Monday 31 July 2017

A Certain Indescribable Air

I grew impatient with those who wasted [David Copperfield's] time: I saw nothing amusing in Mr Micawber ... I realised why I was so impatient with Mr Micawber. And Dolly was not only Mr Micawber, she was Mrs Micawber as well, hinting that she had come down in the world...
A Family Romance, ch. 6

Nothing amusing in Mr Micawber?! When a stranger came on the scene in chapter 11 of David Copperfield, with a 'certain condescending roll in his voice, and a certain indescribable air of doing something genteel', I found myself newly fascinated. I had forgotten how Micawber was introduced, and how early, but I welcomed him as an old friend, and looked forward to his every return. I don't often disagree with Brookner, but on the subject of Mr Micawber I must make an exception.

Sunday 30 July 2017

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont: now a major motion picture!

I reread Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) as part of my 'Hotels in Literature' series (see previous post). But I was resistant to the 2005 film, largely because I knew it wasn't set in the early Seventies. The producers had made the decision to update the story to the present, and I felt this might be an issue.

Within the first ten minutes we get references to Mrs Thatcher and Sex and the City, which sound incongruous. And there is of course a central problem with the set-up: old people simply don't live as residents in hotels any longer.

The bigger bugbear is with the film's tone. The supporting players plainly think it's a comedy and are hamming it up. We have the porter Summers, whose face is vaguely familiar from a hundred minor character roles, and Mrs Post is played by Marcia Warren, whom I remember from a forgettable Eighties sitcom called No Place Like Home. Then - God help us - there's Anna Massey (Edith Hope herself) as Mrs Arbuthnot. Everyone seems to be trying too hard.

Everyone except Joan Plowright as Mrs Palfrey. She seems to be in a different film. She notably underplays her part. She's sombre, serious. When playing against Anna Massey - the apparently terrifying Mrs Arbuthnot - Plowright, simply by virtue of the integrity of her performance, has the psychological upper hand, which somewhat undermines the intention of their scenes together.

The director knows she's the film's best asset. Plowright gets multiple close-ups. When she's in shot, the film holds back on the rather sentimental and at times comic score.

The relationship between Mrs Palfrey and Ludo is handled well. Their scenes together have much of the ambiguity they have in the novel. The scene in which he sings to her and she becomes tearful is appropriately uncomfortable.

Altogether it's a diverting if not wholly successful film. It isn't slavish to the novel, but at times it's held back by it. The tone is askew throughout, but Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is worth watching simply for Joan Plowright's wonderfully natural but luminous acting. The drooping of her right eyelid is heartbreaking.

Swiss Notebook: Adventures at the Hôtel du Lac


I rarely read new things now – rarely visit new places either. But now I was in Zurich, previously only travelled through. I arrived early, and nothing was ready, and it was a Sunday and raining and the streets were empty. Thoughts of panic and flight beset me. But by noon I’d planned the coming days and booked my train ticket to Vevey and my room was cleaned. I was glad of the ideal company of Brookner (A Family Romance) and Dickens (David Copperfield), mightn’t have got through otherwise: I chose my summer reading well this year. ‘I led the same secretly unhappy life; but I led it in the same, lonely, self-reliant manner.’


Still half-lost in the unfamiliar streets I at last found my way to the edge of the Zürichsee
and a two-hour cruise: it seemed the Brookner thing to do, and indeed the weather was as it was for Mr Neville and Edith in fiction and on another lake: grey-blue distances, indistinct horizons. I lunched at Rapperswil and returned by train.

Dickens, Kirschtorte, a lake, a cup of tea

Sated for the moment with David Copperfield I went back that evening to A Family Romance:
I simply read on, willing myself to reach the end of the story, and promising myself an easing of the heart when David finally achieved happiness. When I got to the end I went back to the beginning.
By chapter 6 Brookner has cleared the decks and can focus on her main concerns: her protagonist’s inner life, and the contrasting life of Dolly. Imitate him and pay tributes to him as she may, nevertheless Brookner is an artist quite different from Dickens, whose imagination is enlivened by multiplicity, variousness, a cast of thousands.


