Sunday 30 April 2017

Of Its Time

Is A Friend from England (1987) a homophobic novel? I have heard it so described. I'm hesitant about judging novels of the past by present standards and mores; nevertheless the question requires some consideration.

The truth about Michael Sandberg's sexuality is hinted at through the early part of the novel, and then rather stagily revealed at the end of chapter 6, when, in a 'peculiar' male-dominated wine bar ominously called the Titanic, the narrator sees him wearing blue eyeshadow and glossy lipstick. In the preceding pages there are indications, all of them a little heavy-handed: he is 'infantile ... not to be taken entirely seriously, happiest and most himself in places of light entertainment'; he is seen laughing 'uproariously'; he is pictured in his 'whining pathetic' boyhood.

It is Oscar Livingstone, Michael's father-in-law, who most clearly betrays attitudes that are 'of their time'. Of a minor character, he remarks, 'Calls himself Jean-Pierre, if you please', and of Michael himself he says, 'If only the boy were less of a boy, there wouldn't be any need for all this advice. But he's not manly enough...' (ch. 6). Oscar may merely be referring to Michael's immaturity, but he probably means something more. Oscar is plainly presented as one of the novel's congenial and trustworthy figures, one of its moral consciences. But we may, reading him now, find our sympathies undermined.

But Brookner isn't wholly on Oscar's side. In the pages before the wine-bar reveal, Oscar and Heather's relationship is seen for perhaps the first time in less than positive terms: 'They were really rather claustrophobic, I decided.' More, Michael begins to be viewed sympathetically or anyhow with a measure of pity. This is, one might say, better than nothing. And these were the 1980s. But soon the narrator Rachel's tone turns critical. Michael may, we're told, be mad (ch. 7). His choice of life is 'terrible'. It isn't an identity; it's an aberrant 'idiosyncrasy'. Of course Michael has got married under false pretenses, but this isn't solely the reason for the condemnation. And no quarter is to be given. 'Whatever the explanation', Rachel says, 'he would have to go.' As for Oscar, he is heaped with praise; he is, we learn, 'only at ease with the noble passions'.

Michael is duly and somewhat summarily dispatched, and this makes Rachel pity him again: 'Poor Michael ... I spared a thought for Michael' (ch. 8). But none of this expunges her ambivalence. We might place in the balance her friendly and accepting attitude towards another character, Robin, who may be gay. But Robin is viewed with extreme obliquity, an obliquity that is very probably highly wilful.

In seeking to absolve the authors of the past of particular attitudes there's always going to be a degree of special pleading.

Saturday 29 April 2017

The Dandy of My Imaginings

This blog's current strapline - 'out of sheer dandyism' - comes from A Misalliance, ch. 3. In the following year's Brookner, A Friend from England, we find another striking phrase:
I was no longer the dandy of my imaginings, invulnerable, amused, passing lightly through life, with my feelings well protected. (Ch. 6)

Friday 28 April 2017

On Being Ill

But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record.
Virginia Woolf, 'On Being Ill' (1926 essay, reprinted in 1930 in the edition below)

Woolf's celebrated essay asks why illness hasn't taken its place with love, battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. She considers how common illness is, how 'tremendous the spiritual change it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed': in short she waxes lyrical. She references Shakespeare, De Quincey, Keats, Proust, all in the opening paragraph, conceding perhaps that Proust and De Quincey did have things to say on the matter. But literature, she tells us, 'does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent'. Interestingly, in view of her own medical history, Woolf's main concern is with physical illness - chiefly influenza.

Woolf asks; Brookner replies. In A Friend from England (1987), Altered States (1996) and elsewhere, characters get the flu, and Brookner's focus on their sufferings, and her descriptions of the effects of illness, effects both physical and as Woolf would say 'spiritual', surely owe something to the earlier writer's thoughts on the subject.
...the experience weakened me at some fairly critical level ... Overnight I seemed to have come into contact with my own mortality. Even when the fever had passed and I was well enough to get up, I moved cautiously, testing my movements, like an old woman ... Those days of recovery were some of the worst I can remember ... I remember spending obscure and submissive afternoons in my small living-room, conscious of the dust I was too weak to displace, feeling subdued and sad as I contemplated the unlovely corners of what had always seemed to me to be a perfectly adequate flat. The iron smell of the over-efficient central heating was in my nostrils as I sat all day ... My attitude to the dark was amorous and fearless: I was more than half in love with easeful death...
A Friend from England, ch. 6
Illness serves as a corrective: one emerges from it sober but diminished. One learns that one's continuation cannot be taken for granted, or, as the poet puts it, never glad confident morning again. My brush with mortality - and it was only a bad attack of the flu - made me grateful and tender-hearted...
Altered States, ch. 8

There are several things to note. One is Brookner's unwonted quoting of English poets (Keats, Browning), French writers being generally more her thing. (Poets, says Woolf, are the writers we turn to in illness; we are unfit for the 'long campaigns' of prose.) Another is Brookner's emphasis on the emotional effects of physical illness. She does not talk of mental illness. She may be with Woolf there: the mind is a 'slave' to the body; the mental derives from the physical.

Both authors afford illness a special status. It delivers special knowledge, special vouchsafements. Illness is indeed an 'altered state', and it has value. We are as if reborn, remade. As Woolf memorably puts it:
Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among the pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters.

Thursday 27 April 2017


Rachel, an 'extremely emancipated young woman', as Brookner told the Paris Review - and a young woman 'whom they will not be able to think is me!' - seems at first glance an experiment with a new, unfamiliar and possibly unsympathetic character. She's emotionally cold, sexually liberated, ruthless in her 'sensible arrangements', and is spoken of as a feminist. At the time many critics saw Rachel as unBrooknerian, at any rate 'an extreme case in the Brookner hospital', according to Hermione Lee.

But knowing the complete oeuvre, we may think differently now. Rachel is atypical only if you don't know your Brookner, if you credit too far Brookner's often disingenuous, stagy pronouncements in the various interviews, and if you think Brookner's some kind of super-sophisticated Barbara Pym. In fact there's nothing unusual about the narrator of A Friend from England. She's Zoe, she's Emma, she's George Bland. In chapter 5, for example, we see Rachel roaming the city, like many another Brooknerian flâneur or flâneuse, and her wanderings are 'feral'; while she may not be wildly and unsuitably in love like Bland or Herz, she's certainly as dangerously distrait and (a key word in A Friend from England, given its obsession with the fear of water) 'adrift' as those lycanthropic later Brooknerians.

