Monday 27 February 2017

Understanding Anita Brookner

I've been re-reading Cheryl Alexander Malcolm's excellent book Understanding Anita Brookner (University of South Carolina, 2002).

Malcolm examines, in sequence, Brookner's first nineteen novels, which were published yearly from 1981 to 1999. She breaks them into contiguous groups, headlining them as follows:
  • Can't Buy Me Love: A Start in Life, Providence, Look at Me, Hotel du Lac
  • What Child Is This...: Family and Friends, A Misalliance, A Friend from England, Latecomers
  • Happily Ever After? Lewis Percy, Brief Lives, A Closed Eye
  • Starting Over: Fraud, A Family Romance, A Private View
  • Journeying to the End: Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Altered States, Visitors
  • Back to the Beginning? Falling Slowly, Undue Influence
In 2000 there was a break. The five novels of the 2000s were published in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2009. It would be interesting to see how Malcolm might characterise these works. They seem less easily categorisable, less homogeneous. In fact they're the Brookner novels that currently interest me most, though I didn't much like them when I read them on publication. The Bay of Angels and The Next Big Thing may perhaps be thought of as companion pieces insofar as they feature protagonists with genuine housing problems. But really I think each of the novels of the new century breaks new ground. Brookner was, as it were, in the words of the title of her 2005 novel, 'leaving home'.

Sunday 26 February 2017

Anita Brookner, Restaurant Critic

Another gem from the Spectator archive. 'My Favourite Foreign Restaurant', 1987:
I dislike important restaurants and do not really appreciate ambitious cooking. My choice of a place for lunch would be Queenie's Bar in Nice. It is an all-purpose café-restaurant which seems to be open whenever you want it to be. If your nerves are good you sit outside and watch the traffic on the Promenade des Anglais. If not, the interior is darkish and cool: there is, of course, no music. The chef shops daily in the market and the fish is good, infinitely better than anything one could get in London (except at Graham's, Brewer Street). The menu is sparse, which means that the dish of the day is reliable. The tarte tatin is superb.

Even to the faint-hearted

'My Best and Worst Restaurants': A gem from the Spectator, December 1984:
My least favourite restaurant is the one at which I eat lunch every day and it had better not he named. It is a vegetarian restaurant and it leans heavily on quiches made with wholemeal flour; the food is incredibly good for me and it tastes like rubble. Surely, the best restaurant in England is Les Quat' Saisons, although I haven't tried it since it moved from Oxford. I remember delicate food, beautifully presented, and irresistible even to the faint-hearted. For heartier moods I like Le Dauphin, rue Saint-Honoré, Paris, an old-fashioned eating house which takes itself seriously but manages not to smell of food — a feat unknown to nearly every restaurant in London.

Political Brookner

I recently, in an expansive moment, recommended Anita Brookner to a colleague. (I almost never proselytise in this way; nor am I much given to expansive moments.)

This colleague is a political creature. She subscribes to the Guardian, is a member of the Labour Party, and likes the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. She calls me (unfairly and inaccurately) a wicked Tory.

Afterwards (when the moment of expansiveness had passed), it occurred to me to wonder how my recommendation might appear politically. My colleague is a Brookner innocent. What will she make of Brookner?

The question of Anita Brookner's politics is a vexed one. Plainly Brookner, like her characters, lived in comfortable circumstances. The ease with which her characters buy and sell London properties is notable, though not particularly remarked upon. Later characters, such as Julius Herz, do face a more challenging housing market. Nevertheless, there's probably lots of material in Brookner for a Marxist critique.

Brookner's own political pronouncements were few and far between. I have noted before her glancing criticism of Tony Blair, and I seem to recall an approving mention of John Major's ill-fated 'Back to Basics' campaign in the 1990s (I've never been able to find the reference).

But altogether she comes across (to me, at least) as apolitical. Her life and her views seem, like Ralph Touchett's in The Portrait of a Lady, 'exclusively personal'. But of course being exclusively personal is a luxury not available to everyone; Ralph is free to indulge himself in this way because he's ill, but also because he's rich. Henry James knows this, and I know it too. I also know that some people believe our every choice is political, and that the apparently least political writers can reveal their allegiances unconsciously. One thinks of Edward Said and his famous reading of Mansfield Park: Mansfield Park, home to brutal slave-owners.

I wonder again what I have revealed about myself in recommending Brookner to my colleague.

