Friday 31 March 2017

Also they should not be too old

For all its glory England is a land for rich and healthy people. Also they should not be too old. 
Sigmund Freud, London, 1938
Epigraph to Strangers

Some authors fill the opening pages of their novels with often incoherent quotations from other literary texts. Brookner rarely required such scaffolding, and when she did - in Family and Friends, A Closed Eye and Strangers - she selected from the best: Goethe, James, Freud. The Freud quote, probably from one of his letters, is a brilliant find, and, along with the playful Author's Note that follows, sets the tone for a novel that promises to be different from what has gone before, edgier and, if this were possible, even more unconsoling.

A Tale of Two Covers

UK first edition, 2009

UK paperback reprint, 2016

It's my belief that Brookner hasn't been well served by her covers, or rather that very few of them have captured the true Brooknerian vibe. The original edition of Strangers seems a case in point - a lazy cover, depicting a vaguely Brookner-style building, but one that, to me at least, looks too suburban. I do not like the lighting either. Brooknerians don't burn the midnight oil. The image has, to my mind, something of a sense of Philip Larkin's high windows. Paul Sturgis, the main character of the novel, is possibly a little Larkinian, but only a little.

Far, far superior is the cover of the recent paperback reprint. We move from London to Venice, a minor setting in the novel but perhaps its touchstone. Brookner, as has been noted, is nothing if not European. And the image itself is very fine. One is reminded of those frontispiece photographs Henry James commissioned for his New York Edition. I've used this one before in my blog, but it repays revisiting:

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Infinitely Various

Every reader who feels sympathy with the genre of the novel, and with its potential subtleties, will realise ... how wholly and satisfyingly different each of [Brookner's] turns out to be. George Eliot is a one-track performer beside her. But there is no point in such a comparison, for as a novelist Anita Brookner is both infinitely various and adorably unique.

Bayley's characteristically gushing pronouncement comes to mind because I've been reading George Eliot recently. Eliot's output seems less prolific than Brookner's, but of course her novels are generally much longer. Eliot's variousness is not in doubt. Consider her different settings - from fifteenth-century Florence in Romola to the contemporary Jewish underworld in Daniel Deronda. But her characters and their concerns, their cruxes and their dilemmas, are perhaps fairly continuous. What then of Brookner? Bayley was writing in 1994, in the middle years of Brookner's novel-writing career. His remarks are, surely, artfully contrary, but there's something in them. Consistent in length, setting, character type and theme, Brookner's fiction nevertheless gives off a sense of danger and uncertainty not found in many writers. You never quite know where she's going, nor where she'll end up, nor who'll get out alive.

Sunday 26 March 2017

Brookner at the Office

One could go on raking this image for ever. Its faded colours, reminiscent of family photos from the era (1987). The bank of windows outside. The author / art historian, content and not too thin. The cards on the sill. The heavy typewriter. The bottles of Tippex. The piles of paper. The calendar on the otherwise municipally unadorned walls. The hard desk chair. The ashtray.

A Guide to Berlin

Brookner rated Latecomers highly. It, rather than Hotel du Lacshe said in interview, should have won the Booker.

Latecomers is for sure a confident book, and it has an 'important' Booker-pleasing theme. But I find it, along with Lewis Percy, published a year later, a little over-confident: Olympian, indulgent. There is less sense in these books of Brookner's affinity or kinship with the lives she so omnisciently appraises.

There is some dilution too, some sense of a diffuse focus. There are too many characters, too much multi-plottedness. But Fibich's realisation towards the end of Latecomers, that he wishes he had stayed with his mother rather than getting on the Kindertransport, is finely handled and powerfully affecting:
'I should have gone back,' whispered Fibich. 'I should not have left. I should have got off the train.' (Ch. 14)
But it is Fibich's return visit to Berlin in Chapter 13 that interests me currently. I've been to Berlin many times, but I've never viewed it through the prism of Latecomers, which I reread only recently. I recognise Fibich's depiction of the atmosphere of the landlocked city, far from marine breezes, the  fatigue du nord one experiences there, and I know many of the places, the Zoo station, the ruined church. But I must visit Dahlem and see Gainsborough's Joshua Grigby, and I must try to eat a few slices of strawberry shortcake at the Kranzler.

