Monday 24 December 2018

Christmas in London

I live no more than a twenty-minute train ride from the centre, but now rarely visit. I was in Charing Cross Road on Saturday, and realised I hadn't been there for perhaps a whole year. The old Foyles has been razed to the ground. Its replacement is next door, and a sort of glorified Waterstones. Further down the street two or three secondhand shops remain. Henry Pordes is now run by Italians.

There are dearer, more specialist stores in Cecil Court, haunt of more than one character in Anita Brookner. Several dealers hold Brookner first editions, some of them signed. I like Cecil Court because of Mark Sullivan's antique shop, which always makes me think of the place the Prince and Charlotte Stant visit in The Golden Bowl.

I bought a little KPM figurine of an actor or brigand, or actor playing a brigand. Does anyone recognise this fellow, either as type or individual?

I returned to the bookshops, but could find nothing that appealed. I considered a volume of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters, but would I really ever read it? I was attracted, in Foyles, by several of those new Fitzcarraldo editions. But I already have plenty of books to be read on my shelves. Or 'TBR', as I think it is called. Am I 'peak books'?

I'm actually nearing halfway through an old copy of Trollope's late novel John Caldigate at the moment. I've had it for years, but never got round to it. It's very good and very pacy. There's a brilliant sequence of chapters set on board a ship to Australia and then among the goldmines of New South Wales. Trollope was the most well-travelled of the Victorian novelists, and sometimes he takes us to places we never expected to see.

I finished in the National Portrait Gallery, at their exhibition of Gainsborough's family portraits. Gainsborough grew to disdain portraiture, but he was a master. A character views a society portrait in Berlin in Brookner's Latecomers, but the NPG's show focuses on paintings and sketches of the artist's immediate circle. Of particular strength are the half-dozen images of his daughters Mary and Margaret. The pair are painted at different stages through their childhood and young adulthood. Their later lives were not happy, taking in loneliness and mental illness, and inevitably one seeks signs in the earliest pictures of the dangers to come.

A very happy Christmas to you all!

Saturday 15 December 2018

'We shall never see these shores again...'

All comes together in Scott, said Virginia Woolf - 'tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole, a complete presentation of life, which ... Scott creates carelessly, without a word of comment, as if the parts grew together without his willing it, and broke into ruin again without his caring'.

Nowhere is this truer than in the closing pages of Redgauntlet, Scott's last major Scottish novel. A third, fictitious, Jacobite uprising has foundered; the Hanoverian ascendancy is merciful; two minor characters kill each other; two major figures find love; and an ageing Bonnie Prince Charlie bids an affecting farewell to his native land. The novel ends as Von Karajan said of Brahms's Fourth, in 'complete catastrophe', and yet it somehow also completes a whole, though we can't quite know how. And afterwards? Afterwards it dissolves - dissolves into history or a fantasy of history, leaving not a rack behind but lingering long in the imagination.

Celebrity Historicals

Fulfilling in some way the BBC's injunction to entertain and educate, the earliest days of the time-travelling sci-fi show Doctor Who featured, alongside tales of bug-eyed monsters in outer space, a number of stories set in Earth's past. The travellers met Marco Polo, visited Ancient Rome, were caught up in revolutionary France's Reign of Terror, and even landed in Scotland during the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden.

Fans have several ways of classifying these stories. The early stories, for example, tend to be classed as 'pure historicals', meaning that the only science fiction element is the Tardis and its crew. Stories of this kind became less frequent as the show developed. Indeed The Highlanders (1966) was the last such serial until Black Orchid in 1982. As far as I can recall, there have been none since.

There have, however, throughout the programme's long run, been many further historical stories. But these, known as 'pseudo-historicals', have included alien or sci-fi elements other than the Tardis crew. An example, set in the time of Rosa Parks, was broadcast recently.

This was also an example of another fannish sub-class: the 'celebrity historical'. This was a feature of many, though not all, of the earlier tales. The Highlanders, for instance, doesn't include a role for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

But over the years the Doctor and his/her companions have met Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, Dickens, Nero, etc., etc.

Who invented this kind of story? Plays and novels have often been based on real historical events. Many of Shakespeare's plays centre on actual lives and choices.

But it was probably Sir Walter Scott who wrote the first 'celebrity historicals', i.e. stories in which ordinary people have adventures at key moments of history, and in the course of events encounter the celebrity players. Queen Elizabeth has a walk-on part in Kenilworth, Richard the Lionheart in Ivanhoe, and of course the Young Pretender in Scott's debut novel Waverley: each episode offers moments of genuine frisson and readerly delight. But it is in Redgauntlet, which tells of a third, fictional Jacobite attempt, and is thus divorced from the demands of the historical record, that Scott delivers his greatest punch. Now the Chevalier has a complicated love life; he's older; and he's nowhere near so bonnie as he was in Waverley.
He was a man of middle life, about forty or upwards; but either care, or fatigue, or indulgence, had brought on the appearance of premature old age, and given to his fine features a cast of seriousness or even sadness. A noble countenance, however, still remained; and though his complexion was altered, and wrinkles stamped upon his brow in many a melancholy fold, still the lofty forehead, the full and well-opened eye, and the well-formed nose, showed how handsome in better days he must have been. He was tall, but lost the advantage of his height by stooping; and the cane which he wore always in his hand, and occasionally used, as well as his slow though majestic gait, seemed to intimate that his form and limbs felt already some touch of infirmity. 
Only later, some time later, does Scott confirm the identity of this man: 'It is needless to add,' says Scott, flattering the reader. Who was fooled? Did Scott suppose anyone would be?

Friday 14 December 2018

The Fallen World

'Well, this dame had a daughter—Jess Cantrips, a black-eyed, bouncing wench—and, as the devil would have it, there was the d—d five-story stair—her foot was never from it, whether I went out or came home from the Divinity Hall. I would have eschewed her, sir—I would, on my soul; for I was as innocent a lad as ever came from Lammermuir; but there was no possibility of escape, retreat, or flight, unless I could have got a pair of wings, or made use of a ladder seven stories high, to scale the window of my attic. It signifies little talking—you may suppose how all this was to end—I would have married the girl, and taken my chance—I would, by Heaven! for she was a pretty girl, and a good girl, till she and I met; but you know the old song, “Kirk would not let us be.”
'But the best jest was behind—I had just power to stammer out something about Jess—by my faith he had an answer! I had taught Jess one trade, and, like a prudent girl, she had found out another for herself; unluckily, they were both contraband, and Jess Cantrips, daughter of the Lady Kittlebasket, had the honour to be transported to the plantations, for street-walking and pocket-picking, about six months before I touched shore.'
Sir Walter Scott, Redgauntlet (1824), ch. 14

A tale of the eighteenth century - it concerns a third, fictional uprising by the Jacobites - Redgauntlet is reminiscent of that earlier century in other ways: not only in formal terms - it has long epistolary passages - but also in its treatment of sexual matters. It is always instructive to see how pre-modern writers tackle such themes. David Lodge has marvelled at Dickens's ability to write so copiously but without a word of bawdy. Other Victorian novelists - Thackeray, in particular - manage the issue skilfully and subtly. Trollope, in The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870), caused a small stir with his use of the word 'prostitute'.

