Wednesday 30 November 2016

The Dreams of Anita Brookner

Observer: Where do you think your ideas come from?
Anita Brookner: I wish I knew. I'd tap into them straight away. I think it's mostly dreams and memories, isn't it, as with all novelists?
Obs: Where will the next idea come from?
AB: I don't know, that's the point. I have no control. I'm a great believer in unconscious processes. They usually work.
Observer interview, 2001 (Link)

Dreams are potent if mysterious motors in the novels, especially the later fiction. The Next Big Thing, Leaving Home and 'At the Hairdresser's' all begin with dreams. Information is received, considered, and not always found to be of use. Visitors ends with a dream, but it is a vouchsafement earlier in the novel - of a field of folk - that stays in the memory, lambent, puzzling. Brookner invokes not so much Piers Plowman as a Forties and Fifties heaven, a lost England, old decent values, kindness... Martin Amis, though not a Brooknerian, somewhere tells us that the modern world is all very well and really quite bearable, until you remember what it was like when people were kind.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

'Adieu, notre petite table!'

Brookner, rather like James (as in so many other ways) is an unmusical writer, by which I mean music is referred to infrequently in the novels. Brookner characters (distinct, I might aver, from Brooknerians) prefer Radio 4, Britain's main speech network. 'Falling slowly' is a quote from Radio 4's daily Shipping Forecast.

In A Misalliance, Blanche's dull ascetic suitor is represented by his predilection for the Brandenburg Concertos. Lewis Percy has more Romantic tastes: he listens to Mahler 6 at one point, and sobs at Manon.

Mrs May, in Visitors, longs for the noble sound of Schumann or Brahms, and I think it is Zoe in The Bay of Angels who also listens to Schumann. And in one of the early 90s novels, Brief Lives or A Closed Eye, characters attend a performance of Swan Lake.

Brookner's musical choices, then, are somewhat conventional, and her comments a little bland, in contrast to the sophistication of her references to the visual arts.

(A postscript - or perhaps a coda: Because of Anita Brookner I got interested in her almost namesake Anton Bruckner, and I fondly remember hearing Bruckner's Eighth under Dohnanyi at the Theatre du Chatelet one long-ago Parisian evening. It was a very Brooknerian experience, for me at least.)

This is, I think, 'Place du Chatelet under Snow' by
Eugene Laloue, mentioned in the opening pages of Falling Slowly.

Sunday 27 November 2016

European Habits of Thought

My grandfather on my mother's side saw England as the most liberal country in the world: he adored it and adopted every English mode that he could find. But European habits of thought - melancholy, introspection - persisted, and it's a bad mix: it was thicker than the English air. 
Brookner, interviewed by John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview, 1985

I return, you see, to the Haffenden exchange, the Ur-text for Brookner's several interviews. Periodically I long for Europe, and for middle-Europe in particular. Not that my experiences of the continent aren't perhaps irredeemably touristique

But ah, Mitteleuropa! The place names, the names of streets, the hotels, the modern art galleries! The cosy restaurants and cafés, the railway stations with their boards showing destinations impossibly eastern! The sedate matrons shopping in the morning, the buzz of guttural conversation, the precisely reconstructed town squares! The icy rivers, the large skies, the forests of silver birches, the Autobahns!

A Stooge of the Spycatcher

In dealing with an author as private and even as secretive as Anita Brookner, one has to make much out of not a lot of material. For years I would listen to things like Desert Island Discs, but never once did Sue Lawley say, ‘My castaway this week is a novelist and art historian…’

But sometimes one made wonderful discoveries. In the days before the Internet I would pay visits to London libraries to examine files of back-issues of the Times Literary Supplement and the Spectator. I remember a marvellous afternoon one autumn in Senate House. I was leafing through old copies of the Spectator when I discovered a strange essay: ‘A Stooge of the Spycatcher: Anita Brookner explains how she was used by Blunt and Wright’. (Link)

I had of course heard about Spycatcher, which the Thatcher government had sought to ban. I knew also about Anthony Blunt, and his unmasking. So I read with interest. Phoebe Pool, possibly a model for Delia Halloran in Look at Me, was dying. It was the 1960s. Blunt, for whom Brookner worked, persuaded his colleague to visit Miss Pool; afterwards he would ask her what the old woman had said.

Brookner suspected nothing sinister in the arrangement: Miss Pool was simply an eccentric frequenter of the Courtauld’s library. Yet in 1987, when the book Spycatcher was published, it was made clear that Pool had held treacherous information of interest to Blunt and Wright. Brookner indignantly insisted on her own innocence and condemned the fantasy of moral immunity nurtured by those who had used her:
With the hindsight of 1987 I feel a great and steady anger. My anger is not so much directed at Blunt and Wright as at the fictions of immunity they both embraced. Such fictions are very dangerous in real life, although they go down well in other spheres: 'With one bound Jack was free.' I believe that both Blunt and Wright shared this dangerous ideology, and that Peter Wright continues to maintain it. As time goes by their involvement with each other should provide novelists with more excellent material. But the verdict of history will be to condemn them both as indistinguishable.