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Living on the Surface

I had no doubt that in the ballrooms of his youth the Colonel had been noted for his charm and his way with women. It was a style which he had carefully taught his son, who had never, as far as I could remember, uttered a serious word. Badinage was obviously the favoured means of exchange in the Sandberg establishment.
A Friend from England, ch. 5

This is a serious condemnation. Brookner hates the Sandbergs, with their plausibility, their polished manners, their uncertain income, their slippery identity, their sibilant speech: most of all she hates them for their jokiness. One thinks of Paul Sturgis in Strangers, longing for the sort of proper conversation he loved in the books of his youth: Werther, Adolphe (Strangers, ch. 7), but having to make do with 'opacity', 'social niceness'. Rachel in A Friend from England is a different proposition: she long ago decided to live her life on the surface (A Friend from England, ch. 5). But discussion of the 'inner life', its value, its existence in others, comes up time and again in the novel*. Rachel may try to live dispassionately, but it is more because she knows the passion she is capable of and all Brooknerians are capable of than because she has none. She intimately knows the depths; fears, like Phlebas the Phoenician, death by water.

*For example: seemed to me that she was a creature of some depth, shrewd ... but also possessing an admirable reticence, with the wit to know how to protect her inner life from the gaze of the curious. I appreciated this last trait: it is one I possess myself. (Ibid.)

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Dorrie affairée

Who does not enjoy a set piece, by which I guess I mean an extended scene depicting a social occasion? Brookner goes in for them infrequently, but usually memorably. Disastrous meals are a feature: one thinks of Look at Me's climactic meal, or the dinner party in Fraud.

Such scenes, with their food, their clothes, their vulgar demotic dialogue, can unbalance a novel as finely woven as an Anita Brookner. In A Friend from England, for example in the engagement party and wedding scenes in chapter 3, Brookner seeks a middle way: dense paragraphs, indirect speech, a painterly attention to detail and manner and impression. This is in keeping with the estranged, disillusioned mood of the narrator. Rachel has things in common with Anthony Powell's almost disembodied narrator in his Music of Time sequence. Powell also has a fondness for a set piece, but his are on an epic scale. I remember a scene in one of the early novels, A Buyer's Market or The Acceptance World, that goes on for about a hundred pages.

Brookner's Rachel is more troubling in her passivity. There is something rotten, almost vampiric in her dependence on her adopted family. In spite of its surface sheen of amused irony, her story anticipates the disaffection of several later heroines, Zoe in The Bay of Angels or Emma in Leaving Home.

Monday 24 April 2017

Exclusively Personal

And Dorrie thought of Heather as not only a loved child but as someone who might cause Oscar to worry. They saw each other exclusively in personal terms.
A Friend from England, ch. 1

[Ralph Touchett] was so charming that her sense of his being ill had hitherto had a sort of comfort in it; the state of his health had seemed not a limitation, but a kind of intellectual advantage; it absolved him from all professional and official emotions and left him the luxury of being exclusively personal.
James, The Portrait of a Lady, ch. 33

Sunday 23 April 2017

Endlessly Capacious

I felt as if I were in the presence of a distinct culture, rather like the one that had prevailed in the Russian novels I so enjoyed, in which endless days are spent sitting on terraces ... I had the same sensation of time being endlessly capacious, and memory and melancholy being equally tyrannical...
A Friend from England, ch. 1

Was there ever a finer description not so much of reading a great Russian novel as of reading an Anita Brookner? That sense of time's elasticity. Brookner's time-schemes, as we have seen, are often difficult to follow, and this may be deliberate. We cast off, and the marker buoys are few and far between, and soon we're in water that's very deep indeed.

The passage above goes on to quote from what Brookner, possibly with her tongue in her cheek, said was her favourite novel, Goncharov's Oblomov:
What meads, what kvasses were drunk, what pies were baked at Oblomovka!
The dedicated Brooknerian will recognise this also from the opening of Visitors:
What meads, what kvasses were brewed, what pies were baked at Oblomovka!
Why the slight difference? Possibly she was referring to a different translation, but I like to think of Brookner, like Sir Walter Scott, quoting from memory from her well-stocked mind.

Saturday 22 April 2017

Dr Brookner Regrets

regret > verb (regretted, regretting) [with obj.] feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity): she immediately regretted her words ¦ [with clause] I always regretted that I never trained. 
archaic: feel sorrow for the loss or absence of (something pleasant): my home, when shall I cease to regret you!
The New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1998

I've now and then noticed this about Brookner: her odd use of the verb to regret. I find it in Chapter 1 of A Friend from England (1987):
...Oscar sometimes regretted his little office and his box files...
or this similar line from Chapter 3 of Strangers (2009):
He regretted ... the structure of the working day.
As you might imagine, I'm all in favour of Brooknerese, but this is perhaps a step too far, especially as Brookner often and more frequently uses the more common meaning of regret. There are twenty-nine uses of the word in Strangers, of which (by my reckoning, although I could be wrong, as the exercise left my head spinning) only two relate to the archaic meaning.

Vaguely Baronial

Rereading dredges up memories. Rereading Chapter 1 of A Friend from England, I was a student again and it was a sleepy afternoon in a lecture hall in the early 1990s.

I attended a traditional university. English Literature meant Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth. The canon crept tentatively into the twentieth century and finished in about 1950. There was a seminar called Contemporaneities, taking in Derrida, Lacan, et al, but it was after hours and considered rather daring. I went several times, and left baffled.

But I remember a linguistics course I took, and one amazing session when our lecturer carried out a close reading of a Brookner passage. It was the paragraph in Chapter 1 of A Friend from England that runs from 'The house - a substantial but essentially modest suburban villa' to 'For she was daintily houseproud'. The lecturer (who is, I think, now a presenter on BBC Radio 4) wanted to show how Brookner communicated her sophisticated horror at the Livingstones' vulgar excesses. Brookner, she said, heavily premodified her nouns, loading each one with as much opprobrium as it could reasonably carry. Thus we have 'inlaid marquetry tables of vaguely Pompadour associations', 'a Boulle-type sideboard' and '"Regency" wallpaper', as well as a 'shell-pink bedroom with ... extravagant expanses of white shag-pile carpet' and (this was a favourite) 'the vaguely baronial gas fire'. (The ungainly repetition of 'vaguely' was cause for some head-shaking.)

The joke was on Brookner: we were invited to smile at her snobbery, her outmoded obsession with social class. But if I'm right about the identity of the lecturer I seem to remember, I know she's an Anita Brookner fan, so perhaps the joshing was affectionate.

Friday 21 April 2017

A Friend from England

And so I find myself rereading one of the 'lost' Brookners, long out of print in Britain, unavailable as an e-book. My copy is a Flamingo from the early 90s. It's all but falling apart: reading it I get a sense of its vulnerability. It's second-hand; originally I probably read a library copy. I start to wonder about the book's previous owner, whose name is written inside. I'm not keen on the cover image. Altogether too benevolent. I much prefer the original hardback, which showed Giorgione's Tempest.

