Wednesday 31 May 2017

Where to Start

Anita Brookner acquired a forbidding reputation during her writing career. Critical reception was strongly divided. So - where to start? It was possibly easier then, while she was still writing. If you had never read her, and wanted to, you could read her latest. Now that she's gone, and her body of work is complete, the uninitiated can be daunted by her sheer fecundity, the sheer volume of her fiction: twenty-four novels and a novella over thirty years. Where to start?

It is a difficult question. There's no obvious stand-out novel, by which I mean one that stands out in terms of, say, length or critical appreciation. The obvious answer is Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize in 1984. But Brookner herself didn't think it should have won. Her surprise or shock is clear in a press picture from the Booker event.

She thought Latecomers (1988) should have got the prize - a book with a serious and indeed Booker-friendly theme: the lifelong effects of surviving the Holocaust.

Both Latecomers and Hotel du Lac hail from the Eighties, often cited as Brookner's best decade. You can divide up your Brookners by decade. The Eighties novels are certainly sprightlier in tone and style. Here you'll find the stylistic experimentation of Family and Friends (1985) or the basic and uncompromising Brookner manifesto that is Look at Me (1983).

The Nineties offer different pleasures. You'll find fuller character portraits: the fading actress Julia in Brief Lives (1990), or the monstrous aunt, Dolly, in A Family Romance (1993). You'll find denser, darker novels, with less incident but greater analysis. I say less incident, but there are moments of real horror: the deaths in Altered States (1996) or the ending of Undue Influence (1999). If you don't read Brookner with your heart in your mouth then you must be reading someone else.

Brookner's final five novels, plus one novella, were published in the 2000s. This last phase presents us with fresh challenges. These are Brookner's most raw and least predictable books. Her last novel, Strangers (2009), gives us a portrait of old age that's both terrifying and uncomfortably relevant. The Next Big Thing (2002), another of Brookner's 'guy' novels (Brookner didn't just write about lonely spinsters, as all those lazy critics liked to sneer), a tense and intense drama of consciousness, a novel with a strong European dimension - salutary too, in its way, in these latter days of ours.

So - where to start? I look back at my old 'Recommendations' post, and I find I haven't mentioned several. 'Where to start?' is, of course, a slightly different question. I'd say start with something recent, and something that belies Brookner's reputation. Start with The Next Big Thing. I come back to it again and again. A novel that tells us how to live.

Tuesday 30 May 2017

Comfort Reading

Art doesn't love you and cannot console you, said Anita Brookner. It's a discomforting assertion. When I examine my own intake or uptake of art - by which I mean my reading, for primarily I'm literary, verbal - I realise consolation is one of the chief things I look for. My sudden blogging, my sudden and tardy engagement with the Internet, after years of silence, has somewhat changed my reading habits. I now read more, and with more purpose. I look at what others are reading and am influenced. Or else I'm reduced, made to feel subtly inferior. These other folk - how quickly and how widely they read!

Much of my reading is now rereading. I read new things infrequently. I try new authors hardly at all. I favour books about certain types or classes of character and set in certain locations. I'm really very choosy, very small-minded. I've come to the end of Trollope, an almost exclusive preference of mine through my twenties and thirties. I never thought I'd exhaust him. I've read all of Dickens and James too, other favourites, and often feel at something of a loss.

Rereading is inherently a limited activity, though of course it also has things to offer. I know what to expect and I know I'll also probably gain something new. But I have a fear. One day I'll pick up an old favourite and it'll mean nothing. It will have lost its savour. Such fears should not be underrated: reading, for some people, isn't just a pastime. It's deeply bound up with, indeed part of, their inner lives. And as we know from Brookner, one must cherish and protect one's inner life almost at any cost.


I'm currently reading Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann. It's actually new to me, though followers of this blog will know I've read Mann before (like several Brooknerians - Elizabeth Warner in 'At the Hairdresser's', who puts aside Doctor Faustus, or Julius Herz in The Next Big Thing, who finds a significant old letter in a copy of Buddenbrooks). I've also been to Lübeck several times. (The Thomas Mann house is, like the Goethehaus in Frankfurt, an artful post-war reconstruction.)

If Lotte in Weimar is comfort reading for me, I suspect it was comfort writing for its author. Published in 1939 while Mann was in exile from his homeland (Buddenbrooks having been publicly burnt) the novel is set in the early nineteenth century and tells of real-life Werther* heroine Lotte's arrival in Weimar forty-four years after her youthful association with Goethe. I am sorry the novel isn't better known in English.

Here is George Steiner on Mann:
Thomas Mann is a towering presence in modern literature. The analogy with Goethe, which he himself invoked, is often justified. The leviathan series of novels that chronicled the decay of the old European order, and its descent into the night of the inhuman, stands unrivalled. Our current politics, our aesthetics, our images of personal hurt carry the impress of Death in Venice, of The Magic Mountain, of Doctor Faustus. The epithet 'Olympian' has been attached to Thomas Mann. In an important sense, it is erroneous. There is nothing remote about these classics. They ache at us.

*Brookner's Family and Friends begins with an epigraph from Goethe's most famous novel. And the cold calculations of Elective Affinities are discussed in Altered States.

Marvellous Eighteenth-century Women

'"Personne ne m'aime, et je ne m'en plains pas. Je suis trop juste pour cela."' 
'What?' I asked him, startled.
'One of those marvellous eighteenth-century women, I forget which one. Madame du Deffand, no doubt. She blamed no one for not loving her, said she was too - what is it? - Just? Fair? - for that.'
Altered States, ch. 12

It's not a quote that's on everyone's lips. When I typed it into Google a moment ago, Altered States was the only hit. It must result from Brookner's early reading, those youthful years she spent in the old Bibliothèque Nationale in the rue Richelieu, reading her way lengthways and widthways through her cherished eighteenth century. (There's a piece in the TLS somewhere, in which Brookner writes about the library, including mention of the day she was the recipient of a large bunch of flowers. I have in my notes a mention of the article, but no longer a copy.)

