Saturday, 15 June 2019

Further Reports

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Some people never write negative reviews. It is their policy. They tactically ignore the offending book, or damn it with faint praise, or try to like it, or...

There's probably an epigram in there somewhere. Oscar Wilde would have turned a pretty phrase, as he does tirelessly and tiresomely in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. “My dear fellow, mediæval art is charming, but mediæval emotions are out of date. One can use them in fiction, of course. But then the only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact. Believe me, no civilised man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilised man ever knows what a pleasure is.” (Ch. 6)
Ignore the rhetorical dazzle - of specious value at the best of times - and consider the meaning, which is where Wilde's epigrams come a cropper. Their meanings are either facile or confused. But he keeps on trying. More, he thinks, means more. More chance of success, certainly. In fact he scores very few authentic hits, but he knows a good one when he's written it - for he'll almost certainly recycle it in one way or another. There are whole lines of The Picture of Dorian Gray that find their way into Wilde's drama - where they work, I would say, much more effectively.

Wilde would probably counter that it's the likes of Lord Henry who talk in this way. 'You cut life to pieces with your epigrams,' (ch. 8) complains Dorian of his lordship: surely a case of an author preempting criticism. But what of Wilde's narrative voice? That's florid, overblown, sickly: 'beautiful' writing in all its naffness.

The book's central idea - that Dorian's portrait ages over time, while he remains young - is famous and brilliant, but rather uncertainly handled. It comes to the fore after quite a lot of conventional social comedy and a touch of realism. The introduction of a supernatural element feels sudden and tonally askew.

The novel's second half involves a gear shift, as many years pass and Dorian sinks into a life of 'sin'. The East End scenes of his adventures are daringly depicted, but the lack of specificity, and the commentary of shame and guilt, though necessary for publication in 1890, are nevertheless distancing and difficult. But all the while the fantastical detail of the portrait - in many ways an add-on - keeps intruding, giving the book its novelty and fame, but weirdly at odds with the story as a whole.

A Word Child

In a moment of expansiveness (ever to be mistrusted) I confessed on Twitter that I'd never read Iris Murdoch. A flurry of suggestions coalesced around A Word Child, which I duly acquired.

My awareness of Murdoch was fragmentary. I knew Philip Larkin and Monica Jones had enjoyed private games centred on mocking and parodying her. I knew she was considered in urgent need of an editor. I knew she suffered from dementia, only to become a further victim at the hands of her husband John Bayley's seemingly endless memoirs.

She was the kind of writer I was always aware of in my formative years, along with Angus Wilson, Margaret Drabble and the like.

I made a real effort with A Word Child. The failure was mine alone. I could have gone on reading; I would certainly have appreciated the exquisite style. But there was so much of it. And I didn't want to be there. I think it was her world I turned away from: a grim grey 70s world of dully middle-class folk, all of them entitled, if only to their tragic sorrows and neuroses. I broke down after fifty or so pages. Such defeats always leave me obscurely depressed.

Oliver Twist

The world I always seek out when in a reading quandary is that of the nineteenth-century novel. I am not proud of this, wish I were more varied. I've read all of Dickens, but haven't read Oliver Twist since I was a child at school. I remember Mr Crisp's English lessons, an airy Victorian classroom, wooden desks with lids and defunct inkwells, and reading round the class, or silently to myself.

Dickens's main mode in Oliver Twist, as elsewhere, is irony: 'the impious and profane offence of asking for more'. This can be confusing to young minds and to less than engaged teachers, of whom I had a few. Mr Crisp was a good teacher, but I didn't really enjoy or 'get' Oliver Twist.

One should be careful of editions. I recommend the current Penguin, which reproduces the original serial text - in many ways quite different from what I probably read before: less polished, less corporate, more spontaneous and unexpected.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

A Report from the Front art, if not of actual improvisation, then of rapid execution, of kaleidoscopically swift movement across a mental landscape of remembered physical reality, imagined characters and events and literary texts, quotations and narrative figures both actual and postulated.
Tony Inglis, Introduction to Scott's The Heart of Mid-Lothian, Penguin, 1994

Who cannot fail to be seduced by such a depiction? It's the dreamlike vividness of Scott that fills my imagination as I read further and deeper into his world. And the relationship with literature. When literature is one of the most important things in your life, you can't help but call Scott a kindred spirit. And it's the three-dimensional quality he conjures in your mind - like Dickens, but less ordered, more reckless than Dickens. Things, you feel, might go absolutely anywhere. Or rather, perhaps, the four-dimensional - for Scott is all about time.

