finds out about Casaubon is devastating: he'll never be possessed, she tells us, by 'the glory we behold' (note the 'we'); his self is 'hungry' and 'shivering'; he is 'scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted'. So much for Casaubon's 'point of view'; one almost feels indignant on his behalf. He's no match for George Eliot - and how great the contrast between the steadily growing Books of Middlemarch, and poor Casaubon's hopeless notebooks. Sometimes a limited view has greater integrity.

One thing worthy of note in Books Three and Four is George Eliot's playing with the narrative conventions beloved of her contemporaries. Old Mr Featherstone's deathbed scene, his venal mourners, and the issues with his will invoke the cliches of, among others, Dickens and Trollope. I'm not sure Eliot does anything with them, other than view them with a superior and slightly mocking eye. But only slightly mocking. The love lives of her characters, for example - she's as much invested in them as is the most innocent reader.

A further point I may have overlooked on my original reading: the care with which Eliot delineates the social classes in the novel. This is most clear at Featherstone's funeral, when Mrs Cadwallader speaks to the Chettams condescendingly of the Vincys. It's a sharp surprise to find that these characters, whom we know so well, not only don't know each other, but wouldn't think or choose to.

Book Four ends with a night scene between Dorothea and Casaubon that prefigures the relationship between Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond. The connections between Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady are fruitful.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

On a Winter's Afternoon with a Slight Temperature

January 1962 finds Miss Brookner viewing the work of Réquichot in the rue de Miromesnil. His main invention, she sees, is a sort of 3D collage box: animals, birds and flowers cut from glossy magazines. The spectator 'gazes back through the glass as into an aquarium':
This is basically the Victorian scrap-book or screen re-thought and equally absorbing on a winter's afternoon with a slight temperature.
Not perhaps the highest art, she concludes. But she foresees for the fellow a bright future in window-dressing:
All rather ridiculous but, to quote Henry James, 'the French spirit is able to throw a sort of grace even over a swindle of this general order'.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Mai 1968: Crates of Overturned Cherries

Where was Anita Brookner during the Paris événements of May 1968? Evidently not in Paris, to judge from her review of Mavis Gallant's Paris Notebooks (Observer, 10 January 1988). (Brookner was probably in Cambridge, working out her year as Slade Professor.)

Brookner knew about revolutions - the French kind in particular - and was in no doubt that this was one. But was it, in Wordsworth's words, 'very heaven'? Probably not, but it makes for 'excellent reading'. And so too does the Brookner account, even if not firsthand, of that strange Parisian moment from fifty years ago:
Certain scenes were so surreal that they seem to have been enacted from 'A Tale of Two Cities', such as the incident in Les Halles when truckdrivers, wading through crates of overturned cherries, fought with manifestants, then gave up and pressed the fruit to their mouths, chins running with juice, to be joined by the whores of the district: Dickens shading into Zola. Most surreal of all was the behaviour of De Gaulle, re-enacting the Orphic or Messianic myth, disappearing to Baden-Baden, and then reappearing to put an end to the whole thing, timing his return to the exact moment when the euphoria had run out.
(In Brookner's novel The Rules of Engagement (2003) we are given another vision of Paris in May 1968.* It is Betsy, the novel's narrator's wide-eyed friend, who experiences and reports the events. Comparisons are duly made with 1789 and 1848. There's an older man who talks of the bliss of being young at such a time. The narrator, like Brookner, consigned to England, views things with a more sceptical eye. When Betsy says, 'It was like La Bohème', Elizabeth cannot but rejoin, 'Which ends badly.')

* At least we assume it's 1968. Brookner's novels are notoriously sketchy as to dating. Not long afterwards we're told it's the 1980s, yet there's no sense that such a period has passed.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Middlemarch: Book Two: Old and Young

[Part of an occasional series on Middlemarch - Book by Book:]

In chapter 14 Mary Garth teases Fred Vincy with a list of literary lovers. The modern reader is on familiar ground with Ophelia and with Juliet, but things soon become dicey. Mme de Staël's Corinne gets a name-check, along with characters from Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield. Then it's the turn of Scott. Most people have heard of Waverley and Flora MacIvor. But Brenda and Minna Troil, Mordaunt Merton and Clement Cleveland?! My edition of Middlemarch informs me they're to be found in Scott's 1822 novel The Pirate, which surely hasn't been in print for at least the last half-century. Did it have a better reputation in Eliot's time? Very likely. You can sense Scott's influence throughout - not just in the fact Middlemarch is to all intents and purposes an historical novel, but also in details such as the gnomic Scott-style epigraphs, not a few of which Eliot composed herself, just like Sir Walter.

