Tuesday 31 January 2017

Much more interesting than success

Brookner: I read a lot in French and I read the Russians. Here's my favourite novel.
AB: Yes. It's about a man who fails at everything.
Obs: I confess I've never read it.
AB: It's great. He fails at everything - not through any fault of his own, but through sheer inactivity. I learnt a terrific lesson there.
Obs: Do you think failure is a subject to which you're drawn in your fiction?
AB: Much more interesting than success. 

Brookner, ruefully playful, time and again makes a show of objectivity. She writes about failure because, objectively, it is an interesting subject. These personages are not reflections of herself. As she told Blake Morrison in 1994:
Well, I am a spinster. I make no apologies for that. But I'm neither unhappy nor lonely. I am interested in people who live on their own, people who get left behind, who drop through the net, but who survive. They seem to me quite heroic characters sometimes, but no one inquires about them because they're people who do without much conversation, whose loudest moments are internal. If such characters persist through my novels that's because I don't know much about them, not because I know them too well. I write to find out what makes them tick.
This sounds fairly heartfelt. But the accusations would continue. The 2002 Independent interview features the following, larkier exchange:
The Next Big Thing [writes the interviewer] presents a hero shaken by lust after a lifetime of humbly 'making things better. Seventysomething Julius Herz, the third male protagonist in recent novels, is a self-effacing childhood émigré from Germany. Late in life, he finds release from the family ties that bound him to a solitary stoicism. Passive, obedient, too keen to please, Julius shares more than his Mitteleuropa background with some of his female forerunners. As I list his traits, Brookner breaks in: 'He's me, really. You were longing to say that, weren't you? And I thought I was making him up. That's what happens. That's where Freud is right.'
There is a wry acceptance here, also to be found in the curious and unprecedented 'Author's Note' at the start of Brookner's final novel, Strangers. It is a parody of a common legal disclaimer.
All the characters in this novel are imaginary. But I do not doubt that somewhere, out there, they, or others like them, exist.

Monday 30 January 2017


What will be Anita Brookner's future literary existence? It seems unlikely either that she'll sink without trace like the once-lauded Angus Wilson, or that she'll benefit from a series of posthumous publications, as in the cases of Barbara Pym and W. G. Sebald.

Authors usually experience a dip in the period after their deaths. Kingsley Amis was all but out of print for a while, before being reissued with new covers that recast him as a writer not of the present but of some vaguely 'classic' or vintage yesteryear.

The same may already have happened with Brookner. As I've noted previously, the new Penguin covers depict Fifties and Sixties scenes, even for novels plainly set in more recent times.

Jane Austen didn't become established until the mid-Victorian era. Trollope went into decline after his death, only to go through a renaissance in World War II, when his tales of a gentler world were newly attractive. And Sir Walter Scott, in his day one of the most widely read novelists in Europe, was, by the end of the nineteenth century, practically relegated to the status of a children's writer.

Henry James, seldom popular during his lifetime, slowly gained ground through the twentieth century, and is now a major subject for study. I foresee a similar destiny for Brookner. Critical interest grows steadily. Brookner has currency on Twitter. A major Brookner conference takes place in Melbourne very soon. And no new reader ever expresses an indifferent opinion. All these are good signs.

Sunday 29 January 2017


I grew cold and sick reading this remarkable narrative, which embodies a sense of displacement so radical that it would seem to preclude a safe return to everyday existence. This is not vulgar Holocaust literature, still less a witness statement: this is dislocation of a kind most of us are privileged not to know.

Cold and sick ... displacement ... dislocation. High praise indeed, from Brookner. Time and again in her reviews, especially in the later ones, she commends novels for the unease they induce in the reader. Followers of this blog will know I'm of the opinion that in her writings on other writers Brookner is really writing about herself. I'm a few chapters into a re-read of The Bay of Angels at the moment, and already my heart is in my mouth. In no way is it a cosy or comforting read. The critic John Bayley was of the opinion that even the gloomiest art could be comforting, 'by the paradox implicit in achieved art', as he said of A Private View (Spectator, 1994). Bayley, a Brookner fan, was much more of a fan of the likes of Larkin and Pym, and sought to align her with them. In an essay on the pair he sets out his stall:
This paradox of gloom as its own form of comfort is, in its way, a comic transformation of the old Romantic appetite for despair – Shelley's 'sweetest songs that tell of saddest thought'. Only in our own time, our own epoch of Romanticism, has comfortable gloom taken over from picturesque despair, and become domesticated in a homely need for humour and sympathy, the kind by which the human heart can live.
This isn't Anita Brookner. There is nothing sweet or comforting or even particularly domesticated about Brookner. Her novels are like ghost stories without the ghosts. The reader is constantly on edge, fearful, uneasy, uncertain of a safe return to everyday existence. But then as Brookner herself apparently said, art doesn't love you and cannot console you.

Saturday 28 January 2017

Flawed Stylists

...these were the virtuous prerequisites for vindication of some sort, for a triumph which would confound the sceptics... 
...approaching some beneficent outcome which would make even my father's death assume acceptable proportions. 
...I resigned myself to a lesson in reality which would be instructive but largely unwelcome.
The Bay of Angels, Ch. 1

The grammatical difference between that and which is subtle, and often inconsistently observed, even by the best writers. Kingsley Amis, one of the best, also a pedant, defined the distinction well in his grammar book The King's English (Harper Collins, 1997), adding that plenty of good writers have got it wrong from time to time while many bad ones have got it right. That Brookner's so Augustan prose isn't after all without its imperfections is one of the many adorable things about her. Jane Austen is another example of a flawed stylist - employing, for example, superlatives when comparing only two items, and probably mixing up her relative pronouns. (I'm unsure, not having read Austen for some time, and indeed in this context being somewhat loath to mention her.)

