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


  1. I've yet to read this one, but it's in the stack.

  2. Thanks for comment. So long since I read Altered States last that it really seems like a 'new Brookner', but not quite. Rereading is often an intriguing and rewarding process.


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