Thursday 20 April 2017

The Roaring Streets

They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.
Dickens, Little Dorrit

Then she turned resolutely, and followed the path which Anna had taken, out into the bright, dark, dangerous and infinitely welcoming street.

For reasons that don't need to be gone into, I found myself this afternoon reading aloud the conclusion to Little Dorrit, and memories returned of the closing lines of Brookner's Fraud. Art may not love us and may not console us, but it certainly enriches our lives.

Getting it Right

I have spoken before about Brookner's covers, the many disappointments and misfires. Recently, when the cover for the forthcoming Penguin Essentials edition of A Start in Life was unveiled, there was consternation in some quarters. A Penguin Essentials publication has a certain cachet. Next stop Penguin Classics, one might have thought.

An opportunity missed

Studying Corot's Between Lake Geneva and the Alps for a recent post made me think of the cover of the UK hardback edition of A Closed Eye, which always seemed to me to get it right. It showed part of John Inchbold's View above Montreux, 1880, in the V&A. Not an outlandish choice, perhaps, but well judged. The image captures, I think, in its deadness, its pallor, some of the horrified sense of defeat Harriet feels in her Swiss exile.

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Mme Moitessier Again

We had some fun a little while back with Mme Récamier - reclining on her couch, turning to the viewer, and with that lamp.

Now let us reconsider Mme Moitessier's equally famous pose:

About the Author #2

'About the Author' jacket pieces have always fascinated me, probably because I grew up in a time of information scarcity, i.e. before the Internet. I've listed Brookner's 'About the Author' texts in a previous post: what I noted was the way the information grew sparser as the decades went by. In early versions we were given her academic credentials; mid-period pieces were both detailed and ludic ('She trained as an art historian and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art until 1988, when she abandoned her title of Reader in the History of Art at the University of London for the anonymity of a small flat in Chelsea and the cultivation of certain fictional characters who may one day appear in future novels.'), whereas the biographies accompanying her last novels were terse, reluctant, almost brusque.

Which brings me to 'At the Hairdresser's' (2011). A new form - an e-book, a novella - and so, perhaps, a new start. This 'About the Author' is unusually long; it details her achievements as a novelist and art historian. But we begin with: 'Anita Brookner was born in south London in 1928, the daughter of a Polish immigrant family.'

Did Brookner write this, or did an editor? Brookner often said she never felt quite English - but would she have self-identified as a member of a possibly oppressed minority, moreover an oppressed minority living in (perhaps) a less fashionable part of London, and also (perhaps) as a 'mere girl'? All these things are telegraphed or implied: 'Polish immigrant family', 'south London', 'daughter'. In fact the Brookners or the Bruckners were considerably well-heeled. Her maternal grandfather supplied cigars to King Edward VII. Brookner received an expensive education.

But 'At the Hairdresser's' was published in 2011, and the world had moved on. The world was no longer impressed by tales of Establishment grandeur. So here, for a new age, we get a new Brookner - one who clawed her way up from humble, even deprived, beginnings, one whose fiction might have relevance to a fresh readership and to those sympathetic to the plight of minorities today.

Tuesday 18 April 2017


Corot, Between Lake Geneva and the Alps, 1825
Private Collection
Corot, View of Rome from Monte Pincio, 1826
Corot, The Colosseum, seen through the Arcades
of the Basilica of Constantine, 1825
Musée du Louvre

A typical, that is to say an early, Corot will always present the spectator with less than the eye actually encompasses ... For Corot the mind is at the service of the eye, to modulate, to control, to unify and to present ... A strange dreamy, creamy placidity will be achieved, as if the site were viewed under an immobile and cloudless sky on an uneventful afternoon ... The result will be an image of extraordinary clarity and peace, strong enough to becalm the spectator into thinking that he too might find so tranquil a scene. He will not, for it does not exist in nature.
'The Eye of Innocence', 1980 TLS essay in Soundings

In Corot, Brookner identifies an essentially unBrooknerian artist, one whose youthful work is of greater interest than the work of his maturity. It is early Corot, those 'calmly lucent yet infernally hot scenes', that puzzles, that intrigues. 'He had', says Brookner, 'fifty more years of work in front of him, yet at no time does he venture more hardily or succeed more decisively. Thus Corot scholarship faces its biggest problem at the very outset of the painter's career: the easier part comes last of all.'

The date of the essay is of relevance: 1980, when the really interesting part of Anita Brookner's working life was just about to begin.

Monday 17 April 2017

The Team

For W. G. Sebald, in Vertigo* (English translation, 1999), the life of Stendhal offers insights into 'the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection'. Visiting the scene of the Battle of Marengo, Stendhal, or Beyle as Sebald correctly but playfully insists on calling him throughout, experiences a 'vertiginous sense of confusion' as he acknowledges the gulf between his fantasy and the stark reality before him. Thus Stendhal is put to work for Sebald; Stendhal becomes a Sebaldian.

Stendhal has other functions for Anita Brookner. In Soundings (1997), in a review of a Stendhal biography, Brookner emphasises his contributions to Romanticism, his commitment to the 'supreme emotional adventure'. In Strangers (2009) he is invoked several times. Stendhal, Sturgis's one-time favourite author, collapsed in the street and was taken to a cousin's house, where he died. 'That was the way to go, the relative, whether liked or disliked, put in charge,' thinks Sturgis. An anxious passage follows, in which Sturgis or the author weighs up Stendhal's good fortune in having a relative on hand in this way. Thus Stendhal does his Brooknerian duty.

As it happens, Vertigo's chapter on Stendhal ends with details of the incident in question. Stendhal collapsed, we learn, on the evening of 22 March 1842 in the rue Neuve-des-Capucines. Sebald, however, insists Stendhal was then taken to his own apartments in what is now the rue Danielle-Casanova.

What matters is the way writers recruit other writers to their causes, and do so with differing purposes. Where their teams are shared, as they are in the cases of Brookner and Sebald, we get to witness some intriguing interplay, dialogue, and tension.

Sketch of Stendhal by Henri Lehmann, 1841

Brookner herself reviewed Vertigo, praising its 'freedom ... and also the price that must be paid if such freedom, such extreme non-attachment, is sought by those unfitted to withstand the terrors which must be their accompaniment'.

Sunday 16 April 2017

A Disconcerting Opacity

Brookner often takes us to Paris, but not so often to the Louvre. In late, late Brookner, in Strangers (2009), Sturgis gives the Louvre a miss, putting it 'definitively behind him', preferring an 'improvised existence' for which no one will take him to task (Ch. 25).