To the Kunsthaus, where I found several pictures of interest. I viewed Courbet’s Trout, which Brookner saw at the Royal Academy in London in 1978. She remarked on its ‘agonised human eyes’.

Elsewhere were a couple of Delacroix, an Ingres and a Géricault. I examined Delacroix’s Indien armé d’un poignard Gurkha and Géricault’s Le Maréchal-ferrant.

Neither is especially prepossessing. The Delacroix depicts a moment of exotic danger and drama: the Indian seems poised to attack an encampment of red-coated troops. But he is a type, his individuality withheld or rather untold. Nor is the foliage especially persuasive of the East. The far-off British soldiers – mere staffage – might be bivouacked in Hampshire.

The Géricault, aside from the fact that it appears to have been painted on a bit of old fencing, has more to recommend it. The horse is memorably vital, the blacksmith determined but gentle. The man’s shirt and the horse’s eye, mane, tail and feet provide points of brightness and interest.

I continued with A Family Romance.
In what abyss of non-feeling did Dolly dwell? She made careful placements of affection, always ready to be withdrawn in a fit of indignation. Her world was loveless, and she craved love as others crave sugar, and for the same reason: to replace a sudden lack, of which she would be abruptly and fearfully aware.
Abysses of non-feeling: in A Family Romance Brookner’s already deep into the magisterial opacity that will mark her late style.


10.00: Journeying via Bern and Fribourg/Freiburg through landscapes of forests and gorges. The day brightens. I start to hear more French than German.

11.15: I’m in Vevey and eating a sandwich outside the station. The town has a relaxed, moneyed, genteel, also a rather dressy feel. One sees Brooknerians everywhere.

12.00: I am expected. My presence is enquired into. I confess my visit’s reason. The girl at Reception listens politely, blandly. No, she hasn't read the book, but has heard of it. But it is interesting, yes? And so nice to read a book and then see the place where it is set? So, sir, I should read the book, yes?

12.30: In my room now. High levels of comfort and finish. Not lake-facing, but third floor – no. 319, a few paces from 307, Edith Hope’s room. I asked about Haffennegger’s, the café mentioned in the novel, but it isn’t extant or known.

Then I open a drawer in my antique desk and find a printed history of the hotel, which namechecks Brookner quite substantially. ‘Anita Brookner’s heroine Edith Hope … took refuge in the salons, where the softness of the armchairs and an appetising slice of cherry cake allow her to forget her troubles.’

The book continues:
In the novel Anita Brookner drew on her own stays at the establishment in the early 1980s. Peter Ehrensperger [hotel director 1977-2005] lights up as he recalls: ‘She often came to stay and we established a very cordial relationship.’ (‘…nos relations sont devenues très amicales’)
Interviewer: What do you think of the recent transformations in the hotel?
Ehrensperger: Today Anita Brookner would no longer write the same novel. But even at the time the BBC wanted to make an adaptation of her book and found that the hotel was a little too modern.
Avec toute mon amitié,’ wrote Brookner in the guestbook as late as 1990.

3.00: I return from a walk into the Old Town. Plenty of antiques shops, antiquarian bookshops, interior design emporia, and knicker stores of the kind the Puseys would have patronised. Again a leisured, wealthy population, milk-fed, slow-moving, benign.

Awaiting the custom of
the Puseys de nos jours

3.50: I wander the corridors of the Grand Hôtel du Lac, hoping for glimpses into lake-facing rooms. Then the marvellous thought strikes me: there is no need to live like this! So I head down to Reception and speak to the talkative girl of earlier. Would it be possible to take photos of the lake from a lake-facing room? She hesitates, then decides my request will be possible. I follow her upstairs to room 306, next door to Edith’s, and I take several pictures inside. I thank the girl, elated but sheepish.