Scott wasn't a Victorian, and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by pieces like the above, part of a longer inset narrative spoken by a salty and attractive character called Nanty Ewart. Note Scott's use of indirection, evasion and euphemism. When by the end of the nineteenth century Scott's status had declined to that of a worthy children's author, were bowdlerised editions required?

In the next chapter we find Scott essaying something subtler still, as his adventurers approach the dwelling of a pair of religious ladies:
'The place they live in was some sort of nun-shop long ago, as they have them still in Flanders; so folk call them the Vestals of Fairladies—that may be, or may not be; and I care not whether it be or no.—Blinkinsop, hold your tongue, and be d—d!'
Scott doesn't tell us what this Blinkinsop, and others elsewhere in the speech, say. He doesn't need to. The innocent reader reads on, unconcerned. The knowing reader infers. But whose side is Scott on? Emphatically he was a denizen of the fallen world, yet his heroes and heroines remain virtuous and hopeful. With this author you're always in danger of sinking - as if, in this novel, into the sands of the Solway Firth - but somehow Scott always draws you clear, and your resultant gratitude is excessive.

Thursday 6 December 2018

On e-reading

I listened to a rather hopeful piece on Radio 4 recently (I spend far too much time listening to Radio 4) about how consumers may be falling out of love with online retailers and returning to actual shops, and how Internet giants are beginning to set up bricks-and-mortar outlets in order to give shoppers the more tangible, human experience they apparently crave.

It set me thinking about e-books and e-reading. I was, as in most things, a late adopter. I bought a device in about 2014 because I wanted to read Clarissa. I'm like that. And I managed it. I simply never could have read the only print edition of Richardson's eighteenth-century masterwork available, the biggest Penguin ever. From then on, I was a convert. I read James on my Kindle, I read Dickens, I read Anita Brookner. And I found myself reading more smoothly and quickly - not least because I was able to adjust for my own comfort the size and spacing of the text. I suspect in myself a mild undiagnosed dyslexia.

But I also read more shallowly. I found I couldn't remember what I had read. I glided; I no longer plunged.

There are practical considerations. I like the search facility on e-readers; I like being able to highlight passages. But I don't like not always having a feel for the shape of a book. In a print edition, if I'm not quite enjoying it but reading it because it's worth reading and 'good for me' (this goes for almost all of my reading, truth to tell), I'm always doing things like flicking forward and finding out how much of a chapter remains or rereading an earlier passage to remind myself who a certain character is. You can't do any of that so easily with an e-reader.

A short while ago someone gave me several lovely 1990s World's Classics editions of Scott. (I'm a growing fan of Scott and a big fan of those particular liveries.) The print is small and the pages are yellowing, and I had Scott on my Kindle so I turned to that. But I could make little headway. Real books had reclaimed me at last. What's more, I found myself a different, better reader - a retrained reader almost.

I shall still keep my Kindle for vacations, for lounging in foreign climes, sipping a gin and tonic and darting promiscuously between a piece of James travel writing, a Shakespeare play, and an essay by Sebald. But at home, when the long dark autumn and winter evenings come, one looks for consolations more homely, more timeworn.

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Book Dreams

Last night I dreamt of Wingfield Park, a thousand-page Trollope novel published in 1861. I got no further than this information, and found out even less about Lord Grey, the book beside it on the shelf in the sitting-room of the little seaside caravan I found myself in. Both were substantial 1990s World's Classics paperback editions - pale lemon spines with pictures. I remember being disappointed by Wingfield Park's publication date. I prefer later Trollope.

From time to time I also dream of a lost Anita Brookner, published in some other universe between, say, Visitors and Falling Slowly. It has a photographic cover. I have the book in my hand, open it - and wake up.

Even less graspable is that early Victorian author whose name I can never remember. A lesser George Eliot, a lesser Trollope, but a prolific source of reading pleasure all the same. In dream after dream I take down his books and start to enter into his world - rural, bourgeois, endless.

Saturday 1 December 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 10, 11

  • Bland, with Katy, sees himself almost as a novelist with one of his characters. Compare Bland with Mrs May in Visitors, who experiences a similar creative thrill, though the circumstances of her shipwreck are less extreme, more sublimated.
  • One is lost in admiration at the excellence of Brookner's clairvoyance: 'The strange odyssey that he had planned for them had indeed something childlike about it, proof of his own childlike wishes, in which sex and sin played no part.'
  • The books we read in our youth retain a special magic, and A Private View is one such for me. I read innocently then, or more innocently than I might now - by which I guess I mean I 'identified' with George Bland. Reading the novel again, I identify again, and again sink back in sheer admiration at the fineness of the writing, the intensity and ingenuity of the analysis. There really are some masterful passages. Is it, then, my favourite Brookner? I couldn't say. I thought that was The Next Big Thing. But it is a thing to marvel at, a thing to be grateful for.

Thursday 29 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 7, 8, 9

  • By the time she wrote A Private View Anita Brookner was well established and in mid-career. The novel shows great ease and confidence. Its long passages of introspection are masterly. In chapter 7 we get a metafictional line she probably wouldn't have risked in an earlier novel: 'It was like a detective story, or a novel by Henry James'. Indeed.
  • Bland's walk into the suburbs of Fulham is precisely recorded, and the interested reader can now follow his journey on Google Earth.
  • The stakes are high for George Bland - but not as high as they are for later Brookner oldsters: in The Next Big Thing, Strangers and 'At the Hairdresser's'. They're in real jeopardy, and so (perhaps) was their creator.
  • Bland's vision of a rakish life with Katy in foreign locales 'might have been the supreme emotional adventure'. Supreme emotional adventure: this is a favourite phrase. See an earlier post here.
  • 'The beauty of the plan was that each would think he had the best of the bargain': there's something wonderfully antique about this sentence, something you probably wouldn't read very often now, or indeed then. It's the use of 'he' to refer to 'each'. Here 'each' means George and Katy, male and female. What would another writer write? 'They'? 'She'?
  • How much time passes? A Private View is surely the most condensed of Brookners, but so involved and 'exhausting' are George Bland's thoughts that the reader loses all track of the days. How much time separates the opening in Nice from, say, the scenes in chapters 7, 8 and 9, more than halfway through the book? Two or three? But no, chapter 1 takes place in November and chapter 9 on 18 December. I could of course go back and trace the time-scheme, but I actually haven't the time - and in any case I reckon it's completely off-kilter. This isn't the only Brookner novels where time is confused and confusing.
  • But the dates given in chapter 9 are very specific to December 1992.
  • I note Brookner's use of the phrase 'undue influence', which would be called into service again as the title of her 1999 novel.
Cranach, Das Ungleiche Paar,
Akademiegalerie, Vienna

