Wednesday 31 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: The Present and the Past

That world no longer existed, or if it did would have undergone a change...
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 6

With almost Nabokovian ardour Brookner conjures Herz's past, that ride down the Lichtenthalerallee in Baden-Baden, coffee in the Kurhaus gardens. A remarkably similar scene occurs in Falling Slowly, suggesting perhaps an autobiographical origin. Baden-Baden is indeed different now: a resort for the super-rich, no longer for the merely bourgeois. The bourgeois past, Herz finds, is to be found only in his reading: in Thomas Mann's short stories or in Buddenbrooks. Elsewhere in The Next Big Thing the modern world intrudes. Mobile phones, email. Globalisation. People trafficking? The seamstresses who work in a neighbouring flat at the start of the novel appear to be illegal immigrants. Their employer, Mrs Beddington, admits as much to Herz. He notices the girls' absence during the summer: perhaps they've gone home ('to homes he had difficulty in imagining' (ch. 6)) or on holiday, though later the repellent Mrs Beddington tells him, laughing, 'Girls like that don't go on holiday'. In fact she's shut up shop: 'they're on their own' (ch. 9).

The past in The Next Big Thing has a 'refulgence' (ch. 5), but Brookner is a realist too, especially in this, one of her later novels, into which a cheerless and subtly horrifying new world impinges more and more.

Monday 29 January 2018

Euro Brookner

Brookner is making waves in Spain at the moment. An article in today's El Mundo (here), 'Anita Brookner, Style and Loneliness', marks the publication of a translation of her first novel A Start in Life. The article speaks of Brookner as one of the finest British and European novelists of the twentieth century. The translation itself is introduced by a Julian Barnes essay, which seems to be the one he wrote for the Guardian in 2016 (here).

El Mundo complains that Brookner has been absent since the 90s from Spanish publication schedules. A similar situation obtains, I think, in France. I recall many happy long-ago evenings browsing yellow-canopied Left Bank bookstores for Brookner translations, and finding lots. L'automne de M. Bland was one title I managed delightedly to decipher. But more recently - nothing. One hopes the Spanish will lead the way.

Saturday 27 January 2018

Lines of Beauty

What's your favourite Brookner line? Something positively freighted with many things Brooknerian. Something perhaps only Anita Brookner could have written.

Look at Me
A novel replete with quotability. I'm going to choose one of the most extreme, almost self-parodic lines, from the truly chilling chapter 11: Frances's desolate trek through a hostile nighttime London:
This must be the most terrible hour, the hour when people die in hospitals.
(Larkinian too. Think 'Ambulances' or 'The Building' - each room farther from the last and harder to return from.)

Falling Slowly
Miriam is imagining the thoughts of her contemporaries, those with lives more conventional than her own. You are not one of us, she imagines them thinking. You do not shop for cornflakes, fish fingers, baked beans. You will not grow fat. You do not take family holidays, the car loaded with junk. You only look astonishingly young, but you must be getting on.
Too late for you, then. You will just have to make do with the rest of your life, with only yourself for company. (Ch. 9)

Fibich, years later, safe in middle age, remembers getting on the Kindertransport, leaving his mother behind in Berlin. They would never meet again. Now in England, in the 1980s, in a London restaurant, he breaks down.
'I should have gone back,' whispered Fibich. 'I should not have left. I should have got off the train.' (Ch. 14)

A Misalliance
Now for something a little (but only a little) lighter:
Since living alone she had experienced varying degrees of exclusion, and, out of sheer dandyism, had made an ironical survey of the subject. (Ch. 3)
Out of sheer dandyism. All those hate-filled unthinking critics all those years: how could they have got Anita Brookner so wrong? How could they have overlooked her impeccable but subversive dandyism?

'At the Hairdresser's'
I am not lonely except in company. (Ch. 3)
What can one say to this? Echoing Larkin again, I think: 'nothing to be said'. Other than 'Brooknerianism in a nutshell', perhaps?

For my next, a touch of aphoristic robustness.
Mrs May knew what families were for: they were for offering endless possibilities for coercion. (Ch. 2)

A Private View
Katy Gibb has gone, leaving George Bland disconsolate. Katy was an impossible proposition; their lives were incompatible. But he had been in love.
He made tea and drank it gratefully, yet in the act of eating a biscuit his face contracted once more with grief. (Ch. 11)
George Bland and that biscuit.

Family and Friends
Mimi, wounded for ever by events in her past, mourns her life - though it is not Frank for whom she yearns but the missing element in herself that would have brought him to her side.
It is as much as she can do now to avoid pain, simply to avoid pain. (Ch. 10)
The formal construction. And that repetition. Compare Providence in the climactic scene:
I lacked the information, thought Kitty, trying to control her trembling hands. Quite simply, I lacked the information.