Saturday 25 February 2017

Other Women's Drawing-rooms

...those who did not rely on their inner resources, as she had been obliged to do, were forever condemned to weep in other women's drawing-rooms...
Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Ch. 13

There is often much to be said of, much to be learned from, even a single line. Maud's emotional continence, not to say her chilliness, is succinctly expressed. It is interesting that it is women, not men, who provide the venue for undignified prostration: Brookner is not, we may recall, a member of the sisterhood. And such outbreaks take place, Brookner implies, not in living-rooms or lounges, but in drawing-rooms: there is, as so often in English fiction, a class aspect to the thing.

Varied attitudes and assumptions are thus constructed and communicated. Finally there is the line's mandarin structure or style, which gives it the force of a quotable maxim. Brookner's messages are always austere, but the elegance of her medium shores her against absolute ruin.

Friday 24 February 2017

The Art of the Interview

There is no virtue in confession, although it is said to be good for the soul.
Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Ch. 15

Anita Brookner interviews (I know of seven, five of which are on the web) are remarkable affairs, and may sound confessional. But they're also clever performances, full of artifice. There's a degree of repetition between exchanges, as though over the years she were issuing and riffing on a set of prepared statements. One is reminded of Samuel Johnson's comments on the eighteenth-century familiar letter, a form that at first appears open and honest and artless but is in fact highly premeditated and contrived (see Johnson's 'Pope', The Lives of the Poets).

Brookner, however much she might value a simpler approach ('I shall try to change,' says Blanche at the end of A Misalliance. 'Try to live a little more carelessly. Artlessly.'), nevertheless maintains a very careful carapace, a defence against all comers. As she told Blake Morrison in 1994, 'I'm not about to reveal all.'

Thursday 23 February 2017

Five Brilliant Brookner Beginnings

From the terse to the lyrical, Anita Brookner’s opening lines are often memorable.

A Start in Life (1981)
Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
With concision and aplomb Brookner sets out her stall. This is how to get yourself noticed.

Brief Lives (1990)
Julia died. I read it in The Times this morning.
My French friend, Marie, never a Brookner fan, disliked Brief Lives, especially the opening; she objected to its bleakness and negativity. ‘Yes – and?’ I probably replied. It’s certainly a startling start to a novel, and if this almost gnomic line hasn’t found its way on to a T-shirt somewhere, then someone is missing a trick.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995)
My mother read a lot, sighed a lot, and went to bed early.
A beautiful, rhythmic sentence, with Proustian resonances – and that second comma is surely the mark of a stylist (Brookner, in one of her book reviews, praises an author’s use of such a comma). Of course, reading a lot and sighing a lot and going to bed early are just the sorts of Brooknerian behaviours decried by Brookner’s more hostile critics. But Brookner enjoys baiting her detractors.

Visitors (1997)
Towards evening the oppressive heat was tempered by a slight breeze, although this merely served to power drifts and eddies of a warmth almost tropical in its intensity.
Reminiscent of the opening of Hotel du Lac (‘From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey’), Visitors introduces its protagonist hesitantly, tentatively. We are aware of an observing consciousness, but it will take several sentences before Dorothea May emerges into the light. The passivity of the grammar serves to enhance and illustrate that same quality in the heroine.

Strangers (2009)
Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers.
We get to know Mrs May gradually, but many of Brookner’s protagonists, especially the guys, are introduced more directly (‘Herz had a dream’ – The Next Big Thing). In Strangers Brookner has an urgent story to get on with. This is brutal, uncompromising stuff, and there’s simply no time to be lost.​

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Everything that came after

Sue MacGregor: Anita, what did the Courtauld give you?
Anita Brookner: A whole life, really. Everything that came after ... was ... very dull.
SM: Even the success as a writer?
AB: Oh, that was far less interesting.
SM: Really?
AB: Yes - yes.
SM: It was your life.
AB: Yes.

Anita Brookner had a first career, and this is key to understanding her second. In obvious ways the first career gave her an appreciation of the fine arts that aided her as she crafted and embellished her fiction. That first career also afforded Brookner the security to regard her second as a kind of hobby: it was play; it was ludic. It made her, perhaps, careless; let her take risks. It didn't matter if she failed.