In gentler, more expansive mid-period Brookner, in Fraud (1992), Anna Durrant dutifully puts in time at the museum. But it is not the 'great discordant machines of the Romantics' that claim her attention but the portraits of Ingres, 'calm, replete, satisfied with their immensely enviable situation in this world, and careless of the world to come' (Ch. 12).

Anna remembers Baudelaire's remark that he found it hard to breathe when faced with an Ingres portrait: he felt as though the oxygen had been sucked out of the atmosphere. This is evidently a favoured description, which Brookner returns to in her essays on Ingres in Soundings (1997) and Romanticism and Its Discontents (2000). Ingres is indeed several times the object of Brookner's somewhat appalled fascination. In the novels we find characters visiting the National Gallery and gravitating towards Mme Moitessier and her impossible dress.* Mme Moitessier is perhaps like one of those Brookner monsters, a Dolly, a Julia, adamantine in her self-regard and unassailability.

In Soundings Brookner discusses the painting at length:
She sits in her crowded boudoir with her famous finger to her temple, dominating with ease her challenging dress. Her gaze is both remote and replete; its descent from the Mona Lisa is not difficult to trace. At first sight it is an arrogant work. Yet on further contemplation the hard-edged image seems to fade and become more opaque, and Mme Moitessier undergoes a transformation from upper-class fortune-teller to Delphic oracle. Nor is this merely a matter of contrasting the personality she presents to us with her mirror image, that not quite accurate reflection seen in a glass darkly, as if the other side of her were in a different room. By concentrating on the shadowy depths of the portrait, and laying emphasis where it is least expected, Ingres endows the foreground with a disconcerting opacity. Central to the confusion of meanings is the door off to the left, a door through which no one will ever enter or leave.

*Unfortunately I can't find the references, but I know they're there.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Poor Little Things

I can remember being admonished at uni for praising Sidney's sincerity in Astrophil and Stella. 'Sincerity is undemonstrable,' intoned my professor.

One can go too far in the other direction - make authors too knowing, too self-conscious. Hilary Mantel in her otherwise brilliant review of Strangers fashions for us a cynical, detached Brookner, a Brookner who, with an 'authorial snigger', coolly observes the misfortunes of her characters:
We hear the barely suppressed sound of the author laughing up her sleeve ... In this book as elsewhere, she subverts her characters ruthlessly and exposes them to humiliation, not only in the eyes of other characters but the eyes of her reader.
Mantel speaks of Brookner's 'subtle, uncomfortable high comedy'. Comedy? That old thing again. As for sincerity, as for authorial detachment, Brookner's own ambivalent feelings towards her characters (or 'personages', as she calls them), expressed in the early Haffenden interview, are relevant:
Poor little things, I feel sorry for them. They're idiots: there's no other word for them. And I don't know any more than they do.


Indirection: a Brooknerian word:
One had simply to exist, in a state of dreamy indirection, for the plot to work itself out.
The Bay of Angels, Ch. 1

And in a review of William Trevor's stories, she praises their Chekhovian plotlessness, discretion, indirection. She might, of course, be speaking of her own fiction, but for the moment I want to think about reading. Having recently reread Brookner's twenty-first century novels, I find myself like Elizabeth Warner in 'At the Hairdresser's' at a loose end with 'nothing to read'. Some re-readers proceed chronologically; others follow leads. I might be tempted, for example, inspired by the Venetian scenes in Strangers, to read A Friend from England next - alongside The Wings of the Dove, say. I don't know. Perhaps I shouldn't be so ordered; perhaps I should, like Polonius, by indirections find directions out.

Friday 14 April 2017

A Failure of Nerve

I am now alone, which takes a bit of getting used to; one has to nerve oneself every day. It really is existential living.
Haffenden interview, Methuen 1985
Once the morning had been got through my failure of nerve would be without witnesses...
'At the Hairdresser's' (2011), Ch. 5

He can be a bit...

'I'll give him a call. You'll be quite safe with him.'
This was met with some cheerful sniggering, which I ignored...
'At the Hairdresser's', Ch. 4

'Chris is taking you home?' asked Sally, at reception.
'No, not today.'
'Was he okay? Only he can be a bit...'
Ibid., Ch. 8

Fissures open up all over the place in this most troubling of texts. Are the girls in the salon in league with Chris? They certainly recommend the arrangement. What do they know? There are other unfathomables, not least Chris's ambiguous sexuality, resonant in the first of the quotes above. If 'At the Hairdresser's' had evolved into a novel, as I suspect had been the intention, Brookner would probably have explored these matters more fully. But the work's very spareness presents us with a degree of potential not found in her other fiction.

Nothing to Read

Twice in 'At the Hairdresser's' Elizabeth complains that she has nothing to read. She reads only the classics now, and is presently engaged with Thomas Mann. But he is found wanting. To have nothing to read may seem a minor grumble, but for Elizabeth the situation is grave. Her routines are important to her: 'any break ... held a superstitious indication of ultimate change' (Ch. 4). Having nothing to read means she has no way of filling her days. This leaves her perilously open to offers.

For reading, read writing. There are some writers for whom writing is a compulsion: it is their drink, their drugs. Trollope was one, starting the next book notoriously soon on the heels of the previous. He continued writing right up to the wire, though he was in considerable distress. With 'At the Hairdresser's' Anita Brookner comes to an end. What was her life like when she had nothing to write?

A Fair Exchange

Just why and how does 'At the Hairdresser's' generate in the reader such a sense of unease and alarm? Elizabeth Warner may be Brookner's most vulnerable protagonist - and it isn't just that she's physically dependent, but there's a moral vulnerability too, a disposability 'to make-believe affections' (Ch. 7), a dangerous openness to suggestions. She is, quite simply, only too happy to fall in with Chris's plans. All the while she has her suspicions, knows that what is being presented to her is very probably a performance, a fiction, knows that the nature of the relationship cannot bear too close a level of scrutiny. Indeed Brookner goes further, setting out in provocative terms the compromises being entered into:
I was wasting money, I knew that, but his presence was agreeable, and it seemed a fair exchange. I knew perfectly well that I was paying for his company, as I had never in my life done before... (Ch. 6) 
And I had nothing to read. But there comes a time when books let you down. Surely that time had not arrived? But in comparison with a living presence there is no contest. That I knew and had always known. Ideally that living presence should be of one's own choosing. The default presence was that of a stranger, whose goodwill must be paid for, and who may or may not be willing. (Ibid.)
Were Elizabeth a man - were we dealing here with Paul Sturgis or Julius Herz - and were Chris an itinerant young woman, how differently might we read their story?

