Thursday 2 January 2020

Legends of Brookner

A measure of the addictiveness of an author is the quantity of legendary material that surrounds her. Dickens does not inspire the Dickensian life, nor Trollope the Trollopian. One doesn't long to be subject to a Bildungsroman, living in a world where everyone has a funny name*; nor to be a provincial clergyman or a British parliamentarian. But one follows yearningly the course set out by Brookner, odd and unique as it may prove. She is uncompromising: this is the life, and it is the only life to live.

To Germany again, for she perversely visited small towns and cities in France and Germany, the more obscure the better. To Karlsruhe, to the Staatliche Kunsthalle, where I saw a Hans Baldung Grien exhibition...

...along with favourites from the permanent collection: this Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck...

...and this Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Loose Living:

The St Anthony, one of the most arresting paintings, is hidden away and uncelebrated. You can't even buy a postcard of it.

In Stuttgart I had to race round the picture gallery and the Tiepolo show before it closed early for New Year's Eve. In the evening I saw La Cenerentola at the rather dowdy opera house - but a riotous and joyous performance, with singers invading the stalls, cross-dressing, quotes from the 'Dinner for One' TV sketch Germans love so much, and general Silvester horseplay.

*Enjoined by her emigrant father to read Dickens from an early age, that she might discover the key to Englishness, she was, she said, surprised to find, at school, that not every English person had 'a funny name'.


  1. Happy New Year to you. I hope you had a terrific time in Germany. It must be wonderful to fit all the wonderful things to see and do during your holiday. The hallucinated imagery of St. Anthony's painting reminds me of Bosch, and later on, Richard Dadd and in some way, a large screaming head in the centre might be seen as a precursor to Francis Bacon's head of "screaming popes".

    I've been catching up with your most recent posts and thoroughly enjoying them. It somehow makes me want to go back and read James, Trollope and Dickens all over again. Currently, I am in the American territory with an author who sadly didn't win the most recent Booker Prize. The novel took her several years to complete. The fact that her publisher wrote a beautiful article on loss and their deepest regret in not getting the prize in the TLS made me buy the novel to read it. If you want a similar story told from a male's perspective, I suppose that this novel comes close to a much shorter novel with only 144 pages called "The Mezzanine" by Nicholson Baker (1989).

    I sometimes wonder if Anita Brookner was either a night owl or insomniac. A lot of her characters in her novels take sleeping pills. There are a lot of references to night time imagery in her work. "Beneath the visiting moon". One novel she wrote has a title, "Falling Slowly" which is a phrase come from BBC Radio 4 Shipping Forecast which usually broadcasts quite late at night or in the early morning. I bet it must be one of the tracks she would have chosen if she was asked to appear as a guest on Desert Island Discs among all the other French and German composers and perhaps, a little obscure English art song with the lyrics comprise of "Arcady, Arcady is always young" as a dedication to her mother who was a singer.

    Many thanks for reading this rambling message.

  2. Very good to hear from you again. Brookner's characters seem to favour early nights - 'de bonne heure' - but indeed often with the aid of pills. Several keep ominous stashes. As to music, Brookner seems, like James, not to have been too adventurous. There are minor references to Schumann and Brahms but little else.

    I was certainly fascinated by the St Anthony painting. I was introduced to it on Radio 4 some time back in a programme called Moving Pictures, well worth seeking out on the BBC app. The artist was apparently a baker by trade, and his other pictures are more conventional. Disconcertingly the 'big head' was a self-portrait, and the face reappears in a more workaday painting, I think in Antwerp.

    Happy New Year!


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