'I think if my novels are about anything positive, they're about not playing tricks,' Brookner told John Haffenden. Certainly it may seem a misreading to see such serious-minded works in games-playing terms, but as Nietzsche said, the deepest pathos is still aesthetic play.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

A Creative Power

What [Mme de Staël] could not do was let go, which would mean doing without love. She is perhaps history's most outstanding case of Torschlusspanik: the panic at the shutting of the door.
'Corinne and Her Coups de Foudre', Soundings

Brooknerians also watch the shutting of the door - but they're often beyond panic. One thinks of Maud in Incidents in the Rue Laugier, or Mimi in Family and Friends, who mourns not the missing Frank but the missing factor in herself that might have brought him to her side.

[Interviewer:] What all your characters are left with is a resignation which is not even stoicism of the classical order; it's merely learning to put up with the way life is inevitably going to turn out.
[Brookner:] Yes, and the horror of that situation is profound.
Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (1985)

But as Forster tells us:
... some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power.
Howards End, Ch. 31

Monday 20 February 2017

Brooknerianism - a handy guide

Romanticism, Anita Brookner tells us, isn't just a mode. It literally eats into every life. Brooknerianism is not quite at that level, but we can all do more to live up to Brookner's high standards.

So here it is - to cut out and keep, your guide to the Brooknerian life.
  • Learn the importance of style - one day you may need to get by on it alone.
  • Learn the value of form - form, which is probably going to save us all.
  • Cherish art, though it does not love you and cannot console you.
  • Get to know London and Paris, but also the more esoteric corners of Brooknerland. Abroad in provincial cities, expect to be suitably indolent and homesick.
  • Be stealthy - like Jane in A Family Romance, at her little pavement table, deep in France, stealthily beginning to write.
  • Brush up your languages. Brooknerians are not fazed by long passages of untranslated French.
  • Cultivate a middle-aged persona, even years afterwards. You might say, for example, that you're 46, and have been for some time past.
  • Get your hair cut regularly, iron your shirts, wear scent or aftershave, and invest in some V-neck cashmere jumpers.
  • Read the classics - Trollope for decent feelings, James for moral scruple, Dickens for indignation, and Proust for pleasure.
  • Also read, surprising everyone, the Great White Males of twentieth-century American fiction.
  • Smoke, if you must - accepting the disapproval of others, while having no real plans to ditch the habit.
  • Be a regular at various grand hotels in Mitteleuropa. In Baden-Baden, hunker close to the Lichtentalerallee.
  • Say 'an' hotel, never 'a' hotel.
  • Go to bed de bonne heure. Brooknerians are not suited to the night.
  • Be accountable in your dealings with friends and lovers.
  • Cherish eighteenth-century clear-sightedness, but accept the discontents of your ruined Romantic nineteenth-century inheritance.
  • Nevertheless, prize boldness, fearlessness.
  • Attend parties, but leave early. Keep yourself rare.
  • Maintain a careful, even a valetudinarian watch on your health, but don't always seek professional help. Trust to unconscious processes, be a devotee of Freud.
  • Speak with care and precision. Put others on their mettle.
  • Last of all, drink tisanes, with a little honey, to give an illusion of well-being.

Sunday 19 February 2017

Disengagement, Disillusionment, Ennui

Observer: So you've now finished the book, and you're a free woman?
Anita Brookner: Very boring.
Obs: You're bored?
AB: Oh terribly.

I'm getting bored with my characters – my character.'  That suggests you are getting bored with yourself.  'Completely.'  What, I ask, could anyone offer to stave off that boredom?  'But you have! Meaningful conversation. I've enjoyed this. It's been rigorous.' 
The afternoon light is fading – the moment of that 'slight failure of nerve'. And what will you do now, I ask, rising to leave.  'Make a cup of tea. Go and get an evening paper. Talk to the Indian newsagent. Come home. Have a bath. Watch Channel 4 News.' She gives a slight smile. 'You're getting the detail now. Then take a sleeping pill, then bed. What time? Oh, nine.'  And then tomorrow get up and do the same thing all over again?  'That's right.' 
Her eyes sparkle mischievously. 'Bored stiff! Well maybe not bored. Resigned, shall we say…'

Being bored, being subject to ennui, is a Brooknerian experience. But let me explore it in the context of Brookner's art criticism. Time and again she returns to Delacroix's painting of 1827, Death of Sardanapalus. Liberal-minded critics of the day saw it, she tells us, as 'a poem of destruction' ('Baudelaire', The Genius of the Future). It was Baudelaire who saw that it wasn't about destruction; it was 'about ennui, about spleen, about the inability to feel no matter how violent the impulse'. She quotes Baudelaire's sonnet, inspired by the picture:
Il n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété  
Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé.
(' vain he has tried to rekindle this benumbed corpse in which flows, not blood, but the green waters of Lethe.')
Sardanapalus 'represents the Silver Age of Romanticism, an age of disengagement, of ... disillusionment,' she writes in Romanticism and Its Discontents (Ch. 5).