Tuesday 27 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 5, 6

  • Chapter lengths: Brookner lived by her routines, and in most of her novels (though not the last ones) her chapters are noticeably even in length. A Private View is like this but (along with the previous one, A Family Romance) unlike too, in that its chapters are about double the normal Brookner length (twenty rather than ten pages). It suits A Private View in particular, which focuses on a short period of time in the protagonist's life. Chapter 5, for example, covers a single day. But why impose on oneself a chapter-length format anyhow? Such structure was necessary for the likes of Trollope, who was writing for serial publication, but not in the late twentieth century. I guess Brookner was one of those artists whom restriction rather than freedom made creative.
  • Sickert. For more on the Royal Academy's 1992 Sickert exhibition, click on the label below. (I find Bland pays a second, weekday visit to the exhibition, but on a Monday not a Tuesday, so, again, he failed to cross paths with Jim Lees-Milne.)
  • Brookner skewers with a passion Katy's 'airy Californian make-believe' of encounter groups and self-affirmation. In this way she places herself in a determinedly English tradition. Kingsley Amis does something similar in Jake's Thing.
  • There's a nod to Stefan Zweig in chapter 6, in the line about being 'beware of pity'. Zweig had a vogue in the early twenty-first century, but Brookner was there already.
  • Bland's upholstery - pink and green stripes - is rather jollier than Brookner's grey and white stripes, visible on the National Portrait Gallery website (here) in a photo of the time.

Sunday 25 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 3, 4

  • For so apparently metropolitan a writer suburbia exerts a curious lure. Lewis Percy was Brookner's explicitly 'suburban novel'. In other works - Visitors - the areas beyond the centre are foci for nostalgia and a sense of lost authenticity. In A Private View, Bland's London home, by comparison with his dreams of the past, seems 'flimsy, meretricious, unconvincing'.
  • The encounters with Katy Gibb in her differing guises - hippy, waif, courtesan - crackle with energy. Brookner hates her but is fascinated. The private view is under way.
  • Reading Brookner is an education in looking. Some might say she interprets too much from characters' outward appearances. But one would counter-argue that Brookner the art critic is at work - looking, looking, looking, and missing nothing. As a child, she said, she was very good at looking.
  • Bland isn't Brookner, but she sneaks in little details. He has, for example, large hands. Anita Brookner, one notices, also had large hands.
  • By chapter 4, Bland is 'near the edge'. His condition is persuasively depicted. As readers of this blog will know, A. N. Wilson in his Daily Mail obituary of Brookner recounted an incident at a party in the 1990s. Brookner was in her sixties; the host was twenty years younger and, Wilson claims, the object of Brookner's love. At one point she disappeared from the party. Wilson found her upstairs, sitting alone on the host's bed, among the guests' coats. She looked quite abject. It was, he thought, the closest she would ever come to the man's bed. An indiscreet, even a shocking anecdote. But it shows us that the likes of A Private View (1994) may well not concern emotion recollected in tranquillity, but instead may have been written in the very thick of the action.

Saturday 24 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 2

My copy of the UK hardback
  • The claustral atmosphere intensifies. Once inside his block of flats, Bland feels he has 'definitively left the outside world'.
  • Bland 'cautiously' watches soap operas, seeking knowledge of other lives, suburban lives like those of his forebears. For more on Brookner and television, click on the label below.
  • Bland's porter is called Hipwood, which I always thought of as a made-up name - the sort you might find in Dickens. But it is a genuine name.
  • I'm rereading A Private View alongside a piece of more recent literary fiction, which is lots of fun but reads like a children's book. (The title and author shall remain unsaid.) Brookner absolutely is an author for grown-ups.
  • The closeness of Brookner's observation is remarkable. She misses nothing. She's fully one of those on whom nothing is lost. Take Bland's sudden access of tears at the end of the chapter.
  • Also to be remarked is the extreme fineness of the language. Bland and his neighbours' 'Lilliputian concerns'.
  • While we may bracket A Private View with The Next Big Thing and Strangers, both also novels about older men, George Bland isn't so much old as on the brink of old age. The first of Brookner's truly old sole protagonists is Mrs May in Visitors, a few years later. But with A Private View Brookner enters a new phase. Over the remaining decades of her writing career she would commit herself more and more to a topic many novelists avoid.

Thursday 22 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 1

  • Blank London windows, hazy indistinct light, a barrier of trees: Pelham Crescent by Robert Buhler. I have a great liking for the first UK paperback edition. This is a novel of private life, of retirement, of the end of a public life, of the claustrophobia of home, the ambiguities and ambivalences of home.
  • With reference to a previous post (see here), I find that the character who drops dead at Kempton Park is in this novel.
  • George Bland isn't Anita Brookner, and Brookner was at pains to point this out in her 1994 interview. 'Clearly I'm not a 65-year-old man who has worked in personnel.' But she was a year shy of that age when she wrote it, or when we can assume she wrote it. (The novel is set in the last months of 1992 - a later visit to the Royal Academy exhibition confirms this (see here for more on this detail) - and I take it that Brookner probably wrote it then too.) And something else of interest: when she wrote an intro to an edition of Madame Bovary, A Private View was the only one of her novels cited in her biographical note. George Bland - c'est moi?
  • The start of the novel is masterly, and as John Bayley once said, we could go on considering Bland's situation indefinitely. 'He felt a moment of fear, as if he were no longer safe. Darkness, sudden as always, pressed against the window; cars roared along the corniche. He was aware of an alien life, nothing to do with him, utterly indifferent to whether he stayed or left.'
  • And how much longer has he got? A 'few more years', he reckons - a few more years before he must rely on the ministrations of strangers. These are preoccupations that would grow and grow in Brookner's later novels - and perhaps too in her life. One reads with a chill.

Saturday 17 November 2018

On Thinness

Somebody once saw one of Anita Brookner’s shopping lists. She lent a student a book; the list fell out. It was for only two items: slimming biscuits and a small pot of Marmite. Evidently, concluded the speaker, she was very keen to be very thin. She was indeed thin, though perhaps she didn’t want to be. Speaking of the other positive things that had accrued to her from her entry into the life of a writer of fiction she said she even put on a little weight. At first writing had been, as it is for Frances in Look at Me, penitential, a penance for not being lucky, but later Anita Brookner had only good things to say. Her second career, if not perhaps as involving as her first, brought its rewards, made her well.

What were slimming biscuits? Evidently some healthful preparation, now obsolete. She was, when I met her, very thin, almost brittle. As thin and as brittle – one might ask – as her fiction?

In her fiction, in 1992’s Fraud in particular, there are themes of food anxiety. Anna Durrant is very probably anorexic. Her doctor worries about her. She dreams of sweet food, a vast sugary cake that breaks apart to reveal… a wedding ring. Freud would have had a field day with that one.

A huge disgusting pudding features in the disastrous climactic scene of Look at Me. Terrible truths are revealed, and everyone is enjoined to eat – eat – eat!

At the close of A Private View, his adventure at an end, his illusions dismantled, George Bland, in the act of biting into a biscuit, doubles up with grief.