Monday 29 May 2017

How / Isolated, like a fort, it is

My recent booking of a night at the Hôtel du Lac set me thinking not only about Brookner's most famous novel but also about other hotel-set works of literature. There's an early Arnold Bennett, there's Elizabeth Bowen's The Hotel, there's Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. And there's Larkin's poem 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel' (High Windows, 1974).

Larkin was notoriously phobic about 'abroad', but his hotel could be located as easily in Mitteleuropa as in the Midlands. The poem, ostensibly a description of an all but deserted hotel on a Friday evening, is packed with strangeness. Light 'spreads darkly downwards'; empty chairs 'face each other'; the dining-room 'declares / A larger loneliness of knives and glass'; silence is 'laid like carpet'. The vivifying of the inanimate owes much, perhaps, to Elizabeth Bowen. There are also strong Brooknerian echoes, or rather prefigurings. 'The headed paper, made for writing home / (If home existed) letters of exile' reminds us of the ending to Hotel du Lac.

But 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel' is more than a virtuoso description, and it is about more than solitude. It is about the poet's sense of himself as a writer, as a writer in the Romantic tradition. It is about, if you will, his 'out-of-date romanticism' (to quote Brookner's A Closed Eye). When the speaker comes to write his 'letters of exile', he pens instead the enigmatic lines that finish the poem: 'Now / Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.' We've left far behind the real world of the hotel, and we're deep in night thoughts, deep in English Literature itself. We might recall King Lear's 'low farms, / Poor pelting villages'.

The Grand Hôtel du Lac, Vevey

I'm sure the Bank Holiday long weekend is when the thoughts of many folk turn towards pilgrimage. I'll return presently to my survey of Altered States, but for the moment I've been booking a summer holiday.

I've been several times to Vevey, I've had tea in the garden of the Hôtel du Lac, but I've never actually stayed there. It's been rather radically renovated in the meantime and is now known as the Grand Hôtel du Lac, so I can really only afford one night.

It'll be an excuse or an opportunity to reread the novel, which I'm not sure I've ever done. It was my first Brookner, read when I was seventeen or eighteen in 1990. I don't think of it as a great or a typical Brookner but something must have chimed. I remember reading voraciously.

I hope I get a view of the Dent d'Oche.

The Hôtel du Lac, 3 August 1993

From the hotel, August 1993
The Dent d'Oche

Sunday 28 May 2017

Brookner's Passport Photo

Yesterday's spell of Brookner tourism also took in a visit to the Passport Photo Service in North Row, the other side of Oxford Street from the Wallace Collection. A piece in the Guardian by Andrew Male had alerted me. It's a small, unremarkable photo studio, but its walls are decorated with photos of celebrities.

Including Anita Brookner. You can see her in the Guardian picture. Dressed in a crisp white blouse with rather wide collars, she slouches forward slightly. Her expression is composed but lugubrious; her bottom lip is more protuberant than in other pictures. She looks newly coiffed. The photo has a faded, almost sepia look, though it's probably from no earlier than the Eighties. She keeps company with other old-time half-recognised figures.

Saturday 27 May 2017

Drowning in Blueness: the Wallace Collection

I wanted to look at pictures, either in the National Gallery or in the Wallace Collection. This last was a haven of coolness, even of gloom, yet it was deserted, except for discreet knots of American ladies looking at snuff boxes in glass cases. To this day I can retrieve the sensation of walking over the hot gravel of the courtyard, my head hammering from the unforgiving glare, and the sensation of dignity which descended on me as I made my way up the stairs. Ahead of me were the great Bouchers, masterpieces neglected by most visitors but to me of the same order as the astonishing weather, which, if I turned my head, I could see through the dusty windows. In comparison with the pictures the sun suddenly seemed tawdry, exhausted. ... I turned back to the pictures, to the effortless immaculate soaring of the figures in their spectacular universe. The throbbing in my head died away, as did all bodily sensations, as I stood at the top of the stairs, drowning in blueness.
A Family Romance, ch. 4

Intent on a spot of Brooknerian tourism, I visited the Wallace Collection this morning. I haven't been there for many years, but was once a regular. I knew the place when the central quadrangle, now glazed over and a very posh cafe, was a wilderness of weeds and broken statuary. I may even have visited the Wallace Collection before I read about it in Anita Brookner. Or perhaps not.

The hot gravel of the courtyard...

...snuff boxes in glass cases...

...the great Bouchers...

...the [not so] dusty windows...

Of course, the Powellian Poussin:

And the corner of a Rubens landscape, such as George Bland in Brookner's A Private View might have fantasised about:

And several rooms of paintings by Greuze, Watteau and others. Brookner Rooms, I'll call them:

Friday 26 May 2017

Swiss Exile

Brookner's repetitiveness - inevitable, perhaps, in a writer writing so copiously and at such speed - is, for some, a weakness; for the more committed reader it's a source of comfort, even of a certain perverse pleasure. Reading Altered States, chapter 12 - like chapter 10, another tour de force - one cannot but recall Edith Hope's Swiss exile in Hotel du Lac.