All of which is very excessive, very extreme, and perhaps at odds with the rather more domestic boredom experienced by Brookner's fictional personages or indeed by Anita Brookner herself. But never be in any doubt that this is where she begins, that what appears at first blush merely domestic, even cosy, is in fact part of a longer, wider, harsher, and far from conventional spectrum.

The Romola Factor

I've been reading George Eliot's Romola, a novel with a forbidding reputation. Many great novelists carry such burdens. When reading Dickens I left Barnaby Rudge till last. And I've never managed to get more than a few pages into Virginia Woolf's The Waves. (Barnaby Rudge is actually rather brilliant, and I've high hopes of Romola.)

Which, I wonder, is the prodigal among Anita Brookner's family of novels, ready one day for rehabilitation and the fatted calf? I've explored in a previous post the precarious status of A Friend from England and A Misalliance. But my money's on Lewis Percy. It's different in tone and setting from other Brookners. On publication (like Barnaby Rudge) it got a very bad press. I've considered its merits in another earlier post. Let's all give it a hearing one of these days.

Leighton, 'The Blind Scholar and His Daughter'


I fight shy of rankings, league tables and the like, but from time to time I'm asked for recommendations. In purely chronological order, here are my five. (Hotel du Lac, for reasons explored in a post of yesterday, is excluded from consideration (not that it would necessarily have made the list).)

Look at Me (1983)
Not by any means a perfect Brookner, but an essential one. Here we get our first full view of the battle between Brookner's insiders and outsiders. Just whose side is she on?

Family and Friends (1985)
Brookner's most stylish novel, published following the euphoria of the Booker win. Confident, magisterial, this is Brookner placing herself firmly beyond the parochial concerns of the traditional English novel.

A Private View (1994)
The story of ageing George Bland's reckless passion for an itinerant young woman. A dense, intense portrait of sexual obsession.

Visitors (1997)
Essentially the same story as A Private View, but here the passion is sublimated. Wonderful scenes of summer and the end of summer. A close, Jamesian study.

The Next Big Thing / Making Things Better (2002)
In late Brookner the passion is as strong as it always was, but now there's an element of real danger. Now no one gets out alive. A precise, unflinching novel with a European dimension.

Saturday 18 February 2017

Uncorrupted Innocence

Further to an earlier post:
Only Géricault seems to have shown the mad as creatures of dignity, but of course he lived in the great age when the shackles of the insane were struck off, and in some cases the patients were allowed to wear their own clothes. And it is said that Géricault was mad himself, at least from time to time, and this would undoubtedly deepen his sense of kinship with this strange population. The world of obsession, of delusion, turns the eyes of Géricault's madmen red with suspicion, or opens them wide with uncorrupted innocence.
Look at Me, Ch. 1
Portrait of a compulsive gambler

The Dominance of Hotel du Lac

In various art forms a particular work can acquire a dominance over others by an artist. Sometimes such works will leave the artist behind. One thinks of the Mona Lisa, which, for reasons that lie outside its merits as an artwork, has a significance far beyond the other works of Leonardo da Vinci. In Anita Brookner's more limited case, her 1984 novel Hotel du Lac sits a little way outside or above the rest of her oeuvre. This is because it won the Booker Prize, of course, and its sales therefore probably exceeded those of her other works; it is also, admittedly, because the novel is a little atypical of Brookner in its tone and structure. But it is interesting that she should be so heavily known for this one work, and that her publishers should seek to maintain the novel's preeminence. When, for example, most of Brookner's novels were recently reissued in a new livery by Penguin, Hotel du Lac was enthusiastically pushed, and had a different, coloured cover design.

Waterstone's, Piccadilly - recent photo from Twitter

Keep Calm and Read Anita Brookner

I am, I suppose, a Powell fan. Lovers of Mencken will remember how it was accepted in the editorial office of the American Mercury that a delivery from the bootlegger should suspend all work until the treasure had been unwrapped, fondled, and even tasted. A new Powell affects me in much the same fashion. I hang the equivalent of 'Gone Fishing' on my door, and tear at the wrapping with a connoisseur's anticipation and a schoolboy's greed.
Philip Larkin, 'Mr Powell's Mural', Required Writing

The word 'fan' derives from the nineteenth century and was widespread from the 1920s and 30s. Nowadays, in our fractured world, where many of us know a lot about increasingly isolated areas of knowledge, almost everyone aspires to some form of fandom. Some fans are of course more organised than others, and I guess it also depends on the nature of the object of interest. Barbara Pym, for example, inspires merchandise ranging from tea towels to hand-thrown ceramics. There is, I understand, a Pym cookbook. From the Anthony Powell Society you can buy 'tote bags' emblazoned with messages such as 'A Buyer's Market'.

