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.

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