Friday 27 January 2017

The Historic Present

In my freshman prize copy of A Dictionary of Stylistics (Longman, 1991), by one of my old teachers, Katie Wales, I find the historic present defined as the 'special use of the present tense in oral or written, anecdotal or literary narrative, where the past tense might be expected, the shift creating a more dramatic or immediate effect'.

Professor Wales cites the use of the form in jokes, in newspaper headlines, in Pope's Iliad, and in Anita Brookner's Family and Friends.

The form has continued its popularity with literary novelists. Consider Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell novels.

There was a minor media spat a few years back, regarding the use of the historic present in BBC history programmes: 'It gives a bogus, an entirely bogus, sense of immediacy,' said John Humphrys.

Brookner's deployment of the historic present in Family and Friends evolves out of the authorial voice's examination of a set of old photographs. In Brookner's hands the effect of the form is less one of immediacy than of distance, though this may be a result of other aspects of Brookner's prose, which here is at its most mandarin. But the historic present contributes much to the overall, highly artful impact. In some way the foreignness of the Dorns, the formality of their mittel-European manners, are mirrored and represented.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Of Innocence and of Experience

Outside the line of duty I reread Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, and once again found it matchless, a grave description of one of life's great traumas, the passage from innocence to experience.
Spectator, 17 November 2001

Brookner's own characters are rarely depicted in a condition of innocence. We might watch them experience a moment of revelation, a moment of horror; the ending of Undue Influence comes to mind. But were they innocent before? No, more often than not they were beady and watchful, already (at however young an age) denizens of a fallen world.

Family and Friends, in the character of Mimi, is an exception. We see Mimi sitting hopefully in a Paris hotel, waiting for Frank, who will not come. We witness what seems like a genuine loss of innocence, something that colours Mimi's whole life. Nothing afterwards is ever glad confident morning again.
...since that morning when, dry-mouthed and dry-eyed, she got up and dressed herself and left the hotel, she no longer feels part of her time, of her age: she feels invisible. It is as much as she can do now to avoid pain, simply to avoid pain.
Ch. 10

She has become a Brooknerian, and the nature and depth of her degradation and of her discovery are uncompromising. It is not, we learn, Frank for whom Mimi afterwards yearns, but for the missing factor in herself that would have brought him into her life (Ch. 10). One thinks here of Zoe in The Bay of Angels and 'the despair of one whose life is lacking in several essential components' (Ch. 16).

Family and Friends has other things to say on innocence and experience:
To suppose that those who are sexually inactive are also sexually inarticulate is a grave mistake, but one which is made with disheartening frequency.
Ch. 9

Those who are inexperienced, even intact, may not after all be innocent. By contrast, those with the fullest, most extreme lives may persist in a dangerous state of innocence. This reminds me a little of some E. M. Forster lines (I quote from memory): the fetish 'experience' of the innumerable teacups; and the notion of a person having an amount of experience that is out of proportion with his actual adventures.

Monday 23 January 2017

Jeux de mélancolie

George Eliot is disturbed and embarrassed by 'The Lifted Veil'. In a letter to John Blackwood, she describes it as 'a slight story of an outré kind - not a jeu d'esprit but a jeu de mélancolie'. And Eliot's struggle for control over the material of 'The Lifted Veil' manifests itself both within the tale in the narrator's repeated apologies for going on at such length, and externally when Eliot returns, fourteen years later, to preface the tale with a new epigraph which resolves some of its more disturbing ambiguities. Yet the experience proves cathartic, allowing Eliot to move on to the masterpiece of Middlemarch.
John Lyon, Introduction to the Penguin edition of The Sacred Fount by Henry James 

Shusha Guppy: Do you ever rewrite what you have written?
Brookner: Never. It is always the first draft. I may alter the last chapter; I may lengthen it. Only because I get very tired at the end of a book and tend to rush and go too quickly, so when I have finished it I go over the last chapter.

(Brookner tells (I think) Haffenden, in answer to the same question, 'There just isn't time', as though she were writing for her life.)

How far was Brookner like the George Eliot of 'The Lifted Veil'? Or indeed the Henry James of The Sacred Fount? Of course one couldn't imagine Brookner returning to any of her texts fourteen years afterwards, though here and there in interview she goes some way towards rethinking them, even belittling or neutralising them. Several at least of the novels might be described as jeux de mélancolie, others as more expansive, more like Middlemarch (if not in length). In both 'The Lifted Veil' and The Sacred Fount there is, as John Lyon goes on to say, an 'impulse to finish and have done'. In Brookner, perhaps, this manifests itself in her professed tendency to rush the end of a novel. Whether, however, her subsequent reworkings are successful is another matter. Brookner's last chapters sometimes strive towards hope, even towards epiphany, in a way that doesn't always chime with what has gone before.

Sunday 22 January 2017

Happy as a Clam

In Strangers it is the tentative, introspective Sturgis who is confronted with the impulsive, carefree and monstrously self-obsessed Vicky Gardner, whose only interest in him is in what he can provide for her.  The person who thinks seriously about life, Brookner's books suggest, who proceeds cautiously and conscientiously, will be punished for their virtue, end up alone and dissatisfied, while the person who takes a wholly unreflecting and rather selfish view of life pays no price for it. 
'But haven't you noticed that?' 
She gives an amused smile. 'Think of Tony Blair. Unrealistic. Selfish. Happy as a clam!'  Didn't Plato say the unexamined life is not worth living?  She gives the faintest smile. 'Plato could be wrong too. I think the unexamined life is much better. Much more comfortable.' So you wish you had been…  'Blithe…' It rolls off her tongue, wrapped in longing. A lovely word, I say.  'It's an old-fashioned word. You don't hear it much.'  So you envy the blithe?  'Oh yes.'