(Scott eventually lost out to Jane Austen, who didn't achieve her current status until the later Victorian period. It's interesting to reflect that her pre-eminence simply wasn't there for the likes of George Eliot or Dickens or even Trollope. They wrote their novels almost as if Jane Austen had never lived, whereas now her influence is unavoidable. Which novelists of today, little regarded now, will be seen quite differently in times to come? I can think of one.)

George Eliot is ever alert to historical change. Of Fielding's age:
But Fielding lived when days were longer [...], when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clock ticked slowly in the winter evenings. (Ch. 15)
We're not far away here from Matthew Arnold's
...strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o'ertax'd, its palsied hearts... ('The Scholar-Gipsy')
though ultra-progressive Eliot takes an altogether more hopeful view of the future, most evident in Middlemarch in the figure of Lydgate, who comes to the fore in Book Two. Yet her vision opens out in other directions, taking in the enjoyable cynicism and worldliness of the entomologist clergyman Mr Farebrother ('I feed a weakness or two lest they should get clamorous' - ch. 17) as a counterweight to the idealism of Lydgate.

In like manner Eliot gives us in Book Two several memorable foreign scenes, which help to leaven the stodgy parochialism of Middlemarch. The Book ends in Rome, that 'city of visible history, where the past of a whole hemisphere seems moving in funeral procession with strange ancestral images and trophies gathered from afar' (ch. 20). But Dorothea's life has narrowed to 'dreamlike strangeness': one thinks of Little Dorrit in Italy, bewildered by sudden unassimilable riches. As for Casaubon, he's rapidly becoming cold and appalling, engrossed in an utterly futile literary project that Eliot, the successful writer, pities as much as she deplores. It will be only a short step (as others have said) from Casaubon to James's Gilbert Osmond.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Careful Owners

From the back: an ex-library copy of Lewis Percy,
a paperback edition of A Friend from England, and the hardback of
Brookner's essay collection Soundings

It's fun to speculate about the previous owners of one's secondhand books. Who were Stu and Jo? It's nice to think of Soundings acting as currency in the transactions between a courting couple. But there's something slightly try-hard about the inscription, and the joke about the year also sounds a little desperate. I wonder whether Jo loved French art too. And why didn't Stu keep her gift?

And Rebecca Ime - who was she? An unusual name. And why did she get rid of A Friend from England? Didn't she like it? Were its messages too close to home?

The Lewis Percy was withdrawn from one of the libraries I used to work in. I might even have stamped one or two of those dates.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Postcards from the Edge

The other photographs were of lesser interest, mainly postcards of his travels, souvenirs from which the original attraction had faded, and reproductions of favourite paintings, only some of which he had seen...
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 9

It always surprises me that museums and galleries still sell postcards. Why do we buy them? Our own photos, on our smartphones, are often superior. Postcards not invariably get the colour or the lighting wrong. And we certainly don't send postcards any more. When was the last time I sent a postcard? I used, on my travels, to write them assiduously. And when was the last time I or indeed anyone received one? Answers on a postcard, please.

And yet I still buy them. I even collect them. I use them as bookmarks. I like handling them. They're real, solid; they retain something of the magic of foreign climes. I like to take them out and sort them by artist or by gallery. They form for me a little private autobiography. I find few from which the original attraction has quite faded.

(Eagle-eyed viewers will spot pictures by (among others and in no particular order) Schiele, Courbet, Klimt, Kirchner, Titian, Bruegel, Cranach, Watteau, Delacroix, Hammershøi, Aertsen and Delaroche, purchased in (ditto) London, Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen, Zürich, Cracow, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Florence. Several, as may be imagined, have Brookner connections.)

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Small World

I've long enjoyed the novels and also the literary criticism of David Lodge. Late in his career, with perhaps no more novels to come, Lodge, like his hero Henry James, has turned to autobiography, and Writer's Luck: a memoir 1976-1991 (above) is the second volume.

It reads a little like Lodge's great campus novels of that era, but with one major exception. Lodge declares himself a kind of war reporter in the sexual revolution that coincided with his adulthood, rather than a participant - whereas his characters were always enthusiastically and energetically involved. This makes the memoir a little pedestrian at times, even a little disappointing. But lives are often like that.

