Saturday 16 July 2022

Thursday 14 July 2022

Two Princesses

What do you do when you've finished Henry James? You reread, of course - recommended for many authors, though usually I leave at least ten years. With James there is an added dimension: the presence in print of two distinct versions of most of his novels and many of his tales. The New York Edition, a grand magnum opus collected works, afforded him the opportunity in late career and having written all his major work to review and amend. He set to with enthusiasm, taking everything line by line and penning prefaces that, though often impenetrable, represent the foundation of twentieth-century criticism. James's focus was at the level of the sentence and the word. No major text-level changes were made, though there are instances of the New York Edition developing and embroidering paragraphs. The ending of The Portrait of a Lady is an example.

I read The Princess Casamassima some years ago, in the original 1886 version published by Penguin. Tracking down the 1909 revised edition for my reread proved quite a trial. Most book websites don't give the information. It involved examining pages for differences. I at last bought a John Lehmann edition, 1950.

Most changes involve a tendency towards a less formal or more conversational tone: 'Hyacinth did not mention...' (start of chapter 14) becomes 'He didn't mention...' Punctuation is deleted, especially commas.

There is an increase in metaphor:

His thoughts were tremendously active, but his body was too tired for restlessness.

becomes the magnificently baroque

His thoughts rattled like the broken ice of a drink he had once wistfully seen mixed at an 'American Bar,' but he was too tired for unrest... (Ch. 45)

In the same chapter:

'Oh, thank you!' said the Princess, with a kind of dry impatience, turning away.

becomes, with a pre-echo of Milly Theale

'Oh thank you!' said the Princess impatiently. And she turned from him as with a beat of great white wings that raised her straight out of the bad air of the personal.

The social changes between 1886 and 1909, a growing openness, are shown in this change: 'That was a rather nice little girl in there; did you twig her figure?' says Captain Sholto of a barmaid (chapter 20). This becomes in the New York: 'That was a rather nice little girl in there; did you twig her good bust?' You can spot the alterations after a while, the things that seem just a little out of place in a Victorian novel, and The Princess Casamassima is the most Victorian of James's, and an homage to Dickens and the London novel.

Likewise in chapter 21 James develops a scene in a revolutionary tavern with several harsher additions of the expletive 'bloody', previously used more lightly. E.g.

'I don't care what no man says!' 


'I don't care a bloody rap what no man says!'

The Princess Casamassima, in whichever version it is read, is an atypical James. It's a novel the relevance of which increases with time, inasmuch as it is about what we would now call radicalisation. Were Hyacinth Robinson alive today, an urgent referral to Prevent would very likely be demanded.

It is also a thing of beauty. I offer these two random passages, tales of two cities, the second not least for its glorious (one might almost say) proto-Brooknerianism:

She was, to her blunt, expanded finger-tips, a daughter of London, of the crowded streets and bustling traffic of the great city; she had drawn her health and strength from its dingy courts and foggy thoroughfares, and peopled its parks and squares and crescents with her ambitions; it had entered into her blood and her bone, the sound of her voice and the carriage of her head; she understood it by instinct and loved it with passion; she represented its immense vulgarities and curiosities, its brutality and its knowingness, its good-nature and its impudence, and might have figured, in an allegorical procession, as a kind of glorified townswoman, a nymph of the wilderness of Middlesex, a flower of the clustered parishes, the genius of urban civilisation, the muse of cockneyism. (Ch. 4)

The boulevard was all alive, brilliant with illuminations, with the variety and gaiety of the crowd, the dazzle of shops and cafés seen through uncovered fronts or immense lucid plates, the flamboyant porches of theatres and the flashing lamps of carriages, the far-spreading murmur of talkers and strollers, the uproar of pleasure and prosperity, the general magnificence of Paris on a perfect evening in June. (Ch. 29)

Sunday 24 April 2022

'Fifty-five minutes, with slides': Brookner at the Booker

A welcome arrival on YouTube: a recording of the 1984 Booker Prize dinner at which Anita Brookner learned of her win. Brookner's surprise is genuine; it was a strong year. The clip includes Julian Barnes (see last week's post) and Brookner's future biographer Hermione Lee.

Monday 18 April 2022

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

Brookner's second novel, Providence, published in 1982, has several extended scenes set in Kitty Maule's tutorial room. For Kitty Maule read Anita Brookner, a lazy but inevitable parallel. The tutorials focus on a nineteenth-century French novel, Adolphe by Benjamin Constant, about a young man's affair with an older woman.

Now in 2022 we add to the mix a third slim volume, Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes. Elizabeth Finch is a tutor, not in French literature (like Kitty Maule) or art history (Brookner) but in 'Culture and Civilisation'. The viewpoint in the tutorial room isn't Elizabeth/Kitty/Anita's, but rather a Julian Barnes substitute, a student named Neil who soon becomes fascinated by his inspirational teacher.