Latecomers, for all its problems, offers a guide to Berlin somewhat more practical than Nabokov's.

'alert and confident in his
subtle pink coat'

Saturday 25 March 2017

The Portraiture of Women

Now, with age, comes a new tranquillity ... a new bravery. Mme. David and her daughter are charmless women and no attempt is made to rearrange them, to work an act of artistic leger-de-main with their shawls and their sleeves and their head dresses, as would have been managed by Ingres ... to convey depths of hidden fascination. David's great gift to the portraiture of women is to show them not as they would wish to be shown as temple prostitutes, but rather as sturdy, confident creatures, no less competent but far less vain than men. Mme. David, still dressed in the satin shift, false curls and feathers she wore to court, reveals no hidden depths of erotic experience. She has no illusions about her appearance and neither has the spectator ... This revision of the concept of the female portrait, this fully frontal confidence and honesty, this refusal to embroider or even to arrange, must be counted as one of the aging David's most vital achievements.
Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, Ch. 12, 'Not Quite What We Desired'

David, Mme. David, Washington

Secret Tributes

Yes, I have this blog, and yes, I'm on Twitter, but in my everyday life I'm practically a secret fan. This is probably the only way to be. In numerous ways I honour the Brooknerian life, but my tributes are clandestine.
  • I travel to Brooknerian places, and to hidden corners of those places. In Paris to St-Sulpice, in Switzerland to Vevey, in London to certain little gardens where characters, in defeat, have sat and read Henry James.
  • I visit galleries and particular pictures. In London, M. Blauw and the Titian Ariadne. In Vienna, Susanna and the Elders. In Ghent, a kleptomaniac.
  • I sometimes wear Eau Sauvage, because George Bland wore it.
  • I drink herbal teas and call them tisanes.
  • Away from Brookner, I let Brookner guide my reading. I read the whole of Dickens, James and Trollope, because of Brookner.
  • I often listen to the Shipping Forecast, though I haven't yet taken to playing the World Service through the night.
  • As followers will recall, I once walked the length of the rue de la Loi, Dolly's Brussels hideout. A punishing trek.
  • I must, I really must, read Buddenbrooks and more of Proust.
As Maffy knows at the end of Incidents in the Rue Laugier, we all, the living and the dead, have our mysteries - and one day we may be called upon to explain them, if only to ourselves.

(The Brooknerian is not
sponsored by Dior.)

Friday 24 March 2017

For Those in Crisis

Anita Brookner, secular in everything she said and did, views The Book of Job dispassionately as a literary narrative ('God's Great Wager', 1980 TLS essay, reproduced in Soundings). God is a character among many; she brackets Him with the impulsive gods of the classical world whose caprices will be both praised and feared in several of her novels to come. But what begins as sardonic bafflement, determined incomprehension, becomes by the end of Brookner's essay an acknowledgement of the story's mysterious and sophisticated power - 'a key text for those in crisis'. Brookner's sympathies, as ever, remain absolutely human. God she dismisses as wilful, childish, rather boringly unpredictable. It is Job who emerges not as the tale's victim but as its true hero, Job alone who retains that essential Brooknerian prize: his own personal dignity.

Thursday 23 March 2017

Brookner Takes a Break

From time to time Brookner steps outside her seemingly rarefied world, delighting in a moment of luridness or vulgarity. We see her taking such a holiday in an essay from 1982, reproduced in Soundings (Ch. 20, 'Scarsdale Romance'). It concerns a celebrated American murder case of a couple of years before. Brookner tells the story of Mrs Harris and her paramour Dr Tarnower, relishing the details with appreciative distaste. Brookner's tone is, of course, more than a little condescending:
Nor did it do her any good to remind him of the hours she had spent working on his diet book, the high intellectual calibre of which can be judged by the report, inserted somewhere between the recipes for Eggs Gitano and Pineapple Surprise Aloha, that a wife and husband 'dieting team' had taken up knitting and macramé 'to keep our hands busy and out of the snack bowl while watching TV with the kids'.
But ultimately one acknowledges the seriousness with which Brookner analyses Harris and Tarnower's sordid tale, or at least the seriousness with which she considers its moral aspects. In this way she anticipates the forensic nature of much of her fiction. In many of her novels Brookner's characters are as it were on trial, and Brookner is their judge - incisive, all-seeing, sometimes indulgent, but never less than fully committed to the full moral inquiry:
...any examination of the implications of human wishes and their effect on human behaviour is welcome, and ... is, in the present state of our customs and beliefs, rather rare.