Reports from the Front

Old age is the great unwritten subject. Let me specify. Novels about old age, written by old people, are rare. Great writers of the past either didn't write about old age, or included old people as peripheral figures, or were young themselves when they wrote about the old, or wrote about 'old' people we wouldn't now consider as such. To take a few disparate examples: Trollope's 'old man' in An Old Man's Love is only fifty; Lear was written by a man in his forties; Vita Sackville-West wrote All Passion Spent* when she was thirty-eight. Authentic depictions of old age in present-day literature are increasing, but remain novelties. One thinks of Diana Athill's memoirs or Clive James's late poems.

Then there is Anita Brookner. We had intimations in A Private View, Visitors and The Next Big Thing, but Strangers and, especially, 'At the Hairdresser's' are Brookner's plainest examples. The story of Elizabeth Warner, her fear and vulnerability, her memories and dreams, her routines, her submission to the chauffeur Chris's diabolical treatment of her, and her willingness almost to forgive him, to learn lessons from him, and to blame herself, make for frightening reading. One always, as I've said before, reads Brookner with one's heart in one's mouth, but, even on rereading, 'At the Hairdresser's' delivers a genuine sense of dread not found anywhere else in her oeuvre, nor elsewhere for that matter.


*All Passion Spent has a couple of minor Brooknerian echoes. It is dedicated to Benedict and Nigel - Benedict who would become Brookner's early mentor, Nigel who would write a long-running column in the Spectator, 'Long Life'; and the protagonist Lady Slane has a house in Elm Park Gardens, Brookner's home for many years.

Thursday 13 April 2017

The Modern World

I accept the fact that we are all atomized and there is little we can do about it.
'At the Hairdresser's', Ch. 2

In late Brookner the modern world intrudes more and more. There are mobile phones, and, in The Rules of Engagement, a tentative reference to email. Yet Brookner wasn't really at all out of touch. Her reading, in particular, was varied and surprising. Frederic Raphael, for example, was surprised by and not a little sniffy about her championing of Michel Houellebecq’s works. Brookner belied her reputation, decrying the moral censorship Houellebecq was subject to, and presenting a worldliness her fans wouldn't have been taken aback by:
He is, after all, in the grip of a major idea, with which he appears to have come to terms, namely that there are no penalties for indulging in the most extreme forms of sexual licence, that monogamous partnerships have passed into history, and that it is entirely natural to pursue sexual pleasure until such time as age and infirmity take their inevitable toll. 
Such paganism would seem to commend itself, and is in any case a well worn argument. 

I mention all this because of Brookner's use of the very contemporary word 'atomized' in 'At the Hairdresser's'. Houellebecq's famous 1998 novel Les Particules élémentaires was given this title in English (and no, I won't be commenting on the whole -ize / -ise question):

Roman à clef

I have been reading John Banville's The Untouchable, which was inspired by the life of Anthony Blunt. I was hopeful of finding in its pages a character based on Brookner. None is detectable. She herself reviewed the novel, maintaining as ever an obliquity, not to say an opaqueness, in her references to her former boss. I have heard it said she was the only one of his colleagues who didn't realise he was gay. This was advanced as proof of her maidenly unworldliness. It was surely anything but - for was there ever more of a worldling than Anita Brookner? It was evidence, rather, either of an admirable discretion or of a respectful incuriosity. One would hope for more of her kind in this intrusive, over-sharing age.

That Chemist

He had been immersed in a reverie ... He had been back in the old house, although this time the house had a wider context, was grounded in the neighbourhood of his childhood ... a greengrocer, a chemist...
Strangers (2009), Ch. 6
I go back in my mind to all the rooms I have slept in, remember in detail the streets of my earliest perambulations: that chemist on the corner...
'At the Hairdresser's' (2011), Ch. 2

These two final fictions share details and themes. This is true of other contiguous novels in the Brookner canon, but Strangers is separated by four years from its predecessor, an unprecedented gap; such isolation gives Strangers and 'At the Hairdresser's' a special affinity with one another.

The Anita Brookner Challenge #2: Answers

OK, so no takers. The grand cash prize will have to roll over to another time.
  1. Percy (Lewis Percy; 'Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy'; Percy Grainger)
  2. Nice (Lawrence: 'The English Are So Nice')
  3. Providence (Milton)
  4. Benedict (Cumberbatch; Nicolson)
  5. Seagull(s) (Simon's house in The Bay of Angels is Les Mouettes.)
  6. Dolly
  7. Chiltern
  8. Look at Me
  9. Stendhal (See 'In Pursuit of Happiness', Soundings)
  10. Fanny (Mrs Assingham is a character in The Golden Bowl.)

Wednesday 12 April 2017

All Gone Now

All gone now, all over, and himself the survivor.
The Next Big Thing, Ch. 1
All gone now, myself the unlikely and unwilling survivor...
'At the Hairdresser's', Ch. 1

One comes across these echoes in Brookner. It is often the case with prolific writers. Is 'All gone now ... survivor' a quotation, or simply a phrase Brookner liked?

Dr Brookner and the Servants

Anita Brookner is probably the last English novelist to write about servants. As late as Strangers (2009) we meet a comic caretaker ('Call me Arthur'), with his plans to retire to Essex and possible ambitions in the direction of underfloor heating. Such details carry all sorts of class-conscious freight. Essex, for the benefit of foreign followers of this blog, has a particular reputation in the popular British imagination, and as for underfloor heating... We're back in the territory of the Livingstones in A Friend from England, and all their pools-funded vulgarity.

Arthur himself has several forebears, notably the Dickensian Hipwood in A Private View. Then there are all the female chars and retainers, with their comic ramblings and salty turns of phrase. 'Class and caste distinctions were the lingua franca of insult and comedy,' writes my old tutor Alison Light of Interwar mistress-servant relations, real and fictional, in Mrs Woolf and the Servants (Fig Tree / Penguin, 2007). Dr Light was, I recall, no fan of Brookner. She didn't much approve of Virginia Woolf's attitudes towards her servants, but was (and probably still is, for all I know) a serious Woolf fan, and a fan will forgive almost anything.

Dating Strangers

Unpicking a Brookner time-scheme can be a queasy business; the extreme case is Incidents in the Rue Laugier, in which the narrative purports to conclude some considerable time after the book's publication date. Some works, however, have distinct, controlled chronologies. Bland's trip to see an exhibition of Sickert's works allows us to date the action of A Private View very precisely, as we have seen.

