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.)

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