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Last Avatar

Among the nymphs, with their fixed gaze and dowdily coiffed hair, can be seen the last avatar of Mme. Récamier…
Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, Ch. 13, 'Exile'

David, Mars disarmed by Venus
So in her novels, Brookner would present us with later versions of earlier characters. Emma Roberts is Claire Pitt; Paul Sturgis is George Bland. And Julius Herz? 'He's me, really. You were longing to say that, weren't you? And I thought I was making him up.' (2002 interview)

See also The Brookner Room.

Monday 20 March 2017

Mme. Récamier

The child-bride, incredibly alone, does not charm; secure in her beauty, she is as bewildered by her isolation as we are. The accessories of the cruelly revealing studio are pared down to a lamp, painted by David’s newest pupil, Ingres, and the famous studio bed made by Jacob.
Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, Ch. 10, 'Recovery'

Consideration of this famous David painting, its pose, its colours, its lamp, perhaps sheds a little playful much-needed light on the oddest and most mysterious of Brookner photographs (part of a series of portraits not of novelists but of art historians). Or perhaps not.

Sunday 19 March 2017

Brookner on Twitter

Followers of this blog may or may not also have noted my extremely minor presence on Twitter. I'm not at all sure there's much overlap between readerships. My experience of Twitter has been mixed, whereas this blog continues to give me almost unalloyed pleasure. Anita Brookner features to an extent on Twitter, though I don't know how she compares with similar authors or authors thought to be similar. I suspect Barbara Pym is more popular. Brookner tweeters seem to fall into four categories. There are a handful of superfans. Then there are more generalist literary tweeters who admire Anita Brookner among others. Next we have random folks who have clearly just stumbled on a well-known line from one of the novels or interviews. And finally there are what I believe are called bots, automated pedlars of quotes (I'm not certain about this last category, nor why such things exist, and I'm not keen to find out more). Little jokey storms can blow up from time to time. Someone will tweet a particularly bleak line, and others will try to trump it. It's perhaps a bit of a British thing. It can while away an afternoon. But really there's limited substance. And one must always judge the mood, and pitch one's tone accordingly. Anita Brookner herself was no user of technology ('I haven't got any of these machines' - 2001 interview), and probably didn't approve, though I have no doubt her representatives kept her informed. One thing I would say in conclusion. I do not want to read any more tweets about time misspent in youth or what Dr Ruth Weiss knew at forty, or anything more from Hotel du Lac.

Saturday 18 March 2017

Vectors of Heavy-heartedness

David, View from the Luxembourg
There are direct physical resemblances to [Géricault’s] style: the grey sky, the dull sunshine of an early autumn afternoon, a predominance of grey and beige and cream, with only a red poppy in the green grass to give the positive accents. All these elements, although faithfully recorded, are used as vectors of heavy-heartedness. There is also a psychological resemblance to Géricault, for despite its rational pattern the picture conveys emptiness and wistfulness, and therefore approximates to Géricault’s ability to convey states of mind which can be experienced through the painted image. It is the only unpopulated picture David ever executed: a group of winnowers in the middle distance is almost scratched out. A tiny figure is outlined against the beautiful shaky fence. In the path on the left a woman glides past with a water pot on her head. It has the calm and the unreason of certain dreams.
Anita Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, Ch. 9, 'Reversal'

The Luxembourg Gardens are familiar to readers of Brookner. Numerous characters seek out the gardens' iron chairs. Emma Roberts does so in Leaving Home, squandering time that, she finds, has suddenly become precious.

The American Scene

France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, the Low Countries. Britain? London, of course, and its very immediate environs, along with cautious excursions as far afield as Bournemouth and Blakeney (wherever that is). This is Brooknerland.

It's a surprise to find Brookner in America, in the last chapter of A Family Romance. Jane Manning, now a celebrated author, visits women's colleges in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This is principally an opportunity for Brookner to discuss feminism, and her own misgivings about it, and also to bring in a contrast with the life of Dolly, the aunt who is the novel's focus and with whom the novel ends. But Brookner has fun along the way, studiedly presenting American speech patterns ('Janet's copper beech. I confess to a little envy: I haven't one of my own.') and giving us glimpses of politically correct playgroups and guys in jeans doing their own ironing.