I come back to the question of Brookner's allegiances. She evidently disdains Tony Blair*, but envies him too. Never were lives less unexamined than those of Brookner's characters; yet their creator praises the attractions of a 'blithe', unreflecting life. Brookner's interviews, more than her novels, are of course sharp pieces, powered by sly irony. But we can't but reckon she means and believes and stands by at least some of what she says. The interviewer thinks so too: that word 'blithe', rolling off her tongue, wrapped in longing.

* This probably isn't a particularly political comment. Tony Blair was, by 2009, a past Prime Minister with a difficult legacy for both left and right. For more on Brookner's possible politics, see an earlier post.

Christopher Hampton's Hotel du Lac

However often I watch it, I'm always surprised. A film of an Anita Brookner novel seems as outlandish as an adaptation of, say, late James. But The Golden Bowl and, more skilfully, The Wings of the Dove have been successfully translated to the screen in recent decades. Their plots, though, underneath the verbiage, are very simple, even sensational. Hotel du Lac, similarly, is one of Brookner's more structured, plotted works.

Rights to the novel were bought before its Booker success. Initially Anita Brookner had been approached to write an original screenplay, but she said she wouldn't know how to. Instead she offered the soon-to-be published Hotel du Lac. (This is revealed in the 2002 commentary that accompanies the DVD of the 1986 TV film. The commentary is a dull, low-powered affair. No Brookner, of course.)

Anna Massey plays Edith. I've often found Massey a distractingly distinctive actor. Like Judi Dench she manages somehow, in any role, always to be herself.

Most of the rest of the cast, especially in the Swiss scenes, are, like Massey (my last comment notwithstanding), very fine, especially Denholm Elliott.

The London scenes are less successful. The actors in these sections have to create characters out of scant material, and some of them are working too hard. Laboured, meaningful acting isn't helped by a wistful score, which, conversely, suits the Swiss sections.

Criticism often centres on the film's poor picture quality. It is assumed, wrongly, that this is just something we have to put up with in a TV show from the 1980s. This isn't necessarily true. If the original materials exist, the film, which was indeed made on film, may be significantly restored, even to a pitch that exceeds the original broadcast version. This is seen in the restoration work done on film sequences in classic-era Doctor Who. A remarkable example of such restoration is described on the DVD of the 1980s story 'Black Orchid'. But I guess the Doctor Who DVD series had a bigger budget than the DVD release of Hotel du Lac.

Not the Dent d'Oche. Hotel du Lac was filmed on Lake Lucerne.

Friday 20 January 2017

Only a Brief Sentence

Anita was a neighbour of mine in Chelsea, and several residents in the square were very sorry to hear of her death. We tried to be courteous to her when we met her, but she was always alone, never with a single person in the decades she lived here. It seemed a shame, for such an intelligent woman. She was always very polite, but it was only a brief sentence to any of us that knew her, and met her when she was out walking. I am glad to know that she died in her sleep, but the truth was that she was not given enough care in hospital, due to nurses being short staffed, and she was not got out of bed and given rehabilitation. This was following a serious fire a few weeks ago, due to her smoking, from which she was rescued. We will all miss her, as she was a resident for so many years in the square. 
The above was an anonymous reader's comment appended to A. N. Wilson's Mail Online obituary article* from March last year. I have mentioned both before. Previously I didn't quote the comment in full, but a moment in my own life returned me this evening to the topic.

* The online version of the article is unsatisfactory in that it stops mid-sentence, before the scene from the print version mentioned in a previous post: Brookner sitting alone in a bedroom at a party.

Two Hundred-odd Pages of Genteel Misery

Interviewer: So far all your novels have been the same length, around two hundred pages, with the same group of characters and more or less the same circumstances producing the same results. (Although Family and Friends has a bigger cast of characters.) Are you not afraid of being accused of writing to a formula, even though of your own creation?
Brookner: I have been so accused! But the latest book, The Misalliance, is much longer and has a broader canvas. It is quite different from the others...
Paris Review interview, 1987

We have spoken of Richardson's Clarissa, which comes in at around a million words. We have mentioned Dickens and Trollope, some of whose novels are more than three hundred thousand words long. Such vastness suits them. Shorter novels such as Great Expectations can seem too pacy, even rather rushed.

A teacher from my university years, Alison Light, in her studies of Interwar fiction, has talked of shell-shocked readers and writers turning away from copious endeavours, rejecting the loose baggy monsters of the past. For much of the twentieth century novels tended to be fairly compact, between sixty and eighty thousand words. We see this in anything from Elizabeth Bowen and Ivy Compton-Burnett, to Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis. We see it in Brookner too.

More recently, perhaps since the widespread use of word processors and computers, novels have been longer, a hundred thousand words being the new standard.

Brookner's comments in the Paris Review interview are curious. A (or The) Misalliance is in fact one of her briefer works, somewhat short of the 'two hundred-odd pages of genteel misery' decried by David Sexton. Its paragraphs are dense, and this may have made it seem long, but I wouldn't estimate it at much beyond the 60K mark.

Her longest novel is probably Lewis Percy, and it feels different, more expansive. But in many Brookner novels there is an exiguousness, a tendency to want to finish and have done, even a vague distaste for the whole fictional project.

Perhaps Brookner was aware that some readers felt shortchanged, and this led her subconsciously to overestimate the length of A Misalliance; or, in A Family Romance and A Private View, to write monstrously long chapters; or in Incidents in the Rue Laugier, to extend the novel at both ends with a framing device that feels as if it wasn't quite planned. Yet by the end of her career, with Leaving Home and Strangers, Brookner's novels shrank back to the length of her earliest work. And 'At the Hairdresser's' was of course a novella, a Jamesian 'blessed nouvelle'.

