Sunday 15 January 2017

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

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