Alan Sherwood's exile is to a town on the Swiss/French border:
The name of the small town to which [my father-in-law] had consigned me ... seemed appropriate, since my nerves were à vif, that is to say, flayed.
He must, again like Edith, absent himself for decency's sake:
...somewhere, at some level, there may have been a hope that Aubrey's reasoning was sufficient, that all I needed was fresh air and exercise, and that if I absented myself I would expiate my fault ... and would go some way to being forgiven.
His arrival, and indeed the subsequent details of the vacation, including observations of fellow guests, are comprehensively described. It's as satisfying as poetry. It's as satisfying as similar such scenes in Hotel du Lac, or in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, the archetypal novel of Swiss exile.

Alan's wife, and his unborn daughter, have both left the stage; it's as if Brookner were back on home turf. Solitude, she told John Haffenden, takes a lot of getting used to; one has to nerve oneself every day. Alan has a similar reflection:
A solitary life is not for the faint-hearted...
But would he or his creator want it any other way?

The Power to Shock

In later Brookner - and Altered States is past the mid-point - the screw turns, iron enters the soul. There are moments in many of these works that truly bring the reader up short. Or this reader, at least. Or they do now: I find myself more shocked now, on re-reading - possibly because I'm older. The end of chapter 11, for example. I read it aghast. My heart is in my mouth. One's heart is often in one's mouth when one reads later Brookner, such is the atmosphere of dread. But here the fear is realised, and in unsparing fashion.

Thursday 25 May 2017

Beyond the Bridge

Beyond the bridge lay the Paris I had known and loved, and perhaps should never see again with that lift of the heart that had once attended me every morning of my life.
Altered States, ch. 10

Chapter 10 of Altered States is one of the most accomplished in the whole of Brookner. Significantly it is about Paris and significantly it's about a character travelling on his own. Alan goes to Paris, planning a clandestine meeting with Sarah at the George Cinq, but things go farcically awry. There's a bizarre travel-phobic man on the plane; it's raining heavily; the hotel is overbooked. From that point, Alan's attempts to meet Sarah develop from farce into Kafka-style nightmare. He reflects again on her unavailability; he's practically never had a proper conversation with her. She's rather like the love object in Mann's Magic Mountain, the woman with the Kirghiz eyes, whom Hans Castorp never so much as speaks two words to. The chapter ends in full-blown horror: it's Brookner pulling out all the stops. But the setting gives it added weight. Paris: scene of Brooknerian dreams, but also of Brooknerian disillusion. One remembers Mimi waiting hopelessly for Frank in a Paris hotel in Family and Friends, or one looks ahead to Julius Herz and his terrible visit to the city in The Next Big Thing.

Wednesday 24 May 2017

The Country and the City

Angela, Alan's ill-fated wife in Altered States, is Lewis Percy's Tissy reborn, though for Tissy's suburban origins we have a background even farther beyond the pale. Alan spends an 'excruciating weekend' in Angela's mother's provincial 'red-brick box of a house', the cramped amenities of which are described with maximum distaste. The garden, we're told, slopes down to a small stream.

Angela has dreams of the countryside, but her fantasies are more of the fabled lives of the squirearchy. She isn't keen on Alan's mother, fears Mrs Sherwood may be condescending to her. The issue of class, as ever in Brookner, is very subtly conveyed.

In chapter 9 Alan takes Angela on a holiday into the English interior - alien territory for any true Brooknerian. They spend time in the New Forest, then head for Bournemouth, mixing with Jewish matrons. This is firmer ground, recalling the Christmas hotel scene in A Family Romance. Indeed the vacation is surprisingly a success, and leads to the purchase of a second home, Postman's Cottage, in Shoreham-by-Sea. Brookner's laughter is quiet but not too difficult to hear.

Soon, though, we're off to Paris again, and the narrative can (perhaps) breathe a sigh of relief.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Aga Saga

[Angela] preferred to think of us in a genteel country setting, in a house called The Old Rectory, or The Old Post Office, in which she, in a flowered skirt, and one of her eternal blouses, would bake bread or entertain guests of the squirearchical class.
Altered States, ch. 8

Angela, we earlier learnt, favours 'upmarket sagas of village life', a million miles from Brooknerian fare.

'Genteel', 'country', 'a flowered skirt', 'squirearchical': Brookner picks her words damningly. The stiletto of her irony is perhaps here at its sharpest but thinnest; it's possible not everyone will hear her subtle scorn. How to prove it? It's about city vs. country, outsiders vs. insiders, the wary and the excluded vs. the complacent and the established. It's about Brooknerians vs. the likes of Angela and the rest of the comfortable or comforted world.

Monday 22 May 2017


Who writes letters now? I did, in my analogue youth. I was, I guess, playing at being grown up, because writing letters was what grown-ups did. I even had a pen-pal, Marie Delemotte, mention of whom has been previously made. (I was with her in London in 1992 on the day I met Anita Brookner - see 'A Fraudulent Encounter'.)

Brookner characters write letters - long, highly emotional letters they either later regret or do not send. We get to see them in all their horror, get to witness at close quarters the collapse of the Brooknerian reserve. They're terrifying performances. No one would want to receive such letters. There's one, a comparatively short one, in chapter 7 of Altered States, and the valediction gives something of its flavour: 'I am yours devotedly, in spite of, or rather because of, everything, Alan.'

With the publication of the letters of Philip Larkin and later of Kingsley Amis (both born in 1922), critics suggested the age of literary correspondence might be at an end. Of course we all still write to one another now - but differently, ephemerally, perhaps less stagily.