The form of Brookner’s novels – their briefness, their thinness – led to accusations of slightness. Certainly there was a lack of full engagement or commitment to the notion of creation, a suggestion that such activity – such storytelling – was somehow a little vulgar. She said once she wasn’t imaginative; she could only invent. And yet there was a hunger to write, an almost pathological desire. And yet there was also a longing to finish and have done.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

In love

She lived a life, then wrote about it: that was the myth. The writing part of her life, that second life, second career, was somehow posthumous. But it possibly wasn’t like that. And how could it have been? A. N. Wilson, after her death (and this could have been said only then), wrote of having met her at a party in the late 1980s or 90s. The party was given by a London publisher with whom Anita was (wrote Wilson) hopelessly in love. She was in her sixties, he in his forties. She seemed to disappear from the party. Later he found her, in the man’s bedroom, sitting on his bed, on which were piled all the guests’ coats. She was staring sadly ahead and had been sitting there for more than an hour. It was, said Wilson (unnecessarily), the closest she would get to this man’s bed.

One prefers the myth. The great writer, high and dry, with her messy life behind her. But search in the archives, deep in the protean early years of her novel-writing, and you come upon white-hot glimpses. From 1983, for example: we learn Brookner allowed her life to be determined by someone else’s needs: a man, who became ill and died. There was also, the interviewer tells us, another love affair in Brookner’s past, on which, like Frances in Look at Me, she was not to be drawn. Simply, said Brookner, she was not good at reading signs. She thought that as an art historian she had learnt the skill, but in life you either develop it young or not at all.

Sunday 11 November 2018

Poynton, Utz and the Mania for Collecting

I had a James wobble not so long ago. James's last, unfinished novel, The Ivory Tower, in a nice NYRB edition, had been sitting on my shelves for some years, and at last I gave it a try. The first couple of chapters were OK, but then James started introducing characters willy-nilly, and when I'd read a dozen or so pages thinking 'Gussy' was a man, only to find she wasn't, I decided life was too short for what Martin Amis once called the arctic labyrinth of late James.

I don't elsewhere concur with Amis's views on James, but he seems to nail it when it comes to The Ivory Tower. And so? Give up? No! I chose The Spoils of Poynton, an old favourite - and it had only grown richer and more elegant and delightful. Published in 1897, it's a transitional novel, cementing the 'late style' and 'scenic method' that characterise James's last major phase.

Mrs Gereth, a recent widow, must leave Poynton, her home for more than twenty years and a monument to her mania for collecting. Owen, her mild but philistine son, wants to marry the even more vulgar Mona. How can Mrs Gereth save her antiques from the predations of this unsatisfactory pair? Enter Fleda Vetch, dreamy and Jamesian: 'no one in the world was less superficial than Fleda'. Mrs Gereth loves Fleda, loves her with a collector's eye. Fleda in her turn loves Mrs Gereth's old things - and soon loves Owen too. What's more, Owen loves her back, and says he'd be more than happy to break with Mona, if only... But Fleda will not yield. And why? Here rests the pleasure of the text. Is Fleda principled or perverse - motivated by her own mania? It's an ambiguity that is, as David Lodge says in his Introduction to my Penguin edition, irreducible.

Here's Anita Brookner on The Spoils of Poynton:
The best sure cure for homesickness, which can strike at any point on a foreign holiday, is a detective story. I shall unashamedly take Patricia Highsmith, whom I am re-reading, and who does not seem to date in the very least, and hope that Ripley - her amoral character - will give me the independence to sail through any uncomfortable encounter. I shall also take Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton, which is a kind of detective story, and read breathlessly until the new owner of the property is revealed.
'Holiday Reading', Observer, 4 July 1993

One book always leads to another. Poynton is rich fare, and I admit I found myself, midway, picking up something a little lighter - Bruce Chatwin's Utz (1988)I'd love to know whether Brookner read it. Its mittel-European atmosphere would surely have appealed.

I'm always a little slow on the uptake. Of course Utz is, like Poynton, about collecting, so it all in its way meshes together. I have, too, my own fascination in this regard. Take a look at my own modest collection of porcelain, acquired over several years from various locations in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, and from an excellent place in London's Cecil Court that always makes me think of the little shop in The Golden Bowl:

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Deserted, and in want of me

Fibich in Brookner's Latecomers travels to Berlin. It is before 1989, which adds to the peril. He wanders homelessly the scenes of his abbreviated early life. He visits certain streets. He views a Gainsborough. It is only later, back in England, while eating in a London restaurant, that he breaks down. He should have stayed, he realised. As the Kindertransport began to move, he should have opened the train door and run back to his mother as she waited on the platform and who, in truth, he never saw again.

Brookner had plans to visit her father’s home city, Piotrków Trybunalski in Poland, but did not. It would have been too difficult, especially before the fall of communism, and she mightn’t have found whatever she was looking for.

Brookner’s father, known as Newson, came to England before the First World War. Her maternal grandfather, also Polish, from Warsaw, was already established in the new country, and indeed supplied cigars to the Royal Family. This isn’t directly a story of the Holocaust.

Yet he retained, she said, all his life the simple incomprehension and unhappiness of an exile. So many of Brookner’s characters have such feelings, even those that are fully English, such as Zoë in The Bay of Angels. Newson Brookner, shy, quiet, diffident, compared unfavourably with the showy, effusive, successful men of her mother’s family. They found him difficult to talk to. His only comment on his translated life was that he missed the smell of pine forests. His sadness seemed unlovely to the young Anita, who was more easily attracted by her uncles’ expansiveness and jollity. Later she didn’t miss her father, or dream of him. But she came to feel as he had felt. He was encoded in her personality.

In writing of her father, Anita Brookner finished with a quote from Little Dorrit, from the letter Amy Dorrit writes to Arthur Clennam from Venice:
Another difficulty that I have will seem very strange to you. It must seem very strange to anyone but me, and does even to me: I often feel the old sad pity for – I need not write the word – for him. Changed as he is, and inexpressibly blest and thankful as I am to know it, the old sorrowful feeling of compassion comes upon me sometimes with such strength that I want to put my arms round his neck, tell him how I love him, and cry a little on his breast. I should be glad after that, and proud and happy. But I know that I must not do this; that he would not like it ... and so I quiet myself. Yet in doing so, I struggle with the feeling that I have come to be at a distance from him; and that even in the midst of all the servants and attendants, he is deserted, and in want of me.

Thursday 1 November 2018

Tales of Two Cities

Brookner’s ‘About the Author’ pieces, those little spiels of biography that adorned the dustjacket flap or the inside front cover of her books, and which in the early, primitive, pre-Internet days of my fandom were almost my only source of information about her, were brief and non-committal, often terse, and sometimes rather defiantly ludic. But one fact was never withheld: that Brookner, having been born in London and lived there most of her life, had spent three postgraduate years in Paris.

Brooknerians dream of Paris. They long for it. It lures them. The reality is often quite different. Julius Herz in The Next Big Thing, not in the pink of health, heads for the French capital for the day, and finds it exhausting, monumental. This isn’t the Paris he remembers, that place of charm, of charming youthful encounters. He doesn’t belong any more. It isn’t his Paris.

Key Paris episodes are to be found in A Start in Life, Family and Friends, Lewis Percy, Fraud, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Leaving Home and Strangers. One’s favourites shift and alter. I used to love the romance of the Paris scenes in Incidents – I even once visited the rue Laugier (it was oddly unevocative) – or Family and Friends. The scene in the latter, at the Hôtel Bedford et West End, where Mimi waits for her lover, who does not come, who never would have come, affected me deeply in my youth, and on early Paris visits I would walk up and down the rue de Rivoli in search of that hotel, which I didn’t find.