I'm reminded of Virginia Woolf's peerless comment on The Antiquary:
the scene in the cottage where Steenie Mucklebackit lies dead; the father's grief, the mother's irritability, the minister's consolations, all come together, tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole ... which, as always, Scott creates carelessly, without a word of comment, as if the parts grew together without his willing it, and broke into ruin again without his caring.
Elsewhere I've been reading - or rereading - Roderick Hudson, an early novel by Henry James. I say rereading and I say early, but there is always a factor to be borne in mind with James: the question of our texts. Roderick Hudson was written in the 1870s and then heavily revised thirty years later. I read the novel in the later version, with the earlier edition near at hand: something of an arcane activity, and certainly dilettante - but hey. In fact you don't need to check where the later James hand has been at work. It's obvious. Much of the text is 1875, with minor adjustments. But then there comes a sudden flowering of extended metaphors - metaphor upon metaphor - and you know you're now in Lamb House and it's 1907.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: I'm not especially a Brontë fan, but recently I've been reading according to a new regime. Whatever appeals in charity shop, I buy and read. It's a long novel and consists of a central flashback sequence told in diary form. Some have criticised this structure, but it seemed to me strikingly modern, or modernist: rather 1930s (I'm thinking of The House in Paris or Tender is the Night). The tone of the novel is striking. We're far from the tradition of the English comic novel. Anne Brontë is relentlessly sober, serious, minatory. Rarely in English fiction is drinking so demonised.

Last of all I've been reading a spot of Conrad: Lord Jim. Lord Jim, like the Brontë, also plays with narrative and narration, but much more radically. It's the story of a young man whose progress is eclipsed in a single confused moment. It's about failure, and the glamour of that failure. The first two thirds are brilliant, the last section harder to navigate.

In April I was in Berlin. I visited the palace of Sans Souci, in Potsdam, having enjoyed Waldemar Januszczak's BBC series on the Rococo. I should have done a little more research, because it's actually several palaces spread over a vast campus. I was quite tired at the end of that day. Back in Berlin I looked up old haunts, among them the museums in the Kulturforum, viewing paintings, viewing porcelain, adding to my collection of postcards, though I didn't buy one of Gainsborough's Joshua Grigby, because it didn't quite reproduce the 'subtle pink' of the man's coat, so lauded by Brookner in her novel Latecomers.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Thank You and So Long

Yes, the Gone Fishing sign is going up. The Brooknerian will be taking a break for the while, possibly returning later in the year. Thank you for reading!

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Old and New

Remainer? Brexiter? Here's a fun if rather silly way of beguiling the time.

Henry James? Remainer.
Dickens? George Eliot? Remainers.
Thackeray? Brexiter.
Trollope? Not sure about him.

Sir Walter Scott? The knee-jerk response would be to say: High Tory, therefore Brexiter. But many such are Remainers. Scott exalted - indeed, exulted in - the notion of a United Kingdom. He championed the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian settlement. He cherished above all else the status quo that had been achieved, and was at pains to show how it might be, and had been, threatened.

I confess my knowledge of Scottish history is sketchy. Before reading Old Mortality (1816) I had no idea the English Civil War in effect continued in Scotland into the 1670s and 80s. I didn't know about the Covenanters and the Killing Time. It was all new to me, and I was glad to be taught.

Scott is brilliant at depicting periods of conflict and divided loyalties. Henry Morton, the son of a Civil War parliamentarian, gets sucked into the war between extremist puritans and Charles II's forces. Events move rapidly. There are battles, marches, a siege, night scenes, and a torture incident that really ought to carry a warning. There are also several love subplots involving high and low characters. All human life is there.

