Tuesday 26 September 2017

Undue Influence: My Black Heart

Undue Influence, which starts out so breezily, so lightly, with its short chapters and rapid character brushstrokes, gradually reveals darker undertones. It's very much a transitional novel. Coming at the end of the 1990s, it says goodbye to the greater substantiality of Brookner's novels during those years. We're heading now into more perilous uncertain territory. Claire Pitt, with her 'black heart' and her secret liaisons in French cathedral cities, never fully revealed or even clearly indicated, is a forerunner of Zoe in The Bay of Angels and far more disaffected and dysfunctional than any of her forebears, Rachel in A Friend from England, for example, or Frances in Look at Me.

There's a growing opacity in the writing. Claire, that 'merry adventurer' (ch. 8), brings back from her mysterious holidays postcards and photos for her mother: rood screens, tympanums, choirstalls, misericords, clerestories, elevations: Brookner takes a perverse pleasure in listing such arcane details. 'As if these had had exclusive claims on my attention,' jauntily adds Claire. But Brookner soon pulls away the rug:
I faltered when I found that [my mother] had compiled several albums of the postcards, which she kept in her bedroom. She was so innocent herself that I am sure she managed to think me innocent as well. (Ch. 3)
For in Undue Influence we're getting towards late dark comfortless Brookner, the bleakness of The Bay of Angels, the harsh clarity of The Rules of Engagement, the empty, barely mediated despair of Strangers. Uplifting masterpieces, every one.

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