A Start in Life and Lewis Percy process memories of Brookner’s student days, in the Fifties. We know for certain that her first sojourn in the city was from 1950, when Anthony Blunt brokered for her a scholarship to the École du Louvre, and that her parents were against the plan. They thought she might be conscripted into prostitution! (No such luck, an older Dr Brookner later commented.) A plaintive cry went up: Come home! They tried everything. They kept her short of funds.She lived in poverty. But as she said elsewhere, sometimes you have to save your own life. But when exactly her famed three postgraduate years in Paris actually were is anyone’s guess. They were probably in the 1950s, but in her later brief memoir about her Paris landladies Brookner describes much later residences. She was probably shuttling fairly constantly between London and Paris, like characters in Falling Slowly and Leaving Home.

The two contrasting cities – the one dark, restrictive, costive, the other full of light and openness and good fellowship – function in Brookner’s novels much like the Old and New Worlds in the novels of Henry James. It’s Brookner’s International Theme. But the reality is often another matter, as it was for poor Julius Herz. He heads into a church in the Latin Quarter to see a favourite painting, but really nothing works. And in Brookner’s final novel, Strangers, we get, right at the end, our final Paris visit. The story’s over, Brookner’s run out of road, but she still has pages to fill, and this is where she comes into her own. She sends her protagonist on a wild goose chase to Nice, and then back up through Paris, where nothing is as he remembers it. And he’s old, like Herz, and gets alarmingly tired. It is always to the safety of London that Brooknerians must return.

I first went to Paris when I was about twenty, with a couple of friends. We drove, took the ferry – this was before the Channel Tunnel opened – and stayed in a pure dive of a youth hostel in one of the banlieues. Later, and many times, I returned by myself, staying in various small hotels closer to the centre. Once I met Marie, my French friend, the woman I’d been with in London when I met Anita Brookner. Marie had lived in Paris in her student days, possibly during the événements of 1968. (Brookner wasn’t a soixante-huitard, was most likely completing her year as Slade Professor at Cambridge at the time, and looked back rather sceptically on those allegedly heavenly, blissful days. There’s a critique in her novel The Rules of Engagement.)

Marie took me to the rue Mouffetard, where she had lodged. She showed me Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame, and we wandered along the Seine and browsed the booksellers’ wares. We ate omelettes in a Left Bank crêperie called something like Miam-Miam. She took pleasure in pointing out at another table a group of students who were, she said, involved in a deep philosophical discussion. This was real life, this was real living. That was her lesson.

I was in Paris alone in 2002, when I bought the newly released The Next Big Thing from the W. H. Smith store on the rue de Rivoli and took it back to my dark little hotel room to read with horrified, enervated delight. I was in Paris another time, on a summer’s evening, reading Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Magical long-ago days. But during those later visits the disenchantment was unignorable. I think I last went there in 2009, and I hated it. It was so large, so adamantine, and so international. There were still all the old movie-set locations - but take a step away from them and you might be anywhere. I saw it was a city to which, like Mimi in Family and Friends, I would never return.

How often Anita Brookner went back there in her later years we don’t know, though Herz’s dismal daytrip on the Eurostar in The Next Big Thing has an air of authenticity. But in her fiction, in almost every book, there is at least a mention, some memory of heady days. But precisely when those days were in her real life, and what they comprised, and who was there, and what happened, we’ll probably never know. Brookner wasn’t averse to speaking of her past, but she spoke legendarily. She was good at covering her tracks and she was never going to reveal all.

Friday 26 October 2018

The Comforts of Scott

Mr Ramsay, the patriarch in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, loved it. Nineteenth-century families would act out tableaux from it. The Antiquary (1816), to the Victorians, meant comfort and nostalgia - but of the highest order. It cannot be ignored. Sir Walter Scott, of course, can't be ignored, but The Antiquary in particular must not be lost - however scantly its manifest eccentricities might recommend it.

For one thing it isn't a costume drama with a fast plot. This isn't Ivanhoe. Instead it is the story of a mysterious young Englishman, calling himself Lovel, who arrives in a Scottish seaside town in the 1790s, only twenty years before the novel was written. Lovel comes in contact with Jonathan Oldbuck, the antiquary of the title, a uniquely entertaining and frustrating character, obsessed with books and history. There's a violent storm and a heroic rescue, and it becomes clear that Lovel has some back-story that involves Isabella, a local aristocrat's daughter. But Scott is chary with the details, and the reader must read on, once more fascinated and frustrated.

It's a flimsy story, but weirdly alluring. 'It was early in a fine summer's day, near the end of the eighteenth century...' the novel begins, and who cannot be charmed by such a line? Possibly, I concede, those whose imaginations are less conservative may not be enamoured by Scott's view of the world and the past. They might gasp in disbelief at the minutiae with which the novel concerns itself. They might despair of Scott's depiction of, celebration of, the settled order - typified by the honourable beggar, Edie Ochiltree. But Scott isn't for everyone, and certainly isn't appreciated by most readers nowadays, though he was by many of the Victorians who came after him, and that's why we can't and shouldn't avoid him. We think of the novels of his time and we think of Jane Austen. The Victorians would have said 'Who?', and thought only of Sir Walter. He was a major European phenomenon.

Like her own father Virginia Woolf had a passion for Scott and for The Antiquary. She praised its 'complete presentation of life'. Her father, and perhaps also she herself, always shed tears towards the end of the novel, when Scott's plot meanders (but Scott proceeds through indirection) into an episode of loss in a fisherman's family:
the scene in the cottage where Steenie Mucklebackit lies dead; the father's grief, the mother's irritability, the minister's consolations, all come together, tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole ... which, as always, Scott creates carelessly, without a word of comment, as if the parts grew together without his willing it, and broke into ruin again without his caring.
Sometimes I fear I may be getting to the end of the nineteenth century. But there is always Scott. If you have never read him, start with Waverley. My favourites are Ivanhoe (I'm in good (?) company here, as Tony Blair was known to keep Ivanhoe by his Downing Street bed) and Kenilworth, as I'm partial to a spot of Merrie England.

Henry Liverseege, Edie Ochiltree,
Sir Arthur Wardour and Isabella in the Storm,

Whitworth, Manchester

Friday 19 October 2018

Who Else Should I Read?