Thursday 19 January 2017

His Mother's Type of Book

He paused only to collect [his mother's] library books, sober tales of love and loyalty that reflected the moods of women as he wished to consider them. He often read her books himself, was acquainted with her tastes, which, half-smiling, he acknowledged to be his own.
Lewis Percy, Ch. 3

He took out an Elizabeth Bowen and a Margaret Kennedy. He found himself drawn to the books his mother had loved, as if in reading them he could get in touch with her in a way of which she would have approved ... He whiled away several evenings with what he thought of as his mother's type of book, and for a time he was soothed and charmed, although the moment at which he was forced to emerge from these tender fictional worlds was always harsh and painful.
Ibid., Ch. 4

Lewis evidently sees Elizabeth Bowen as a safe, genteel 'lady novelist'. Bowen is unBrooknerian, for sure: her plots are wild and surprising; her language is unconventional and often quite odd, though her syntax is influenced by James.

Brookner has been bracketed with Bowen - for example by Blake Morrison in the 1994 interview. The tone is not a little patronising:
She would not pretend to be a writer on the scale of the writers she loves - Proust, James, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Stendhal - but it doesn't seem rash to include her alongside Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, women novelists who, as time passes, look less like 'women novelists'.
Intriguingly, irritatingly, disingenuously, Brookner referred to herself as a novelist of that kind in the 2001 Observer interview:
Observer: Where do you see yourself in the tradition of English literature?
Brookner: I don't know anything like that. I'm a middle-class, middle-brow novelist. And that's it. It amuses me.
This is an affectation, a masquerade. There was nothing middling about Anita Brookner.

Nor about Elizabeth Bowen, for that matter. Lewis Percy's assessment of Bowen - Brookner's too, perhaps - is somewhat wide of the mark. Bowen, especially in her later novels is a profoundly difficult, complicated writer, even repellently so. Take her last book Eva Trout, which has been described as disastrous.

I cannot find any significant article by Brookner on Bowen, only this brief mention from one of the Spectator's 'Christmas Books' compilations in 2009:
I much enjoyed Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s Love’s Civil War: Letters and Diaries 1941-1973, edited by Victoria Glendinning with Judith Robertson ... The contrast between Bowen’s uninhibited outpourings and Ritchie’s extremely circumspect comments is painfully instructive.
(Notice how, in the last sentence, Brookner doesn't miss an opportunity for a personal aside.)

The print version of the piece was accompanied by this rather wonderful photograph of Bowen:

Elizabeth Bowen, Bowen's Court, County Cork, 1962

Monday 16 January 2017

Anita Brookner's Nocturne

'Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.'

Brooknerians shrink from the night. Many a time they ask themselves, at some ridiculously early hour, whether they might decently go to bed.

The night represents not so much licentiousness as otherness: an altered state. But licence is also in play. 'More, more,' says Maria in the climactic restaurant scene of Look at Me. 'More, darling. I want you to be good and strong tonight.'

It is the point at which the scales fall from Frances Hinton's eyes. She is alone again, was in fact always alone. Her delusion at an end, she must undergo some kind of punishment, and this takes the form of a nighttime walk through London.

'And then I was alone, in that emptying street, with the night's blackness to hide me.' Crossing the park, she is 'unprepared for the darkness and the silence' and 'surrounded by vacancy'. 'The park at night was empty of comfort, a place for outlaws': we're in a primeval England, or an England of the eighteenth century. Then, perhaps evoking the opium dreams of De Quincey, there is the 'chasm' of Oxford Street; then the Edgware Road, familiar from earlier in the novel, nightmarish now. Finally she nears home, holding her key like a talisman, as if she were a figure in a myth.

The walk is the longest in Brookner; it goes on for longer than seems reasonable or acceptable. It takes on poetic, classical dimensions. Frances, like a wanderer in the Underworld, finds herself at one point all but ambushed in an underpass.

The walk is narrated almost in real time: the reader, trapped in Frances's consciousness, is her not unwilling fellow-prisoner on Brookner's death-march, urging the heroine on but suffering too. But Maida Vale brings little relief, only a horrified acceptance.

Never cosy, never consoling, Brookner comes close to self-parody in Look at Me: 'This must be the most terrible hour, the hour when people die in hospitals.' The novel feels extreme and personal, an account not fully mediated, not quite safely translated into literature.

'...for she is moonstruck': Look at Me, Ch. 1

Sunday 15 January 2017

On Standards of Proofreading

I was more than happy with my modest position in the library, which he seemed to think rebounded to his disadvantage.
'At the Hairdresser's', Ch. 2

'At the Hairdresser's' is not the only e-text that hasn't been sufficiently proofread. One might expect the odd typo in, say, a free-of-charge public-domain e-book. But not in something from Penguin.

I know I need not point out the howler in the quotation above. I am fairly certain the sentence is not as Anita Brookner wrote it.

A Middle-aged Persona

...Henry had cultivated a middle-aged persona as early in his life as he plausibly could.
David Lodge, Author, Author*, Part 2, Ch. 1

Anita Brookner is 46. She was 46 when, half a century ago, I first heard her lecture at the Courtauld Institute, eloquently and meticulously, on Greuze, slipping so easily into French that she convinced her students that they, too, had something of her fluency. In 1980, when mischievous gossip columnists were prompted to discuss her age, she put them down with a peremptory epistle to The Times — ‘I am 46,’ she wrote, ‘and have been for some years.’ She was quite certainly still 46 a month or two ago, lunching with equally young friends in Bibendum’s oyster bar. 
Her dust jackets evade this simple fact; they tell us only that she won the Booker Prize in 1984, that her tally of novels is every number up to 22, and that she taught at the Courtauld Institute until 1988 — this last a neat trick, avoiding the terminus post quem that might give a cruel clue to the ungodly journalist. 
I am content that she is 46, old enough to have such experience and authority as an art historian that I, who am now beyond three score and 10, am willing to kowtow to her, and as a novelist, young enough to communicate the emotion, passion, sentiment of ordinary life as though just felt and fresh with muted pain.
Brian Sewell, Evening Standard, 22 June 2003