This could go on and on. Let me end for now with something evocative from Altered States (ch. 13) and something hopeful (yes, that) from Fraud (ch. 8) - both, I note, deploying exclamation marks. As I may have said before, always look out for Anita Brookner's exclamation marks.
The melancholy of London flats at nightfall! 
Then the marvellous thought struck her: but there is no need to live like this!
London flats, nightfall, melancholy

Thursday 25 January 2018

The Next Big Thing / Making Things Better

'...I'm looking at the end. The next big thing.' (Ch. 5) 
...the fallacious enterprise of making things better. (Ch. 15)

The Next Big Thing is Making Things Better in the States. Why? The publishing practice of sometimes altering titles to suit a particular audience has been the topic of an earlier post (see here), and it still intrigues me. Here both titles fit. The phrase 'making things better' is certainly noticeable for the frequency of its repetition; it appears in the text much more often than 'the next big thing'. 'Making Things Better' perhaps feels more upbeat, if also laced with irony. 'The Next Big Thing' is possibly the truer title, inasmuch as it sums up if not the main theme of the novel then certainly the plot's major thrust. But it's a brutal phrase - quite daringly inelegant. Brookner's choice of titles for her many novels never struck me as a strong point, and might even have served to put off potential readers. She never quite found a unifying 'pattern' for her titles - unlike, say, Ivy Compton-Burnett, another prolific writer. At best we can call 'The Next Big Thing' a brave title - and the novel is nothing if not brave.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: The Ideal Holiday

'I went to cities. At first I went to all the glamorous ones: Venice, Rome. But I did in fact feel rather lonely there. Then I realized that I didn't have to go to those places, that I was happier in small towns of no particular interest. So I picked the ones in which I could please myself, without witnesses. France, mostly. I was more or less contented when I could just amble round a church, and then sit down and drink coffee and read the local paper, half hear other people's conversations.'
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 4

'Sounds hilarious,' says Herz's ex, Josie, in response, confirming her function in the novel: the obverse not just of Herz's long-lost love Fanny Bauer, but also of many things Brooknerian. We know what Brookner's about here. The Next Big Thing is one of the most self-referential of her novels, referencing not only her many previous books but also what she told us about her own life. Think of that 1981 essay in Soundings, on Rosa Bonheur, which begins with a vignette of Brookner herself 'indolent and homesick' in a French provincial city, turning as ever to the museum, and 'from long experience' following the arrow which says Ecole française XIXe. siècle. The paintings found there match 'one's nostalgia for simple rules, simple illustrations, simple nourishment. But of course such things were never simple; they were at all times complex and sad'.

Saturday 20 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: Art Doesn't Love You

In chapter 4 of The Next Big Thing, Herz considers, and then rejects, a visit to the National Gallery to look at the Claudes and Turners - 'aware that art was indifferent to whatever requirements he might bring to the matter'. Art had proved 'fallacious' for his doomed brother Freddy, 'as if it were preferable to be the equivalent of a playground bully, a ruffian, rather than the suffering aesthete he had been in his former life'.

This isn't, however, for Brookner a late-life repudiation of her former calling. Even as a teacher she would (as we see below) tell her students, brilliantly and subversively, 'Art doesn't love you and cannot console you':
By nature a shy and reserved figure, Brookner had a great flair for self-analysis. She also understood her students and their motivations with keen psychological insight – she encouraged the viewer to articulate his own feelings, as well as a vision based on his own character. The work of a particular artist, say, David, had to be analysed within the larger framework of historical circumstances; yet subjectivity could not be avoided. In the case of David, she saw the revolutionary hope of creating a world of higher morality and virtue dashed as the artist anticipated the Romantic ideal by relinquishing intellectual control. Most crucially, Brookner believed that art had to be emotionally alive, and she advocated Baudelaire's 'impeccable naïveté,' which she termed the 'ability to see the world always afresh, either in its tragedy or in its hope.'
Her advice was invaluable. Nearly every sentence she uttered is engraved in my memory. My fellow student Cornelia Grassi remembers the last thing Brookner said to her before our written exams: 'Art doesn't love you and cannot console you.' As Baudelaire recognised, it provides temporary solace, at best.
Olivier Berggruen, Artforum, May 2016

Friday 19 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: Dispossession

...their new cramped quarters.
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 3