One might make, in conclusion, a link between the secretiveness of Brookner and the secretiveness of spies. But that would be cheap. One notes instead the value Brookner placed on ‘accountability’: it was the essence of true friendship, she said in interview. (One notices also, by the by, a certain distaste for fiction. Brookner was perhaps never a whole-hearted purveyor of fiction. There were times when she felt positive about it, when it seemed to release her from the despair of living; but nothing lasted and it always had to be done again. It was, as she told Haffenden, outside the natural order, and a penance for being unlucky.)

Anthony Blunt in his role as Keeper of the Queen's Pictures

An Invasion of Unpalatable Memory

Brookner was a migraine sufferer, as she revealed in 1993 in a review of Oliver Sacks's treatise on the condition.

'The neural tumult,' we read, 'may produce a feeling of such dread and helplessness as to encompass certain elements of the human condition.'

Brookner continues with 'a report from the front':
I learn from this book (and I allow that this may occur from actually reading the book) that my headaches are in fact migrainous and not untypical, and that the sensation of waking from a dream with the onset of a migraine is fairly standard. In fact it is probable that the precipitating dream, which is accompanied by a feeling of panic or horror, may be implicated in the migraine itself. Waking, which is always abrupt, is not caused by anything as specific as the alarm going off or the radio coming on. A rapidly beating heart may continue for an hour, to be succeeded by a pain over the left eye. More interesting than the pain, which is unpleasant but endurable, is the feeling of extreme dejection, and of unwelcome rumination. This too, it seems, is characteristic. The attack is therefore less of an attack than a defeat, an invasion of unpalatable memory. This will last for 12 hours and be cancelled by a night of sleep without dreams. Thus I learn that I suffer from common migraine, as opposed to classic migraine, which may be accompanied by more radical distortions, including the saw-toothed aura or blot in the centre of vision which afflict major sufferers. I have also learned to look away from flashing blue lights which punctuate the opening sequence of The Bill on television. It would be interesting to know how many are felled by a night in the disco. Coffee helps.
(This difficult piece might be read alongside Chapter 10 of A Misalliance, also very troubling. I call them troubling and difficult because as a sufferer myself I sense myself falling into some semblance of migraine just by reading about it, as if in sympathy. Thus reading Brookner maintains one's Brooknerianism or makes one even more a Brooknerian.)

Saturday 26 November 2016

The Rue Laugier

The rue Laugier, Paris, sometime in the late 1990s

Poleaxed: Brookner at the Booker

Anita Brookner's shock at learning she has won Booker-McConnell Prize, 1984

Anita Brookner was in no way the favourite to win the Booker-McConnell Prize in October, 1984. It was a strong year, with many more 'Booker-friendly' novels in the running. There was some carping afterwards. Anthony Burgess, speaking on a literary talk show, made a comment about 'menstrual cramps in Swiss hotels'.

Brookner's shock is evident in the first photo, as the prize is announced. She was later interviewed on television, by Melvyn Bragg or Selina Scott (I once had a video of the clip, but cannot locate it now). She said winning had left her 'absolutely poleaxed'.

Cover Stories

Brookner has been interestingly served  by her covers. Early editions showed either paintings mentioned in the text or images of pensive single women. Commissioned artwork was also seen, especially for Hotel du Lac, and the image of a table on a balcony became representative of the novel in later editions.

In the 1990s Penguin took over the publication of Brookner's paperbacks and later, through the Viking imprint, the hardbacks too. Initially Penguin favoured paintings, but towards the 2000s they settled on photographic covers.

The posthumous republication by Penguin of almost all of Anita Brookner's novels was a minor event, though the covers aren't always successful. Many of the images seem to be set in the 1950s and 60s, but A Private View (for example) is set, as we learnt in a previous post, firmly in the Nineties.
A Private View - Cape hardback edition

A Private View - first Penguin paperback

A Private View - second Penguin paperback

A Private View - posthumous edition
It is possible the photographic covers were inspired by the Alvin Langdon Coburn frontispieces Henry James commissioned for the New York Edition of his novels. For example:

The last feels Brooknerian. One thinks of A Friend from England or Strangers.

Friday 25 November 2016

The Corner of a Rubens Landscape

References in A Private View (1994), that most painterly of Brookners, range from Tintoretto
to Odilon Redon
and Walter Sickert.
(Brookner has George Bland visit the Sickert exhibition at the Royal Academy, thus placing the action of the novel in the winter of 1992-3.)

But most memorable for me is Bland's vision of himself at some debilitated future moment, glad to be able to recall a detail from a landscape by Rubens. One wonders: Which might it be?

One knows the Rainbow Landscape in the Wallace Collection
or the View of Het Steen in the National Gallery -
or perhaps it is the Kermis in the Louvre?
I cherish them all - and all because of George Bland, all because of Brookner.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Brookner's Lapses

There are problems in Brookner's work: her attitude towards narrative point of view, for example. Let's consider, for instance, focalisation, the angle of vision through which a story is focused. It – along with its derivative, focaliser – is a modern term; Henry James spoke of reflectors. Brookner tends to switch among three methods: the first-person narrator; the third person narrator with a single focaliser (i.e. when everything in the novel is filtered through that character's consciousness, with no access possible to the thoughts and impressions of other people); and, lastly, the third-person narrator with access to the thoughts and feelings of a range of (though not all) characters. An example of this last method is Fraud, in which each chapter is given over to a particular focaliser. The characters to whose impressions the reader has no recourse are, importantly, those bold predators with whom the author has no empathy, though perhaps a lot of sympathy: the volcanic Vickie, say, Anna’s rival in love.