David Sexton, writing in 1990, tells the story somewhat differently:
How painful that when Anita Brookner began publishing fiction she lopped 10 years off her age. Interviewers earnestly reported that she was in her mid-forties. When the deception emerged in 1985, she finally wrote to The Times saying she was 47 and had been for 10 years.
The details are different again in the 2009 Telegraph interview:
When Brookner was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Hotel Du Lac in 1984, Liz Calder remembers telephoning her to give her the good news. Brookner replied, 'I think I shall go out and get some shoes re-soled; that will help me keep my feet on the ground.'  In fact, she took a rare misstep. 'I thought of myself much more favourably then,' she says. Thinking she could 'promote a sort of future for myself', she took 10 years off her actual age. A 'friend' – the word is wrung out to drip with sarcasm – ratted on her to The Times. Brookner's response was utterly characteristic; she wrote, complaining of the extreme bad manners in referring to her age and pointing out that 'I am 43, and have been for the past 10 years.' She is still mortified to think of it. 'It was a moment of terrible shame, of course. A silly thing to do.' Craving the good opinion of others is the abiding tyranny. 'You can't avoid it. And everybody compromises themselves in the pursuit of that.' 

Anita Brookner was in her fifties when she achieved fame. Photographs date largely from her fifties and sixties. She arrived on the public stage fully formed as it were, already with a distinguished first career as an art historian. As she said in the 2009 interview, it had been her authentic life:
So when have you felt most at ease?  'Oh, at work. At the Courtauld. Teaching. Students! Lovely people! Then I did feel integrated. I felt I was doing what I most enjoyed. I loved the company. I loved the ideas, the images. And I loved the conversation! The exchange was valuable. That was authentic. Everything else was made up.'  Made up?  'Like the novels. Made up. Displacement activity.'
Whatever the precise facts of the story about her age, the truth is as Sewell depicts it: Brookner, like David Lodge's Henry James, had a middle-aged persona. It is hard to think of her as younger or indeed as very much older. It is always a surprise to see the few rare pictures of Brookner in old age. There is something out of joint, almost something shocking or inappropriate about such images.

* 'Never has a character - Henry James himself - been so well served by an author...' Brookner, Spectator review of Author, Author

Saturday 14 January 2017

A Few Refreshing Chapters

...we have it on record that in order to get himself into the appropriate mood of tragic solemnity, [Jacques-Louis] David was obliged to read a few refreshing chapters of Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe...
'Diderot', The Genius of the Future

Clarissa - the book that e-readers were made for. I read it one year - it took me most of the year - and it is a wild read. Clarissa and Lovelace are two sides of a coin, and both as mad as one another. But Samuel Richardson, in pioneering the psychological novel as opposed to the merely comic, is the literary ancestor of Henry James and therefore of Anita Brookner. The full enquiry, the full investigation - not that any will ever probably be fuller than Richardson's.

Thursday 12 January 2017

The Sheer Beauty of the Reasoning

One comes back to nineteenth-century novels again and again, largely because of the sheer beauty of the reasoning: happiness at last, achieved through the exercise of faithfulness and right thinking. That this was still possible if one were a lesser, even a fallen being, I doubted; nevertheless it continued to make a forceful impression. And there was always a marriage, seen as the right true end, and this I did not doubt. The fragmentation of present-day society had meant a loss of hope, so that those who harboured traditional leanings were largely disappointed.
The Rules of Engagement, Ch. 15

Followers of this blog will recall that I recently read Villette. I had forgotten that Elizabeth in The Rules of Engagement does the same. Elizabeth is one of Brookner's most disenchanted, disaffected heroines, bearing comparison with Rachel in A Friend from England. Yet Elizabeth balks at Lucy Snowe, whose isolation and periods of debility she might have sympathised with, and which we might carelessly suppose to be Brooknerian. But Lucy is noble: Elizabeth marvels 'with something like despair' at a heroine whose 'trusting behaviour' she nevertheless identifies as superior. She cannot imagine Lucy ever 'languishing'. Lucy Snowe has dark moments, but she never despairs, and is always trustingly oriented in the direction of marriage and a good outcome. Marriage for Brookner's Elizabeth is a thing of the failed past; and, a denizen of the postlapsarian world, she sees little prospect of a happy ending. But the rhythms and certainties of the nineteenth-century still enchant: the reasoning is just so beautiful. This is the classic Brookner bind, as Lucy Hughes-Hallett pointed out: the Brookner message, the Brookner reading, may be severe, may be uncompromising, but the expansiveness of the medium and of the form never loses its power to seduce.

The Brookner Papers

Brooknerianism offers scope for Brookner-themed tourism. In my time I've been, of course, many times to Paris; and the South of France (Family and Friends, A Private View, The Bay of Angels); and Vevey (Hotel du Lac - which, some time this year, I've half a mind to stay in); and even a strange border town called Vif (Altered States), which I once passed through quite by chance.

The University of Texas at Austin doesn't immediately, however, connote. Yet this is where a cache of Brookner's papers is stored, purchased in 1995 (no doubt for a not inconsiderable sum).
The papers of Anita Brookner consist of ten notebooks containing untitled drafts of her novels and reviews. The notebooks are undated but appear to date from about 1986 to 1994. As a novelist, Brookner writes a first draft by hand, with little revision, and then types a subsequent draft. Handwritten drafts of her novels A Closed Eye (1991), A Family Romance (1993), Fraud (1992), Latecomers (1988), and Lewis Percy (1989) are present. The notebooks for Fraud and Lewis Percy also contain drafts of Brookner’s reviews of works by authors Margaret Atwood, Alice Thomas Ellis, D. J. Enright, Alexandre Jardin, Erik Orsenna, Marcel Proust, Andrew Stephen, Alain Robbe-Grillet, François-Olivier Rousseau, Colin Thubron, and John Updike.
Time to fire up Expedia, I wonder?