The gracious campuses are well described - lakes, trees, the charming suburban houses. One thinks of campuses in other fiction or in films, but one also senses an authenticity: Brookner is writing from experience. At one point Jane makes an observation that an older woman might make, and Brookner awkwardly acknowledges this.

Trollope, Dickens, Henry James - Brookner's English language heroes - were all better travelled. One would have liked to see George Bland in the Far East, as he had planned, or indeed any Brooknerian in an unBrooknerian locale. But it probably wouldn't work, as the American scene in A Family Romance (or Dolly) doesn't quite work. One prefers the obsessive retreading of the streets of London or Paris; one prefers another trip to Venice. There's always a chance, that way, that the end of all one's exploring will be to arrive where one started and know the place for the first time.

Thursday 16 March 2017

M. Blauw

Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Jacobus Blauw
National Gallery
David’s portraits of the mid-1790s – M. and Mme. Sériziat, Mlle. Tallard, M. Blauw, M. Meyer – certainly bear witness to a pause for moral reflection. Their simplicity of approach, their appreciation of the integrity of the sitter, their uncharacteristic lack of tension, possibly Mme. Sériziat’s posy of flowers, may be intimately bound up with this brief attempt by David to discover a new code of conduct.
Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, Ch. 9, 'Reversal'

[Haffenden:] What is your criterion for judging what is most valuable in a work of art? 
[Brookner:] That's very difficult to answer. I think it would be radiance, a power beyond the image: vision. The National Gallery has just bought a portrait by David called M. Blauw, and I think I'll find it there: it's only a portrait of a man with a quill pen, but it is so articulate and has such integrity.
Haffenden interview, Novelists in Interview, 1985

The National Gallery made a big thing of acquiring M. Blauw. I remember an advertising poster my college tutor Dr Keymer had on the wall of his office in the early 90s. It always made me think of Brookner. Dr Keymer owned a copy of Latecomers too, as I recall.

Brookner's comments on the Jacques-Louis David portraits of the mid-1790s are of interest. One thinks of her own middle period. There is about A Family Romance and A Private View, for example, something of the qualities she identifies in David's pictures. A pause for moral reflection.

Madame Pierre Sériziat, née Émilie Pécoul,
et un de ses fils,
Émile, né en 1793,

Wednesday 15 March 2017

Last Lines

Traditional or progressive? Brookner is commonly described as the former. A study of Brookner's endings can be instructive in this regard.

A number of her novels begin in a notional present and then move into the past. By the end the narrative has returned to the beginning. The ending isn't perhaps in a lot of doubt, though there may be shocks and surprises along the way. Falling Slowly is an example of this kind of novel.

Others - A Private View, for example - are presented more chronologically. George Bland has his adventure, and at the end at least a version of the status quo is restored.

At the sentence level, several of the novels attempt a moment of epiphany (e.g. Fraud), often delivering a not always persuasive, or earned, sense of hope (Leaving Home ends like this).

What we don't find, except possibly in Incidents in the Rue Laugier, is (Middlemarch-style) a rundown of the Nachgeschichte, details of the various characters' ultimate fates.

Aspects of Brookner's practice, then, are more modern, and less traditional, than we might suppose.


And my favourite Brookner ending? It's probably the closing lines of Brief Lives, I guess - Brookner at her most darkly mordant:
So irrelevant did her death seem that I almost looked forward to discussing it with her, felt something like a quickening of interest. 'What was it like?' I should have asked. 'Not all that bad,' I can hear her say in her most famously throw-away tone. 'You might give it a try one of these days.'

This Sudden Feeling of Displacement

This sudden feeling of displacement was radical; my life was circumscribed because I accepted that it should be. Occasional visits from a part-time lover were perhaps all that I could tolerate. Even those distant Sunday excursions with Michael were cherished because they came within safe limits, and those gardens I so faithfully studied were valued because they existed in a finite space and a time that could not be replicated.
Leaving Home, Ch. 17

Emma Roberts's feelings are radical indeed. There is, in late Brookner, from time to time a powerful and strange obscurity. What precisely is this feeling of displacement? And why so sudden? Why is Emma's life so limited, and why is she so accepting? Why can't she tolerate more? One thinks almost of late Henry James: it's the same gesturing at information - information that remains, even for the writer, just a little out of reach.