For most of the 1990s Brookner used these methods in sequence. Thus Fraud (1992) was a third-person, multi-focaliser narrative; A Family Romance (1993) was a first-person narrative; A Private View (1994) was a third-person, single-focaliser novel: the next five novels (Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995), Altered States (1996), Visitors (1997), Falling Slowly (1998), and Undue Influence (1999)) employed narrative methods in the same order year by year. Brookner lived by her routines. 

But there are problems. In A Family Romance, for example, the first-person narrator Jane has access to the unheard other side of someone else's telephone conversation; likewise she recounts the thoughts and emotions experienced by her parents during their courtship. And in Visitors, a novel ostensibly focalised entirely through the consciousness of Mrs May, but told by the author, the reader is informed on the third page that, unbeknown to the character, Mrs May is considered by others to be rather forbidding. The effect is jarring: it is as though Brookner has forgotten she is writing a post-James, post-Woolf interior monologue and instead fancies herself to be an omniscient narrator in the manner of Anthony Trollope. A similar lapse occurs at the end of the first chapter of Hotel du Lac, a text narrated otherwise through the eyes of Edith Hope: Edith goes up to her room to change for dinner, but the reader must remain in the lobby with M. Huber, the hotelier, to consider half a page of his internal musings on the pedigrees of his guests.

Lapses? John Bayley believed she didn't write at the white heat of creative production; rather she put down whatever happened to pop into her head. There is an unplanned feel to her novels: she said she started with no more than a few lines of notes. She was writing at speed: she had left it late; there was no time for elaborate invention. Nor did she redraft: not for Brookner the endless Proustian revision. The floodgates were open: there was no stopping the deluge of words released by that first novel at the start of the 1980s. She sat down, directionlessly, almost automatically, that summer, and put pen to paper. The words came, like Keats’s poetry, as leaves to a tree: novel after novel, miraculously, silently. As the journalist David Sexton once wrote, only Dick Francis could compete.

Perhaps the novels' unredrafted feel impel the reader to concentrate less on the style than on the substance. These are not intended to be works of art: the message, instead, is the important thing. One finds instances of ungainly repetition – of an adjective, for example – that a closer attention at the redrafting stage would have eliminated: in Visitors, the summer sun is thrice described as 'hectic'. Brookner’s reply, though, if traduced on the point, would surely have been all innocence, all ingenuousness: she had never intended to create an objet d’art!

Yet she was, conversely, so much of an artist that she could afford to be careless; she could afford to do precisely as she pleased. Hence the radical insouciance with which the timeline of Incidents in the Rue Laugier expands towards the end. Maud Gonthier is nineteen in 1971, Edward Harrison in his early twenties. Edward dies in his fifties, Maud some time afterwards. All this, according to the frame narrative (written by Maud and Edward’s daughter, Maffy) happened 'years ago'. Maffy, born in the late 1970s is, one senses, in her thirties at the time of writing. But Incidents in the Rue Laugier was published in 1995.

Brookner was perhaps a careless writer. There are noble precedents: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, is founded on a bungled chronology. But might not Brookner have had her intentions? Might not the normally so strait-laced author be having her go at postmodernism? The central story of Incidents in the Rue Laugier is admitted by Maffy, the frame's narrator, to be no more than a fabrication based on a few cryptic, possibly autobiographical jottings found in her mother's notebook. Might not Anita Brookner be reminding the reader of the fictionality of all fiction, the nothingness beyond the text? Or is she rather urging us to forget about the time scheme altogether, forget about the mechanics of the novel, forget about the style, and concentrate instead on the novel’s substance, the very timelessness of its themes: marriage, desire, loss, memory?

Brooknerian Brussels

I have been reading Villette, which puts me in mind of A Family Romance. Dolly, the aunt - squat, European - lives in Brussels at the start: Jane Manning remembers a discordant childhood visit to the rue de la Loi. She remembers the menacing arch of the Cinquantenaire, which seemed to mark the edge of the known universe. She remembers thinking there was not another child in the whole of the city.

I have stayed in Brussels many times, and one sees Brooknerians there, or their European versions. But I have never seen the Cinquantenaire.

I once gave A Family Romance to a girlfriend. It was an ill-judged gift. It is one of the intensest, most Brooknerian Brookners, depicting a clash of cultures between English Jane and European Dolly. (And as ever, whose side is Brookner on?)

This novel was, as I say, unappreciated by my girlfriend, who preferred John Grisham. But thereby perhaps I found out what I needed to know. She was not a Brooknerian.

Sunday 20 November 2016

Look at Me

There's a line in Look at Me about getting by on style alone: Frances Hinton refers to her physical appearance on the eve of her last visit to the Frasers', but the line might apply to writing as much as to anything else.

You always have to reread, especially with Brookner. I often think, rereading, that I've never quite got to the bottom of precisely how and where Anita Brookner stands in relation to her personages – whether she scorns or loves them, disdains or endorses their little ways. It is possible to underestimate the really very radical strength of her disenchantment, her disaffection. Her novels, when you reread them, can be truly shocking. As I've said before, one's heart is in one's mouth.