Monday 9 January 2017

A Season in Hell

Had you been the reviews editor of the Spectator in Anita Brookner's heyday, what would you have sent her to read? Some selectiveness would have been required.

She tended to get American and British literary fiction, books about writers, anything bleak, and anything French.

Tomber sept fois, se relever huit, by Philippe Labro (as far as I can work out, never translated into English) was reviewed by Brookner in 2003. It was a good match. We don't know whether Brookner ever suffered a crack-up of the kind described in the book and summarised in her review; she never, after all, 'revealed all'; though she admitted to periods of 'inwardness' (see, for instance, her 1994 Independent interview).

But what interests me about the piece are the many Brooknerian connections. We have, for example, the title, 'A season in hell', recalling Rimbaud. We find also a favourite quote from D. H. Lawrence: 'Look! We have come through!', which, I think, concatenates through Brookner's Latecomers. We find a reference to an 'altered state'. And haunting everything is the ghost of Brookner's revered Freud.

Labro's experience might have been rather too extreme for someone of Brookner's sensibilities, but every line of her review shines with sympathy and solidarity. Even in her hack work, Brookner weaves her own mythology, a complex intertextual web.

Saturday 7 January 2017

Art doesn't love you and cannot console you

By nature a shy and reserved figure, Brookner had a great flair for self-analysis. She also understood her students and their motivations with keen psychological insight – she encouraged the viewer to articulate his own feelings, as well as a vision based on his own character. The work of a particular artist, say, David, had to be analyzed within the larger framework of historical circumstances; yet subjectivity could not be avoided. In the case of David, she saw the revolutionary hope of creating a world of higher morality and virtue dashed as the artist anticipated the Romantic ideal by relinquishing intellectual control. Most crucially, Brookner believed that art had to be emotionally alive, and she advocated Baudelaire’s ‘impeccable naïveté,’ which she termed the ‘ability to see the world always afresh, either in its tragedy or in its hope.’
 Her advice was invaluable. Nearly every sentence she uttered is engraved in my memory. My fellow student Cornelia Grassi remembers the last thing Brookner said to her before our written exams: ‘Art doesn’t love you and cannot console you.’ As Baudelaire recognized, it provides temporary solace, at best.
Olivier Berggruen, Artforum, May 2016

No Secret Notebooks

Kenyon: Why is it that you didn't begin writing till middle age, like Edith Wharton? Had you been writing in secret?
Brookner: No, there were no secret notebooks, not a scrap, not a sentence.
Olga Kenyon, Women Writers Talk, 1989

What, then, is one to make of the following startling piece, published along with the obituaries last year? Piles of exercise books? In bed? In French?

Anthony Blunt liked to invent new ‘special subjects’ for third-year undergraduates. One of them was ‘19th-century art criticism in England and France’. Anita Brookner taught our students about Baudelaire while I was deputed to introduce them to Ruskin and Pater. This was in 1966. 
Thus we formed an unlikely friendship. Anita would never enter a pub, but we sometimes had a drink in a little cafe opposite the Archives Nationales in Paris, and she liked lunching in the restaurant at Fenwick’s in Bond Street. A quarter of a trout would fill her. 
She was smartly dressed, but in those days often wore ornate dark glasses, used bright red lipstick and chain-smoked tipped Woodbines. Anita often spent the cocktail hour in Blunt’s flat on the top floor of the Courtauld building. As soon as she got home to South Kensington, she told me, she went to bed with piles of empty exercise books in which she wrote novels, in French. So her later public career as a novelist had been given some very personal preparation.
Tim Hilton, Guardian, 15 March 2016

On her chaise-longue, smoking

In a recent post I discussed Brookner, Brooknerians, and smoking. I am immensely grateful to Bookglutton (@bookglutton1) on Twitter for alerting me (@brooknerian) to the following smokers.

In Brief Lives there's Vinnie, Fay's rakish mother-in-law:
Her daily routine was to get up at about ten-thirty, smoke the first cigarette of the day, take a bath and dress, and then apply the heavy make-up, without which she looked like a seamed and battered twelve-year-old. (Ch. 3)
And in A Misalliance, we find Sally Beamish, a true Brookner monster, a careless insider, careless as the gods of antiquity:
As far as Blanche could see, Sally spent those days ... simply lying on her chaise-longue, smoking, and waiting for someone to turn up. (Ch. 5)
But what of Blanche, the ostensible Brooknerian, but morally vulnerable, flirting with other lives, and a toper to boot? Yes, we find her taking a drag too. I can find one reference, in Chapter 11; there may be more.

Friday 6 January 2017

Brookner lights up

Her exquisite manners disarm and put visitors at ease, and at the same time secure a reasonable distance. She speaks in a deep, gentle voice with fluency and deliberation in equal measure, and sometimes in 'short, military sentences,' as she once said of Stendhal. Occasionally she smokes a very slim cigarette.
Shusha Guppy's introduction to the 1987 Paris Review interview

Her reasonableness is disarming: When I said that I was worried about her smoking, she replied 'So am I' and lit another one, thus acknowledging my concern while indicating that it was none of my business.
Shusha Guppy, 'The Secret Sharer', World and I, July 1998

'Oh, Katie, we must do something about that fringe,' she would say, offering me one of her untipped Woodbine cigarettes and balancing a small tin on her knee as an ashtray.

Katie Law, Evening Standard: see an earlier Brooknerian post.

Lunch never took longer than 75 minutes; she usually ordered fish, then black coffee, with which she would smoke two cigarettes. (For quite a while these were Sovereign, a sort of low-rent Benson & Hedges: it was the only less than stylish accoutrement I ever noted about her.)
Julian Barnes, Guardian

I've been racking my brains. Which Brookner characters are smokers? I can't remember a single reference. A Private View's Katy Gibb, perhaps?

Might this be a fruitful line of enquiry? Smoking as a signifier of insiderliness, an indication of Brookner's true allegiances?