That novel has much in common with Strangers (2009), and we can use a surprisingly similar means of dating its events. In Chapter 23 Sturgis and Sarah visit an exhibition dedicated to the Camden Town Group at Tate Britain, a show that ran from February to May 2008. It concentrated on the core of the Group - Gore, Gilman, Bevan, Ginner - with Sickert as a key player.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

A Life Fully Lived

Brookner's critiques of other novelists always claim our attention. In the novels they're rather thin on the ground, in contrast to her extended references to the fine arts*. Proust, whom (thanks to Julian Barnes) we know Brookner read and reread avidly, is a case in point. There are mere scattered mentions of the writer in, for example, Strangers, and Proust's famous first line is quoted in Incidents in the Rue Laugier. These are, like Brookner's other literary references, conventional and less than illuminating.

For illumination we must go to her critical writings. I hope one day someone will publish a collected edition of Brookner's reviews and essays. There is the online Spectator archive, but its search facility is far from satisfactory. One comes upon Brookner essays more by chance than design. I found this the other day, a review of a volume of Proust's letters. As ever in her non-fiction Brookner makes brilliant points, not least in the way she brackets Proust with Freud, thus linking two writers of interest and relevance to herself:
One of the most interesting lacunae in Proust's overflowing correspondence was caused by an inauspicious lapse of time: he could not have read Marie Nordlinger's translations of Freud, for he died before they were published. On the other hand Freud might have read Proust, but probably did not. It might be objected that neither needed to read the other, since their discoveries and conclusions were remarkably similar, analysis and self-analysis being two sides of the same coin. Freud worked logically, Proust intuitively: the last line of Time Regained was written before the first line of the first volume, so Freudianly dependent on that personal pronoun. The story that Proust has to tell us is more complete than any that Freud might have elicited from his patients, but one which he would have understood for himself: the progress from childhood anxiety through the mutations of experience and sociability to recognition, perhaps haggard recognition, of the inevitability of death. Thus time regained is by virtue of the same process time foregone.

Elsewhere in the review her preoccupations become more personal still. One cannot but think that Brookner, in her essays, as elsewhere, is really talking only about herself.
Yet in these late letters, when time is running out, he remains a solipsist, defending his work against all comers. His fine manners never desert him, yet to critics he offers criticism in return. The novel sustained him through unimaginable discomforts. The life was the work. In every sense it was a life fully lived.

*Brookner's use of paintings in her novels is deserving of deeper study. In another Spectator review she praised the seductiveness and enlightenment of Eric Karpeles' Paintings in Proust.
References to painters and paintings are numerous in the novel, revealing an attention to detail with which Proust enhances - or, in the present author’s word, accessorises - his characters.

The Anita Brookner Challenge #2

  1. Brookner surname; animal in a Hockney painting; Australian composer
  2. D. H. Lawrence deplored the English for being this; a biscuit; a favourite Brookner location
  3. Rhode Island location; Brookner title; 'I may assert eternal __________, / And justify the ways of God to men.'
  4. Sherlock; Brookner's early mentor; sixteen popes
  5. Simon's Baie des Anges house; Chekhov play
  6. Brookner title; singer; character in The Body in the Library
  7. Herz's street; savage red-haired lord in Trollope; English hills
  8. Album by the Moments; novels by Brookner and Jennifer Egan
  9. 'France's least likely diplomat'; Sturgis's one-time favourite; collapsed on the pavement of the rue Neuve-des-Capucines
  10. Changed to Annie (Ring) in the film of The Age of Innocence; what heroine of Look at Me doesn't like to be called; Mrs Assingham
Answers soon

Monday 10 April 2017

Closing Remarks

Let's put 'At the Hairdresser's' (2011) to one side for the moment, and consider Strangers (2009) as Brookner's final novel. She possibly didn't expect it to be her last, yet it has a conclusive, a summative, air. She revisits themes, references, locations, character-types. Paul Sturgis may be traced to George Bland in A Private View (1994) most obviously, but he has antecedents in all those Brooknerians who find themselves flirting with other lives (the earliest example is possibly Blanche in A Misalliance (1986)). On the other side there's Mrs Gardner, a fairly hateful figure - hateful in a way Katy Gibb never was. Katy Gibb (A Private View) I've always found rather fascinating (but I'm probably as morally susceptible as George Bland). Katy Gibb and George Bland are both tremendously 'there', as John Bayley remarks, and Sturgis and Mrs Gardner somehow aren't as substantial. Strangers is a thinner, more exiguous novel: one can see this superficially in the briefness of its chapters, in comparison with the denser, longer chapters of earlier novels. In Strangers Brookner wants to finish and have done. She always wants to do that, but never is it so obvious. Or rather she finds, towards the close, that she's run out of plot, and must invent a trip to Nice and then a return via Paris. Sturgis's seemingly never-ending, protracted, frustrating travels are experienced, as they are by the reader, on the edge of nightmare. Nevertheless, a lesson is earned:
The evidence was all too clear: he could undertake no more excursions. He lay down on the bed, let himself drift off into sleep, not without a sense of nightmare. But this was standard now... (Ch. 25)
He has arrived, like Bland, at the end of his adventures, and Brookner has too. There will be no more excursions, no more novels. There will be 'At the Hairdresser's', but this will be a much more limited affair. With Strangers we all but finish the Brooknerian journey, grateful for a final fling, this rayon vert before the darkness comes down.


He saw that his acts of good will, towards both Helena and Mrs Gardner, had been interpreted as something of an insult, an act of charity which both had rejected with hauteur. He felt a renewed distaste for his own calculations.
Strangers, Ch. 20

This links with an over-quoted remark of Brookner's, about real love being a pilgrimage, carried out without strategy. (It comes from either the Haffenden or the Kenyon interview, and crops up with dreary regularity on Twitter.)

The Inner Life

She admits to having periodically suffered from depression. That might have made some people seek an analyst. But friends speak of Brookner's 'rich interior life'. And she doesn't find depression a thing to feel depressed by.
'Depression can be quite fruitful if it leads to thoughtfulness, inwardness. Certainly my parents' deaths, certainly disappointments in love have led to periods, yes, quite long periods of depression - but they haven't been entirely defeating, you see, they've been quite nourishing. Because you're very receptive when you're in that state: in fact, it's invaluable.'
She had no inner life, it seemed. This to him was phenomenal, he to whom the inner life was all.
Strangers (2009), Ch. 16

Mrs Gardner, who, crucially, Sturgis does not fall in love with - this is no second Katy Gibb - is the woman in Strangers with, phenomenally, no inner life. Hers is a 'vagrant personality'; she has a 'curious blitheness'. As such she is quite beyond the pale. But Brookner's allegiances are always to be doubted. Blitheness is evidently a significant word:
Didn't Plato say the unexamined life is not worth living?  [Brookner] gives the faintest smile. 'Plato could be wrong too. I think the unexamined life is much better. Much more comfortable.' So you wish you had been…  'Blithe…' It rolls off her tongue, wrapped in longing. A lovely word, I say.  'It's an old-fashioned word. You don't hear it much.'  So you envy the blithe?  'Oh yes.'