Sunday 21 May 2017

My Virtue Had Been Equal to My Happiness

I was filled ... with the memory of Sarah, and the awesome revelation of our matching physical temper. For the first time in my life I had met a woman with that rare sort of genius, effortless, uninvented, almost unconscious. This was the gift she possessed and I had been its recipient. Like Julien Sorel in another context my virtue had been equal to my happiness. This phrase had puzzled me ever since Mother had persuaded me to read the novel ... She had blushed and said, 'It means that he acquitted himself well, and no further explanation was needed. I'm sure you see the beauty of that, Alan.' I had, in fact, although I had thought the novel difficult. Yet along with its crankiness went a sort of excitement, which convinced me that its author had been young and ardent and romantically fulfilled, even though his hero had ended in prison.
Altered States, ch. 6

Saturday 20 May 2017

Phenomenal Psychological Pressure

I seemed to have to exert phenomenal psychological pressure along the order of mesmerism, to induce her to meet my eye...
Altered States, ch. 4

Alan strives time and again to capture Sarah Miller's attention. The 'oddness' of Sarah, her 'psychopathology' - she's a 'lusus naturae', a freak of nature, he decides - are topics for much speculation - by Alan, and by Brookner. There's a sense of Brookner struggling to capture Sarah, of Sarah - more than any other Brookner monster - eluding the baffled author's grasp.
I telephoned her several times. Each time there was no answer, yet I had an image of her, sitting in the flat, on the floor, perhaps, willing the sound to stop, the silence to be restored. (Ch. 6)

Friday 19 May 2017

Minstrels and Troubadours

Three years at Oxford and nearly five in Paris should have alerted me to the notion of courtly love, but I rather think that even if I had been acquainted with it, had grown up believing in minstrels and troubadours, I should not have recognised my own behaviour, which had more in common with the Middle Ages, even the Dark Ages, than with the twentieth century.
Altered States, ch. 5

I quote this passage largely as an excuse to share one of my favourite paintings. I saw it again in Berlin recently. It is one of Moritz von Schwind's 'picture novellas': The Rose, or the Artist's Journey (1846-7). 'The hero', wrote the painter, 'is the last musician, a man of lofty ideas' and yet 'a ruined genius'. My guide to the Alte Nationalgalerie reads:
The viewer can guess what longing will be awakened by the dropped rose. Disillusion was a central theme in Schwind's work.

Thursday 18 May 2017

The Crude Manners of the Age

Her exquisite manners disarm and put visitors at ease, and at the same time secure a reasonable distance. 
She offers coffee from a cafetiere, and seats herself on the sofa: immaculately dressed; perfectly contained in her movements, a woman of impeccable manners and propriety.

'I had not quite learned the crude manners of the age,' says Alan Sherwood in chapter 4 of Altered States, and there follows a rather dreary account of a time when he complimented a secretary's looks and she took umbrage; this is more about political correctness than manners, though the line about the age's crude manners remains valid. And it is true of so many Brooknerians, and results in many a misunderstanding. But would they ever have had it any other way? What might have its origins in shyness gradually, with greater confidence, becomes a cherished trait, a means of self-protection: protective colouring, as Brookner said in another interview.

Brookner herself, as we see, was famed for her good manners - manners not frosty but certainly distancing. 'You will find yourself babbling,' Julian Barnes advised the Telegraph interviewer. I indeed found myself doing that when I met her. Not that Dr Brookner scorned me; she was politeness itself. But I was on my mettle.

Wednesday 17 May 2017

On Samuel Richardson

Richardson's novels, far-fetched and of poor quality in any language...
Anita Brookner, Greuze, ch. 2

Brookner's chief beef with Samuel Richardson is a well-worn one: his didacticism: 'one was expected to read his novels in the virtuous anticipation of being instructed'. She condemns his 'almost professional assurance that virtue will triumph'; such uplift is 'spurious'. And she has her suspicions that many of his readers would have gained 'more than a little excitement' from the more lurid aspects of his fiction.

I don't often disagree with Anita Brookner (I probably wouldn't be writing this if I did). I agree with her as far as Richardson's first novel, Pamela, is concerned, a dull and ridiculous book if ever there was one, and I haven't read his last, Sir Charles Grandison (who has, other than Jane Austen?), but I tend to think of Clarissa as one of the greatest novels in any language - absorbing, immersive, and not a little mad. Clarissa set out the rules of engagement for all the great psychological novels that were to come, not least among them the novels of one Dr Brookner. Perhaps Brookner struggled with the not inconsiderable logistics of reading such a monstrously oversize text, no readable printed edition of which has been available for some time. I recently read Clarissa over the course of a year on my e-reader. It's what Kindles were invented for.

Tuesday 16 May 2017


In retrospect I can say that I never felt more of a man than I did at that moment, on that silent afternoon, before I was put to the test, before my life began and ended.
Altered States, end of ch. 3

The ends of Brookner's chapters, like several of her novels' overall conclusions, don't always work. They strive towards epiphany, at any rate towards 'fine writing'. But sometimes, as here, the pressure forges new thinking. 'Before my life began and ended': how easily this might be applied to other Brooknerians, or indeed perhaps to Brookner herself. She often gave the impression, particularly in interview, that the writing of fiction was a kind of posthumous occupation for her, not quite her real life; it was something she had engaged in only when the real business was over.


For more thoughts on Brookner's endings, see here.

Monday 15 May 2017

Down and out in Paris but not in London

I'm reading chapter 3 of Altered States at present. We started the novel with the narrator, Alan Sherwood, a man in his fifties, holidaying in the French border town of Vif (which I once, in the 90s, on a coach trip, passed through - and it was as somnolent as Brookner describes). Imperceptibly, somewhere and somehow in chapter 2, Brookner took us back to Alan's twenties, and by the current chapter we're firmly in that past, at a party and being introduced to Sarah Miller, who'll become Alan's obsession.