5.00: I walk to the Tour-de-Peilz castle and the Swiss Museum of Games. An exhibition of British sports and games called ‘So British!’ There’s a big display of a game I’ve never heard of, called Hare and Tortoise.

Back at the hotel the salons are deserted. No one is drinking; no one is having tea. A tall young woman, stooping, with a profile like Virginia Woolf’s, is talking loudly to the staff at Reception. ‘No, I’m just looking for my colleague,’ she says in a sharp New York accent. ‘Did you see her? She was here a minute ago.’

8.00: The salon where Edith eats cherry cake and battles the Puseys is unidentifiable. It’s probably subsumed among the three spaces now decorated in opulent late-nineteenth century fashion. I sit among chinoiserie while a pianist with green eye-shadow plays Ludovico Einaudi on an electric keyboard.

Brookner, chinoiserie, a gin and tonic

Later: All quiet on the corridors. No mysterious night-time disturbances.


The next morning, neither flat nor calm. Traffic, activity, urgency beyond the veal-coloured curtains. But I had slept well. I ate a gargantuan breakfast and walked along the shore: the lake choppy, the Dent d’Oche partly obscured.

When I left, at ten, breakfast was in full swing. My own had been quiet; I’ve always been much too early for things. But I never got the sense that somewhere in the hotel there might be things happening or an atmosphere of community among the guests. The hotel, since the 80s, has perhaps gone too far upmarket. Its clientele aren’t any longer those discreet persons of long-standing whom Brookner lauds: instead they’re simply rich, and the thought of being rich occupies their every moment, and they give out the basilisk stares of the rich.

Such luxurious, highly regularised, highly corporate hotels are at pains to emphasise their commitment to ‘authenticity’. But is authenticity a preoccupation because its very lack is a true fear and suspicion? Towards the end of A Family Romance Jane and Dolly stay in an expensive hotel in Bournemouth. Brookner’s characterisation of the hotel – ‘commercial, if not downright cynical’ – is at odds with the more benevolent way she depicts the Hôtel du Lac (not yet dubbed ‘Grand’) in her earlier novel. Perhaps that old-time hotel director M. Ehrensperger was correct when he suggested she might nowadays write a quite different novel.

I travelled from Vevey to Geneva for a final day before flying home. The weather was breezy but now very warm. ‘In any event, some sort of natural conclusion had been reached.’

Saturday 22 July 2017

Summer Plans

The Brooknerian will now be taking another short break. If all goes to plan (my itinerary is dismayingly complex) I should soon be a guest (for one night only) at the Grand Hôtel du Lac, Vevey. I could of course take my laptop with me, and blog from the scene, but I guess I'm old-fashioned. On my travels I prefer my pen, my notebook, my old analogue world.

[Two views of the hotel taken on a previous visit in August, 1993:]

Friday 21 July 2017

Hallucinatory Reality

...but when he looked up from his soup, which he had been drinking rather greedily, and smiled at her, as he had smiled at her when he was a young boy, her heart smote her and she made a pretext of tiredness after the journey in order to weep a few tears in the privacy of their spare room. She spent a sleepless night watching a square of moonlight reflected in the tall mirror hanging on the dark blue patterned wall to the left of her bed and imagining that she was a girl in Vienna once again, sleeping in a similar bedroom, with a similar polished wood floor, and the same smell of beeswax fustiness that now came back to her with hallucinatory reality.
A Family Romance, ch. 3

There's something of an hallucinatory quality to A Family Romance as a whole. It has to do with the density of the prose and the expansiveness of the chapters. It has also to do with events such as those above not having been experienced by the narrating consciousness but instead imagined and presented with great affecting vividness. It is as if the story were being seen through some kind of filter, giving a sense of altered or heightened reality.

On another point, A Family Romance sets up and explores a familiar Brookner binary: the contrast between England and Europe. It is Toni Ferber who is so overwhelmed in the passage above, which takes place in Brussels. It is Toni Ferber who, earlier in the novel, pities her English daughter for her 'tepid existence, for never having known the hothouse love she had known as a girl in Vienna' (ch. 2).