  • Read Trollope. For decent feelings, she said. In her own novels she references He Knew He Was Right and Orley Farm. I'm not keen on either. I love the later works, not all of which are the gloomy old things of repute. I think the likes of Ayala's Angel are among my favourite novels of any writer.
  • Read Roth and Updike. And the rest of the great American warhorses. Brookner always made a thing of her devotion to these most unBrooknerian writers. She was putting it on a bit, no doubt; but she made a good case.
  • Read Wharton. Brookner made a case for Wharton too. But I'm not sure she was right. She said she thought of herself as much more like Wharton than James. Again, I don't think she was right.
  • Read Sebald. She valued Sebald's sudden emergence, fully formed, on to the literary scene. She liked especially his evocation of old-style life and feelings.
  • For much the same reason, read Mann. The bourgeois past, European angst - and Switzerland.
  • Read Stendhal. I reckon he wasn't so much her favourite writer as her favourite person. His style, his attitudes, his insouciance.
  • Read Goncharov. Brookner said Oblomov was her favourite novel, and she quoted from it twice in her own novels. She liked it, she said, because it was about a man who failed at everything. This was probably something of the truth, but also a bit of a posture. I found Oblomov a dull read, and that line about the meads and kvasses brewed at Oblomovka was a lucky find of Brookner's, but not really representative.
  • Read Chekhov. For true Brooknerian sadness and nostalgia, that is. Not that Brookner recommended any particular Chekhovs, though she approved of his life. She approved in particular of his death - in Switzerland, wasn't it, and after a glass of champagne? A stylish way to go, at least in imagination. Brookner wasn't herself a drinker, and champagne gives a number of her characters a headache.
  • Read James. Well, of course. She loved The Portrait of a Lady, with its depiction of the passage from innocence to experience. She loved, of the later novels, The Spoils of Poynton, but found The Golden Bowl a little too redolent of the madness of art. For my part, I love that early late period of James's typified by Spoils: short brief astonishing novels, made for the future.
  • And of course, of course, read Dickens. She read one a year, having been introduced as a child. Her father saw the author as the key to Englishness. An only and perhaps lonely child, she was surprised when she went to school to find not everyone had a funny name.

Thursday 11 October 2018

Wuthering Heights

'No books!' I exclaimed. 'How do you contrive to live here without them? If I may take the liberty to inquire - Though provided with a large library, I'm frequently very dull at the Grange - take my books away, and I should be desperate!'

The other day I found myself publicly asked (the circumstances needn't concern us) what I was currently reading. Caught off guard, I replied honestly, adding 'I'm afraid' or 'believe it or not'. That's what you do with Wuthering Heights: you get all embarrassed, all apologetic. It's one of those books. One of those books everyone knows about, but no one actually reads?

I read it in my teens and never felt any need to revisit what was, I recalled, a baffling experience of time shifts, multiple narrators, narratives within narratives, and too many characters with similar or identical names.

But I've a fondness for those 1990s World's Classics covers. I kind of collect them. So I bought this rather nice Wuthering Heights...

...and, stuck for something to read one day, actually got around to opening it.

It's a revelation. The plot is a dream. The characters are vivid. The settings are completely convincing. The violence is shocking. The love story is powerful and affecting. Yes, a dream of a book. One to return to again and again, and this time not after a gap of thirty-odd years.

But one thing I take issue with. It crops up time and again. It's in my edition's blurb. This thing about Wuthering Heights being 'imaginative'. Yes, I see what is meant, but I prefer to see the book differently, as a work of literature. I prefer to see Emily Brontë's whole project as a uniquely literary endeavour. Let's take one example from the second half of the novel. Young Catherine corresponds secretly with Linton. We learn much about the mechanics of the correspondence. The secret missives themselves are all but fetishised. Others seek them, but they're hidden away. Their purloining is an intimate trespass.

Imaginative, yes. But literary too. The chapter is, of course, pure Clarissa.

No - no one should feel ashamed of reading Wuthering Heights.

Saturday 6 October 2018

Married Brookner

She had, she said, offers of marriage, but none she could accept. Whom could she entrust her life to? And how could she be married while at the same time living the life she wanted to live? How could she be married while also being an art historian? She told one interviewer she never seriously thought the puzzle was solvable.

At some point, she said, a wariness sets in, an understanding of other people’s motives – of men’s motives, the agendas of men. She didn’t want to be someone else’s prop. She said she never came close to marrying, because she never wanted to be married to the men who asked her. But she would have liked companionship and she would have liked children. Six sons, she said. One of her favourite pictures was David’s Oath of the Horatii in the Louvre, an image of three heroic brothers willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of Rome.

Her parents wanted her to marry. When she didn’t marry, they wanted her to nurse them. If she had married she wouldn’t have been so accessible – an irony that wasn’t lost on her.

And if she had married, she wouldn’t have been able to write. Or have wanted to, or needed to. But how does one spend the time in marriage? – the years and the months and the days and the hours? The novels of the past, ostensibly novels of marriage, are in fact concerned only with courtship and provide little instruction on what comes afterwards. Or indeed on what follows a failed courtship.

Brookner was as clear-eyed here as everywhere. She didn’t think she’d have been a good wife, a good mother. She was, she said, too self-absorbed, too inward. But she still valued the idea of marriage, and in her later, more reckless interviews she said she wished she had married several times. You should, she more than once said, play Russian roulette with your own life.

And marriage is a major theme in Brookner’s fiction. From the middle period onwards many of her protagonists are married. A Misalliance, Latecomers, Lewis Percy, Brief Lives, A Closed Eye, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Altered States, Visitors, Falling Slowly, The Next Big Thing, The Rules of Engagement and ‘At the Hairdresser’s’ all feature heroes and heroines who are married, widowed or divorced. So much for Brookner’s novels being only about lonely spinsters.

But in Brookner the ending of a marriage is only a matter of time. You can come across the most shocking scenes, especially in the later novels, where the iron has entered the soul, and the screw is turned and turned. Take Altered States: the decline and suicide of the narrator’s wife Angela. I read it aghast, my heart in my mouth. One’s heart is often in one’s mouth when one reads these later works, such is the atmosphere of dread.

A third of the way through The Rules of Engagement, as another example, the heroine’s heavy but inoffensive husband dies: the experienced Brookner reader has probably already suspected Digby’s time will soon be up. But the manner of his going is appalling. He is brought home by his secretary, having obviously suffered a stroke, though this isn’t named. No medical attention has been sought, and none is enlisted by his wife, the narrator, who maintains a vigil over him through the few dark days and nights that follow. Then he dies. These scenes are set, at a guess, in the 1970s, in an age perhaps less medicalised than today. But would you really not at the very least have called a doctor? The narrator doesn’t, and there’s no further comment on this. In Brookner we’re beguiled into such acceptances. Why? Is there a reason? Or is it just a part of the true weirdness and uniqueness of the Brookner world, the enigma that keeps us reading and kept her writing?

Monday 1 October 2018


Brookner died on 10 March 2016, ‘peacefully in her sleep’, according to the death notice in The Times. One thinks of Mrs March in Fraud, daily scanning the columns. The piece continues less conventionally. At Anita’s request, we learn, there would be no funeral. Donations should be addressed to Médecins sans Frontières.

(It is disappointing to find ‘Médecins’ spelt ‘Medicins’.)

No funeral? This was subject to some comment at the time. It was becoming fashionable – a green alternative to the expense and waste of a traditional ceremony.

One senses in Brookner other motives. Feelings of dread and shame. The thought of all those gushing tributes, perhaps from people who were little more than strangers. The absence or near absence of family. The shame?