Brookner seems to be trying hard with Sarah, but it is another character who claims our attention. Sarah's uncle's new wife - an ageing Polish woman who has lived most of her life in Paris, and now tries to be English - is Sarah's obverse. Her looks are contrasted with Sarah's, the slipperiness and uncertainty of her European identity seen as the very opposite of Sarah's (and Alan's, for that matter) solid Englishness. The woman has, crucially, several names: Jadwiga, Edwige, Jenny.

Whose side is Alan on? And whose side Brookner? Alan is sorry to have come to the end of his années de pèlerinage in the French capital: misty wintry London is now to be his portion, along with duty, work, and, he reckons, marriage and child-rearing. But his old life gives him an affinity with Jadwiga/Edwige/Jenny:
I saw that Parisian background as lonely, an affair of stratagems. I had lived there; I knew how hard it was to exist on a small amount of money, to live in a cheap hotel, never quite warm enough, never quite clean enough...
This is the occasion for an extended riff on the attractions of Paris. But:
I was young, and I was not a woman.
So: Jenny vs. Sarah. As the novel proceeds I shall attend with interest to what seems like a classic Brookner binary.

Gare de Vif

Sunday 14 May 2017

Falsely Intelligent Summaries

...I am averse to falsely intelligent summaries, such as seem to be prevalent nowadays, and prefer long moments of reverie and speculation, which seem to me more conducive to satisfactory conclusions.
Altered States, ch. 1

They are, I realise, those falsely intelligent summaries, what I must avoid here. Let me trust instead to speculation and reverie, to indirections that might perhaps find directions out.

In any event, I often think I have little choice. How I envy those who can put together regular, cogent, recognisable (I'm trying to avoid the word 'normal') reviews and summaries of books they've read. I'm given, rather, to the power of impressions. At one time I would write essays, long essays, dissertations. Not now.

My initial impressions of Altered States: a ghost story; and a Sebaldian quest story:
...I lingered, a substantial English ghost, haunting the woman in the German hat ... I felt that this person on the platform might hold the key to the mystery, might in some extraordinary way enlighten me as to where Sarah might be, for although I tended to see her everywhere I had not yet laid eyes on her in ways that might be construed as physical, verifiable... (Ibid.) 
I had nothing to go on apart from two addresses on a piece of squared paper: the pencil was faded and the paper limp from much folding. One address, the one in Paris, I already knew about; the other, in the rue des Bains, in Geneva, is almost certainly unreliable. (Ibid.)
But I am persuaded of neither interpretation. Brookner as M. R. James? Brookner as W. G. Sebald? No. She'll only ever be herself. One must beware not only of falsely intelligent summaries but also of Brookner's many traps.

Friday 12 May 2017

Brexit Brookner

The woman on the station platform was smartly but not fashionably dressed, in a sober chestnut-coloured suit and the sort of brown felt hat still favoured by certain middle-aged middle-class women in Germany. I doubted whether this woman was German, although she certainly looked European. This much was attested to by her shoes, which were smart without being fashionable: narrow brown brogues, with a medium heel. I noticed that they were brilliantly polished.
Altered States, ch. 1

(Brexit Brookner: A provocative post title: prepare to be disappointed.)

In Altered States (1996) Brookner gives voice to a rather staid Englishman, with a very English name, Alan Sherwood. The success or otherwise of this project will be a discussion for another day, but for the moment I want to think about notions of Europe and Europeans.

Henry James was clear. 'Europe' meant the Continent, but also the British Isles. It meant the Old World, in contrast to the innocence and puritanism of America. ('I have been to England and Holland,' says New Englander Mr Wentworth in The Europeans (1878) 'Ah, you have been to Europe?' cries the Baroness in reply. (Ch. 3))

But in the opening pages of Brookner's Altered States (and I shall be interested to see whether this is traceable through the novel) 'Europe' is distinct from Britain; Britain isn't perceived to be a part of Europe.

I well remember how the Brexit debate or what would become the Brexit debate began to come to the fore in the 1990s, with all those dreary and protracted disputes over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

Can we find here, in Altered States, a minor and forgotten novel from those years, the seeds of something much larger - something that may leave the states of Europe at least a little altered?

(There. Not too painful, I hope)


As an aside, let us consider again the mystery of Brookner's politics. Had she lived to see June 2016, what would she have voted in the EU Referendum? I've no idea. Older people tended to vote Leave. More moneyed people generally voted Remain. But nothing was definite. (Kicking my heels one lunchtime recently, I looked up Brookner's borough - Kensington and Chelsea - and nearly 69% of the votes cast were for the Remain side.)

On the Verge of Decadence

It was all too obvious to the spectator that this was another allegory of lost innocence, but it appeared, to Mme Roland, among others, a remarkably decent work. It is certainly, for a subject of this type, a very painterly one. The luscious tender flesh, still painted with Rubens shadows of grey and blue, is now on the verge of decadence; the plump hands are becoming mannered. The dress, roughly painted with stiff loaded brush-strokes, sets off the melting Greuzian softness of the head, and the colours of the accessories (pink roses, green leaves, dark grey-blue sky) overflatter the tender passages. Yet in spite of all this the girl seems to have been painted as a study, i.e. objectively, and the stillness of the figure, a quality rare in Greuze, almost triumphs over the double entendre.
Anita Brookner on Greuze's La Cruche Cassée (Louvre) in Greuze (1971), ch. 7

Brookner struggles with Greuze. She struggles to like him and struggles to praise him. She isn't much of a fan, but in this early work, Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon, she's stuck with penning a short- to medium-length study of him.

