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.

(1938)


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.

(1966)


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.

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