Lodge's 'global campus' novel Small World was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize, along with works by J. G. Ballard, Julian Barnes, Anita Desai, Penelope Lively and Anita Brookner. Lodge was of the popular opinion that Ballard's Empire of the Sun was the runaway favourite. The bookies gave Ballard 6-4, but Lodge's novel was second at 3-1.

He describes the glittering but stressful Booker banquet at the Guildhall, with its magnificent chandeliers, old panelling and white napery, the circular tables, the roaming camera teams. The dinner ended, the speeches began, and the tension rose still further. The chairman of the judges that year was the Oxford historian Professor Richard Cobb. 'The 1984 Booker McConnell Prize for fiction goes to...' - and Cobb paused dramatically. All eyes were on Ballard's table, but the TV crews had been tipped off as to the true winner, and thus were able to catch the look of shocked amazement on 6-1 outsider Anita Brookner's face as her name was announced.

Friends commiserated with Lodge afterwards. Hotel du Lac, they felt, was a slighter book than his, but Lodge hadn't read it. But he had enjoyed Brookner's previous novel Look at Me, and indeed had reviewed it for the Sunday Times. Later in the evening, in the bar, one of the judges confided to Lodge some details of the judges' discussions. Apparently another of the judges, the writer and journalist Polly Devlin, had swung the argument in favour of Anita Brookner by reading out words of praise for Look at Me, taken from the back cover of Hotel du Lac. The words of praise were from none other than David Lodge's Sunday Times review. The irony of this wasn't lost on Lodge.

Writing about the event thirty years later in Writer's Luck, the matter is plainly still on David Lodge's mind. He seeks out his Look at Me review:
Like a tear trembling in an eyelid, it continually threatens to spill over into existentialist metafiction ... but manages to stay - just - within the bounds of the English novel of sentiment and manners ... If she should ever transgress those bounds the results would be interesting. Meanwhile I cannot praise too highly this novel's poise, perceptiveness and purity of style.
Lodge admits he didn't keep up with Anita Brookner's 'formidable rate of production' over the years; nevertheless, he doesn't think she ever did transgress 'the limits of the well-made English novel of manners' - and certainly not in Hotel du Lac, which, when he read it, he liked, though he thought it lacked the 'dangerous edge' of its predecessor.
She was however, in her own line, a very skilful artist, and in retrospect by no means an unworthy winner of the Booker.

See also a previous post (here) on David Lodge, Brookner and the Booker.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Family and Friends: Closing Remarks

Her fiction is noted for its subtlety and technical skill but this can be deceptive, and has indeed deceived an odd ghetto of English critics who greet her novels with delighted misunderstanding. Elsewhere it is recognised that in ambush behind her classically beautiful prose, rooted in the territory of small lives, is a devilry that works on her stories like lemon zest. Family and Friends, in Alfred's final revenge,* provides a finale so delicate and precise that you can almost see the keen eye of the author slowly blinking at you.
Callil and Toibin, The Modern Library ['the 200 best novels since 1950'] (1999)

*I'm not sure I really noted this ending on earlier readings. It concerns Alfred and Nettie and occurs in the last few lines. Brookner does love her last-minute reversals, reveals and surprises.


The Brooknerian will now be taking a break of a few weeks. Back soon. Thanks for reading!

Family and Friends: A True Chronicle

Brookner spoke at length about Family and Friends to Olga Kenyon in Women Writers Talk (1989).

'It's my family,' she said. 'Of course they're rendered into fiction because I didn't know them till I was about seventeen - when I began to see them as separate people.'

It was indeed a family photo that sparked the novel: a cousin showed her a wedding picture with her grandmother dominating the group. 'I gave the photograph back, but the following day I began to write Family and Friends. I had always avoided writing about my family. They had given me a good deal of trouble in real life.'

Although, largely from lack of knowledge, she fictionalised the early lives of the uncles and aunts in the novel, 'somewhere in the course of this invention, I discovered I was writing what amounted to a true chronicle. Whether this was an obscure form of unconscious memory, whether it was intuition, or whether it was the exhilaration of disposing of these characters whom I had always seen as immensely powerful, I have no idea.'

She felt 'freed' by the writing - she wrote 'without qualms'.
As I neared the end I was too frightened that I might lose the conclusion - which I did not know yet - and so I merely sat in the garden and wrote in a notebook. I felt an enormous tension; but my ending, when it came, surprised me into laughter. I felt like a spectator at my own game.
The novel 'laid many ghosts for me. I hope I've given those ghosts something new to talk about'. It was 'the only one of my books I truly like'.