As always the reader gains both knowledge and insight from Brookner's art history. She does what all such guides should do: she makes us see a painting in fresh ways or as if for the first time. But we might also be inclined to look for parallels with Brookner's novels and with Brookner's own practice as an artist. In the passage above the typical Brooknerian descriptive battery is in full deployment. What's more, we see, in her weighing up of Greuze's balancing of painterly objectivity and decadent voluptuousness, something of the conflicts she would explore in her fiction. Further, in the phrase, 'on the verge of decadence', we perhaps have a fairly succinct setting out of the effect of Brookner's celebrated writing style.

Thursday 11 May 2017

Altered States

Brookner's novels fall into three not quite distinct phases. Not as distinct as, say, Henry James's 'James the First, James the Second, and the Old Pretender'. Brookner's novels, more uniform, more regular, gradually evolve. But I reckon we can think of the 1980s novels as our introduction to Brooknerland, our first steps inland, and the late novels, those of the 2000s, as the end of the journey. But in Brookner's 1990s fiction we're deep in the interior - we're in darkest Brookner.

So I come to a reread of Altered States (1996). It gets little attention, overshadowed by such better-regarded 90s Brookners as Visitors and A Family Romance. It's unique in the oeuvre in that it's written from a male character's perspective in the first person. Starting it again, after a long time away, I remember little; it's almost (but not quite) like reading a new Brookner.

So join me on an excursion into what seems like the long-ago past, before our strange modern world came properly on.

Wednesday 10 May 2017

This Needless Test

People seemed to behave more reasonably in those remote days. The companionship engendered by the late War had not entirely fragmented. Nobody jogged. Nobody went to the gym.
Brookner, 'Benedict Nicolson', Independent Magazine, 10 September 1994

Not long ago we said a few words about booze, a most unBrooknerian topic. Continuing this series, let's look at sport and exercise. Sport first: no one in Brookner watches it, plays it, thinks about it. There are no visits to football fixtures; the Brooknerian year is not punctuated by even the most genteel of sports. Compare the way the aristos in Trollope live their lives in tune with the sporting rituals of the Season. There are still people today whose years are structured in this way. But they're not to be found in Brookner.

But there are always joggers. Anna Durrant, in chapter 8 of Fraud, enduring the loneliest Christmas day on record, nevertheless spots a few determined joggers. But they represent otherness rather than any kind of solidarity. Jogging also represents an uncongenial modernity, as the passage above suggests. But Brooknerians are flâneurs. Indeed the street, as opposed to the restrictiveness of indoors, is often celebrated. Take this from Strangers:
To be once again in the street felt like the order of release. Air! He wanted air! (Ch. 11)
Indoors is the domain of the established and the happy and the complacent, the literal insiders. The living-spaces of Brooknerians are contrastingly empty, unheimlich, as Rachel says of her bedroom in A Friend from England.

It's in that novel that we find one of the most striking and uncharacteristic scenes in the whole of Brookner: in chapter 4, when Rachel visits her colleague's health club. The swimming pool's smell, the echoing noise, the curiosity of others, the sense of violence and disturbance, are all powerfully evoked. The reputed benefits of sport and exercise prove worthless in the Brooknerian world:
Even when I was dressing I could hear the dull shouting, magnified under the glass roof, and the fact that these were sounds of enjoyment made no difference to me. I knew I had not beaten my fear, that I never should, and I resolved never to put myself to this needless test again.

Tuesday 9 May 2017

James Joyce's Desiderata

Silence, exile, and cunning, James Joyce's desiderata for an artist's life, seemed to have been discovered by Heather with the rapidity and the inevitability of one who led a charmed existence.
A Friend from England, ch. 8

The famous Joyce quote, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, serves Brookner's purpose here, at least to an extent (more relevantly we might recall Jane in A Family Romance, exiling herself to Dijon and 'stealthily' beginning to write); but it is still surprising to see such an unBrooknerian writer being recruited on to Brookner's team.

Monday 8 May 2017

Everything's terrible, cara

At last, though, we see what Brookner is up to. Rachel is sent to Venice for the crisis - 'the ultimate nightmare: a city filled with water' - and does indeed find herself sinking. Like Strether in The Ambassadors (late James hangs, somewhat stiflingly, over the whole novel), she goes to fetch Heather back from the life she has chosen, and finds herself at risk. 'Perhaps I was beginning to find a symbolism in her undistinguished adventure and the light it was shedding on my own life.' What we are reading is not a social comedy or novel of sensibility, but an allegorical debate between a false life of repression and a true life of risks and engagements. And it is the 'Brookner heroine' who is defeated. 
But how narrow the terms of the debate are, with no alternatives for women other than self-deceiving freedom or sexual dependency! And how faintly the opposition is drawn! And how neurotic and obscure the narrative is! - as troubling as Giorgione's painting 'The Tempest,' which Brookner characteristically provides as an analogue for her allegory. Rachel is 'made for the dark' - 'Who said life wasn't terrible?' she says to Heather, echoing James' Prince in The Golden Bowl: 'Everything's terrible, cara, in the heart of man.' For all Brookner's sly distancing of this narrative voice, it's impossible not to feel that this harsh, dark fable speaks of her own despair; it may be that if she didn't write, she would drown.

Early on in A Friend from England Rachel gets intimations that things may be adrift, when the Colonel rings her up and makes a fairly repellent pass at her. It is one of Brookner's raw, shocking moments. 'If someone as horrible as the Colonel had found me out, then I had to know that something was wrong' (ch. 5).