Finch shares many of Brookner's peculiarities: her appearance, her clothes, her big eyes, her hair, her smoking, her voice, her diction, her handwriting, her high seriousness, her lunch habits (seventy-five minutes max.). Or rather she shares almost all of the idiosyncrasies Julian Barnes set out in his Guardian obituary piece about his friend in 2016: 'There was no one remotely like her'. It was a fine tribute, as is Elizabeth Finch, but our representations of others can sometimes become caricatures; at all events they're more often than not more about ourselves than anything approaching a truth.

But Barnes knows this, knows Finch will always remain 'exotic and opaque'. She dies less than a third of the way through the novel, which then becomes a sort of Aspern Papers, as Neil inherits her private notebooks. A lengthy investigation into one of Finch's pet projects, the life of Julian the Apostate, follows. Brookner celebrates paganism throughout her novels, notably in A Misalliance. But Finch is perhaps a Brookner who never, so unexpectedly, and so late in her life, wrote fiction:

'Perhaps she'd even tried to write a novel,' I ended.
'I very much doubt that.'
'No, you're right.'

Elizabeth Finch is a mainstreaming of the Brookner myth, and a bonne bouche for Brooknerians, all the more for the fact that Anita Brookner herself isn't referenced once. But she's there on every page.

Sunday 13 February 2022

Brookner, Stendhal

Although he set out to be a man of letters, he did not in fact write much until the active part of his life was over, and this of course is what sets him apart as a writer: he has the authority of a man whose preoccupations are not exclusively literary and who is informed at all times by memories of the immense experiences behind him.

The Genius of the Future, 1971

Saturday 25 December 2021

That Punitive Meal

For Christmases of the classic Brooknerian sort, one heads to Fraud (see here and here) and A Family Romance (here). A later Brookner, The Rules of Engagement, offers variations on the theme.

...her happy voice on the telephone, as she told me that she had been invited to the Fairlies on Christmas Day for lunch, or was it dinner? whatever that punitive meal was called...

The narrator's own seasonal plans are at this point 'obstinately' shapeless, and later resolve into an organised walk with baffled Japanese students. In the narrator's, or Brookner's, hesitancy over what to call the Yuletide feast, one learns everything about her sense of exclusion - though here the narrator, unlike so many Brooknerians, is solidly English. In A Family Romance the celebratory meal is firmly 'lunch'. I'm not sure what I'd decide. The meanings, in England at least, of lunch, dinner, tea and supper are determined by class and slippery as eels. One plumps for one or another at one's peril.

Sunday 19 December 2021

Book of the Year

When I arrived in the college, I had already moved about a good deal among the layers of society; and I had not come to the end of my journey yet. I had the luck to live intimately among half a dozen different vocations. Of all those I had the chance to see, the college was the place where men lived the least anxious, the most comforting, the freest lives.
This very nearly became a book of a few days. I'd never read C. P. Snow before, assuming him a bargain-basement Anthony Powell. The novel sequence Strangers and Brothers was always going to be compared with A Dance to the Music of Time. Snow's roman fleuve is less literary, flatter in tone, less continuous. One can dive in at any point, rather as with Trollope. The Trollope analogue is apposite: politics, in several arenas - here, those of a Cambridge college - are the novel's themes. More, Snow said he wanted to write as it were a nineteenth-century novel about the twentieth.

But I was not immediately won over. The fellows of the college are engaged in electing a new Master. All are white men - it's 1937 - and there are a lot of them. I found myself irritably flicking back and forth to remind myself who was who. Snow, again like Trollope, specialises in character, and the reader perhaps shouldn't hope to keep up with all the details.

Gradually, though, I became involved. Who would win the vote? Who was up, who down? The atmosphere of the novel seduces too. That atmosphere is hermetic: not a single scene takes place outside the college. In something of a further iteration of the classical unities, a year passes, winter to winter; this is a wintry novel, right from the start.

It is probably also a novel for one's later years. Snow is interested in middle and old age, which he expertly dissects:

Just as a mature man dismisses calf love with a smile, because he can no longer feel it (though it may once have caused him the sharpest pain), so Pilbrow, that vigorous old man, smiled indifferently at the triumphs and sufferings of the middle-aged. Suddenly one encountered blankness at a point where one expected sympathy and response. He looked just as he had looked ten years before; he could still feel passionately about his deepest concerns; but those concerns were narrowing, and one knew at last that he was growing old.

'Half a dozen different vocations': I have since treated myself to two further Snows. Corridors of Power is said to be Yes Minister minus the jokes; and The Conscience of the Rich is about an Anglo-Jewish family in what we - or I, at least - would now call Brooknerian London.