A Superbly Exact Authority

She is one of a handful of living writers who can turn a sentence so graceful that to read it is a lascivious pleasure, and she can string those sentences together to make paragraphs - whole chapters even - that unfurl surely and musically until they climax, or fall away into silence with a superbly exact authority to which it is delicious to submit. There is a constant delightful tension between the austerity of her message and the voluptuousness of her medium.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett on Falling Slowly, Sunday Times (1998)

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, the Brooknerian salutes you.

Thursday 5 January 2017

An hotel

On further reflection she decided that she might be happier in an hotel.
A Start in Life, Ch. 3

Brooknerians, or Brookner at any rate, always write, always say, 'an hotel', never 'a'. It is a small, a very small, even a narcissistic difference. She would have said o-tel, never ho-tel. I recommend Brooknerians look out and listen out for this distinction, and think of Brookner, and feel rewarded.

Wednesday 4 January 2017

Starting the New Year the Anita Brookner way

...he did not in fact write much until the most 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.
'Stendhal', essay in The Genius of the Future (1971)

Brookner's description of Stendhal, written some years before she herself became a novelist, might easily be applied prophetically to herself. In considering this point, I decided to go back as it were to the beginning, to A Start in Life (1981), which I hadn't read for about twenty years.

I'd always thought of the early novels as a little ungainly, even as juvenilia. This was plainly ridiculous. A Start in Life, though its tone is lighter and wittier than later works, is an assured and in no way immature performance. It is perhaps, to a degree, autobiographical, as first efforts are often reputed to be. But it is far more a knowing deployment of a classic form, the Bildungsroman. It manages, however, in spite of such potentially cumbersome baggage, to be much brisker than, say, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield or Pendennis - or, for that matter, several later Brookners.

We also find plenty of purely Brooknerian tropes. There is a set-piece disaster involving food. There is the dream of foreign travel and of living in an hotel. There are Dickensian minor characters: the spinsters in the Edith Grove flats, the 'elderly young man' who owns the property. There are memories of a richer, more authentic European past: the Berlin furniture that might have absorbed the blood of horses; the merest hint of the wider European picture - 'the raggedness and temporary character of [old Mrs Weiss's] translated life'. And there's lots of literary French. Right from the start, then, Brookner gives us the full Brooknerian treatment, brooks no compromise, sets the bar high, and demands that her readers live up to her standards.

There are one or two missteps - extended passages detailing Ruth's father's exploits, patches of comedy involving a Christian Scientist, a multi-plottedness that such a slim novel can't quite sustain. But soon we're back to Ruth and what we might call pure Brooknerianism. There's a significant passage in Chapter 9, when she recalls childhood holidays - and of course they were to places like Baden-Baden and Vevey: walking, resting, the Kurhaus, listening to a band, looking forward to the hours between tea and dinner​.​

Then we are with Brookner in Paris, taking it by storm, as Balzac enjoined. We follow Ruth on her wanderings, for she is the essential Brooknerian flâneuse. We follow her into the Luxembourg Gardens, where there are always iron chairs, and into the Louvre. We admire, with Ruth, the life of the streets, the quality of the light. We are shown her loneliness. We see her dreams.

In Paris Ruth learns to be Parisian; she learns style, she learns Brooknerian boldness: 'she perceived that most tales of morality were wrong, that even Charles Dickens was wrong, and that the world is not won by virtue'.

Ruth visits Balzacian locations, but they do not yield secrets. She conducts a Villette-style romance. She receives a bunch of flowers in the Bibliothèque Nationale. One tries, of course, to read A Start in Life with an innocent eye, but one recognises and prophesies so much. Not that any of it is mere 'prototype Brookner': it all more or less arrives fully formed.

Interleaved with Ruth's Paris adventures are episodes involving her parents in London. Such counterpoint almost succeeds. Brookner, in giving us George and Helen Weiss, sets out several other stalls, preparing us for Hartmann and Herz, for Julia and Dolly, though the tone here, as I noted previously, is determinedly comic.

The closing chapters of the book gesture towards tragedy, but the writing remains epigrammatic and detached. But again, this is not a run-of-the-mill first novel; it is not juvenile. Brookner knows things:
'About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters,' said Auden. But they were. Frequently. Death was usually heroic, old age serene and wise. And of course, the element of time, that was what was missing. Duration. How many more nights would she have to undress her mother, only to dress her again in the morning?
- and once a thing is known it can never be unknown. So we end up with this strange mix of sprightly first novel and later-life disillusionment and sobriety.

In my youth I favoured what is now middle-period Brookner. More recently I've been intrigued by the later works. What, then, have I made of A Start in Life? I enjoyed it - this is scarcely a surprise - but, as I say, I had problems with its tone. Too often, I feel, Brookner dips into the demotic, by way of free indirect style, as in the following:
Mrs Cutler wore her jade green coat and skirt, a silk blouse abstracted from Helen's wardrobe, sling-back court shoes which were murder after half an hour, and her pearl earrings.
It is Mrs Cutler, not Brookner, who would call those shoes 'murder after half an hour'; the effect is awkward and bathetic. And it is perhaps the character of Mrs Cutler who unbalances the novel more generally. But I can't be certain. Is Mrs Cutler a successful character or not? As ever, one is never quite sure whose side Brookner is on.

Tuesday 3 January 2017

The Anita Brookner Challenge: Answers

Answers to  the recent quiz:
  1. A Private View, Ch. 2, 'Home is so Sad'
  2. Stendhal: essay in The Genius of the Future
  3. Not Lake Geneva but Lake Lucerne
  4. Robert Browning, 'The Lost Leader'
  5. A Closed Eye
  6. Maresfield Gardens
  7. Walking, reading
  8. Austin in Visitors, Ch. 15
  9. Dürer's Melencolia I 
  10. A teaspoon of honey
And a bonus (which I shan't be dignifying with an answer): Which Brookner novel more or less shares a title with an Abba album?