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Marvellously Disturbing

Jacques-Louis David, Three Ladies of Ghent, Louvre
...this wordless domestic drama of will and submission, of determined age and fading youth, is so potent in its implications that one feels almost uneasy in its presence. The three figures occupy all their space, both physically and metaphorically; there is no room for them to move. The daughters are riven for ever to their mother's side. The primitive format is strikingly appropriate to the block-like permanence with which these ladies confront the spectator. It is a marvellous and marvellously disturbing portrait, the justification, and indeed the vindication, of the Brussels style.
Anita Brookner, Jacques-Louis David, Ch. 13, 'Exile'

David spent his old age in Belgium. It was a kind of afterlife. His work during those ten years was, Brookner tells us, 'prolific but obsessional'. He did new things; he also played to his strengths. The Three Ladies of Ghent 'must do duty for David's final masterpiece', says Brookner.

Such an estranged, posthumous existence, in exile, has faint Brooknerian resonances. Her reputation, like David's, was, at the time of her death, largely eclipsed. But, again like David, she had gone on working, producing a final body of work that continues to puzzle and trouble many of her readers.

Sunday 12 March 2017

A Correct Development

All these books dwell on life's more uncomfortable moments, but that is in order, making straightforward fictions seem slightly old-fashioned. It is even seen as a correct development. According to an excellent book by Georges Minois, Histoire du Mal de Vivre: De la Mélancolie à la Dépression (La Martinière), we should all be feeling uncomfortable, even afflicted. As well as dwelling on the reasons for this Minois provides a thorough survey of melancholia from classical times to the present day, with poignant witness statements from various sources. He concludes that historical pessimism, together with the loss of good authority (something from which we suffer at the present day), has accelerated the process. He also cites the consumer society, the infantilising effect of popular culture and consequent absence of catharsis, the lack of intimate satisfaction, and the medicalisation of what is essentially a metaphysical condition. He offers no hope, not even from the pharmaceutical industry, which has done so much to make this state of mind a commonplace. The crisis (for it is one) must be alleviated by other means. What those means might be he prudently does not say.

Having recently reread several examples, I find myself wondering about the oddness of Anita Brookner's late novels. 'It may be that another form is called for, but of that there is no sign,' she says elsewhere in the above essay. In her own fiction of this period, it was perhaps the case that she gestured beyond the old-fashioned, the straightforward, that she was in some way questing blindly towards a new form. She didn't find it, but for sure she was 'leaving home'.

I suppose this is home now

I've never been at home here... People say I'm so serious and depressing, but it seems to me that the English are never serious - they are flippant, complacent, ineffable, but never serious - and this is maddening.
Haffenden interview, 1985

'I suppose this is home now but I find it very disconcerting ... it's a different sort of conversation one has here. Full of jokes.'
Leaving Home, Ch. 9

Anita Brookner's immigrant background gave her reasons for feeling as she did. The same can be said of many of her characters. It can't as easily be said of Emma Roberts in Leaving Home. Was there ever a more determinedly English name? Precisely why Emma Roberts doesn't feel at home in England, doesn't appreciate English humour, or, as she says later, so disdains the gardens favoured by the English, isn't precisely clear, and Brookner isn't in any hurry to make it clear. It's as though she takes pleasure in making us accept things we wouldn't otherwise give the time of day to. It's how she inducts us into her peculiar world. By the end of Leaving Home one finds oneself swallowing all manner of horrifying stuff, and only nodding helplessly in acknowledgement and gratitude.

Abstaining from Accountability

Friendship sometimes demands less than full disclosure, and it may be more comfortable to abstain from an accountability which may leave one open to criticism.
Leaving Home, Ch. 18

Olga Kenyon: ...Which qualities do you value most in a friend?
Brookner: I think accountability, that's to say explaining actions with full knowledge of emotions and procedures. You get it in Russian novels: the complete confession. Accountability in friendship is the equivalent of love without strategy, and it is the Grail.
Women Writers Talk (Lennard, 1989)

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.