Being in control was a motive in writing the novel. 'Maybe as in psychoanalysis you abreact the whole thing and it comes out right.'

The main characters in Family and Friends had their analogues in life. Mimi was Brookner's mother; there was an Alfred, and there were two who broke free, as in the novel.
And free will is a heavy burden to lay on anyone, particularly if they are not too bright.
Brookner's characters, Kenyon suggested, 'don't always seem in touch with the twentieth century'.

Brookner's reply:
Yes. They are nineteenth-century families, without the nineteenth century to give support.

Family and Friends: The Years of Danger

'I never thought he would marry, like the others,' thinks Sofka of her son Alfred in chapter 9 of Family and Friends. 'I thought he had passed the age of danger.'

It's a markedly literary novel, in the sense of its allusiveness to other works. The set-piece scene in Wren House with Dolly (a soon-to-be self-allusive choice of name for Anita Brookner) and the scrambled eggs suggests several such rural house-parties in English literature. Howards End, perhaps? L. P. Hartley? There is, additionally, specifically a reference to Dickens.

Brookner disdained comparisons with Jane Austen. But doesn't the quote above recall a line from the opening of Persuasion - Elizabeth Elliot hoping to be propositioned by a baronet within a twelvemonth, recognising as she does her approach to 'the years of danger'?

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Family and Friends: Private Meanings

I don't altogether shy from making links between an author's life and her fiction, though perhaps I ought to. Brookner's media critics, especially the hostile ones, never down the years showed any reluctance. But Family and Friends must have seemed resistant to such analysis. The four novels she'd written up till then had been of the classic Brookner 'lonely heroine' type. But here we have a family portrait, even a family saga. And yet I keep finding parallels and analogues. Brookner, like Dickens, seems not to have been able to avoid investing her work with private meanings.

Take Mimi and her hospital work in chapter 8. We know from an early interview (here) that Brookner did voluntary work at a local hospital, even on Christmas Day. Or Alfred and his purchase of Wren House in the same chapter. Perhaps readers wouldn't, on publication of Family and Friends, yet have recognised the significance. But gradually over the course of Brookner's writing career we would come to appreciate the dangers and horrors to be expected in the English countryside, provinces and even suburbs.

We have a vignette of Brookner herself outside her habitual London milieu, when she visited Rosamond Lehmann in Suffolk (here). Carmen Callil recalls 'Anita sternly going for walks and drinking tea'. The 'sternly' is telling.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Family and Friends: Lili and Ursie

Lili and Ursie come to the Dorns' as maids - 'harsh' and 'hectic', given to weeping when certain pieces of music are being played. The girls are 'foreign', but Brookner will go no further. Something similar is in the air when an impoverished woman arrives on Sofka's doorstep, selling small items, and Sofka recognises her as one Irma Beck, whom she knew 'in the past, in another country'.

We're in chapter 8 by now, more than halfway through the novel, and Brookner cannot any longer step around the realities of her story. But the stories of Lili and Ursula, of Frau Beck, are told with great subtlety: restraint, Brookner suggests, is the only correct response to such horror.

We know the episodes have an autobiographical origin. Here she is talking to the Independent in 1994:
There was the added complication that in the 1930s the house filled up with Jewish refugees, who could come if they found a sponsor, I think, and if they went into domestic service. In the war, again, there were refugees living in the house, until such time as the police turned up to take them off to the Isle of Man and they went to be interned and were never seen again: history does not relate what happened to them. There was a tragic element in childhood. My parents weren't religious, but you couldn't help but be conscious of being Jewish at that time. I knew terrible things were going on, and were coming close, and I suppose that couldn't help but seem menacing.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Family and Friends: The Finished Product

The finished product is attired in a cunning little violet wool dress with a peplum, shiny high-heeled shoes, and a great deal of Schiaparelli's Shocking dabbed behind her ears and on her wrists.
Anita Brookner, Family and Friends, ch. 7

By all accounts elegant in real life, if not dressy, Brookner in her writing always goes to town with her clusters of clothes-modifying adjectives, but here I want to point to the specificity of her references to scents and perfumes. Even Brookner's men get their smells. Think of George Bland and his Eau Sauvage. The precise significations of such aromas is beyond me, but might be worthy of study.