The war scenes are often harrowing, but the novel ends peacefully some years later. We see the story from new and surprising perspectives - perspectives well earned through the course of a tense and chaotic story. There are reunions that are genuinely affecting. There's a beautiful final line, a satisfying resolution as the curtain falls. We see time and change at work, and we see the triumph of Scott's conservative imagination:
Let the tide of the world wax or wane as it will, Morton thought as he looked around him, enough will be found to fill the places which chance renders vacant; and in the usual occupations and amusements of life, human beings will succeed each other as leaves upon the same tree, with the same individual difference and the same general resemblance.
Men, we learn, 'had begun to recover their ordinary temper, and to give the usual attention to their own private affairs in lieu of discussing those of the public'.

One lives in hope, in our own present times, of such an outcome.

For not altogether illuminating thoughts on Brexit and Brookner, see here.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Winners and Losers

Shortly after Anita Brookner's death, Penguin reissued most of her novels with new covers. Most, but not all. Two novels from the 1980s, A Friend from England and A Misalliance, were missing, but they had been out of print for some decades. I don't know why exactly - except that in an interview in the 2000s Brookner described her early novels as 'crap', and also that she said disparaging things at least about A Misalliance at the time of its publication.

But from the 2016 reissue there were several surprising absences. Where was Leaving Home, or Visitors? Visitors (1997), in particular, has always been considered very highly. 'Almost certainly a masterpiece' - as Brookner once said of another author's novel.

I notice similar things happening to the likes of Kingsley Amis. His novels, following a period of neglect after his death in the 1990s, have been reissued under the Vintage label: period classics. But not everything is there. I don't find two late novels, The Russian Girl and The Biographer's Moustache. Are they not vintage enough. Both are very entertaining, the former especially. Both have the sort of extended drunken scene that no Kingsley Amis novel should be without.

In these ways an author's oeuvre becomes fossilised. In this manner, likewise, wider canons are established. Take the nineteenth-century as represented by Penguin and Oxford World's Classics. All of Dickens, George Eliot and the Brontës are available, but other novelists must suffer the selectiveness of the modern eye. Thackeray is a big loser. Only Barry Lyndon (because of the film) and Vanity Fair (because it's Vanity Fair, I guess) are in print. Even Henry James, a much more fashionable author than Thackeray, isn't completely available. His Confidence hasn't been seen for many years. The case of Trollope is interesting too. He had a vogue in the 1980s and 90s, and Oxford at one point had editions available of every one of his forty-seven novels. But now we're back to the basic rump of the Barsetshire and Palliser series, plus a rather random batch of standalone novels.

Recently I've been reading Sir Walter Scott. Only about half of his novels are in print, and the criteria for selection fascinates me. Why Old Mortality but not Woodstock? Why Kenilworth but not Fortunes of Nigel? (I think The Fortunes of Nigel is probably disregarded because of its distinctly risible title.) Of course everything is now to be found online, ready to be downloaded on an e-reader. But sometimes one wants the guidance and consolation of a scholarly editor - especially with Scott.

The future probably isn't bright. Economic factors play as much a part as literary taste or judgement. I can foresee only a gradual shrinking of the canon.

Let me finish with Samuel Richardson's last novel, Sir Charles Grandison, out of print for some decades. It was very popular in its day, and Jane Austen's favourite. A World's Classics edition was available in the 1980s, but it has never been re-released. It now sells for silly prices.

Friday, 18 January 2019

On Spark and Comprehensibility

Do you read for pleasure? I do, and I know it is wrong. I know I should read to be challenged and discomforted. But I want consolation. I'm nervous of very short novels, and almost never read short stories. Having to work out what's going on and who everyone is! The stress and anxiety of it!

Some writers make almost no effort to put the reader at their ease. Muriel Spark is one of these, especially in her later work. I read Aiding and Abetting (2000) recently, and it was an alienating experience. Two men, each purporting to be Lord Lucan, consult a psychoanalyst in Paris. The analyst has her own preposterous secret: she is wanted for fraud after pretending to be a stigmatic and harvesting money from the gullible. Then we're in Scotland with two fresh characters who are in pursuit of one of the Lucans. Then Spark starts to tell the story as though one (or possibly both) of the Lucans were the real thing. The novel ends in Africa and involves cannibalism.