I reread Look at Me in the aftermath of Brookner's death. Frances never does condemn her tormentors. She can only condemn herself. She longs for a voice, but none is available. She will be a writer one day, but only as a penance for her lack of luck. And she will not resile from that position. She is, like many of the oppressed, the imprisoned and the abused, supportive of her abusers: just as I, the reader, beguiled by the charm of Brookner's ideal prose, can come to accept any number of assumptions, while the sly author smiles a closed-off smile, and feints and dodges and glides away, ever out of reach.

About the Author

Anita Brookner, who is an international authority on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting, teaches at the Courtauld Institute of Art. In 1968 she was Slade Professor at Cambridge, the first woman ever to hold this position. She is the author of Watteau, the Genius of the Future; Greuze and Jacques-Louis David. She has written five novels: A Start in Life, Providence, Look at Me, Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize in 1984 and Family and Friends in 1985. (1985)

Anita Brookner was born in London in 1928 and, apart from three postgraduate years in Paris, has lived there all her life. She trained as an art historian and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art until 1988, when she abandoned her title of Reader in the History of Art at the University of London for the anonymity of a small flat in Chelsea and the cultivation of certain fictional characters who may one day appear in future novels. (1991)

Anita Brookner was born in London in 1928 and, apart from three postgraduate years in Paris, has lived there all her life. She trained as an art historian and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she was Reader until 1988. She now reads and writes for her own amusement. (1996)

Anita Brookner was born in London in 1928 and, apart from several years in Paris, has lived there ever since. She trained as an art historian and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art until 1988. Strangers is her twenty-fourth novel. (2009)

Brookner, Goncharov, Chekhov

Goncharov's Oblomov is referred to twice in the novels: memorably at the opening of Visitors and also (I think) in A Friend from England. In interview Brookner called it her favourite novel. This was possibly a posture. It is a weird contrarian comedy about a Russian aristocrat who deliberately mucks up his life, failing at everything.

'Brookner is in the Chekhov league,' said A. N. Wilson of Undue Influence. (For more on A. N. Wilson, see an earlier post, 'Anita died. I read it in The Times...')

'More memorable than any fiction was Chekhov's Last Moments by Leo Rabeneck, published in the TLS for 2 July 2004,' wrote Anita Brookner in the Spectator's 'Books of the Year' that year. 'Rabeneck was present at this most iconic of deaths, and his account of how it took place - after that glass of champagne - is more than consoling: uplifting.'

(As you might expect, I sought out the piece. It describes Chekhov’s stylish death, after that glass of champagne, at the Hotel Sommer at Badenweiler in the Black Forest. In fact it’s a rather undistinguished piece, so why did Brookner love it? Perhaps because what was being telegraphed, as ever, was the sort of behaviour of which Brookner approved: the sort of person, the sort of world. One could imagine Brookner in such an hotel: in middle-Europe, among over-dressed, over-civilised, neurasthenic folk. I have seen them myself. I have holidayed many times in Germany and Austria and Switzerland. One is much more likely there than in deadly England to come across Brooknerians. I like to watch them as they sip coffee on sun-terraces, or wander around art galleries, or take a turn about a lake – and I feel at home, I feel I have come home. It is not a feeling I’m in the habit of experiencing very often.)

A Pearl-diving Plunge

'Ah, good reading is a creative act!' declares the bumptious old professor in Deconstructing Harry. One book leads to another, one author to the next. I think I became a Jamesian because I was first a Brooknerian. I remember once reading that Anita Brookner reread The Spoils of Poynton every year. Did I imagine this? I cannot find the reference. It may have been in one of those celebrity vox pops the Spectator used to do on various topics (the piece about tisane in an earlier post is from one of those) or perhaps it's in one of the interviews - or perhaps, indeed, I dreamt it.

The Spoils of Poynton is a Brooknerian reading experience, which is probably why she chose it. The opposition between the sensitive, high-strung Fleda Vetch, for whom happiness is a kind of pearl-diving plunge, and the assorted vulgarians that circle her, is pure Brookner. One thinks of dreamy Anna Durrant in Fraud, or Frances Hinton in Look at Me, at the mercy of the venal careless Frasers.

Saturday 19 November 2016

Hotel du Lac promotional leaflet, 1993

'The only publicity from which the hotel could not distance itself was the word of mouth recommendations of patrons of long standing.'

Brookner's Titles

Brookner's titles (and for this post American titles are also considered) are a mixed bag. Classically, novel titles referred to people and places (Clarissa, The Small House at Allington) or derived from quotations (Pride and Prejudice, Far From the Madding Crowd). References to themes and plot points (Great Expectations, The Moonstone) were less common. More figurative titles crept in after James.