What will be Brookner's fate? Will we one day be able to buy a 'Keep Calm and Read Anita Brookner' mug? One rather doubts she would inspire such gimcrackery, such vulgarity. Yet aren't we - me, you - at some level mere fans, in some way like Larkin and that 'Gone Fishing' sign on his door?
Anthony Powell, Hilly Amis, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, 1950s

Friday 17 February 2017

The Experience

I've been what you might call an Anita Brookner fan for more than twenty-five years, but looking back through my reading records I find I haven't read her all the time. Whole years went by. During the period in which she published annually, each year's novel might be my only Brookner. But I kept the faith in other ways, stayed true to authors she revered. At one time I loved Trollope. For years I anaesthetised myself with those long Victorian novels. When I came to the end of a novel I would feel angst-ridden and unmoored unless I had another to hand. Anthony Trollope himself was known to start writing his next book almost the very day after he had finished the last. There was obsession, there was neurosis, in such an arrangement, surely, and there was in mine too. But the novels of Anthony Trollope, I recall, gave me lots of pleasure. He got me beyond youth. Patiently and diligently I followed the careers of his churchmen and politicians. I grew discreet and inward, like Plantagenet Palliser. I also loved the byways of Trollope’s novels, chapters and groups of chapters in which the plot meandered far and wide, into unexpected places. This sets me wondering about the experience of reading certain authors. Reading the novels of Anita Brookner is a particular experience. One feels immersed, one feels overcome, one feels seduced. The rhythms of the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters gradually exert a hold. It is almost physical. One's pulse, one's breathing slows. One has entered an altered state, and is at Brookner's mercy.

Antiquarian Brookner

I've only ever been moderately interested in first editions and signed copies. I've got a signed copy of Altered States, and followers of this blog will recall the autographed note I once purchased at a book fair.

In Cecil Court yesterday there were first editions of A Start in Life (£75) and Look at Me (£40), plus a copy of Jacques-Louis David with an inscription by Brookner ('With best wishes') for £60. I bought the Look at Me, mainly for the author's photograph on the jacket.

I reckon this picture was taken at the same time as another early photo:

Wednesday 15 February 2017

About Suffering

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along...
Auden, 'Musee des Beaux Arts'

One always gets a frisson, in Brussels, standing before Bruegel's Fall of Icarus. Standing before it yesterday I had some memory of Brookner too. A long search brought me at last to Chapter 20 of A Start in Life:
'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.

Monday 13 February 2017

Unheimlich #2

For her spiritual death had taken place some time ago. Her removal to unfamiliar places, one after the other, had so undermined her that only a memory of home, or an illusion of home, had kept her intact for a while.
The Bay of Angels, Ch. 15

The Bay of Angels (2001) and The Next Big Thing (2002) are companion pieces in their way. Zoe's mother's exile is of a lesser order than that experienced by the Herz family, but it is exile all the same. In both novels, too, the dispossession continues into the present. One thinks of Herz's anxieties over the lease on his flat, or Zoe's expulsion from Les Mouettes. These are terrifying novels, edgier than what has gone before. One thinks of Zoe's nightmare, of being imprisoned in a dilapidated, roughly papered room, which has a 'breach in one of the walls, rather like a cat-flap, covered with yet another strip of wallpaper, but of a different pattern' (Ibid.). This is writing of a new kind, inducing unease in the reader of a kind that would 'seem to preclude a safe return to everyday existence', as Brookner said of Sebald's Austerlitz.

David Copperfield's Words

And so, to borrow David Copperfield's words, I lost her.
The Bay of Angels, Ch. 15

Zoe's mother dies, of course, just as Jane's mother also died in A Family Romance. In both novels the narrator conjures David Copperfield's words. Is this self-plagiarism? Or is it a reward for the attentive Brooknerian reader? I think the latter. Reading of Zoe's plight, one is reminded of Jane's and in turn of David Copperfield's. One has a sense of being some kind of honoured guest in the rambling mansion block that is Anita Brookner's fiction, or in the great house that is English literature itself.