Brookner herself, we know, was always fragrant:
The fact that there was one woman there – called Anita Brookner – who you used to go up for private, individual tutorials with her and she was in the top of the building of number nineteen next door. And she was always feeding the pigeons, had an open window and feeding the pigeons, and I remember her I’d knock on the door and she said ‘Come in’ and her back was turned to me feeding the pigeons. And she said ‘You know one day Flavia I’m going to be a novelist.’ And of course she was. Hotel du Lac which I think is the second book but the one that first really made her name in 1984 and how many did she publish since then? Fifteen? But she did write beautifully I mean she was a very good art historian too. So in a sense I suppose she was a bit of a role model. She was very beautiful. Well she’s still alive actually, in her eighties. Very beautiful very elegant French, French dressed. And people didn’t wear scent – scent was very expensive in those days – but she always had the latest or the most exclusive scents from Paris. I mean you couldn’t go into Boots in those days and buy you know, Channel [sic] or Armani or whatever you just couldn’t and it was far too expensive but you could always tell where she was and I if I couldn’t find her I’d just walk round the Courtauld [sniffs] using my nose and I’d always find her, because she'd wear this beautiful scent.
Transcript of interview with Flavia Swann, Association of Art Historians, Oral Histories Project, 2010 (Link)

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Family and Friends: A European Family

Brookner, like James, is reluctant to show her hand. Just what exactly, for example, in Family and Friends, does the Dorns' firm manufacture?  And when are the early scenes of the novel set? Things are looking up for the Dorns, the 'unpromising debris of a European family'; the factory is beginning to thrive again. But when, historically, is all this taking place? The wedding scene in chapter 1 suggests the 1920s*, or even earlier. The songs being sung in the house in chapter 2 - Massenet, Delibes - hardly indicate the prevalence of modern popular culture. And yet we could well be post-1945.** Time passes so unchartably, so elastically in Brookner, and in this book more dizzyingly than most. Much of this is owing to the narrative method, where everything is viewed by a cool, urbane, magisterial eye, as if from Olympian heights.

*The novel's first chapter was published in Granta (here), with an accompanying photo of a plainly interwar wedding.

** Not till quite a bit later in the book (in chapter 6) does Brookner allow herself (or give in to) the exophoric reference we've been looking for:
Evie's papa has warned her privately of conditions in Europe and what they mean for families such as theirs. Wars, and rumours of war.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Family and Friends: Ambassadors

Brookner is the poet of Paris de nos jours, and chapter 5 of Family and Friends is a true tour de force. Alfred and Mimi are in the French capital to rescue their sister Betty from a life of sin. The situation is of course profoundly literary: we can't but think of Lambert Strether. Staid Alfred is horrified by the place, but Mimi is more susceptible, and for a moment it seems she will, like her Jamesian counterpart, be seduced. By which I mean culturally and emotionally seduced - though Mimi has for the moment a more basic seduction in mind. But the chapter ends in failure and horror, a horror akin to those moments in several other early Brookners, the closing chapters of Look at Me in particular.

But the charm of the great city remains, and though Mimi will never return, Brookner herself will go back to it time and again in her fiction over the years. The pearl-grey Parisian morning. Brushing the whitish dust from one's shoes after a walk in the Tuileries. The iron chairs.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Family and Friends: The Westminster Bridge Road

Brookner, as I've said before, doesn't always like too much detail, or not in a narrative as finely spun as Family and Friends. I'm on chapter 4, and still we don't know what the Dorns' factory manufactures. But we do now know its location: the Westminster Bridge Road. Nearly a decade later, in 1994, in interview (here), Brookner would reveal perhaps this detail's autobiographical origin.
She was, she says, 'born into the purple of trade' in Herne Hill, a suburb near Dulwich, on 16 July 1928. Her maternal grandfather had come to England as a young man from Warsaw, and had set up as a tobacco importer, with a factory on Westminster Bridge Road. 'I didn't know him: he'd already died when I was born. My mother said that in his last illness he raised a Corona cigar to his lips, and drew on it. He supplied Edward VII with his cigarettes. There was an engraved cigarette case from the King, which vanished with one of the maids.'