The rue de la Loi, Brussels

For more on Brooknerian Brussels and some extreme tourism, see a previous post, Incidents in the Rue de la Loi.

Thursday 20 July 2017

Incidents in the Rue Saint-Denis

She soon had a clientele among the girls, cheerful, stoical, good-natured creatures who petted the baby and took to spending their off-duty moments in the workroom with Fanny. There was nothing downtrodden about these girls; they regarded ordinary married women with scorn and pity.
A Family Romance, ch. 3

Brookner's determined blithe tolerance of what would now be called sex work is of some interest. It may be that she's cocking a snook at the political correctness that was coming into its own at the time of A Family Romance's publication (1993). Or at feminism - of which Brookner wasn't a noted follower.

But it probably has its roots in her affection for the modes and mores of the eighteenth century. The girls, during the Occupation, became, we learn, mistresses: they were, as Brookner puts it, 'elevated to the status of regular mistress'. The conservative imagination, far from being outraged by such goings on, instead is almost reassured by a sense of tradition and continuity.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

The Mysteries of English Life

My father thought that Dickens would uncover the mysteries of English life. Instead, I grew up thinking that everyone had a funny name. Life was really rather a relief after this panorama of social injustice.

The ghost or the shadow of Dickens, hovering over A Family Romance from the beginning, steps into the footlights in chapter 2:
Having effectively divorced themselves from home and family, [my parents] felt free to invent their lives, as if they were characters in Dickens.
(Brooknerians often feel the need or have the leave to invent their own lives. It's a favourite locution of Brookner's. Incidents in the Rue Laugier, I think, also employs the phrase.)

Then there's Brookner's use of Dickensian phrasing. Compare these: ties which [my parents] had long ago sought to sever, so as to be all in all to each other...
A Family Romance, ch. 1 mother and I and Peggotty were all in all to one another...
David Copperfield, ch. 8

Dickens-style characters also raise their heads. One thinks of Jane's schoolfriend's Scottish aunts Kate and Nell, ladies of great innocence and virtue, travelling down to London every year with their cargo of typical goods, always keen to get on with some 'serious baking' (ch. 4).

As The Princess Casamassima was for Henry James, A Family Romance is Brookner's most Dickensian novel, and Jane Manning one of her most English protagonists: 'English and unafraid', as she puts it.

The mysteries of English life were at last, perhaps, uncovered.

Tuesday 18 July 2017

The Romance of the Open Road

Living as we do through an era of technological change, we might look back not only at the time that came before but also at other moments of transformation.

In chapter 5 of David Copperfield, in midsummer weather and the evening very pleasant, David travels by mail coach from Yarmouth to London. The journey takes seventeen hours. With fascination and nostalgia Dickens conjures the lost or vanishing world of coaching - a world that by the time of the publication of David Copperfield (1849-50) the railways had all but swept away; a world, moreover, that linked him with the concerns of his first fictions - The Pickwick Papers, in particular - and earliest reading - Smollett, Fielding, both referenced several times and with great fondness in David Copperfield.

We all live in the digital age now, but I remember the time before. While I was at school I never once touched a computer, and I'm only in my middle forties.

Brookner's novels belong to the last years of the analogue era. In her final novels there are one or two tentative mentions of 'e-mail' (she hyphenates the word) and mobile phones. But little more.
Observer: Pencil or pen?
Brookner: Pen.
Obs: In manuscript?
B: I haven't got any of these machines.
Obs: And do you type them up later on?
B: Yes, I do that. 