Dispossession - 'translation' from one home to another lesser home - is a major theme from the beginning. As in Latecomers, the Holocaust - ghettoisation - isn't directly referenced, but nevertheless is present throughout, Brookner's reticence and subtlety only serving to intensify the Herzes' despair. The Next Big Thing, like Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, is about the decline of a family, and there are sundry other comparisons to be drawn in this most literary of Brooknerian openers. Published the previous year, W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz is possibly an influence. Reading of Herz and his family in Hilltop Road and later in their inferior flat above the shop in the Edgware Road, one thinks of Austerlitz in Bloomsbury:

Wednesday 17 January 2018

The Next Big Thing: Memento Mori

Liliane Louvel's scholarly essay 'Reading with Images: Anita Brookner's The Next Big Thing as Memento Mori' is recommended. It takes an 'intermedial' view of the novel, comparing it with a range of memento mori artworks. The essay sheds fresh light on several key relationships in the book - with Herz's brother and with his neighbour Sophie Clay. It is heartening to find such a sympathetic and respectful reading of a Brookner novel, and intriguing that it comes from outside the anglophone literary world.

Sunday 14 January 2018

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing presents a hero shaken by lust after a lifetime of humbly 'making things better'. Seventysomething Julius Herz, the third male protagonist in recent novels, is a self-effacing childhood émigré from Germany. Late in life, he finds release from the family ties that bound him to a solitary stoicism. Passive, obedient, too keen to please, Julius shares more than his Mitteleuropa background with some of his female forerunners. As I list his traits, Brookner breaks in: 'He's me, really. You were longing to say that, weren't you? And I thought I was making him up. That's what happens. That's where Freud is right.'

'He's me, really.' The Next Big Thing - Anita Brookner's Madame Bovary 'C'est moi!' novel? It's a tempting notion. The novel is probably my favourite Brookner, though when I first read it, in 2002, I thought it a reheating of several previous works, A Private View in particular. I see it differently now. I see it in the context of what would prove to be a late flowering, a late phase. We now see The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl as a magnificent whole, but they probably read differently as they came out: inaccessible, odd, the product of a talent on the skids.

Observer: Where do you think your ideas come from?
Brookner: I wish I knew. I'd tap into them straight away. I think it's mostly dreams and memories, isn't it, as with all novelists? And a certain amount of observation, obviously. 

'Herz had a dream': it's a forthright beginning - not wholly elegant, but it does the job. Interesting that two later works - Leaving Home and 'At the Hairdresser's' - also begin with dreams. Would she have considered doing that in earlier novels? Would she have cited dreams so highly? Those early works, one feels, were written in the white heat of experience, or something close to it. The later works - the works of the 2000s - are no less arresting, but they are different, and should be recognised as such: strange, difficult at times, but representing for Brookner a kind of Indian summer. Or winter, perhaps.

UK first edn. paperback:
note the low perspective,
as if Herz were a child, or
Sophie Clay's inferior.

Friday 12 January 2018

The Humbling by Philip Roth

The book may be short but the style is long: loping conversational sentences convey and dignify the story of Simon Axler, a famous actor in his middle sixties. But his abilities have deserted him: 'Something fundamental has vanished. Maybe it had to go. Things go.' And then his marriage fails and he checks into a psychiatric hospital. Later there's a liaison with a much younger woman, who was once a lesbian, and some risky sex, and the story ends in disaster. 'A man's way is laid with a multitude of traps, and Pegeen had been the last. He'd stepped hungrily into it and taken the bait like the most craven captive on earth.'

The Humbling (2009) was criticised (and ridiculed) on publication for its graphic depictions of sex between the mismatched pair. In fact the scenes are both brief and pertinent, always presenting Axler in a fresh guise: at one point 'spying, lascivious' - perhaps like the greybeards in that Tintoretto painting, Susannah and the Elders, which Brookner invokes more than once. Axler, like Brookner's George Bland or Julius Herz, both is and isn't a 'dirty old man', and this is the book's strength. Like Brookner, Roth doesn't hold back on the physical horrors of ageing, but, again like Brookner, refuses to deny his hero the gift of self-knowledge and self-awareness:
The failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled.
Brookner (surprisingly?) loved her Roth. Surprising? Scarcely. We don't know whether she read The Humbling, but if she did she would have recognised thematic (stylistic too) connections with, inter alia, her own A Private View and The Next Big Thing. The Humbling is indeed a shocking read, but shocking in the best way: as in Brookner, it's the depth of the psychology, the analysis, the clairvoyance, that truly astounds and confounds the reader.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Chapter by Chapter #2

I wish there were a word-count facility on my e-reader: it might yield some interesting results. I noticed during my recent reread of Fraud (1992) something I'd only half-recognised before: how Brookner's chapters have a tendency towards being extremely regular in length. I reckon if I were to count the words in each of Fraud's chapters the results would be remarkably close.