These things are always intriguing. In some novels, maybe even here, Brookner can be very specific in her references. Chapter 4 moves towards events in Paris - and the 'ineffable blue Parisian evening' is memorably conjured. Her characters find themselves at the Hôtel Bedford et West End. It's some time since I read Family and Friends, but I register great personal nostalgia as I encounter these scenes again, remembering as I do my own youthful Parisian afternoons and evenings, walking up and down the rue de Rivoli in search of that hotel, and not finding it.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Family and Friends: Everybody Marries

Will the boys marry? Well, of course they will, in so far as everybody marries.
Anita Brookner, Family and Friends, ch. 1

Perhaps a little more than loneliness - too awkward a subject? - marriage is a recurring theme in Brookner's interviews. Everyone should marry several times, Brookner tells Boyd Tonkin in 2002. Or consider the interview with Blake Morrison from 1994:
…a recurrent dilemma of her novels is: Should I marry? This has also been the dilemma of much great (not merely romantic) fiction of the past. But Brookner's characters often receive the wrong kind of proposal, or bolt from the impending ceremony, or marry in haste and repent at leisure. The choice between lonely self-possession and companionable self-immolation - this is her theme. How much has this to do with her own life?
'What can I say? I have had offers of marriage but I didn't accept them. I possibly never met anyone to whom I could really entrust my life. I suppose it stems from early childhood.'
In what way?
'Well, I was always wary of my parents' plans for me. And I never really wanted to be taken over, or to have to give up anything else. It would have meant giving up work.'
But did she never think: working as an art historian need not rule out marriage - I could have both?
'No, I never thought that. From the outset the work absorbed me and I felt passionately about it. Of course I fell in and out of love like anybody does, but I think I knew that I was always going to live on my own.'
Yet she was attracted by the idea of marriage? 'I thought when I was young I would give everything up to be happily married. But you grow out of that, I think. By 30 a sort of wariness had crept in - I began to recognise men and what they were doing it for. These are people with their own agenda, who think you might be fitted in if they lop off certain parts. You can see them coming a mile off.'
In this sense she's like her heroines, then, who tend to receive unsuitable proposals, unsuitable because they have nothing to do with love? 'Yes. Or even sex.'

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Middlemarch: Book One: Miss Brooke

[First in an occasional series on Middlemarch - Book by Book:]

'I doubt whether any young person can read with pleasure either Felix Holt, Middlemarch, or Daniel Deronda,' wrote Anthony Trollope in his Autobiography. Well, I'm not a young person any more, and when I first read Middlemarch, twenty-five years ago, I possibly wasn't the young person Trollope had in mind. In any case he probably had a minor axe to grid against the clever Mrs Lewes. Middlemarch is, after all, a Trollope novel deconstructed; it is The Last Chronicle of Barset with an advanced degree from Heidelberg; it's Barsetshire on acid (or laudanum at the very least).

But it isn't, as Trollope goes on to say, an easy read. It is Eliot's style he criticises her for. It is affected, it lacks ease, he says. Style is the great Trollope thing: that sly tolerant tone keeping the reader company through the inevitable longueurs of a classic three-decker. Eliot's voice is altogether more bracing. She does not compromise. There are indeed passages in Book One where the reader is on his or her mettle. Take the first half of chapter 10, which proceeds from a challenging epigraph to a supersubtle comparison between Casaubon and Ladislaw, and their differing approaches to artistic endeavour. But midway through the chapter the novel sharply shifts gear and we find ourselves enjoying the banter of a group of Middlemarch worthies at dinner. This serves to introduce Dr Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, and in the next chapter we're treated to a fast-talking breakfast scene between Rosamond and her brother Fred. This veering between high and low, or perhaps high and middle, between seriousness and comedy, is a feature of the book, and the contrasts aren't assimilated in, say, the Trollopian fashion. But George Eliot probably doesn't want it that way.

Middlemarch is a political book, and not just in its depiction of the passing of the Reform Bill. I like, as a sort of parlour game, to track the political sympathies of the Victorian novelists. I like to imagine them in the political world of Britain today. Would Dickens have voted New Labour? Would George Eliot be a Corbynista? We know Trollope stood for Parliament as a Liberal, but nowadays we'd probably call him a liberal conservative. I sense Henry James too would be a centrist Tory - just centrist enough for the tastes of some modern readers. Whereas some of poor Thackeray's current neglect is possibly owing to the jaundiced Right-leaning tone of his novels. Not that George Eliot doesn't send up from time to time the earnest Miss Brooke, who is disappointed to discover the tenants of her betrothed aren't disgracefully poor and therefore in need of her social work:
The small boys wore excellent corduroy, the girls went out as tidy servants, or did a little straw-plaiting at home: no looms here, no Dissent... (Ch. 9)
But the irony is also at the expense of those comfortable folk who might think straw-plaiting a suitable occupation for anyone.