It's an easy mistake to make, especially with the novels written in the first person. But really Brookner must be given at least a little credit when she says her novels aren't about herself. Of course those first-person narratives don't establish the sort of authorial distance to be found in, for example, The Turn of the Screw or The Remains of the Day. In spite of what Maffy says at the start of Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Brookner's narrators are all more or less reliable.

But several of her speakers stand at some remove. Emma, in Leaving Home, is as emotionally chilly as the narrators of A Friend from England and A Closed Eye. It's in such novels that one senses Brookner standing back and contemplating her creations, and learning what makes them tick.

Saturday 11 March 2017

Something More Savage

I was feeling mildly alienated, as if the whole affair had taken place in a time warp, or in a fête galante by Watteau or Fragonard. It was quite easy to transpose those guests into one of those colloquies in which nothing is explicit but in which ritual exchanges take place. In many of those images there is an outsider, a figure in harlequin costume: a hand is laid on a breast; one assumes that love, or something more savage, is in the air.
Leaving Home, Ch. 15
Watteau, 'Harlequin and Columbine
(Voulez-vous triompher des belles?)', 1716?
Wallace Collection
See also Watteau: Der Zeichner and Earliest Brookner.


'He intends to join Médecins sans Frontiéres. As I should have done at his age. Live all you can, as Henry James said.'
So says Dr Philip Hudson, over salmon, in Chapter 10 of Leaving Home. He is speaking of his son, whose sleeping form had such a powerful effect on Emma earlier in the novel.

I do not know the significance of any of this, and, gathering inscrutable congruences, I feel a little sub-Sebaldian, but here's Brookner's death notice in The Times from a year ago, in my mind at this anniversary time:

Ils sont mal élevés, ces gens

After dinner we watched television, the same American serial that all England had been watching.
'Pouah!' she uttered. 'Ils sont mal élevés, ces gens.'
Leaving Home, Ch. 8

Brookner plays her little games with the reader. She has moments of vulgar excess, but she can't quite bring herself to name names. (Leaving Home is, elsewhere, an exception in this regard, when it names Coronation Street, a favourite of Emma and her mother. They watch it 'gravely', hoping to glean 'pointers to modern life'.)

But the American serial: what is it? There's a similar reference, I think, in Lewis Percy. It seems almost inconceivable that Brookner ever sat down to watch Dallas or Dynasty, but of course, as she said, she lived in the world. And with a disparaging comment in untranslated French, she can always undermine the moment, and feel superior and be more civilised.

A Misquotation

'Un jour nous partons, le coeur plein de flamme,' says the poet, and goes on to describe the bitter disillusionment we confront at the end of the journey.
Leaving Home, Ch. 4

The actual quote is below. One remembers a story Larkin used to tell. He met Mrs Thatcher for the first time and she misquoted one of his early poems. It was the fact of her misquotation, he felt, that gave the moment its authenticity.
Un matin nous partons, le cerveau plein de flamme, Le coeur gros de rancune et de désirs amers…
Baudelaire, ‘Le voyage’, Fleurs du mal

Leaving Home

Leaving Home, published without fanfare in 2005, is in danger of being forgotten. It's very short and, for Brookner, hardly revolutionary in its subject matter. It hasn't, for example, the novelty of being about a man. A Private View, The Next Big Thing and Strangers, all tales of Brooknerian guys, and therefore not the stereotypical 'Anita Brookner novels about lonely women', were heralded with major press interviews. Not so Leaving Home.

So - minor Brookner? Brookner-lite?

It tells the story of Emma Roberts - 'cautious Emma Roberts', insists the blurb - and her contrasting relationships in England and France. Brooknerian binaries are at once in operation: London / Paris; caution / expansiveness; order / chaos.

Other themes - home, leaving home, the provisional nature of home - are typically Brooknerian, recalling earlier works, including the first. But Brookner's preoccupations lose nothing in the repetition, are instead re-energised. Her fiction's conflicts are as unresolved here as they always were, though perhaps not as fully explored, perhaps a little summarily handled and neatly deployed.