Aiding and Abetting flies by, and at times it's a romp. But it's a difficult read. I don't like to feel I'm only just keeping my head above water. I want to be taken just a little by the hand, and I want things to make sense. And it makes me rather uncomfortable when I get the feeling that the author, who will always know more than I, is quietly having a diabolical little laugh at my expense.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Running out of Plot

The Times, reviewing Trollope's John Caldigate at the time of its publication, reckoned it 'a good novel expanded into a dull one'.

Trollope was usually writing for serial publication, and he was here. The chapters, accordingly, are regular in length, and a particular quantity was required.

I don't know what Trollope's planning looked like, but I suspect it wasn't quite at the level of the chapter. He knew where he was going but there was a danger he might get there too quickly.

Perhaps the last sixth of John Caldigate is markedly drawn-out. And yet I loved it. I never like saying farewell to characters. I like a long goodbye. I like discovering new things about them, perhaps unrelated to what has been their main function. I even don't mind meeting new characters so late in the day, though that's usually a novelist's no-no. So we find ourselves in London, with the Home Secretary, or lounging among legal eagles in gentlemen's clubs. Or we learn about the love life of a Post Office clerk. Or we witness a heartening reunion in all its affecting detail. I was charmed. The main business was all but at an end, or the outcome assured; the tension was released. I could simply enjoy the company of an urbane and sensible author and his personages. I had the time, and I didn't find it dull.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Less than Explanatory

Having spent many years mentally time-travelling to Victorian England, I might feel I know it fairly well, its modes and mores, its customs and practices. But I think of the warning at the start of Michael Faber's novel The Crimson Petal and the White, as he guides his modern reader into the nineteenth-century past: 'You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well ... The truth is that you're an alien from another time and place altogether.'

Do we need guides? On my e-reader I've a number of cheap 'complete works', which do without explanatory notes. I've read Dickens, James, Trollope in these editions, and seldom been flummoxed.

I've tried the same with Scott, and quickly come a cropper. It isn't just the dialect words; it's the legal stuff. And it was a legal point that caused me minor grief while reading Trollope's John Caldigate.

The major part of the novel takes place in the later 1870s. This isn't stated explicitly but is implicitly clear from dates earlier in the text. The last section of the novel concerns a trial for bigamy, and a questionable verdict. 'There ought to be some Court of Appeal for such cases,' opines the put-upon Home Secretary.

This set me wondering. When was the Court of Appeal established? I was reading John Caldigate in the World's Classics edition, which has explanatory notes. Surely this would be a worthy topic for a scholarly comment?

But no. Mine is one of those editions in which every biblical reference is carefully detailed, along with other banal or fairly well-known information such as Newmarket being a horse-focused town. But there's nothing that a general or even an academic reader might genuinely want to know. And vast chunks of the novel go unannotated, followed by little flurries of activity. That always gets me suspicious and irritated.

So I've had to do my own research. The Court of Appeal was apparently established in 1875. So why isn't it a recourse for the characters in John Caldigate? Is this a rare Trollope slip? I'd love to know. But I've paid my money, bought the World's Classics edition. Surely it isn't for me to do the donkey work?

Thursday, 10 January 2019

On Trollope and Predictability

Trollope for decent feelings, said Anita Brookner when asked whom she read and why. (And Dickens for indignation and James for scruple.) Anthony Trollope is often cited as a source of comfortable predictability, a salve for the troubled. He is certainly comfortable, even at times cosy. But predictable?

John Caldigate is a little-known standalone Trollope from near the end of the author's career. Like other Trollopes from this period, such as Is He Popenjoy?, it constantly veers off in surprising directions, taking the reader into unknown corners of the Victorian world.

But Trollope was always unpredictable. His usual starting point, unlike Dickens or Wilkie Collins, wasn't a mystery, but a moral puzzle. A character has one of several choices to make. What will he or she decide? And when? And what will happen next? The variables multiply. The fascinated reader imagines an ever-branching tree of possibilities.