Incidents in the Rue de la Loi

Dolly, in A Family Romance (or Dolly, if you prefer), hails from the rue de la Loi, Brussels. As I've noted before, I haven't much knowledge of that part of the city - an omission I rectified this (very cold) morning, in a feat of what felt like extreme Brookner tourism.

We start with the menacing arches of the Cinquantenaire, which, for the child Jane, seem to mark the limits of the known world:

In the next picture the arches are seen again, at the end of the rue de la Loi:

And here are some buildings Dolly might have lived in:

Sunday 12 February 2017

The Bay of Angels

Observer: First, what is The Bay of Angels about?
Brookner: It is about the sort of misfortune that can come upon you without warning, which finds you totally bereft trying to get yourself out of it.
Obs: Was there a particular moment of inspiration ?
AB: Well, the curious thing is that I didn't intend to write it. I didn't know I was going to write it, so it came upon me quite suddenly and quite easily and I enjoyed writing it. I'm sorry if it's very bleak. I'm sorry if it's mournful. I had a good time, that's all I can say about it. 

The Bay of Angels (2001) could easily walk away with the award for the bleakest Brookner ever. It terrifies the reader early on with a condensation of various Look at Me-style plots (see also a previous post). The main plot hasn't got going, and already we have things like:
But I also knew what it was to be unconsoled, to go through days which were somehow not on record because they were not witnessed. (Ch. 6)
Then, in Chapter 7, Brookner turns the screw. Zoe's stepfather dies, and her mother suffers a breakdown. She is admitted to a hospital of sorts, and sedated, a state of affairs left more or less unquestioned by both Zoe and Brookner. Whereas the earliest parts of the novel were concerned with fairy tales, with their promise of a happy ending, now the narrative observes a different, twisted, almost Kafkaesque logic in which there is no possibility of a good outcome. Zoe's home in Nice is repossessed in a scene of great horror. Her stepfather's wealth turns out to have been largely illusory. Even the purchase of a radio incurs maddening complications: 'I felt once more ... that my life was being infinitesimally impeded' (Ch. 12). Meanwhile Zoe's mother continues her transformation into a 'stranger', a word Brookner uses several times, as if preparing us for the concerns of her 2009 novel.

The Bay of Angels is, for Brookner, unusually well patterned, rich in binary oppositions: Nice and London, freedom and captivity, outdoors and indoors, youth and age:
What courage it must take to grow old! And she was growing old in exile, as I should, in exile from our own lives. (Ch. 12) 
'One is never free. One only has the illusion of freedom. One is never free of obligations, whether explicit or implicit. The latter are the worst.' (Ch. 13) 
I saw the perverse strength that lack of intimate satisfaction can bestow. Quite simply, he had left his youth behind. I should now have to do the same. (Ibid.)
(Dr Balbi, he who has left his youth behind, is a curious character. We know Brookner knew Villette. Dr Balbi is M. Paul reborn. There were times I got genuinely confused - in my mind mixing up Brookner's narrative with events in Bronte's novel.)

In conclusion, The Bay of Angels is a virtuoso, difficult, extreme, odd novel. Brookner wrote it after a break in the annual routine she had maintained from 1981 to 1999. She may indeed not have intended to write it. It begins the sequence of novels that conclude Brookner's career: novels less predictable, less even, almost less assured than what has gone before. I didn't like these books much when I read them on publication. They seemed like rehashes, 'for the fans'. Now I see them as breaking new ground. This is Brookner throwing caution to the wind. This is Brookner approaching the endgame.

Innocence and Doubt

…painted with extreme rapidity, without retouches, and in a state of unflinching empathy, [Géricault's portraits of the insane] correspond with the state of excitability and delusion for which Mme Aimé-Azam's letters provide slender but convincing evidence. It would have been difficult to use these portraits in a didactic work, for they show no attributable symptoms; they are merely faces of people sunk in terror, suspicion or bewilderment. The titles by which they are known are not contemporary. There is no attempt to interpret the minds of these people, or to illustrate their condition in a public way … The kleptomaniac (Monomanie du vol) has a face of great beauty, with eyes sunk in innocence and doubt…
Soundings, 'Géricault'

Saturday 11 February 2017

The Brookner Room

I still call it, in deference to Auden, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, though it goes under several other names now (including Bozar, regrettably).