Monday 17 July 2017

No Good Could Come of It

Her father [a Viennese ophthalmologist] was moderately successful in his profession, which was something of an irony, as his own eyes were weak and occasionally watery, which gave him a melancholy appearance. This ocular melancholy might even have masked something more profound, as if genuine grief were manifesting itself in this singularly appropriate symbol. Vienna was alive with metaphors: no explanation was too far-fetched.
A Family Romance, ch. 2

Was there ever a more Freudian Brookner than A Family Romance? There's its title, of course (though its applicability to the events of the novel isn't entirely obvious*), and there's Jane's maternal grandmother's Viennese background. I remembered from earlier readings that Toni Ferber ended up, like Freud, in Maresfield Gardens, London, but I had forgotten her journey had started in none other than the Berggasse in Vienna, and that the consulting-room of Dr Meyer, the ophthalmologist, was, like Freud's, just across the landing from his apartment.

Jane's English father had understandable doubts:
He thought the ambience perfervid, haunted by the ghost of Freud and other Viennese associations. Even the conjunction of the Berggasse and Maresfield Gardens was, he thought, too apt, too prompt, too symbolic to be a mere accident: no good could come of it.
(For more on Brookner and Freud, see comments in her several interviews, especially the 2009 Telegraph interview.)

*Jane 'was not encouraged to formulate any family romance, although I was to do this later in the books I wrote for children' (ch. 2). Thus, curiously negatively, the (British only) title refers to something that the novel rejects. But in steering wide of a too closely Freudian form of fiction, Brookner perhaps avoids a crime identified by Virginia Woolf: that in becoming 'cases' characters cease to be individuals ('Freudian Fiction', 1920 essay collected in A Woman's Essays).

Sunday 16 July 2017

The Most Delicious Retreat

After tea, when the door was shut and all was made snug (the nights being cold and misty now), it seemed to me the most delicious retreat that the imagination of man could conceive.
David Copperfield, ch. 3
All in all my parents were a haven to each other, finding in Prince of Wales Drive, and in the largely wordless company of Miss Lawlor, a peace that neither of them had ever found at home with their contentious parents.
A Family Romance, ch. 1

One wouldn't want to stretch a comparison too far, but as I reread David Copperfield and A Family Romance, I really am struck by the similarities. An old ship that's now a house, on the strand at Yarmouth, and a mansion flat in Battersea ('You live in the middle of nowhere, you know,' complains Dolly) - what's the difference?

I am hospitably received by Mr Peggotty.

Saturday 15 July 2017

Dolly and Mme Moitessier

Out of its draped neckline rose a throat that was full at the base and slightly suffused with colour ... Her hair and eyes were dark, her skin a beautiful clear olive and flushed over the prominent cheekbones, but her most characteristic feature was her mouth, which was long and thin, the lips as smooth as grape skins, the lipstick worn away into an outline by her eager tongue ... She had a squat European figure, with shortish legs and a full bosom, the whole thing reined in and made impregnable by some kind of hidden structure.
A Family Romance, ch. 1

There's something very painterly about these early-to-mid 90s Brookners. The chapters are long, about double the length of chapters in earlier and later Brookner novels. This adds to the dense, static atmosphere. Descriptions are full and considered. Reading the above description of Dolly, I am reminded of Ingres's Mme Moitessier in the National Gallery (see an earlier post for more on this painting). I know that this famous painting, its sitter in her impossible dress, is referred to directly in one of Brookner's novels; it may even be in this one.

Friday 14 July 2017

David and Jane

David Copperfield: We open with an aunt, a 'discontented fairy', and with scenes before David's birth. This is a novel, so the events are imagined by the writer. It is also a first-person narrative, yet these particular events weren't experienced by the narrator; they're therefore as it were doubly imagined, giving the opening of the novel a slightly unreal or magical quality.

Dickens knows this, and makes some effort to explain himself. In the second chapter David is young, but his jewel-bright recollection continues.
...I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose.
...if it should appear from anything I may set down ... that I was a child of close observation, or that as a man I have a strong memory of my childhood, I undoubtedly lay claim to both these characteristics.

A Family Romance: Here too we start with an aunt: 'the aunt rather than ... my aunt, for anything more intimate would have implied appropriation, or attachment'. Magical stories are invoked: 'Dolly's absence I took for granted, for in the manner of fairy tales I assumed that after the apotheosis it was natural for people to vanish'. And we are treated to detailed recounts of events and conversations, even though the narrator Jane was little more than four or five at the time (and in later chapters she dramatises scenes that took place before her birth).

