Friday, 23 April 2021

Brookner Puts Her Feet up

Christopher Hampton's film of Brookner's 1984 Booker-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, was broadcast on BBC2 on Sunday 2 March 1986 at 10.05 p.m. Brookner would be watching it 'at home, with my feet up, just like anyone else'. The interview she gave the Radio Times on the occasion of the broadcast is light and airy, as befits the medium. But Brookner is Brookner, and darkness glimmers.

'People like the Puseys always win ... You can't keep them at bay. You can only repossess yourself from time to time by examining things really clearly.'

'I like writing, but it's a nerve-wracking, dangerous business.'

'Writers are like stateless persons. They can't easily be absorbed.'

'I don't aspire to anything. I'm non-aligned, I'll settle for being marginal.'

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Honest Affection

Boulanger's Répétition du 'Joueur de flûte' et de la 'Femme de Diomède' chez le prince Napoléon, Musée d’Orsay, is one of those vast canvases in vogue in the middle years of the century before last, a loose baggy monster of the kind that is still found lurking in most art museums, or rather in their archives. There used to be a Hans Makart on display in Hamburg that was truly colossal. It depicted the entry of an emperor into a medieval town – or something like that.

In the Burlington, in 1962, we find a young Anita Brookner commenting thus:

There was, for me, a great reward in seeing precisely the kind of picture against which, we are always told, Manet reacted, although we rarely have an idea of what it looked like. This was La Répétition du 'Joueur de Flûte' dans la maison romaine du prince Napoleon, dated 1861, by Gustave Boulanger, the French Alma-Tadema and, within its limits, not half bad. I particularly liked the attention meted out to the tiger-skin rug on the marble floor, the reproduction of the pink, blue, and yellow Percier and Fontaine décor, and the painstaking red key-pattern painted dizzily around the cornice. It is about time we stopped being frightened of the so-called bad pictures of the nineteenth century (they are, after all, no worse than the so-called good ones of today) and allowed ourselves to expend a little honest affection on them.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Distinctly European

Clues as to Hermione Lee's approach as she begins the process of writing are to be found in the Bookseller. The proposal synopsis reads:

Anita Brookner (1928–2016) is a seductive subject for a literary biography. She was a writer like no other, of stylish brilliance, wisdom, passion, sadness and irony, and she was a magnetic, witty and complex woman, at once well-known and private, candid and secretive, loved by many and close to very few. Her personal style, more French than English, was impeccably self-concealing; her attitude to life was both romantic and grimly realistic.

The publisher adds:

The richness of Brookner’s life, which in recent years has been occluded by a reputation of quiet and isolation, more than warrants another look. Her life was multifaceted, distinctly European, and offers tantalising mysteries.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Brookner Biography Announced

A brief post to let Brooknerians know the moment has arrived: a biography commissioned by Chatto & Windus, to be written by Hermione Lee. Hermione Lee interviewed Brookner on television in the 80s. Brookner joins illustrious company. Lee has lifed, among others, Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Recent Reads

'Kazuo Ishiguro joins Jeanette Winterson and Ian McEwan in the AI debate'? Not quite. Ishiguro, in Klara and the Sun, is only really debating with himself. Klara, an 'Artificial Friend', is his latest defamiliarising narrator. Quite what the purpose is of all Ishiguro's defamiliarising has never been clear, but the ride is often pleasantly disconcerting. Ishiguro has learned from the reaction to The Unconsoled, and scaled back his subsequent narratives. Critics complained The Unconsoled induced nightmare and debility. Skewed perspectives and bizarre quests persist into Klara and the Sun, but jeopardy is lacking, possibly because Klara remains uncanny and unrealised. Is it allegory? Is it about autism? Is it about visual disturbance? It may well be that. I suspect Kazuo Ishiguro suffers from classic migraine. Klara's vision frequently pixelates, and she is driven to perform weird tasks in spite of the oncoming storm. At the centre of the novel is a long, long episode in which Klara tries to walk across a field at nightfall. It's reminiscent of the set piece in When We Were Orphans, where the narrator traverses a bombed-out city in search of his parents. I preferred that novel.

Rather sadly, part of the delight I took in reading John Dryden's translation of the Aeneid was the edition I was sent: a brand-new Penguin Classics, but in 90s livery. I never read Dryden at university. My syllabi were traditional; even so, I suspect Dryden was too Tory. I enjoyed his Aeneid greatly. It's in attractive couplets, and very easy to read. It slips down, though perhaps isn't too quotable.