David, Mars Disarmed by Venus, 1824
(In foreground) Godecharle, Charity, after 1795
David, Portrait of a Young Boy

David, Death of Marat, 1793

Ingres, Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus

Navez, La Famille de Hemptinne, 1816
(One of my favourite paintings, this. Such an image of
fidelity! How noble they look! How good-hearted!)

Friday 10 February 2017

L’univers brooknérien

L’univers brooknérien: I picked up this phrase in my Francophile youth, deciphering the blurbs of Anita Brookner translations in the bookshops of Paris, those rambling Left Bank warehouse-like stores with their tattered yellow frontages. Nowadays my Brooknerian universe is more specialised. I'm going to Brussels tomorrow, to see several Jacques-Louis David paintings, and I may also pay a visit to Ghent, where I hope to take soundings from the distressed gentleman below.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Eternal Vigilance

Was Anita Brookner an Existentialist? As a young woman in Paris in the 1950s she must often have seen the principle actors. In her fiction she takes Existentialist positions, more than once adapting for her own purposes a famous proto-Existentialist line from the nineteenth century: 'Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.' 'And my own recovery? That, I feared, would have to be postponed indefinitely. It would be safer, and wiser, to assume an endless vigilance,' says Zoe in The Bay of Angels at one of her lowest points.

Providence is the novel that explores Existentialism most blatantly. Brookner discusses the novel and the movement at length in the Paris Review interview:
All your heroines follow 'an inexorable progress toward further loneliness,' as you say of Kitty Maule in Providence. It seems to me very deterministic. Is there nothing we can do to alter our fate?
I think one’s character and predisposition determine one’s fate, I’m afraid. But Providence seems deterministic because it is a novel, and a novel follows its own organic structure.
At the same time you say that existentialism is the only philosophy you can endorse. Now existentialism with its emphasis on personal freedom seems the opposite of determinism.
I don’t believe that anyone is free. What I meant was that existentialism is about being a saint without God: being your own hero, without all the sanction and support of religion or society. Freedom in existentialist terms breeds anxiety, and you have to accept that anxiety as the price to pay. I think choice is a luxury most people can’t afford. I mean when you make a break for freedom you don’t necessarily find company on the way, you find loneliness. Life is a pilgrimage and if you don’t play by the rules you don’t find the Road to Damascus, you find the Crown of Thorns. In Hotel du Lac the heroine, Edith Hope, twice nearly marries. She balks at the last minute and decides to stay in a hopeless relationship with a married man. As I wrote it I felt very sorry for her and at the same time very angry: she should have married one of them - they were interchangeable anyway - and at least gained some worldly success, some social respectability. I have a good mind to let her do it in some other novel and see how she will cope!
You also said that existentialism is a romantic creed. How so?
Because romanticism doesn’t make sense unless you realize that it grew out of the French Revolution in which human behavior sank to such terrible depths that it became obvious no supernatural power, if it existed, could possibly countenance it. For the first time Europeans felt that God was dead. Since then we have had Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, whose activities make the French Revolution seem like a picnic. The Romantics tried to compensate the absence of God with furious creative activity. If you do not have the gift of faith, which wraps everything up in a foolproof system and which is predicated on the belief that there is a loving Father who will do the best for you, then, as Sartre said, you have to live out of that system completely, and become your own father. This is a terrible decision, and, as I said, in existential terms freedom is not desirable, it is a woeful curse. You have to live with absence. Nowadays I wonder if it is really possible to live without God, maybe we should dare to hope... I don’t know. I’m not there yet.
Brookner was plainly enamoured of Existentialism, inasmuch as it captured, perhaps, many of her themes. When writing of Camus, in an extended Spectator article, her words take flight:
Beached in a bar in Amsterdam, he regales his listeners with a sort of moral striptease, in which he sets out to prove that no one is innocent. Even Jesus, he says, was not innocent: was he not implicated in that earlier massacre of those earlier innocents? Was he not indulging in irony when he said of the vacillating Peter that on that rock he would build his church? We are thus without exception participators in the fallen condition. This is a persuasive intellectual argument which reveals its emotional roots: rage, disappointment, despair. It is an argument which delivers an authentic existential hit: 'O mon ami, savez-vous qu'est la créature solitaire, errant dans les grandes villes?' Here there is a plangent, even Baudelairian undertone which is at odds with the narrator's uncompromising monologue and the simplicity of its style. Gone are the stark phrases: this is writing of prizewinning standard. 
As ever, in writing of her literary heroes - those saints for the godless - Brookner is, one senses, also writing about herself.