  • Lewis Percy (1989)
  • Dolly (1993)
  • Hotel du Lac (1984)
  • A Friend from England (1987)
  • Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995)
  • The Bay of Angels (2001)
  • 'At the Hairdresser's' (2011)
  • A Start in Life / The Debut (1981) (Cf. Balzac's novel of the same name)
  • A Misalliance (1986) (Cf. Maupassant's 'Mesalliance')
  • Brief Lives (1990)
  • A Closed Eye (1991)
  • A Family Romance (1993)
  • Falling Slowly (1998)
Abstract nouns
  • Providence (1982)
  • Fraud (1992)
Plural nouns
  • Latecomers (1988)
  • Visitors (1997)
  • Strangers (2009)
  • Falling Slowly (1998)
  • Making Things Better (2002)
  • Leaving Home (2005)
Legalistic terms
  • Fraud (1992)
  • Undue Influence (1999)
  • The Rules of Engagement (2003)
Psychoanalytic terms
  • A Family Romance (1993)
  • Altered States (1996)
Common phrases
  • Look at Me (1983)
  • A Private View (1994)
  • The Next Big Thing (2002)
The indefinite article
  • A Start in Life (1981)
  • A Misalliance (1986)
  • A Friend from England (1987)
  • A Closed Eye (1991)
  • A Family Romance (1993)
  • A Private View (1994)
The definite article
  • The Misalliance (1986)
  • The Bay of Angels (2001)
  • The Next Big Thing (2002)
  • The Rules of Engagement (2003)
And one that Ivy Compton-Burnett missed:
  • Family and Friends (1985)
Before the age of the Internet made this game much easier, I would search Paris bookshops for Brookner titles and try to work out which was which.

Brookner at the London Library

An intriguing piece of memorabilia, this - culled from the blog of the London Library (Link). Brookner, we learn, served on its Committee between 1987 and 1991. Several Brooknerians are frequenters, I think, including George Bland in A Private View and Miriam in Falling Slowly.

Brookner, James, Wharton

She looked, Anita Brookner, to Henry James 'for moral scruple' (Haffenden interview, 1985), and not a few Brookner personages spend the long dark autumn afternoons and evenings of their lives in conclave with the Master.

There is, for example, Paul Sturgis in Strangers, regretting the loss of an evening he had planned to devote to the later novels, which, as his creator says, 'entail scrupulous attention'.

Or there's Miriam in Falling Slowly, in a coda to both the novel and her life, sitting daily with other casualties in a public garden. She reads What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age and The Tragic Muse. There was nothing cheap about Henry James, she thinks. She likes too his reputation for modesty. He had deferred to worldlings, as if he were not more worldly than any of them.

Brookner explores such themes elsewhere. 'What exactly did Maisie know? Something that was not meant to be known, so that the corrupt reader, so much more corrupt than James himself, can intuit it well enough. And it was corruption that interested him. He himself was innocent, though his characters, markedly, are not.' (Spectator, 11 December 1999)

I think she is askew there. No one will ever know what Henry James knew. No one can ever truly sit in judgement over him, not even Anita Brookner.

Brookner's own Jamesian qualities have often been noted. 'She is our Henry James, conveying emotional nuances by what is left unsaid, observing the shaming secrets we dare not admit even to ourselves, said Philip Howard in The Times in 1994 of A Private View, one of Brookner's most accomplished dramas of consciousness.

Stylistically Brookner's novels resemble the works of James's middle period: The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, The Tragic Muse. Read any of those, or the contemporaneous stories and tales, and you're in the Brookner world.

She tends, just as often, however, to be compared with Edith Wharton, surely a lesser writer, a James wannabe. Brookner doesn't help herself here, in interview referring approvingly to Wharton, and writing adoring introductions to The Custom of the Country and a selection of Wharton's short stories for Penguin.

Friday 18 November 2016

Home is so Sad

'After an evening walk - but these are becoming more dangerous - a cup of tea is mandatory. But for more sedative evenings a tisane will have to do. Since most of them are vaguely emetic, it is a job to find one that is refreshing. Mixed fruit has proved to be acceptable - with a teaspoon of honey to give an impression of well-being.'
Spectator, 1990s

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Quotable Brookner

The Internet likes its aphorisms, and Brookner is a reliable if idiosyncratic source. Many quotes derive from Hotel du Lac - the famous hare and tortoise passage, for example - and others from the available interviews. Brookner gave a mere handful of interviews in her time, and only a few have found a home on the web.

Below are links to several such exchanges. The Paris Review piece, a classic early example, not as extreme as the Haffenden debacle, but still astonishing, includes an example of Brookner's handwriting.

Link to 1987 Paris Review interview

The second, from the 1990s, follows the publication of A Private View. It contains interesting material about Brookner's family, and indicates the state of critical opinion at the time: Brookner is to be considered alongside Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym, if not Proust or James. The interviewer's tone is a little condescending.

Link to 1994 Independent interview

The rest of the examples are from the 2000s. The first is from 2001, a brief breezy affair. Brookner seems less concerned now with the image she gives. She's more defiant, surer of her ground, perhaps less likely to be hurt.

Link to 2001 Observer interview

The next is from the following year. It's an in-depth exchange, very respectful. Brookner is now to be placed with the likes of Sebald and Beckett. In an age of sentimental uplift, writes Tonkin, Brookner's message grows more scandalous and subversive with every book. Ah yes, he's got it.

Link to 2002 Independent interview

The last interview is Mick Brown's from 2009. Brookner is accorded full respect now. She may retread old ground, but that is the case with all her interviews. They were performances, for which she had prepared, and she knew her lines.