She tells us, perhaps echoing David Copperfield:
It is not true that children do not understand adult feelings. They understand them all too well, but they are powerless to deal with them.
And towards the end of the first chapter is at pains to justify her apparently excellent recall:
These facts were not revealed to me until much later. Many of them I had to supply myself. It seemed to me important to reconstruct the story, even to the point of doing a certain amount of research.

Thursday 13 July 2017

Summer Books

I'm sure I'm not the only person who spends an inordinate amount of time wondering what to read each summer. For me it must be a long novel, preferably a nineteenth-century novel. Such novels give me lots of comfort on my travels. Art cannot console you, said Anita Brookner. But I'm not sure I agree with her there.

Last summer, before my blogging days, before The Brooknerian was even a twinkle in my eye, I read or rather reread The Portrait of a Lady. That's one of the perils of getting older: the need to reread. I know I should try to find new things to read. But I know what I like, and, as I say, I'm looking for comfort.

2015 seems to have been a low point. I read, for the first time, Thackeray's The Adventures of Philip. The first and only time. In 2014 it was Clarissa, 2013 The Princess Casamassima, and 2012 He Knew He Was Right. I could go on.

This year I toyed with the idea of returning to the first Dickens I properly read, Bleak House. (I say properly read because anyone who's been through the British school system will at some point have read Dickens as part of their studies.) But at last I had a minor brainwave and decided on a joint reread of David Copperfield and Brookner's A Family Romance. Jane Manning, as you may know, reads David Copperfield as A Family Romance progresses, and it informs her sentimental education.

So the decision is made. I look forward to starting both soon, with due attention to an annual ritual.

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Brooknerian Taste

If Brookner in her novels tells us how to live, in her art criticism she teaches us to see and distinguish and value. I enjoyed my visit to the Wallace Collection, but I suspect I may be among the viewers she identifies here:
Greuze's pictures have an immediate appeal - to the sentimental and untutored, of whom, fortunately, there are still many. (Greuze, Conclusion)
Her reaction to the uneven oeuvre of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, perhaps rather more than to that of Jacques-Louis David, subject of her other major study, gives insight into her taste. She dislikes much of Greuze's work, but singles out a handful of works for our appreciation and instruction:
The painter who could respond so openly to the civilized charm of the Marquise de Bezons, who could remember the exact stance of a bashful country girl, who could paint Wille and Sophie Arnould and the luminous infant Bertin* is one who deserves a permanent place not only in histories of art but in the affections of those who try, with a seriousness equal to Greuze's own, to understand the evolution of his century. (Ibid.)
*The Bertin painting featured on the book's dustjacket.

Marquise de Bezons, Baltimore

Study for L’Accordée de Village
Chalon-sur-Saône, Musée Denon

Portrait of Wille
Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André Collection

[Formerly thought to be] Portrait of Sophie Arnould
Wallace Collection

Portrait of E.-F. Bertin, Louvre

Monday 10 July 2017

The Europeans

There can be few plot devices more stimulating to the conservative imagination than the arrival of brilliant strangers.  'It is sometimes very moral to change,' says Felix, one of the Europeans in Henry James's novel of that title. But the irruption into established lives of disruptive influences, and the resulting clash of cultures, are often an opportunity merely for the status quo to be upheld, even renewed - at any rate only very subtly adjusted.

One thinks, of course, in this context, of Brookner's Visitors. It has something of the charming summery atmosphere of The Europeans. But really there are numerous examples of Brooknerians who are faced with alternative ways of living. But how much do any of them change, or indeed want to change? And how moral are the changes they so ardently but hopelessly contemplate?

Mrs May, at the end of Visitors, looks back on her recent past: its upheavals have been, after all, merely 'diverting', just as she thought they would be. And now the visitors are gone, and the world can settle to what it was.