Exhausted after Christmas - I had Covid, and am still easily fatigued - I read Kipling's Kim. Its episodic, picaresque qualities appealed. I do not recognise the charges often levelled against Kipling. I think he extended both the landscapes and the sympathies of the English novel.

I tried Joseph Andrews - another picaresque - but gave up halfway. I once did the same with Tom Jones. Both the comic and the psychological traditions emerged from the primeval soup of the 1740s, and I guess I'm just on team Richardson.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

A Charming Letter

I found myself involved in an unseemly tussle on Ebay the other day. The price rose and rose, and eventually - fatalistic - I retired from the fray. And then I found I'd won. The prize? A letter from Brookner to a fan.

Such items always have cachet, the magic of authenticity, of presence. Ah, did you once see Shelley plain...

For other Brookneriana, see here.

Monday, 22 February 2021


Kazuo Ishiguro's interview in the Guardian this weekend is interesting, in the light of a criticism often levelled at Anita Brookner:  

He is unapologetic about repetition, citing the “continuity” of great film directors (he is a huge cinephile), and likes to claim that each of his first three books was essentially a rewrite of its predecessor. “Literary novelists are slightly defensive about being repetitive,” he says. “I think it is perfectly justified: you keep doing it until it comes closer and closer to what you want to say each time.”

Ishiguro defends himself, we're told, by constantly switching genre, something that can’t be said of Brookner

Again unlike Brookner, he mightn’t seem a fast writer. But the following is fascinating. One recalls Shostakovich who advised: think slowly, write quickly.

Each novel takes him around five years: a long build-up of research and thinking, followed by a speedy first draft, a process he compares to a samurai sword fight: “You stare at each other silently for ages, usually with tall grass blowing away and moody sky. You are thinking all the time, and then in a split second it happens. The swords are drawn: Wham! Wham! Wham! And one of them falls,” he explains, wielding an imaginary sword at the screen. “You had to get your mind absolutely right and then when you drew that sword you just did it: Wham! It had to be the perfect cut.”

Friday, 19 February 2021

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: 'Too late'

Chapter 12 is rich with Proust, Paris and the return of Tyler, made more powerful by the length of his absence from the text. (Something similar will happen in Brookner's next novel, Altered States.)

The meeting with Tyler, though this is not referenced, is surely akin to the reunion at the end of Washington Square. When she parts from Tyler, Maud knows it will be 'for life, as it were'.

And so Incidents, such a strange novel, stutters towards its conclusion. Did Brookner conceive the frame narrative afterwards, or was it always intended? I think it might have been the former: this would explain the highly eccentric time scheme. The 'incidents' take place in 1971; Maffy, the daughter, is born in 1980 or thereabouts. Maffy then turns out to be the narrator of the frame narrative, which is written after the deaths of both Edward and Maud, the first of whom dies in his early fifties. The time of writing, therefore, of this narrative, published in 1995, must be well into the twenty-first century.

But it is all, of course, as the frame story reminds us, a 'fantasy', 'fictitious'. Brookner's 'postmodern' novel, like all such performances, stimulates more questions than it will ever answer. And to what end?

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: the power of Kroll

What are we to make of chapters 10 and 11? The story is over and Brookner's vainly trying to pad things out? Edward visits his shop in London, and a new character, Max Kroll, appears: Mittel-european, his accent both sibilant and cockney, a prototype for Julius Herz in The Next Big Thing or Max Gruber in Falling Slowly? Then the rather studied detail about the books: Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann (for more, see here and here). Then in the next chapter we find ourselves in Eastbourne at the heart of Edward's middle-class family, a world away from Dijon and the rue Laugier. Why? Why all this detail, all this plot? I suggest it's about absence rather than presence: the extended absence of Tyler, a representation of the disappearance he has effected from lives for whom he is the only emotional capital: not just Maud's, but Edward's too.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: 'She saw the whole thing as an allegory'

Brookner's novels fall into groups, with thematic as well as actual contiguities. Incidents (1995) follows A Family Romance (1993) and A Private View (1994). In chapter 9 Edward is cast as a voyeuristic shepherd: one thinks of the shepherds and shepherdesses in the lesser Bouchers in the Wallace Collection, visited by Jane in A Family Romance, in the summer of 1976. (The rue Laugier incidents take place in a similar summer five years earlier.) Meanwhile Tyler is again mythic - mythic to the 'earthbound' Maud - as was Katy Gibb to poor George Bland in A Private View. Crucially Tyler is Apollo, who of course features in A Family Romance's 'great Bouchers', at the top of the main staircase.

Boucher, The Setting of the Sun,
Wallace Collection

UK first edition