'Fred's studies are not very deep,' says Rosamond of her brother in the final chapter of Book One; 'he is only reading a novel.' George Eliot might have been more comfortable prosing away in some Whiggish paper, but we should be grateful she chose instead the novel, even if her handling of the form feels at times a little schizophrenic.

Family and Friends: Cover Stories

Brookner's Family and Friends (1985) British editions in approximate order. A veritable history of art - proof if ever it were needed that no one has yet quite worked out what to put on the cover of an Anita Brookner novel.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Burlington Brookner

I owe my start in life as a writer to Benedict Nicolson, who was editor of the Burlington Magazine from the end of the War until his death in 1978.
Anita Brookner, 'Benedict Nicolson', Independent Magazine, 10 September 1994

Hearing that Anita Brookner, an all but unknown graduate student, was to be living in Paris, Nicolson 'mentioned that [she] might like to send him reviews of the major exhibitions'. It was, Brookner recalls, an amazing act of generosity. She looked forward to her monthly assignment, making herself known to dealers and collectors, tackling the 'dreadful Salon d'Automne with something like enthusiasm'. Her biggest cheque was for £19.

My copy of the Burlington Magazine dates from May 1962 and finds Brookner, then in her thirties, in London. (She seems to have migrated regularly between the Two Cities, rather like Emma in Leaving Home.)

At the Hazlitt Gallery she is predictably delighted and beguiled by an exhibition called 'Baroque and Rococo'. Immediately she gets to work critiquing a painting by Berchem, Allegory of the Seasons. The tone is learned, amused, ironic, the language a clever mix of the mandarin and the slightly demotic. Things are 'faintly adumbrated' and 'surprisingly overt', a lion is 'rather tame'. Do we hear the authentic Brookner voice, a little in embryo? Take this, of a Vernet View of Marseilles in another exhibition:
In the way that an imitation sometimes does better than the real thing, I found the steady margarine of this sunset more poignant than the careful golden ripples of the archetypal Claude that lies behind it.
The steady margarine... But what we probably also hear is the voice of the kind of patrician art critic into whose heady company a spell at the Burlington surely propelled the young Brookner.

And Miss Brookner reveals her alliances most strongly when viewing a show called 'British Painting and Sculpture Today and Yesterday'. She advises the visitor to seek instruction beforehand in a recent 'B.B.C.' (how antique, those full stops) television programme Monitor a few weeks back, 'Pop goes the Easel', which showed 'young painters having themselves a wonderful time round the rifle ranges, pin-tables, and sex magazines of their native Shepherds Bush': one might as well congratulate a child on its first piece of knitting, she adds. One Peter Phillips 'simply copies in paint the kind of crude device one occasionally sees bobbing between the shoulder blades of a bogus leather jacket'. Plainly this won't do; plainly this doesn't pass Brooknerian muster. But fortunately Miss Brookner is on hand to suggest other places one might 'like to take the young people'.

She was only thirty-four. But this was, we must remember, 1962.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Indistinguishable from the Real Thing

Henry James rated highly the work of John Singer Sargent, and towards the end of his life was depicted by him in the famous, appropriately magisterial painting (above) that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Some decades previously in an 1887 essay, republished in 1893 in the collection Picture and Text, James had written a substantial appreciation of the artist. Words such as 'splendid', 'brilliant' and 'masterpiece' abound. Of the 'superb' Dr Pozzi at Home (below), for example, James writes:
This gentleman stands up in his brilliant red dressing-gown with the prestance of a princely Vandyck.

Brian Sewell once complained of how a reference of Anita Brookner's to the 'threadbare' religious imagery of Caspar David Friedrich had forever ruined for him the work of the painter. Likewise we might look differently at Dr Pozzi after reading John Updike's assessment of the painting, quoted by Brookner in her review of his art essays collection Just Looking (Observer, 29 October 1989): Updike speaks of Sargent's 'shameless romantic flattery' of the 'bright-eyed subject', the 'cozy crimson aura of satanic drag'.

But it is probably Brookner's own devastating line on Sargent that comes closest to challenging my own appreciation of the artist. I'm pleased she liked his Henry James ('an authentic masterpiece') but more generally, she says, Sargent 'painted perhaps a handful of masterpieces and many more which he thought would be indistinguishable from the real thing'.