Gradually Rachel comes to the fore, developing like a photograph in the old analogue world of the novel. Gradually she begins to see herself afresh, has panicky thoughts of flight, fantasies of hanging the closed sign on her shop door. Anna in a later novel, Fraud, will actually enact such a disappearance, and hers will be in a measure successful. But Anna is a more distant figure, compared with Rachel in the later parts of A Friend from England. As Hermione Lee suggests, Rachel may be the fictional spokeswoman for real despair. The outburst in chapter 9 - 'People like you seem to think [life] is a sort of party ... I live in the real world, the world of deceptions. You live in the world of illusions ... Of course, it's terrible' - is one of Brookner's most brilliant manifestos. She goes in for them from time to time, lets her protagonist shout and scream, lets her or him put forward the extreme Brooknerian case.

At the end, in the masterly Venice scenes, Rachel sees her bleak future plainly. Lee is right to criticise the terms of debate - 'Without a face opposite mine the world was empty; without another voice it was silent' - but Brookner simply hasn't any other answers. And nor have any of us, not even Oscar Livingstone, once so spruce, once such a romantic, now a shabby widower, stumping away in the novel's last lines in a parody of a Hollywood ending into a rapidly sinking sun.

Sunday 7 May 2017

Stendhal Again

We had the recent post* about the after-dinner cigar, and one from a short while back on the connections between or among Brookner, Sebald and Stendhal, and yesterday I enormously enjoyed reading a text** by Jack Robinson (Charles Boyle) from CB Editions, An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H. B.,*** which I discovered by chance in the Guardian Review.

The text is powered by its footnotes - and what pleasure there is in finding on pp. 4-5 a quotation from Brookner's 1980 TLS review of a Stendhal biography, collected in Soundings: 'Anita Brookner', says Robinson, '...approves [Beyle's] furious attempts "to measure up to the rules of the game, even when [my [i.e. Robinson's] italics] there was no game being played".'****

Though Brookner isn't directly referenced again, the italicised line is mentioned twice more, on p. 81 and p. 128.

The other echoes are numerous.
Beyle, while watching a mosquito bite on his ankle, remembering that it is always better to be in love than not in love - even if there is no chance, ever, of that love being reciprocated (p. 61)
made me think of Stendhal-fan Sturgis in Strangers, wishing that he were in love:
Only in that climate of urgency could he make decisions. (Ch. 15)
There are other lines that might be applied to Brookner:
More than a spy, Beyle is a double agent, working for both sides (... Classicism/Romanticism, art/life), and he knows it's pointless to deny it. (p. 84)
Beyle asks if I've read Flaubert's letter to Louise Colet in which he spoke of writing 'a book about nothing, a book ... held aloft by the internal force of its style' (p. 37)
Lastly we have Beyle's final collapse, discussed in an earlier post, and in An Overcoat confirmed to have taken place in the rue Neuve des Capucines, though the question of where he was taken afterwards isn't entered into.

An Overcoat is brilliant, absorbing, strange, and highly recommended - not just for Brooknerians.


*Disappointingly no one could identify the cigar quote, but An Overcoat sent me back to the Brookner essay mentioned by Jack Robinson. Here Brookner, some years before A Friend from England, uses the cigar line, describing it as a 'fine dandyish moment'.
**Not a novel - too short, and too essayish. A novella? Autofiction? Travelogue? 'Fiction / non-fiction', it says underneath the book's barcode.
***I.e. Henri Beyle
****The quotation in Soundings is very slightly and unimportantly different. Perhaps the original TLS piece was differently phrased. On another point, the games-playing line recalls a similar one highlighted in a post of mine on Brookner and Rosamond Lehmann.

Saturday 6 May 2017

As One Might Smoke a Cigar

I picked up a book from the pile on the table at my elbow, and read, 'Lacking more serious occupations since 1814, I write, as one might smoke a cigar after dinner, in order to pass the time.' I put the book down again, disheartened by this dandyish attitude, so impossibly urbane as to be permanently beyond my reach.
A Friend from England, ch. 7

The line about the cigar is from Stendhal, but I've never located it. I have The Life of Henry Brulard on my shelves but I've had no luck with that. The Journals? The Correspondence?

It's not an especially relevant line; Rachel isn't a writer. But she thinks of herself as a dandy, so that's probably it. It's more a case of an author putting forward one of her own enthusiasms. But it is also a case of something Brookner has form for: undercutting and demythologising the very activity she's engaged in. Time and again Brookner finds ways of sneering at the strange second career she enjoyed so much success in. One recalls her words to Sue MacGregor in 2011:
Sue MacGregor: Anita, what did the Courtauld give you?
Anita Brookner: A whole life, really. Everything that came after ... was ... very dull.
SM: Even the success as a writer?
AB: Oh, that was far less interesting!
SM: Really?
AB: Yes - yes!

Thursday 4 May 2017

On Drink

In one of Anita’s later novels, the female protagonist, when having supper alone in her flat, regularly has a glass of white wine. Being interested in wine, I couldn’t help noticing that each time supper occurred, the wine was different: first a chardonnay, then a pinot grigio, then a sauvignon, and so on; but the last wine to be drunk in the book was, unexpectedly, sweet – a sauternes. I wondered if such changingness might be significant, intended perhaps as an emblem of the protagonist’s volatility. At lunch I mentioned this theory, and referred to that puzzling late switch from dry to sweet. ‘Oh no,’ replied Anita unconcernedly, ‘I just went into a shop and copied down the names.’

No one ever gets drunk in an Anita Brookner novel. The character identified by Julian Barnes is probably Blanche in A Misalliance - a very mild toper, all things considered. Very mild in comparison with, for example, the folk to be found in an average Kingsley Amis. Followers of this blog will know I've a penchant for Amis. I always love his drinking scenes, those long extended set-pieces that occupy such central positions in his novels. Amis himself was a legendary drinker, but said he never wrote while drunk. In his Memoirs he criticised writers such as Paul Scott, claimed he could always spot the moment in a Scott novel when the stuff went pouring in.