Link to 2009 Telegraph interview

(We may return to the topic of Brookner's interviews, especially to those such as the Haffenden exchange that aren't available on the Internet. Interviews gave Brookner a form and a platform she didn't exploit elsewhere. There was never going to be an autobiography. But were not her novels her autobiography? We can say that now, in this age of autofiction. And the interviews, likewise, were, as I say, performances - calm and deliberate, and perhaps as fictional as the fiction.)

Sunday 13 November 2016


I come now to a treat for Brooknerians. I have a copy of a pamphlet, Brookner's 'Jacques-Louis David: A Personal Interpretation' (London, 1974): it is the text of a lecture given by Dr Brookner. 'Lecture on Aspects of Art, Henriette Hertz Trust, of the British Academy', reads the title page. I bought it some years ago at a Gerrards Cross book fair for £25. The lecture was read on 30 January 1974: it seems to be a condensation of Brookner's study of the painter – whom I also rate highly, and whenever I’m in Brussels I always like to look at the Davids.

And one thinks of was-it-Providence? – that make-or-break lecture Kitty Maule must make before an august assembly. Was this that lecture? Probably not. The date’s too late. By 1974 Brookner was an established art historian. The pamphlet is dedicated to Anthony Blunt, not yet unmasked, and is part of a lecture series that includes 'Some Uses and Misuses of the Terms Baroque and Rococo as applied to Architecture' by that slippery grandee.

But what thrills me is a piece of Courtauld Institute headed notepaper inserted in the pamphlet. And in Brookner’s distinctive scrawl: 'Louise – with much love, Anita.'

It was written, I reckon, with one of those Papermate felt pens that were popular in those days. And oh, the pleasure of holding this small thin sheet of paper, all these years later, in this unimaginable future!

And this was all before she, Brookner, even wrote a word of fiction – before she so much as stealthily sat down to begin the project of her life.
Note to unidentified woman, written by Anita Brookner in 1974

Tea for One at the Hotel du Lac

Receipt for cup of tea at the Hotel du Lac, Vevey, in 1993

A Private View

A selection of Brooknerian paintings:

Boucher, The Rising of the Sun, The Setting of the Sun. Who can forget that moment in A Family Romance when Jane Manning plunges from the heat of London in 1976 into the entrance hall of the Wallace Collection and, drowning in coolness and blueness, gazes up at the great Bouchers?
Delaroche, Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Claire Pitt and a friend visit this painting in Undue Influence, a curious novel, costive and backward-looking (when it was published, it was the last of the yearly Brookners, and one might have been forgiven for thinking it her swansong).
Delacroix, Jacob and the Angel. Herz, in The Next Big Thing, visits Paris and the church of St-Sulpice solely in order to see this painting again. I was in Paris when the novel came out. I remember buying it in the W. H. Smith's in rue de Rivoli; taking it back to my hotel to read; and then, a pure Brooknerian, setting out the next morning for St-Sulpice.
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne. At the end of the novel, Herz considers this painting, noting the charged gaze that passes between Ariadne and the god, concluding that it represents 'the real thing'.
David, Portrait of M. Blauw. Purchased by the National Gallery in 1984, this was mentioned by Brookner in an early interview. She said it was only a picture of a man with a quill pen, but it was painted with such fidelity, such felicity.

The Gloomy Day

Brooknerianism is a way of life. Alone and at a low ebb in Vienna one early spring day, I asked myself: What would a Brooknerian do? And so I headed into the Kunsthistorisches Museum and sat for an hour before one of the Bruegels - not a particularly Brooknerian choice, but the behaviour was Brooknerian. Such routines, such forms, are not to be scorned. And it's form that's going to save us all, says Brookner in an early interview (the Haffenden, I believe).

In Brookner's anthology, Soundings, there's an essay on Rosa Bonheur that begins with a vignette of Brookner herself, at large in provincial Continental cities, indolent, homesick, seeking neglected minor artworks in unpopular museums. The essay dates from 1981, when Brookner was at the start of her late-life and very prolific second career as a novelist. The floodgates had opened, as she said: she wished she could write all the time: it released her from the despair of living. But in the meantime she had all those obscure provincial painters to honour: Jules Dupre, Felix Ziem, Leon Cogniet, Rosa Bonheur...

Saturday 12 November 2016

Second Thoughts

One or two of the critics who, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, trashed Brookner, came round to her in the end. Having been misunderstood as genteel and parochial, and bracketed with Jane Austen and Barbara Pym, Brookner's wider credentials, in the new century, were beginning to be appreciated. But it was too late.

Critics began to speak of her as a European writer. Mark Lawson, on reading Strangers, penned a full recantation. He had been one of those young men in the 1980s who had so disdained the likes of A Misalliance and Lewis Percy. Now, older, he 'got' her at last, suggesting she be placed alongside no less a luminary than Samuel Beckett. High praise indeed.

Link to Lawson review

Anita in Metroland

Not long ago I reread Lewis Percy. What had been stodgy twenty years ago seemed lightsome and timeless now. It is an unBrooknerian novel, not least on account of its suburban setting. This isn't a world of mansion flats and Chelsea. But in its allegiances the novel is characteristic. Lewis's loyalty, we read, isn't to the stale diminished life he leads in the suburbs but to the content of the books he cherishes - surely Stendhal. There is no more Brooknerian statement of intent.

