Thursday, 11 October 2018

Wuthering Heights

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Married Brookner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 October 2018

Frontiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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