Peacefully in her sleep? But we know Anita Brookner’s death was far from benign, that her flat was on fire, and she had had to be dragged from it, that she survived for a time afterwards in hospital, but that adequate rehabilitation wasn’t perhaps at hand. Again and again I think about those circumstances. She had money enough to afford private care, but probably there was no one to speak for her. One needs spokespeople, advocates. How conscious was she? How lucid? Dying among strangers, what were her thoughts? Did anyone know who she was? Did anyone care?

(In 2009, in her last interview, she had spoken of the inspiration for what was to be her final novel Strangers. She had had, two years back, a spell in hospital. She had never been in hospital before. She had been, she said, literally dying among strangers. Yes, she said, she was frightened.

But she recovered. God’s little joke, she said.)

Emma Roberts, heroine of Leaving Home, Brookner’s penultimate novel, is one of her most dejected. Young, she maintains a relationship with an older doctor, stoical Philip Hudson, who has a son. Earlier in the novel Emma witnessed the son sleeping, experienced a coup de foudre. But she didn’t act, and Brookner, perversely, doesn’t explain why. And of course she doesn’t need to.

It is the son’s intention, we discover, to join Médecins sans Frontières. It is, Philip Hudson says, what he would have done at the son’s age. Henry James is recruited. Live all you can! says Dr Hudson.

Will we ever know what private memories or experiences prompted Brookner to choose MSF as her chosen charity after death?

Sunday 30 September 2018

Insiders / Outsiders

Insiders out. Outsiders in, ran the header to a review of one of Brookner’s novels. But was she so much of an outsider? Did she not praise the reckless, the feckless, the careless? Did she not promote the riotous lives of the gods of antiquity? Didn’t she reject other, kinder philosophies? Whose side was she on? With whom, ultimately, did she throw in her lot?

The way to proceed, she once told us, was to start as an outsider, briefly to become an insider, and at last to resume the status of an outsider. That way the work got done.

Brookner said that in a review of Edmund White’s biography of Marcel Proust in the Sunday Times in 1999. Outsiders chiefly, sometime insiders too, consummate dandies both. As always Brookner chose her subjects with extreme precision.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Grey and without Interest

Brookner's first novel, A Start in Life, was nearly turned down by the publisher Jonathan Cape, who received from a reader a very negative report. Her characters were apparently 'grey' and 'without interest'. Fortunately Liz Calder worked at the house and took a look at the manuscript. She read the novel's now-famous opening sentence, 'Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature', and realised she was in the presence of greatness. Calder and Cape went on to publish many of Brookner's novels.

An intriguing anecdote, which I found by chance. I was browsing the Brookner signed novels on the Internet bookstore sites, and came across several editions with a note by Calder in which she described her association with the author. I've no idea why Calder wrote the note, but we can be grateful that she did.

Sunday 23 September 2018

16th June 1994

I think I'd just finished my Finals and was heading off for a short break in Paris. I seem to recall seeing the book in the Paddington Menzies. I didn't in those days buy hardbacks (unlike Brookner, who was famed for it), but was first on the waiting list at my local library. By the end of the month I'd finished it, and it remains one of my favourites. I bought this copy recently. It is pristine. Brookner's dating of her signature is unusual.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

A Brookner Break

You may have noticed I'm taking a break from Anita Brookner at the moment. Everything palls after a time, and of course there's nothing new. I remember the years when I read her year by year, the excitement of receiving those Jonathan Cape, later Viking, hardbacks. A Proustian vouchsafement is still mine whenever I hold, say, A Closed Eye, with its view of Lausanne, or A Private View, with its blue Ian McEwanish female silhouette. I get the very touch and taste of youth again.

Where now? I'm reading Spenser's The Faerie Queene right now. ('The day is spent, and commeth drowsie night...') But I'm tempted perhaps to sink into middle Brookner sometime soon - A Private View, Incidents in the Rue Laugier... What extraordinary novels they were and are. Almost unremarked at the time, except for the regulation polite or disparaging notices in the quality dailies. But no one seemed to recognise how truly odd they were, how strange and revolutionary the Brookner project was. She wrote as it were clandestinely, knowing she would be overlooked, or not closely read, knowing she could say whatever she wanted, and safe in the knowledge that by then she was hidden in plain sight.

Saturday 15 September 2018

Who Reads Her?

I've long been a studier of reading habits. In my youth I worked in a public library, which had a functional if primitive computer system. This enabled me, illicitly, to track the borrowings of my peers. (In those days borrowing books from a public library was quite a regular activity.) Or I would stand at the issue desk - wanding barcodes, but scrutinising titles. I worked in that library system for six or seven years - and do you know, I don't think I ever issued or discharged an Anita Brookner. Or do I misremember?

Yet Brookner date labels were full of stamped dates, so people must have been reading her. It's just I never encountered them. And in the years since, I don't think I've ever seen anyone reading a Brookner. On the train. On the bus. On the beach. Of course the prevalence of Kindles and tablets makes spying on others' reading harder now. But still.

I know people do read her. I know you do. I know it from Twitter. But I've never met another reader. Or rather I have. I've met folk who say they once read Hotel du Lac and didn't progress further. But have I ever met another fan?

All this no doubt says much about me. But I think it also says something about reading Anita Brookner, and about readers of Anita Brookner. We read, as it were, in secret. We prefer the private view. Almost as if there were something disreputable on offer. I venture to suggest there's certainly something very subversive and shocking and not quite suitable for polite society.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

Of Wolves and Winterson

Some writers get all the approbation. There was a BBC documentary about Angela Carter last month: 'Of Wolves and Women'. It's pleasant viewing: lots of archive, talking heads, amusing dramatisation. Carter proves very digestible.

What of writers whose messages are less palatable, less fashionable, less easy? Let's dismiss them, ignore them, misrepresent them.

Enter Jeanette Winterson with her Brian May hairdo. Nights at the Circus (1984), we are told, received glowing reviews but was deliberately overlooked for the Booker Prize.

'What won', says Winterson sourly, 'was Hotel du Lac, which was Anita Brookner, which is an insipid novel by any standards.' Here we cut to a particularly prim scene from the Hotel du Lac TV film. Winterson goes on: 'It was typical of the way that the establishment at the time rewarded women who are compliant.'

Such lazy sneering is, for my money, typical of the way the critical establishment often categorises Anita Brookner. The distaste with which Winterson utters the words 'Hotel du Lac' and 'Anita Brookner' is treasurable. There is also of course a political subtext. Carter equals the Left and all that is good and true. But Anita Brookner? Some kind of wicked Tory?!

Friday 7 September 2018

Where I Went in the Holidays

To Hamburg, Lübeck and Travemünde

I came to the conclusion some time ago, after years of puzzlement, that I don't really like any weather. My favourite sort of day is a dry day, a little chilly, in spring or autumn. I was once in Dallas, and the temperature was more than 40⁰C. My day at the Southfork Ranch was a trial.

We had a miserable English winter this year, then a heatwave from June. I suffered. In Germany it was worse - even in the north, supposedly subject to sea breezes. In Hamburg I hunkered close to the Kunsthalle, discovered Cranachs, appreciated an exhibition about disasters.