Sunday 10 October 2021

An Abominable Process

Clowns do not make one laugh. Undersized, deliberately grotesque, on the verge of tears, they induce discomfort. Their function is to be humiliated, by powerful men and pretty girls, aided and abetted by the audience, and the process by which this is accomplished is a diabolical set-piece of collusion... We are supposed to identify with clowns because they appeal to the undersized innocents we all know ourselves to be. I suspect this process to be abominable.

Brookner, Soundings, 'The Willing Victim' (TLS review)

Witness, there, in 1979, before a single novel was written, perhaps as neat an insight into the Brookner world as one is ever likely to find: think of Frances in Look at Me, trampled underfoot by the careless and effortless Frasers. Yet Frances is clear-eyed, though her knowledge is of little use. In an early interview Brookner said she felt sorry for her characters, poor things, and yet knew as little as they. '[T]he guileless unfortunate from whom nothing is really hidden', is how Brookner earlier describes Pedrolino, later Pierrot, of the commedia dell'arte (Watteau, 1967). Forever potent, forever unresolved, these were the tensions that would keep Brookner at her desk for decades to come. Take the opening of a late novel, The Bay of Angels (2001) in which the narrator writes of her seduction by and awakening from the fairy tales of childhood, fantasies of transformation and miraculous but fated redemption and ennoblement: 'This strikes me now as extremely dangerous,' avers the Brooknerian avatar.

Saturday 25 September 2021

Mild to Moderate

Objectively speaking, I was not too badly affected by Covid. I stayed out of hospital. I got better. But I had it before it was a common experience for many, and before vaccines were available; my system met the virus as it were innocently. A colleague who caught it at the same time, indeed in the same room, told me she'd ever afterwards been unable to concentrate on her reading. I ask myself now, nine months on, whether I've weathered similar doldrums.

After Klara and the Sun and Dryden, mentioned in an earlier post, I reread The Bostonians, was admiring, but not enchanted. I tried reading Our Mutual Friend again, but found, as ever with Dickens, the higher-class scenes unpersuasive: my reading grew desultory, eventually broke down.

I read some of a novel called Maxwell's Demon, till it got too postmodern even for me, and all of Martin Amis's The Zone of Interest, but more out of horrified fascination than any real appreciation.

I read Kipling: Stalky and Puck of Pook's Hill and 'Mrs Bathurst' and 'The Gardener', the latter two in nice editions I bought in the hope they might add piquancy to my reading. I read Scott's The Monastery and its sequel The Abbot, and enjoyed them to an extent. And I now find myself trolling through the last few chapters of E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia books. Mild to moderate indeed.

I recently bought a 1770 edition of Richardson's Grandison. Readers of this blog will recall my love of Clarissa. I may report back, but I may be some time.*

* In an early essay, Brookner calls Samuel Richardson one of Diderot's 'less defensible enthusiasms', alongside the artist Greuze, and Diderot's own 'terrible middle-class, middle-brow dramas', Le Père de Famille and Le Fils naturel. Even the finest have their blind spots. (Brookner, The Genius of the Future, 1971)

Saturday 31 July 2021


'Mute oblongs' Brookner calls the photographs Herz lugubriously sifts in The Next Big Thing. A photo sets the ball rolling in Family and Friends; and a Brookner favourite, W. G. Sebald, of course, began the vogue of actually interspersing tracts of text with wordless rectangles that at once somehow reveal and remystify the past.

All photos, of whatever age, are both accessible and resistant. I've considered this in recent weeks as I've traded a collection of cartes de visite I picked up in a job-lot years ago. Patented in the 1850s, this species of visiting card became extremely popular in the following decade. (Oddly enough, I cannot think of references to cartomania in novels of the time, though the likes of Trollope and Thackeray both trotted down to one of the numerous studios that sprang up everywhere. There is an image of Thackeray wearing trousers so aged they have patches on them.) Suddenly the past bursts into the light. The thousands of people, famous and unknown, who posed have a watchful look, not unlike the Tudor noble men and women we see in the drawings of Holbein.

Also fascinating is the community of collectors, and what appeals. I sold cheaply a fishwife scene, little realising Victorian tradespeople were much sought after. A face with character, something indefinable, sells fast, full-length images are preferred, older men are hard to shift, a pet will be snapped up.

The cartes below range from the 1860s to the 1900s. The gentleman in the centre is named, an undistinguished man, but his dates are to be found on the Internet. The girl in the bottom right is one Clair Barth of Bern. The scrawl on the back is otherwise inscrutable. But it is something. Most of these oblongs, of which there are many hundreds on auction sites, remain entirely mute.