John Caldigate seems at first a story about the conflict between a father and son. So - the novel will end with a reconciliation? No, that happens early on. Then it's a story about the hero's love for a young woman brought up in a puritan household. We envisage an eventual union. But no again - the girl yields easily, and there's an early marriage. Then we're on board a ship to Australia and there's some repartee under the stars with a progressive, proto-feminist widow. Before long we're in the pioneer goldmines of New South Wales. And sooner than we supposed, we're back in England for a bigamy plot and a trial, which comes earlier in the novel than expected and has an unexpected outcome...

John Caldigate is perhaps the closest Trollope came to writing a 'sensation' novel. But Trollope's surprises are justified and rooted in character. There is an early cavil: the plot depends on whether Caldigate was married in Australia to the woman claiming to be his first wife. Trollope gives us access to Caldigate's rough life in the colony, but stops short of information that the later bigamy trial will depend on. This feels like a breach of faith. But slowly yet surely Trollope smooths it over, giving us over time an impression of what went on, if not every detail. There is really no mystery in the past. The only mystery is in what is to come, as the novel, like real life, puts one surprising foot in front of another.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

The Element of Time

Why don't women paint? November 1979 in the TLS (and reprinted as an archive item in this week's issue) sees Anita Brookner taking on Germaine Greer. Greer had written a book about the women painters lost to history; Dr Brookner, then known only as an art historian, was reviewing it.
Dr Greer did not win me to her cause because there are even more numerous male painters of obscurity and mischance awaiting the art historian's attention, and obscurity, in any case, is sometimes temporary but more often deserved.
Dr Brookner goes on to suggest her own answers to the 'durable enigma of why women write but do not on the whole paint'. These include, unsurprisingly, education and economics. More contentious, perhaps, is the following:
There is the question of stamina: painting is a hefty profession, wafted about with fairly sickening smells, and these do not combine easily with other pursuits.
More intriguing is Brookner's concluding comparison between writing and painting, not least in light of the great literary project she herself was, in 1979, about to begin:
There is the fact that behaviour, observed, described, enacted, is, I think, of greater interest to women than the comparatively abstract reification of it in paint. I would even say that the element of time, which is obviated in painting, is of more pressing significance to a woman than to a man.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Two Operas

How to make it new? I saw two operas in Frankfurt last week, and each sought to reinterpret or repackage canonical works. You almost never get a 'straight' reading nowadays, and certainly you don't in Frankfurt, a quietly radical venue.

Bellini's Il Puritani tells a story set in England in the 1650s. It's a tuneful if gloomy work. There's a suggestion that Sir Walter Scott was an influence, though there's no exact original in his work.

The Frankfurt production, played and sung well, is ruined by creative decisions outside the singers' and musicians' control. The costumes, for one thing: they're a bizarre mix of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century styles, and there's no differentiation between Cavaliers and Roundheads. Sometimes the puritans are in black, at other times in bright silks. It's very confusing.

The biggest disaster is with the visual effects. Why do we need visual effects? At the start of the show a gauze net screen descends over the entire front of the stage. The gauze is transparent, but not completely. On to the screen are projected arty images: fluttering butterflies, falling petals, scudding clouds. More, the screen seems to muffle or deflect some of the sound from the voices. So you can't see properly, and you can't quite hear. But the butterflies were very pretty.

Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel is a seasonal children's favourite - though here suitable for children only of ten years old and over, as the publicity states, and so, I suppose, we have been warned. We open not in the familiar fairytale cottage but in the ward of a rundown children's hospital or asylum. Hänsel and Gretel's 'parents' are a brutal and drunken doctor and nurse. The forest, later, is textual: made of text. And the witch's house - not a trace of gingerbread in sight - is an horrific psychopath's murder lair, with blood-spattered walls and a chest-freezer full of dead children. When the 'witch', a baritone, abandons 'her' female drag and appears in male clothes it's truly disturbing. Children were being ushered in tears from the auditorium. The production ends uncertainly, with Hänsel and Gretel grown up and the father and mother doctor/nurse figures from Act 1 younger than before - why, I'm not quite sure. It's a troubling but rather brilliant production.