Monday 2 January 2017

The Anita Brookner Challenge

Inspired by that round on University Challenge, some more Brookner questions:

  1. In which Brookner novel is there a reference to a poem by Philip Larkin?
  2. To whom was Brookner referring when she wrote: 'he did not in fact write much until the most active part of his life was over, and this of course is what sets him apart as a writer'?
  3. The BBC adaptation of Hotel du Lac was filmed on the banks of which Swiss lake?
  4. Which English poet is quoted at the start of Chapter 8 of Altered States?
  5. Esquives ('Dodges') is the French title of which Brookner novel?
  6. Dolly in A Family Romance lives in which Freudian location?
  7. What did Brookner list as her recreations in Who's Who?
  8. Which Brookner character is imagined 'low in spirits, undermined as if by some Jamesian vastation'?
  9. What connects Brookner’s Look at Me, Günter Grass’s From the Diary of a Snail and W. G. Sebald’s essay ‘Constructs of Mourning’, published in Campo Santo?
  10. What did Anita Brookner put into her mixed fruit tisane to give 'an impression of well-being'?

Sunday 1 January 2017

University Challenge

A rare mention of Brookner in a populist format. OK, semi-populist. In the 20 December edition of University Challenge (available on the BBC i-player for a while) there were three Brookner questions:

  1. Brookner's first published novel A Start in Life tells the story of Ruth Weiss [spelt 'Vice' on the subtitles!], an authority on which French author, best known for The Human Comedy?
  2. In 1967 Brookner became the first woman to hold which professorship of fine art at Cambridge? It was endowed by the founder of the school of art at University College, London.
  3. Brookner won the Booker Prize in 1984 for which novel set near Lake Geneva?

The contestants, celebrity alumni rather current students, got 1) and 3) correct, but answered 'Turner' to 2).

There was a little grimacing when the topic was introduced, but otherwise the tone was respectful - respectful in a way that probably wouldn't have been the case some years ago.

Moorish Fantasies

Delacroix, Fantasia Arabe, Staedel Museum, Frankfurt
The journey to Morocco facilitated both renewal and greater emancipation from the standards still prevalent in the studios and in the Salon [...] The brilliant sunlight of the landscape [...] the outdoor scenes have a silvery-yellow, almost Veronese light...

 'Delacroix: Romantic Classicist', Romanticism and Its Discontents

Later in the same essay, written before The Next Big Thing, Brookner considers Jacob and the Angel:

That other detail, of the caravan of animals and servants being sent off to Esau, represents Delacroix's last Moorish fantasy.

See also the following earlier posts: Julius and the Angel and A Private View.

Already Inside

...he trusted that hints would be picked up by members of that band of initiates, the Happy Few, to whom he dedicated La Chartreuse de Parme [...] Just who these people are has never been properly established [...] The true meaning would seem to lie half-way between kindred spirits and 'âmes d’élite', and the qualification for membership six months of unrequited love and the ability to deal with it in the manner demonstrated in De l'Amour. Many readers of Stendhal confess themselves to be outside the charmed circle. Fortunately those who feel called to examine such a life are already inside it.
Soundings, review of Stendhal biography

The members of the exclusive circle are, here, Stendhalians. But they might be Brooknerians. Writers, Brookner in particular, when writing of other writers, really only write about themselves.

The Game to be Played

Brookner has frequently been misread as a soft option, a wistful English lady writing short, tender, sorrowful novels a la Rosamond Lehmann, on broken hearts and lost loves. This is quite wrong. She is an obsessive, clinical, severely disenchanted writer.
Hermione Lee, review of A Friend from England, LA Times, 1988

I should like to focus today on Rosamond Lehmann, the dedicatee of Hotel du Lac. In Selina Hastings's 2002 biography of Lehmann, we learn that one of the most pleasurable consequences of Rosamond's late-flowering fame in the 1980s, following the inauguration of the Virago publishing house, was the personal friendships she formed as a result: with Carmen Callil 'whose generous and ebullient nature endeared her to Rosamond' and Anita Brookner, 'whose work Rosamond unreservedly admired - "my favourite novelist" - and of whom she became extremely fond'. Brookner, described by Hastings as 'elegant, fastidious, unusually perceptive', had some reservations about Lehmann's writing, 'although she became devoted to her person'.
I adored her. She was very benevolent towards me ... [although] she never regarded me as an equal: that was the game to be played. One always had to refer to her beauty, which was not apparent any more, of course. And she trailed a glorious past behind her, which didn't deceive me for one moment. She was very insecure and very innocent. I could see that she'd been abandoned. There were lots of names, lots of friends [...] And yet the impression I had was of a woman sitting alone, inconsolable.
(One is reminded perhaps of Julia in Brief Lives?)

Anita and Carmen, writes Hastings, dined sometimes with Lehmann at her London home, where Rosamond would reminisce about her love life, encouraging the younger women to confide to her about their own. On a couple of occasions all three spent the weekend at Lehmann's Suffolk home. We know from Brookner's novels how trips into the English provinces can be rife with danger. Callil recalls 'Anita sternly going for walks and drinking tea'.

[Brookner's obituary or memoir of Lehmann, written shortly after her death in 1990, is worth a read.]

Rosamond Lehmann in earlier life

[And as to Carmen Callil (dedicatee of A Friend from England): In The Modern Library (1999) she selects Family and Friends as one of the 200 best novels since 1950: '[Brookner's] fiction is noted for its subtlety and technical skill but this can be deceptive, and has indeed deceived an odd ghetto of English critics who greet her novels with delighted misunderstanding. Elsewhere it is recognised that in ambush behind her classically beautiful prose ... is a devilry that works on her stories like lemon zest. Family and Friends, in Alfred's final revenge, provides a finale so delicate and precise that you can almost see the keen eye of the author slowly blinking at you.']