Sunday 5 February 2017

The Women's Movement

'Look at it from his point of view, Zoe. He is of a different generation. As, I suppose, I am.' 
'That argument doesn't hold water. All women are in the same boat now. The Women's Movement...' 
'Yes, I have heard of it,' she said drily. 
'We're free now,' I went on. We don't have to respect men, be grateful to them. It's their turn to respect women, to allow them some space...' 
'Oh, yes, I've heard of that space. What will you all do in it, apart from complain?'

We know from interviews that Anita Brookner did not identify as a feminist ('I don't read Spare Rib or anything like that,' she told John Haffenden), and indeed was at times dismissive of the movement. Zoe and her mother's telephone quarrel in Chapter 5 of The Bay of Angels summarises something of the debate Brookner engages in elsewhere in her fiction. Fiction is one thing, interviews are another. In fiction Brookner has the leave or perhaps the room to be ambiguous, to explore contradictions, to allow herself the luxury of being unsure. It is not, here, just about feminism. It is about the wider question of Brooknerianism. Zoe and her mother's exchange is an example of the author's ludic playing off of allegiances. It's an old question with Brookner, which I've highlighted before: Just whose side is she on?

Saturday 4 February 2017

Fancy Prose

David Lodge, in The Art of Fiction, discusses Nabokov's 'fancy prose'. ('You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.' - Lolita)

Philip Larkin, in Required Writing, speaks of Anthony Powell's style:
A formal, slightly comic view of life requires a matching style: Mr Powell's is Comic Mandarin, a descendant of Polysyllabic Facetiousness. [...] it imparts a glaze to the action, as if one were not getting it first hand, an illusion most novelists strive to preserve.
Anita Brookner has been described as mandarin, also Augustan, Jamesian, dandyish. 'Nobody else will ever write like Anita Brookner,' said Michele Roberts of The Rules of Engagement. I have looked at 'Brooknerese' in a previous post. Brookner herself, however, was careful not to be presumptive:
Interviewer: I would like to talk about your style, which has rightly been praised as exceptionally elegant, lucid, and original. You explain it somewhat in Providence by saying, 'A novel is not simply confession, it is about the author’s choice of words.' What does style mean to you?
Brookner: Very little. I am not conscious of having a style. I write quite easily, without thinking about the words much but rather about what they want to say. I do think that respect for form is absolutely necessary in any art form - painting, writing, anything. I try to write as lucidly as possible. You might say that lucidity is a conscious preoccupation. I am glad people seem to like it.

Thursday 2 February 2017

Primal Scenes

The plots of several early Brookners focus on deluded central characters whose romantic hopes are dashed by cruel revelations. The novels end on or soon after the moment of revelation, which figures for the protagonist as a species of primal scene. A later example is found in Chapter 19 of Undue Influence (1999):
This was the one connection I had failed to make. It was the greatest failure of my life and no future success could ever obliterate it.
Such plot structures probably had a personal resonance for Anita Brookner, a significance we can only guess at. There was, perhaps,'some jamming of the emotions' that forced the reenactment of a particular situation, as Larkin said in his essay on Housman ('All Right When You Knew Him', Required Writing).

But in The Bay of Angels (2001), when the familiar plot is given another outing, it is in radically telescoped form. All in the course of a single chapter, Zoe Cunningham begins a deluded relationship, experiences a moment of revelation, and begins the process of recovery. Perhaps by 2001 Brookner had in some measure worked the thing through, whatever it was; and writing had provided her with the therapy she had never believed it capable of.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Ideal Company

Having lived for many years not quite a half-life but certainly a reduced one, I haven't really had the chance to meet fellow Brooknerians. This is a deficit made good in some wise by the online experience.

Brooknerianism creeps up on you. You have a disposition, which the novels of Anita Brookner feed and nurture. One day you find yourself living the life you read about and dreamed about and feared, and really it is the only way to live. But if you shared that life with other Brooknerians, then it wouldn't be a Brooknerian life.

Brooknerians are not always lonely. They're often, like the narrator of 'At the Hairdresser's', 'not lonely, except in company'. Ideal company is what is sought, and that's something that's hardly ever found outside the pages of a book.

She is lonely, she says, for 'ideal company' – which is not quite the same as being lonely. 'I'm very good on my own. And I manage, I think, pretty well. But it takes courage.'  

Well, I live in the world, like everybody has to, and I go out, do the shopping, and do the cleaning - that sort of thing. See friends. I suppose what one wants really is ideal company and books are ideal company.