This air of ordered lightness is disrupted early on by Emma's mother's death. This is a familiar plot point, but its potency is undiminished. More, I find myself responding differently on this re-reading. I first read Leaving Home when it came out. I was, I think, a more dispassionate reader then. Experience has put paid to that, and now I read the novel with something of Emma Roberts's fear and terror, something of her hammering heart.

The death of Emma's mother is, however, soon dealt with. As is common in late Brookner, the plot is episodic, a sort of tragic picaresque. On first reading I was irritated by this, preferring the tighter focus of earlier novels. It seemed to me, in 2005, that Brookner's revisiting, in miniature, of earlier situations was like a fading singer giving fans her greatest hits. I see it differently now. Brookner retreads old ground because she wants to find something new. There is something obsessive in this, but it's a characteristic of the best writers.

Leaving Home is ultimately a strange, depressed and enigmatic novel. Its concision is more reticence than lightness; the hairpin bends of its plot owe much to a kind of authorial disaffection, an almost perverse frustrating of the reader's expectations. There's a memorable scene near the middle of the novel, in which Emma watches her lover's grown-up son while he sleeps. It is a troubling, confused episode, described in full, with full Brooknerian apparatus, including a reference to Old Master paintings. But the moment goes nowhere. Emma doesn't even speak to the young man. We're very deep, here, with this penultimate novel, into the Brooknerian abyss.

Monday 6 March 2017

Brookner at the Booker #3

A fascinating piece of Brookneriana: Anita Brookner being interviewed on the radio at the 1984 Booker Prize reception. I'm rather cross with myself for not finding it earlier. Not that it reveals much. Brookner gives responses that are familiar from several of her interviews. The male interviewer's tone is typical of the era: condescending, paternalistic. But it is Brookner's tone that is of interest. She is amused, even whimsical. This is probably euphoria; she's just won a major prize. But one wonders whether, speaking to the likes of John Haffenden or Shusha Guppy, her tone wasn't similarly humorous.

Not Quite Decent

Brookner's writing is powered by binary oppositions. In her literary and art criticism the battle is not often between eighteenth-century good sense and the effects of the succeeding Romantic debacle.
To confine sick writers to the symptoms of their disease may be fascinating, but it is not quite decent. There may be a terrible justice in Flaubert, high priest in the temple of Art, being downgraded to the subject of a learned article about the difference between hysterical and epileptic convulsions. But none of this quite explains Madame Bovary.
'Sick Servants of the Quill', Soundings

'Not quite decent'? Or not quite Romantic? Does Brookner, as elsewhere in the essay, favour rational medical interpretations, or does she endorse Romanticism's belief in the sanctity of the artwork, the specialness of the artist? As ever it is the potency of Brookner's divided loyalties that makes her writings in a range of genres so interesting and so provoking.

Sunday 5 March 2017

True Innocence

From the TLS website:
In October 1977, she reviewed The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, which, she said, ‘contains vast areas of tosh’. But Brookner was not naturally harsh. After quoting a lengthy passage – ‘You’re the most fascinating man I’ve ever met … But I’ll make you sell yourself like any painted whore’ etc. – the gentle critic could say, ‘This is not merely bad writing; it is true innocence, and it should be respected’.

Conflicts Unresolved

The Romantic notion ... is that life is so horrible that it is the artistic duty of a man of higher sensibility to spurn its vulgar attractions, to subvert its possibilities, and in general to get it over and done with, making as few concessions to normality as possible. 'Art' (and the word is baleful in this context since it adds a spurious nobility to the process of avoiding Nature) will be the goal of the life-hater. Writing may thus be seen as a form of conversion hysteria.
'Sick Servants of the Quill' (1981), Soundings
It was the sad and desperate determination of Baudelaire, Jules de Goncourt, Flaubert, Maupassant and Daudet to regard the act of writing as the justification of an otherwise unlived life. This it was. But they did not believe, as so many non-writers believe, that writing was a therapeutic exercise.
Haffenden: You make your novels sound like a sort of self-therapy.
Brookner: Well, if it were therapy I wish it had worked. It doesn't work that way, which is why I have to keep on doing it. [...] It's a very perverse energy which has gone into the novels - conversion hysteria, I would say.
John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview, 1985
... I have changed. Now I write because I enjoy it. Writing has freed me from the despair of living. I feel well when I am writing; I even put on a little weight!