Getting by on Style

... I decided that I could only get by on style ...
Look at Me, Ch. 10
He would go to Paris, if only to prove himself as good as his word. It was all a question of style.
Strangers, Ch. 26

I cannot emphasise enough the complex pleasures of Strangers. I wonder what a reader new to Brookner would make of it. On almost every page there are echoes of earlier novels. As for the plot, what there is of it is stretched so thinly that Brookner must rely at times only on her formidable style. This is, of course, what we really want.

Something of a Disappointment

Quite obstinately, I prefer the stately dance of reason to any conclusion more rapidly arrived at, however persuasive the display ... And so difficult is this prejudice to shake off that I now look upon myself as one of those unfortunates who have lost their faith but are still unable to recant...
TLS, 5 October 1984
Kitty Maule [in Providence] says about Romanticism that in certain situations reason doesn't work, and that's the most desolating discovery of all.
Haffenden interview, Novelists in Interview, 1985
If only he could fall in love again! Only in that climate of urgency could he make decisions ... He was left with reason, which, at his stage of life, would propel him in directions which were uncertain, and which he would have to negotiate alone.
Strangers (2009), Ch. 15
Against his expectations the age of reason was proving something of a disappointment.
Ibid., Ch. 20

Reason and Romanticism: a key Brooknerian binary. That reason might have as many limitations as its obverse is plain from the start: Brookner knows she has 'lost her faith'; she knows reason 'doesn't work' always. Years later, in Strangers, she's still revolving these conflicts round and round, and their irresolution keeps her project potent and viable, and could have kept it going indefinitely.

Sunday 9 April 2017

With Slides

Strangers is not a funny book. There is a misjudged caretaker, Arthur, who seems to have stepped out of a 1950s comedy, but little else. There is, though, an exchange between Sturgis and his old girlfriend about loneliness. Sarah is affronted at being asked whether she's lonely - 'Are you lonely, indeed' - and Sturgis says, 'I sometimes wish that someone would ask me the same question. It would give me a chance to...' And of course Sarah knows him too well, and Brookner knows herself too well: 'That's why they don't ask you,' Sarah rejoins. 'It would set you off for hours.' (Ch. 14)

One is reminded of this, from Julian Barnes:
When she won, she went up to the dais, received the cheque, turned to the audience with immaculate poise, and began: 'Usually, when I stand up, I go on for about 50 minutes' – then a pause of perfect length, before she added – 'with slides.'

The Stuff of Fiction

...the fascination of a character encountered in a book. He regretted the questions he had not asked, but had respected her preoccupations as belonging to a quasi-fictional 'Vicky Gardner', who, in the fullness of time, would be explained to him. This, he was forced to conclude, was the extent of his attraction to her. Nothing could be less sensual, less sexual. He was interested only in the unfolding of the story...
Strangers, Ch. 10

Sturgis's story, as I've noted earlier, links with Mrs May's in Visitors, especially in this passage:
...she realised that this journey might have to be repeated, and she could not repress a very slight feeling of interest. This was surely the stuff of fiction? A strong plot, unusual characters, a threatened outcome: who could ask for worthier diversion?
Visitors, Ch. 4

Such passages carry risks. We're in a hall of mirrors, something a little close to the madness of, say, James's Sacred Fount, in which the narrator doesn't just observe the other characters, 'as if I were trapping a bird or stalking a fawn' (Ch. 8), but seems to construct them, so that the reader has no chance of knowing what's 'real', nor who may be trusted.

Rayon vert

What he was after was something smaller, a landscape, his own, from which he could view a mystical sunset, and where he might capture that fabled rayon vert, that brief streak of light before the darkness closed in.
Strangers, Ch. 7

The rayon vert, though never so named, and here given metaphorical force, will be familiar to Brooknerians. In A Family Romance Jane walks down a London street and the sky is of the palest green. Or else, from The Bay of Angels, Zoe and Adam wandering out into a 'beautiful greenish dusk'.

Saturday 8 April 2017

Real Contact

... he thought he might have done better, even prospered, in another era, or even another place, where the natives, the citizens, were more helpful, more curious, and indeed more candid. He longed to have lived in one of those confessional novels he had read as a young man - The Sorrows of Young Werther, Adolphe - in which whole lives were vouchsafed to the reader, with all their shame, yet as if there were no shame in the telling. Here, now, one was consciously checked by a sort of willed opacity, a social niceness that stalled one's attempts to make real contact.
Strangers, Ch. 7

Once more, in Strangers, Brookner takes stock of her strange second career. Werther takes us back to Family and Friends, Adolphe to Providence. Brookner herself, though very private, was not known for the kind of vapid small-talk she deplored in the English. A recent diary piece by Julian Barnes amusingly makes this point:
Towards the end of the first year of Anita Brookner’s deathtime, I was remembering my meetings and conversations with her. What we talked about: art, books, the literary world, France, friends in common. What we didn’t talk about: her early years, her personal life, politics (I never knew whether or how she voted), or anything practical. No exchange of recipes. No mention of sport. ‘Anita, what do you think of Ireland’s chances in the Six Nations?’ was not a question that ever came to my lips. I remember her telling me that she had just finished a novel and so, for the moment, was ‘doing exactly what I like’. I said, teasingly: ‘Well, in your case that probably means rereading Proust.’ Her eyes widened in alarm: ‘How did you guess?’

Il ne faut pas partir d'ici

He remembered asking directions of an elderly man once in Paris, to be met with the words, 'Monsieur, il ne faut pas partir d'ici.'* That was the nub of the matter, a false start...
Strangers, Ch. 7

One listens closely for echoes as one reads Brookner's last novel, Strangers. The elderly Parisian and his repressive reply crop up more than once in the novel, and return one to the beginning and to an early interview:
My own life was disappointing - I was mal partie, started on the wrong footing; so I am trying to edit the whole thing.
Paris Review

*I must apologise for making a hash of the quote in earlier versions of this post. I'm not a good French speaker.