Lübeck and Travemünde: no Brookner connection, other than Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks in particular, which plays its role in The Next Big Thing. I've been to the Buddenbrookhaus before. It is, like many such buildings in Germany, largely a reconstruction. Then to Travemünde, where the Buddenbrooks took their holidays, now a sizable port serving destinations as far away as Helsinki. I stayed a little along the coast at Timmendorfer Strand, a long beach, almost exclusively German. One could hire a Strandkorb, of which there were thousands, like a larger wicker porter's chair. This is apparently a great tradition.

Below: Planten un Blomen, Hamburg; Eugène Isabey, Wreck of the Emily; Cranach the Elder, Christ Blessing the Children; detail of last; Timmendorfer Strand; parched England

To Brussels and Ghent

A much milder, pleasanter break in Belgium at the end of the holidays. Ghent is a discovery. Previously I've been only to the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, where I like to visit the Géricault portrait it is my pleasure or burden to use as an Internet avatar. (Click on the Géricault label below for more posts relating to the artist.) The museum retains its charm (it's virtually unvisited), despite a rather savage recent rehang.

Ghent itself is a delightful bourgeois city, with much in common with Bruges: a medieval centre, canals, churches. Then to Brussels - edgy as always, edgier still this time, or so it seemed to me. But I had my usual mooch around the art museums, revisiting the Bruegel that inspired Auden's poem, the Davids Brookner revered - all those.

Below: [Ghent] an old friend in new company; Casorati, Girl on a Red Carpet, 1912; Navez, St Veronica, 1816; Paelinck, Anthia Leading Companions to the Temple of Ephesus, c. 1820; detail; De Vigne, Fair in Ghent in the Middle Ages, c. 1862

Below: Ghent by night and day

Below: [Brussels] Khnopff, Listening to Schumann; Jordaens's Bacchus, a lesson for us all

Wednesday 5 September 2018


The skill with which John Banville deploys Jamesian vocabulary and syntax in his recent James-inspired novel Mrs Osmond (2017) is constantly stimulating and often brings a smile to the grateful reader's lips. It is the principle pleasure of the book. I'm interested by Banville's use of the word 'vastation', meaning spiritual emptying. Has he been reading Brookner?

Brookner uses the word in her novel Visitors (1997)A character lies sunk in an armchair, as though subject to a 'Jamesian vastation'.

In a review in 2005 of Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, Banville refers to Mantel experiencing 'by her own account' a Jamesian vastation at the age of seven. I cannot date Mantel's account.

But Henry James doesn't use the word (though in Notes of a Son and Brother we read of the author being 'vastated of my natural vigour').

('Vastation' in fact derives from the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic to whose doctrines Henry James's troubled father was devoted.)

(A tip for whenever you next update your dictionary (if you have one, these days): look up 'vastation'. If it's present, the dictionary's a contender; if not, then it isn't. Never fails.)

Saturday 1 September 2018

What I Read in the Holidays

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark

A very short novel, told almost entirely in dialogue, Not to Disturb (1971) has much in common with The Abbess of Crewe (1974) (see here). Both have preposterous plots, a devious central character, and themes of surveillance and control. In Not to Disturb, Lister is the butler of a grand Swiss establishment. Relations among his employers are such that a murder or murders are imminently expected. The servants - theirs is the only view we get - must make future plans, which include deals with the newspapers and unlikely marriages. Structured in five chapters over the course of a night, the novel is an exercise in form, with debts to the Elizabethan dramatists as well as to moderns like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green. I didn't much like it.

Mrs Osmond by John Banville

A 'niche' read, this, if ever there was one. Mrs Osmond, formerly Isabel Archer, has left Italy to attend the funeral of Ralph Touchett. As she wanders a midsummer London and heads back through Paris to Italy, we encounter old friends - Caspar Goodwood, Henrietta Stackpole, the maid Staines - and are reminded of scenes earlier in the story, by which of course I mean Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. I've never been especially keen on John Banville, finding his prose rather precious and sub-Jamesian, but Mrs Osmond (2017) is surely the book he was destined to write, though it probably wouldn't have been published if he hadn't written it. When it first came out critics scoured the text's consciously Jamesian ventriloquism for solecisms and wrong notes. But the stylistic successes and failures are really all part of the fun and the book's major draw. It is a joy.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

A reread, and my summer treat. School spoilt Charles Dickens for me. I remember long lessons doing comprehensions on the supposedly funnier passages, or slogging through Oliver Twist. (One of the problems with teaching Dickens is explaining his use of irony. Too often his tone is taken at face value.) Into my twenties, after an English degree too, I still avoided the author. I made one final effort with Bleak House - and the magic happened. It's a startling book, engrossing and varied, with a wonderful double narrative. I veer between preferring Esther's memoir and the omniscient sections. What I took from this reread was the way Dickens evokes his own past: the 1830s, the pre-railways age, coaching days - as long ago from the mechanised Victorian era of the novel's production as the comfortable analogue age is from our anxious digital world. I was also, on rereading, unnerved by Mr Jarndyce, who seems to modern eyes a creepy character - all that 'little woman' and 'Dame Durden'. Dickens is aware of this (I believe great writers are always as aware as we are, often more so), and anticipates it, making another character, Richard, suspicious of Mr Jarndyce's motives. Dickens continues to insist on Mr Jarndyce's goodness, but the issue remains troubling. And I guess Dickens knows this.

Afternoon Men by Anthony Powell

Powell, best known for his twelve-volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, was nothing if not a stylist. The style develops over his career, all the way to the exquisite abstraction of his two post-Dance novels of the 1980s. Here, in Afternoon Men (1931), his very first novel, we find everything in place or in embryo - the bohemian demi-monde of artists and writers, the randomness of events, the wonderful set pieces, and, in the writing, Powell's curious combination of voluptuousness and astringency. It's the story of a group of party-goers in early 30s London. As in Dance there's a Powell avatar, here called Atwater (not sure if the closeness of 'avatar' and 'Atwater' is deliberate - probably not), distanced but still involved. The conversation is clipped, maddening, but also suggestive and sad. It's an accomplished debut and makes me want to reread Dance. (I'm a particular fan of Dance, and especially like the wartime trilogy, volumes 7, 8 and 9 - more than a match for Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trio.)

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner

I've read and enjoyed Ben Lerner's 2014 novel 10:04. But it's autofiction, so while there's an exhilarating sense the thing might go anywhere you also read with a sinking feeling, knowing there'll be no resolution. In The Hatred of Poetry (2016), a novella-length essay, Lerner discourses on the 'fatal problem with poetry: poems', the disconnection between our transcendent notion of 'poetry' ('the ideal Poem') and the limited artefacts ('the ideal Poem we cannot write in time') very few of us produce and many of us (Lerner, it seems, included) rather hate. Lerner's thoughts on the likes of Dickinson, Keats and others is illuminating, but I'm not sure any of it is particularly original (and his understanding of poetic metre is, I'd suggest, a little askew). But the essay ends well, ends novelistically, ends ... poetically (?), in a defence of 'a vocation no less essential for being impossible'. Well worth a read (and the Fitzcarraldo Edition livery makes it extra toothsome).