Friday 20 January 2017

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'.

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