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

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