How did she do this? She wrote in longhand, and cleanly, with few corrections (a page of the MS of Family and Friends (1985) is to be found online alongside the Paris Review interview) - so it was probably just a case of her allocating herself a set number of sheets of paper per chapter.

But why did she do it? She was certainly a writer, and probably a person, who lived according to her routines. Imposing such structures and patterns on the job of composition would have given momentum to a writing process that, as John Bayley says somewhere, possibly wasn't experienced at the full fever pitch of passionate engagement.

In the 1990s, in A Family Romance (1993) and A Private View (1994), Brookner experimented with chapter length. The chapters in those novels are approximately double the usual Brookner length. She returns to her old pattern in some later novels.

In the 2000s things seem to be up in the air again, matching perhaps the edgier tone of those last novels. Brookner's first and final chapters had always been subject to irregularity, but chapter 3 of The Bay of Angels (2001) is intriguing and a little disconcerting for being only four pages long.

Sunday 7 January 2018

Chapter by Chapter

A somewhat arcane post this, but I guess arcane is what I'm all about here. A look at the way Brookner or rather the publishers of her British first editions styled and designed her chapter headings.

In the 1980s there was a wide variation: digits; numbers in words; Roman numerals. Also varied were the accompanying devices, or lack of. The 1990s were the more consistent, also more expansive years, and this accords with the style and tone of the novels of that time. The Incidents in the Rue Laugier design pictured below is found throughout the decade (in A Closed Eye, A Family Romance, A Private View, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Altered States and Falling Slowly), and seems to have been a favourite. It's certainly mine. And finally the 2000s: the years of minimalism: again, matched in the tone of those novels.

From the 1980s:
A Start in Life


Look at Me

Hotel du Lac

Family and Friends

A Friend from England

Lewis Percy

From the 1990s:

Brief Lives

Incidents in the Rue Laugier


Undue Influence

And from the 2000s:


Thursday 4 January 2018


I last saw [Anita Brookner] in the summer of 2010, when the publisher Carmen Callil brought her to lunch. She was frailer, and needed a stick. I had made potted crab, to which she said she was allergic, to my embarrassment (should I have known?). Instead she took a little cheese, some green salad and a roast tomato; she declined the beetroot. We asked about her life. She said that she went out early every morning to her Sainsbury's Local for 'a croissant, a petit pain and a loaf'. 'Every day, Anita?' 'I eat a lot of bread.' She had been rereading Stefan Zweig and applauded that most Brooknerianly-titled novel Beware of Pity. She agreed with Carmen that the one advantage of age was that the trials of the heart were behind you. She stated that she had no religious feelings or beliefs at all. She still rented her television (no digibox or Freeview), and still smoked eight or 10 cigarettes a day. 'Do you have your first after breakfast, Anita?' 'Of course.' She had the Times delivered, but when she went out for her hamper of bread she also bought the Independent, Mail, Guardian and Telegraph. She read them all, which took until 10.30. 'There's never anything in them.' I suggested that perhaps she could in future buy just one newspaper, but could tell she was not open to changing her ways, or her expectation of life, at this stage. ('How are the newspapers, Anita?' 'Disappointing').

Elsewhere in this exemplary article Barnes comments: 'I can't think of a novelist less likely to write an autobiography'. Those who are so wary of self-exposure are destined or doomed to be subject to the reminiscences of others. And yet we know how the Brooknerian mind works, because we have all those novels - and it's somehow at odds with the comedy found here, and indeed in most anecdotes told of this most fascinating and elusive of women. By making of her not quite a figure of fun but certainly a lovable eccentric, society renders a difficult person manageable and acceptable: it is a process of enforced assimilation.

But it's a collusive process too. Herz, in Brookner's The Next Big Thing, finds himself giving 'an edited view of oneself that would prove acceptable' (ch. 6). Yet he longs for a fuller and deeper conversation, and bizarrely fantasises about engaging in television interviews, in-depth expansive exchanges in which he might enlarge upon his 'artistic delights' and perhaps at last be himself.

Over Christmas I read Ma'am Darling,* Craig Brown's amusing 'quasi-biography' of Princess Margaret. The book is made up of anecdotes, many of them detrimental to the reputation of the late Princess, who is depicted variously as vain, arrogant, temperamental, lazy, spiteful, ridiculous, stupid, etc., etc.** But at one point Brown wonders:
But might there be another story? It has been said that history is written by the victors, but, on a most basic level, that is not quite true: it is written by the writers.
These 'writers', he goes on (Nancy Mitford, for one), might equally be depicted as nasty and intolerant, resentful of a beautiful, innocent, ignorant young princess. Princess Margaret was no writer, so her account is largely missing from the archives: she was never going to write an autobiography. She was never, at least in print, going to be able properly to answer back.