Lewis Percy, as Brookner herself acknowledged in an article in the Independent in November 1990, was roundly condemned by critics. But she remained true to what she thought of as her suburban novel, which a walk down Wandsworth Bridge Road on the way to the hairdresser's had inspired. Seduced into side-roads she found 'a distracting melancholy, an intensification of longing, and a landscape to mirror both'.

Innocence was,she opined, her theme. But surely Brookner is the least innocent of writers? Nevertheless, she found the 'radical dissociation' of certain critics surprising - 'as if in their world timorousness and doubt had been eliminated'.

Ah, whose side is Brookner on? Is she an insider or an outsider? It is a perennial and also a fruitful question.

Among Strangers

Paul Sturgis, the hero of Brookner's last full-length novel, fears he will die among the strangers of the book's title.

The novel's epigraph is from Freud, whom Brookner revered: England, says Freud, for all its glory, is not a place for the old.

An unnamed neighbour of Brookner's, appended a comment to A. N. Wilson's obituary essay on the Mail Online, referenced in an earlier post. Brookner's death was precipitated by quite a serious fire in her flat, from which she was rescued. The fire was caused by her smoking. But she was not given enough care in hospital. The nurses were, we learn, overworked. She was not got out of bed, was not rehabilitated.

This is difficult to read. One often reads Brookner novels with one's heart in one's mouth. But this was Brookner's life.
Doctors without Borders, beneficiary in Brookner's will


James had three incarnations: James the First, James the Second, and the Old Pretender. The novels of Anita Brookner (a writer who, at first glance, doesn't seem to 'develop' - to borrow a term from Larkin) fall perhaps into four phases.
The four novels culminating in the Booker win (A Start in Life, Providence, Look at Me and Hotel du Lac) are sombre reads, solid, not starry, never presumptuous.
Seemingly in receipt of dithyrambs for every subsequent effort, Brookner became in her second phase (beginning with Family and Friends) a little - shall we say? - smug, a little complacent. Those novels of the mid to late Eighties feel over-assured, at times too ambitious.
Brookner worked best in reaction against the prevailing culture. Critical opinion turned sour in the 1990s. Thus, with Brief Lives, begins her third phase. These are masterly books, Jamesian, the language as mandarin as James's, the themes unfashionable but enduring.
The last phase comes in the 2000s, with The Bay of Angels. The Brookner world narrows, darkens. She no longer writes a novel a year. The prose is fleeter of foot, sometimes even demotic. She gives brisker, lighter interviews. She finishes in 2011 with a novella, 'At the Hairdresser's' - one for the fans, truly a retreading of old ground.

But Brookner's fiction, though it was often so accused, was never as predictable as some supposed. Rereading always uncovers fresh perspectives. George Eliot, as John Bayley once said, was, by comparison, a one-track performer.

German Hours

Baden-Baden, the summer capital of Europe, is a destination of choice for many a Victorian literary personage. Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser honeymoon there in Can You Forgive Her? Baden-Baden features in Confidence, a minor James novel, which I haven't read. It is renamed but identifiable in the opening pages of Daniel Deronda.

Today, more than a century afterwards, one imagines those long ago days as not so very distant. In fact all has changed, much separates then and now, and what remains is a mere simulacrum (great Brooknerian word).

Anita died. I read it in The Times...

Anita Brookner died at the age of 87 on 10 March, 2016 – impossible date. She experienced her own next big thing just days after the centenary of Henry James’s death. The conjunction remained unlauded in the many obituaries I examined, most of which seemed to be culled from one another and thick with clichés, the usual tired stuff about this most misunderstood and, by then, all but forgotten writer. But her passing gave her a moment of publicity. For a while, if you typed ‘Anita’ into Google, her name appeared in the list of suggestions. She was suddenly everywhere. ‘Oh, Anita!’ tweeted one friend, as if she had committed some sort of faux pas. Indeed, during the week that followed, I was aware of the vulgarity of most death notices, and of much such comment. How she would have hated some of the pieces. How she would have squirmed at the freedom with which people now spoke of her. She lost dignity, was fair game – an historical figure now, her reputation up for grabs.

In fact I read about her death not in The Times but on a website. For I lived in modern times. I had been conducting one of my regular searches of Brookner-related material, though there had been nothing for some time. One wondered about her last years, imagined the horror of being old and incapacitated in a hospital ward, and of dying among strangers.

There were two notable essays in the British papers, one by A. N. Wilson in the Mail, the other in the Guardian by Julian Barnes. Barnes’s was the meatiest, including details I never knew – her brand of cigarettes (Sovereign, an oddly low-rent variety for such a stylish woman); her fondness for the Crillon, when in Paris; her speech at the Booker (‘I usually go on for fifty minutes – with slides’). He wrote of the way she invented her own life, after the deaths of her parents lent her that freedom. He wrote of her guardedness, and of how she politely but firmly curbed any too enthusiastic or adolescent suggestions he might have made. Would she like to come with him to the NFI to see early films of Paris? ‘I don’t think so...’ But he had last seen her in 2010. Again one wondered about her last years.