The Final Upheaval

Some sort of reluctant sympathy had been drawn out of him, but he recognised this for what it was, the residue of unused feelings from earlier times.
Strangers, Ch. 5

The touchstone, the benchmark, is George Bland in A Private View. His successors are Mrs May in Visitors, Herz in The Next Big Thing, and Sturgis in Strangers. In each of these later iterations Bland's mad passion, his great adventure, is in some way lessened or sublimated. Sturgis is plagued by a divorcee, Mrs Gardner, who, it seems, merely irritates him. He is drawn to her, but is never 'violently in love', like poor Bland. But the echoes are unmistakable:
He saw his madness for what it was, the final upheaval of an unlived life...
A Private View, Ch. 10

The Real Thing

And there were the compensations: the high standards of care. Roland would have been soothed by the fine housekeeping, the attention paid to his comfort. He himself was almost persuaded that such a bargain, such an arrangement, could be justified. But it was light years away from the real thing. It was the sort of marriage that no romantic worth his salt could contemplate. There would be consolation in the prospect, but little sincerity. The absence, or loss, of sincerity might in the long run prove too high a price to pay.
Strangers, Ch. 3

There is a sense, in Strangers, probably only because it turned out to be her last full-length novel, of Brookner taking a last walk around the block, of her stating her case for the last time. Her allegiance, finally, is with Romanticism. That's the message. Or the message in this particular passage. As she goes on, she always twists and shifts. Nothing is quite for keeps. The conflicts, to the last, remain unresolved. But there is, as I say, here, strongly a feeling of accounts finally being rendered.

An Only Life seemed to him a terrible thing to live without witnesses, as if he had failed to make good the inevitable deficiencies of both past and present, had never created a family of his own, so that he was haunted by a feeling of invisibility, as if he were a mere spectator of his own, his only life, with no one to identify him, let alone with him, in the barren circumstances of the here and now.
Strangers, Ch. 3

Later in Strangers Brookner quotes Larkin's 'Home is so Sad', last referred to in A Private View. This time she acknowledges Larkin, actually uses his name. For a fan like me, it's a moment to treasure. In the quote above, too, I get a Larkinian thrill. His only life. I'm not sure what Larkin means exactly by 'an only life' in the following lines from 'Aubade', nor indeed why Brookner makes the point as she does. But some connection is surely in operation.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given,time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever ...

'Unpeaceful Quietness': Brooknerian Berlin

Latecomers (1988), Ch. 13:
It was dusk when he reached Berlin,and a huge dark blue sky, moonless and starless, stretched over the curiously silent city. He realised that he was unaccustomed to these quiet wide streets, these blank-faced apartment houses with their austere windows, this isolation of a landlocked place far from the winds of the sea and the subtle odours of grass and river water ... His taxi took him efficiently to the Kurfürstendamm, where the sky was momentarily obliterated by city lights, high buildings bearing advertisement signs like heraldic devices or the badges of ancient guilds, the outline of a ruined church which reminded him of a rotten tooth, and cautious tables outside cafes at which nobody sat. At the Kempinski the welcome was efficient, smiling, deft, but lacked, he thought, effusiveness.

... Dahlem was much more like what he expected to remember, a suburb of silent villas painted yellow, with pitched roofs and green shutters. The museum, like a giant funeral chamber, rose among ragged tangles of bramble ... He winced at the contorted, almost corrupt, nudes of the German school ... smiled with recognition ... at an English face ... Gainsborough's Joshua Grigby, alert and confident in his subtle pink coat, threatened by the rocks against which he posed or by the lowering grey sky under which he so aristocratically lounged. A fiction, Fibich knew, but what a reassuring one, and he gained a little courage from it ... Lansstrasse, Fabeckstrasse ... The Hansel and Gretel houses disclosed no inhabitants ... He felt at home, and not at home ... stricken by this fatigue du nord which hung over Berlin...
The Dahlem museum,
now the Museum Europäischer Kulturen
Fabeckstrasse, Lansstrasse

[I visited the Dahlem museum, but whatever it was at the time of Fibich's visit it is no longer: all but unvisited rooms house fairly random ethnographical items united only in their dullness. There are no paintings. I was told there hadn't been paintings for many years.]

[Joshua Grigby is now in the Gemäldegalerie in the Kulturforum. Visiting a gallery to see a particular painting, known from literature, has a special appeal. There is always a thrill when you turn a corner and there it is, the very picture Fibich (and Brookner) stood before.]

Charlottenburg ... He joined the crowd ... shuffled miserably through the ugly rooms with their coarse gilding and parvenu display of blue and white porcelain.
[I've been to Charlottenburg before, and nothing would persuade me to endure it again.]

He took a taxi back, sat at the Cafe Kranzler, furtively ate two slices of strawberry shortcake.
[The Kranzler no longer serves strawberry shortcake or indeed very much food at all. Coffee and tea of some complexity are on offer, the latter presented in an imprecisely oriental manner. The place was almost deserted. An arty young woman took pictures of coffee cups and bags of coffee, probably for promotional purposes.]

The Kranzler

Inside the Kranzler

Imprecisely oriental

Shortcake, but not at the Kranzler

He began to treat himself more kindly, dropped his guidebook into the wastepaper basket, stayed for long hours in his quiet room, emerging only for meals, for a gentle stroll to the shop that sold English newspapers, to the Kranzler, or, for lunch, to the Paris Bar.
The Paris Bar, Kantstrasse -
or rue Kant, if you will

Saturday 1 April 2017

Private Knowledge

The Heat of the Day
Elizabeth Bowen, title of 1949 novel

The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.
Bowen, A World of Love (1955), Ch. 1

Leaving Home
Anita Brookner, title of 2005 novel

...fantasies about the life he would lead when old enough to seek his freedom. Or indeed to leave home, though, strangely enough, home it had remained.
Brookner, Strangers (2009), Ch. 1

There is a trend among Brookner scholars to view her oeuvre as one giant text, each installment a version of the others, every iteration in conversation or conflict with the rest. Themes concatenate across novels, especially in novels that are contiguous. We see it also at the level of the sentence, as above, and not only in Brookner. In some ways such moments are nods to the fans, small secret rewards. There's a sense of private knowledge, a sense of participating in a dialogue others aren't attuned to.

Insiders and Outsiders

Throughout the obedient years of childhood he had privately observed that God was unjust, or, even worse than that, He was indifferent. To the pronouncement, I am that I am, went the unspoken addendum, Deal with it. Boasting to Job of His omnipotence, His superiority to Job's peaceable sinless life, He offered no justification for any of this, merely issued a report. And Job had acceded, perhaps because it is preferable to be inside than outside, silently making his accommodation with the idea of injustice, of disproportion. And had been rewarded for his docility with the restoration of his fortune, as if he had let bygones be bygones.
Strangers, Ch. 1

I see this passage as a companion piece to Brookner's earlier essay on the Book of Job. Her interpretation, her indignation, remain consistent, though her language has grown refreshingly modern: Deal with it. It is interesting too to get Brookner's view on a key Brooknerian theme: insiders and outsiders. It's better, Brookner says, to be inside than outside, though she knows some acceptance of injustice, even of atrocity, may be demanded. It is part of her skill that she goes no further here. Lesser writers might have made more of this; Brookner leaves the matter hanging resonantly in the air.