Brookner never wrote an autobiography either. But indubitably such an ultra self-aware writer wrote very much about herself. And where? As ever we find the real story in the novels. As she herself says somewhere, fiction writers are somehow the only people telling the truth.

* No mention of Brookner in Ma'am Darling. But the Princess swept into her orbit Anthony Blunt and Roy Strong, both of whom had Brookner connections. Here's Strong sitting next to Brookner at dinner:
Virtually her opening comment to me was, 'You have always been the victim of envy'. But later came the more significant exchange. I said to her that I didn't think I could face writing art history again. She looked at me with those extraordinary eyes and said, 'But that's wonderful. For the first time in your life you're free.' How often that sentence has returned to my mind and how grateful I have since been for its articulation, thanks to that chance encounter. (Splendours and Miseries: The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-1987)
** On finishing Ma'am Darling I decided to follow up footage and recordings of the Princess on YouTube. This was a slightly disconcerting experience. As she's presented in Craig Brown's book the Princess grows in one's mind into a comic, monstrous, but also, against the odds, rather sympathetic character. But in the recordings she seems smaller, more reserved and dignified, and also more self-conscious, self-deprecating, even self-parodying. One of the high points of the book is a passage on the Princess's appearance on Desert Island Discs. Brown attempts to transcribe her voice:
[Roy Plomley:] 'Ma'am, have you a big collection of records?'
[Princess Margaret:] 'Ears, quate.'
'Have you kept your old 78s?'
'Oh ears, they're all velly carefully...' - she pauses, as if searching for the right word - '...preserved.'
'They're very heavy of course - you've got them down in the cellar?'
'Eh hev them up in the ettic, eckshleh.'
But listen to the actual programme, and the impression is subtly different, more real, nowhere near as silly and pantomimic. As Anita Brookner once said of a topic that seemed simple, 'But of course such things were never simple; they were at all times complex and sad.'

Tuesday 2 January 2018

A Bleakness of Brookners

I'm not really a fetishiser of my books. But at a loose end one of these drear days I decided to take stock of my rather limited collection and try to dedicate at least some of the year ahead to improving it. How I'd love some more of those 1990s Jonathan Cape hardbacks - the editions I first encountered, in my local library, during the earliest days of my fandom! Or maybe one or two from the Penguin posthumous reissue, of which I sadly own none. Those covers are really growing on me.

But anyway, for those of you who are interested, here are my Brookners in all their questionable glory. (And I hope you like the collective noun in the title of this post. I don't. I've never approved of collective nouns.)

Now for the different suits. A game of solitaire, you might say. The 1980s Triad Graftons:

The Jonathan Cape hardbacks:

The early 1990s Penguins:

The Flamingo reissues:

Some early-to-mid 90s Penguins:

A new livery for the later 1990s:

And lastly the Penguin Viking first edition hardbacks:

Monday 1 January 2018

Viennese Brookner

References to the Austrian capital are scattered through Brookner's novels. The following is probably not a full list:
  • Hotel du Lac: Edith Hope has Viennese ancestry. She goes with her English father to the Kunsthistorisches Museum to see 'a picture of men lying splayed in a cornfield under a hot sun'. This is a puzzle. It sounds like Bruegel's Harvesters (which isn't in Vienna, though the museum houses several of the artist's surviving pictures of the seasons). See an earlier post here.
  • There's a Viennese background to that most Freudian of Brookners, A Family Romance, Toni Ferber hailing from (where else?) Berggasse. Later her granddaughter Jane visits the city, drops into Demel's, eats Sachertorte, finds it disappointing. Demel's is extant, but like many such establishments now a touristy Lacanian simulacrum of its probable former self. Getting inside looks to be no mean feat: one would have to elbow one's way through a crowd of snapping gawpers, and there's surely a waiting list months long. See an earlier post here.
  • George Bland, in A Private View, knows Vienna: the Tintoretto Susannah and the Elders sheds unwelcome light on his own private view of Katy Gibb.

  • Incidents in the Rue Laugier: Max Kroll, a minor character, one of Brookner's exiles, was a bookseller in old Vienna.
  • The Next Big Thing: Herz remembers visiting Vienna - in particular the modernist Wittgenstein Haus, one of his 'artistic delights'.

Pictures of my recent visit to Vienna can be found on Twitter @brooknerian. Feel free to like, retweet and, if you don't already, follow. Happy New Year!