Mentions of drink in Brookner novels - champagne in A Friend from England, a glass of beer in Fraud - are few and far between, and represent not so much points of interest as moments of authorial awkwardness, moments when she steps a little gingerly outside her range. What, one wonders, would Brookner's world be like if it were less sober?

In Retirement

I often had thoughts of retiring myself, but of course that was impossible at my age.
A Friend from England, ch. 5

Rachel's retirement fantasies are indeed somewhat impossible, given that she's only in her early thirties, but the subject was probably on Brookner's mind in 1986, when presumably she wrote A Friend from England (1987). She would retire from the Courtauld at the age of sixty in 1988.

We might ask ourselves about the post-retirement Brookners and whether there is any distinctiveness. I would guess Brookner's writing schedule made Brief Lives (published 1990, almost certainly written in 1989) the first she wrote in 'the anonymity of a small flat in Chelsea', as her 'About the Author' spiel put it in those years.

Brief Lives, A Closed Eye, Fraud - indeed all the 1990s novels - have a new density, a new focus. There is a greater concentration on domestic, or at any rate on indoors life. There is a greater interest in ageing and on the end of life. The characters grow older. George Bland in A Private View has just retired; Mrs May (Visitors) is even older.

There is, perhaps, a sense of stories and themes growing narrower and more limited. But this process, which leads at last to the strange, difficult, post-Millennium novels, allows Brookner to distill her message more purely and more devastatingly than before.

Wednesday 3 May 2017


Significantly, the Colonel had begun to make himself scarce: I could picture him tiptoeing like a marauder from the scene.
A Friend from England, ch. 7
In the half hour or so that I spent outside I seemed to see Oscar rising continually from the bed, his face grey, his arm flung out in warning, or in remonstrance. 
Ibid., ch. 9
My last sight of him was of an untidy figure stumping off in the direction of Marble Arch. I saw his back, bent, silhouetted against the glow of a rapidly sinking sun.
Ibid., ch. 11

Brookner often presents us with such moments. The Colonel, marauding, and Oscar, his arm flung out, hail from Mannerist scenes, while that untidy figure stumping towards Marble Arch would seem perhaps to belong in a canvas by Walter Sickert.


Would Brookner rather have been a painter than a novelist? We know the answer to that question because John Haffenden asked it in his mid-80s interview with the writer:
Yes, I think you love the world more as a painter. Painters have a healthy appetite for life.

Tuesday 2 May 2017

What Would Brookner Do?

I found the following on Twitter. I've no idea where it originates, but it's good. Good advice too. I like the 'triumphantly'.

Monday 1 May 2017

Sensibilité, Greuze and Anita Brookner

The mid-eighteenth fashion for sensibility - sensibilité, as Brookner calls it - will be familiar to English students like myself, bringing back memories of being force-fed Richardson's Pamela, Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling and, with more enjoyment, Sterne's A Sentimental Journey. Sensibility soon became a sort of cult, ripe for send-up by Jane Austen, but at its start it was less a rejection of than a complement to Enlightenment reason, as well as being a rehearsal for Romanticism.

Brookner's focus in Greuze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon (1972) is largely art-historical; she places sensibility more precisely 'between the more important and recognizable styles of Rococo and Neoclassicism'. At the same time she traces in some detail the movement's origins in the religious conflicts of the previous century and the earlier eighteenth. Traditional piety, thrown into disrepute, left a gap, a gap filled by the likes of Jean-Baptiste Greuze's moral homilies. But the original idea of sensibilité, Brookner tells us, 'became gradually obscured by the penumbra of sensations it aroused'. It grew mystical, amoral, licentious. The granting of a preeminent status to the life of the senses excused a multitude of sins.

Let us consider sensibility in Brookner's novels. She has her affecting scenes, often involving sickbeds and deathbeds. There's one in chapter 9 of A Friend from England, as Dorrie Livingstone suffers and recovers in the London Clinic. Not that irony is in abeyance; we would hardly expect that of the novel's spiky narrator. But other Brookner scenes are as sentimental as the Greuzes below. One thinks of moments in A Family Romance or the ending of Look at Me, as the old retainer Nancy takes care of the defeated Frances.

The early Brookner of Greuze is no fan of sensibilité, nor indeed of Jean-Baptiste Greuze: 'His paintings,' she says at the outset, 'with certain exceptions, appear to us tawdry, if not obscene ... he appealed to a vein of feeling that has now become extinct'. That was in 1972. I think we're less stringent now, and (for good or ill) more sentimental, and I think too that Brookner in the novels that were to come, and which she perhaps didn't have an inkling of in the early Seventies, grew more accepting, more compassionate, more sensible.

Greuze, Le Paralytique, Hermitage

Greuze, La Dame de Charité, Lyon

Greuze, Le Fils Puni, Louvre

A Personal Canon

Inspired by Anthony at Time's Flow Stemmed, I've compiled a personal list. It's proved a sobering exercise, revealing something about the limited and static nature of my tastes, and also putting me in mind of the time I have left to remedy this. And yes, of course there is some Brookner.
  • Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils
  • Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout
  • Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing
  • Anita Brookner, A Private View
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett, The Present and the Past
  • Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
  • Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems
  • Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
  • George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  • T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
  • Henry James, The American Scene
  • Henry James, The Bostonians
  • Franz Kafka, The Castle
  • Philip Larkin, Collected Poems
  • David Lodge, Nice Work
  • Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time
  • Samuel Richardson, Clarissa
  • W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
  • William Makepeace Thackeray, Pendennis
  • Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington
  • Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour
  • Virginia Woolf, The Years