Art as a compulsive activity, related to sickness; art as perverse, a failed form of self-therapy; and yet art as a vindication for an unlived life; art as an antidote to despair: contradictions and hesitancies are everywhere evident in Anita Brookner's utterances on the subject. They are probably attempts on her part to make sense of a largely unplanned and unexpected second career. That career would continue over many years, eventually producing a substantial body of work. And what did it mean? What did it amount to? As Brookner says at the end of 'Sick Servants of the Quill', 'the only cure for the pains of living that writing brings about is the most final cure of all'.

Saturday 4 March 2017

'A Wedding'

Missing from the archive, as it were, are Anita Brookner's short stories. One is rather glad she never wrote them. I've never much enjoyed short stories. Does anyone, really?

In my earliest days as a Brookner fan, I became aware of what seemed to have been a Brookner story, 'A Wedding', published in an old copy of Granta. The 1984 date and the title suggested, perhaps, connections with Hotel du Lac or, more likely, Family and Friends. But I was hopeful for a lost classic.

I searched old bookshops and the like. This was in that golden or that dark time before the Internet. I never found what I was looking for - but of course it's online now, and only a click away.

And of course it's only the opening chapter of Family and Friends.

There were no more such 'stories'. There was 'At the Hairdresser's' in 2011, but that always seems like a short novel. One is indeed relieved Brookner steered clear of the short story form. At their worst short stories are just a way for writers to make a quick buck, while longer projects mature. And they're also very much the province of the 'professional' writer, the writer for whom writing is his or her only occupation. Brookner wasn't like that. She'd already had a career. This isn't to say novel writing was her hobby. But the project was playful, and in that way somehow more serious a concern than it could ever be for her apparent peers.

Friday 3 March 2017


In January 1978, just a few years before she (stealthily) began to write novels, we find Anita Brookner at the Royal Academy, looking at pictures by Courbet ('The Last of the Old Masters', Soundings).
...that world of pungent women, of euphoric half-drunk men ... Rumpled sleazy girls, exhibiting their cheap mittens and their white stockings to the shocked spectator ... Regis Courbet snoozing after dinner in his malodorous but convivial kitchen, trout the size of carp, yards of female hair, sniggering all-male parties, damp-fleshed nudes, an amazing tendency for everyone to fall asleep ... La Tour de Peilz, that silent pretty village where it seems to be always dusk ... That portrait of Berlioz, as watchful, as distanced as might have been his doctor father at the bedside of a dying man ... the hooked trout with agonized human eyes; a sad and lonely picture of apples with a pewter tankard; a coldly red sunset over Lake Geneva...
The novelistic nature of Brookner's descriptions of paintings is immediately striking. Did her novels grow organically out of her art criticism, or was the art criticism a mere preparation for the novels?

Coldly red: 'Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland', 1874

Agonized human eyes: 'The Trout', 1872

Wednesday 1 March 2017

American Brookner

Why were some of Anita Brookner's novels published in the US with different titles? This seems at best a faintly disreputable practice, at worst an assault on the integrity of an already published text. I can think of other authors who have suffered the indignity, though it tends to be reserved for less thoroughgoingly literary writers (Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse). Ivy Compton-Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant was, however, given the somewhat unwieldy US title Bullivant and the Lambs. I can't think of traffic in the opposite direction, but there are probably examples.

Is it a case of US publishers asserting their authority? Or are there cultural or other reasons that certain titles 'work' in Britain but not in America?

A Start in Life (UK) / The Debut (US)
For a novel that references Balzac, The Debut is an interesting alternative, echoing Balzac's Un début dans la vie.

A Misalliance (UK) / The Misalliance (US)
Do Americans prefer the definite article? (Additionally: I'm not sure about this, but I think Latecomers was published at one time as The Latecomers in the States.)

A Family Romance (UK) / Dolly (US)
I've never much liked the British title. 'Family romance' is a term coined by Freud, and of only vague relevance to Brookner's novel. But Dolly is a safe, traditional, unimaginative alternative.

The Next Big Thing (UK) / Making Things Better (US)
The Next Big Thing sounds a little like a marketing treatise. 'Making things better' is a phrase that's repeated throughout the novel. Is it perhaps that Stateside readers prefer hopeful-sounding titles?