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

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