The piece by Wilson was altogether more disappointing. She never married. She wished she had. She once said she could get the record as the world’s loneliest woman. All that. The Anthony Blunt affair was described in some detail. (Wilson plainly had a certain Spectator article, ‘A Stooge of the Spycatcher’, open before him as he wrote.) But there was one revelation, not that it redounded too greatly to Wilson’s credit either as a gentleman or as a friend. It was the late Eighties, early Nineties. She was in her sixties and attending a party given by a publisher some years her junior. She was, wrote Wilson, hopelessly in love with this man. Wilson hadn’t known she was at the party till he went to the man’s bedroom to collect his coat. There he found Anita Brookner staring miserably ahead, having been there for perhaps more than an hour. ‘It was clear this was the only chance she would get of being near this man’s bed,’ Wilson concluded.

The vulgarity, the intrusiveness, the humiliation of death was complete.

Friday 11 November 2016

Morning Coffee at the Casino

Brooknerians dream of France - of Paris in particular. Lewis Percy always longs to return. A whole life, for Maud in Incidents in the Rue Laugier, is predicated on a youthful episode in that unremarkable Parisian street (which I visited once - and it was adamantine, very Right Bank, giving little away).

But the novels that concern themselves with more mittel-European themes and places are also to be considered. Julius Herz in The Next Big Thing, for example, remembers the Thirties in Germany. The horror that prompted his childhood translation to England remains all but undefined, even unspoken, so subtle is Brookner's technique. But a whole world is lamented. Herz recalls holidays in Baden-Baden, rides in a fiacre along the Lichtenthaler Allee, coffee at the Kurhaus.

I vacationed there one summer. Ah, Mitteleuropa - so solid, so gracious! Mitteleuropa - which somehow survives a century of torment! One feels, there, very far from England and its brutality, its vulgarity.

Brookner cherished older standards of conduct, the matchless world of the European past. Heroic clear-eyed Enlightenment sages like Voltaire; Romantic dandies like Stendhal; sober leviathans like Thomas Mann; and, nearer to hand, devastated exiles such as W. G. Sebald: all of them, and several more, and stylists all, were saints in Brookner's godless world, and ideal company.

A writer, writing of other writers, really only writes about herself.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Becoming a Brooknerian

Perhaps I was not always a Brooknerian. But I became one early - too early. I was seventeen, and I happened on a copy of Hotel du Lac in my local library. I had heard of the author, and knew her to be acclaimed, but I knew nothing more. I took the book home and read it quickly, absorbed by the atmosphere of the hotel, the dense beauty of the prose, the social comedy.

I was later to visit the real Hotel du Lac, in Vevey. The becalmed resort, the anaesthetic lake, high and near, were as depicted. I had tea in the hotel garden. That was in 1993. I visited again a couple of years ago, and the hotel had become slightly too corporate.

(Visiting Brooknerian locales is part of being a Brooknerian, as later posts will show. I once spent an expensive holiday in Baden-Baden on the strength of a couple of lines in The Next Big Thing.)

Did I become a Brooknerian at seventeen, in that little library, which smelt as I remember of furniture polish and dust? Or had I always been destined? I don't know, but from then on I was enamoured. At some level everything I do, think, read, believe links to my Brooknerianism. Great writers, as Anita Brookner herself said, are saints for the godless.

Finding a Voice

Brookner's voice - rich, alto - can be heard via the link below. The closing moments of the broadcast, in which Brookner wistfully remembers her old life, contrasting it with her later career as a novelist, are especially treasurable.
Link to 'The Reunion' (BBC, 2011)

A Fraudulent Encounter

I met Anita Brookner only once. I was in a London street with my French friend Marie Delemotte. It was August 1992, and I was nineteen. Marie was much older - ours was a cross-generational friendship - and when I excitedly told her the identity of the rather elderly-looking woman tottering towards us on the pavement, my friend, unimpressed, said, with what I probably would have called Gallic insouciance, 'Oh, go to her! Why not?'

But my heart was thumping. Here was my heroine, my favourite author - here in a London street, at two o'clock on a summer's afternoon - here, in the flesh, or the somewhat exiguous flesh, for the woman approaching us was very thin and seemed frail. She walked with a stick. But Brookner would only have been in her sixties in 1992, and was to live another twenty years and more. She wore a white blouse, a white skirt and a red blazer with large shoulders. Her hair, bright auburn, looked newly coiffed.

The street was Elm Park Gardens, Brookner's home for many years. High banks of mansion flats rose about us, muffling the sounds of the city. Brookner entered one of these blocks, and on an impulse I left Marie and followed the author. I found myself in a vestibule, subfusc, dim; Brookner was talking to a neighbour who had just issued from a bronze-coloured lift. The conversation was about doctors.

The neighbour eventually departed, and I spoke. 'Dr Brookner? I just wanted to say I'm an enormous fan of your books. I've read Fraud.'

'Fraud? Already?' said Dr Brookner of the novel that had only just been published.

'Yes, yes,' I gushed, 'and it's very good!'

'Well, I'm ... most ... gratified,' replied Dr Brookner slowly, in her rich alto, and in what seemed to me pure Brooknerese. 'Are you going up?'

She meant in the lift.

'No, no,' I said, gulping now, and the poor lady escaped, and I exited into the dazzling street, where an amused Marie Delemotte met me.

'Interesting. So that was why we came down this particular street, eh?'