Saturday 28 April 2018

Middlemarch: Book Two: Old and Young

[Part of an occasional series on Middlemarch - Book by Book:]

In chapter 14 Mary Garth teases Fred Vincy with a list of literary lovers. The modern reader is on familiar ground with Ophelia and with Juliet, but things soon become dicey. Mme de Staël's Corinne gets a name-check, along with characters from Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield. Then it's the turn of Scott. Most people have heard of Waverley and Flora MacIvor. But Brenda and Minna Troil, Mordaunt Merton and Clement Cleveland?! My edition of Middlemarch informs me they're to be found in Scott's 1822 novel The Pirate, which surely hasn't been in print for at least the last half-century. Did it have a better reputation in Eliot's time? Very likely. You can sense Scott's influence throughout - not just in the fact Middlemarch is to all intents and purposes an historical novel, but also in details such as the gnomic Scott-style epigraphs, not a few of which Eliot composed herself, just like Sir Walter.

(Scott eventually lost out to Jane Austen, who didn't achieve her current status until the later Victorian period. It's interesting to reflect that her pre-eminence simply wasn't there for the likes of George Eliot or Dickens or even Trollope. They wrote their novels almost as if Jane Austen had never lived, whereas now her influence is unavoidable. Which novelists of today, little regarded now, will be seen quite differently in times to come? I can think of one.)

George Eliot is ever alert to historical change. Of Fielding's age:
But Fielding lived when days were longer [...], when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clock ticked slowly in the winter evenings. (Ch. 15)
We're not far away here from Matthew Arnold's
...strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o'ertax'd, its palsied hearts... ('The Scholar-Gipsy')
though ultra-progressive Eliot takes an altogether more hopeful view of the future, most evident in Middlemarch in the figure of Lydgate, who comes to the fore in Book Two. Yet her vision opens out in other directions, taking in the enjoyable cynicism and worldliness of the entomologist clergyman Mr Farebrother ('I feed a weakness or two lest they should get clamorous' - ch. 17) as a counterweight to the idealism of Lydgate.

In like manner Eliot gives us in Book Two several memorable foreign scenes, which help to leaven the stodgy parochialism of Middlemarch. The Book ends in Rome, that 'city of visible history, where the past of a whole hemisphere seems moving in funeral procession with strange ancestral images and trophies gathered from afar' (ch. 20). But Dorothea's life has narrowed to 'dreamlike strangeness': one thinks of Little Dorrit in Italy, bewildered by sudden unassimilable riches. As for Casaubon, he's rapidly becoming cold and appalling, engrossed in an utterly futile literary project that Eliot, the successful writer, pities as much as she deplores. It will be only a short step (as others have said) from Casaubon to James's Gilbert Osmond.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Careful Owners

From the back: an ex-library copy of Lewis Percy,
a paperback edition of A Friend from England, and the hardback of
Brookner's essay collection Soundings

It's fun to speculate about the previous owners of one's secondhand books. Who were Stu and Jo? It's nice to think of Soundings acting as currency in the transactions between a courting couple. But there's something slightly try-hard about the inscription, and the joke about the year also sounds a little desperate. I wonder whether Jo loved French art too. And why didn't Stu keep her gift?

And Rebecca Ime - who was she? An unusual name. And why did she get rid of A Friend from England? Didn't she like it? Were its messages too close to home?

The Lewis Percy was withdrawn from one of the libraries I used to work in. I might even have stamped one or two of those dates.

Monday 23 April 2018

Postcards from the Edge

The other photographs were of lesser interest, mainly postcards of his travels, souvenirs from which the original attraction had faded, and reproductions of favourite paintings, only some of which he had seen...
Anita Brookner, The Next Big Thing, ch. 9

It always surprises me that museums and galleries still sell postcards. Why do we buy them? Our own photos, on our smartphones, are often superior. Postcards not invariably get the colour or the lighting wrong. And we certainly don't send postcards any more. When was the last time I sent a postcard? I used, on my travels, to write them assiduously. And when was the last time I or indeed anyone received one? Answers on a postcard, please.

And yet I still buy them. I even collect them. I use them as bookmarks. I like handling them. They're real, solid; they retain something of the magic of foreign climes. I like to take them out and sort them by artist or by gallery. They form for me a little private autobiography. I find few from which the original attraction has quite faded.

(Eagle-eyed viewers will spot pictures by (among others and in no particular order) Schiele, Courbet, Klimt, Kirchner, Titian, Bruegel, Cranach, Watteau, Delacroix, Hammershøi, Aertsen and Delaroche, purchased in (ditto) London, Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen, Zürich, Cracow, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Florence. Several, as may be imagined, have Brookner connections.)

Saturday 21 April 2018

Small World

I've long enjoyed the novels and also the literary criticism of David Lodge. Late in his career, with perhaps no more novels to come, Lodge, like his hero Henry James, has turned to autobiography, and Writer's Luck: a memoir 1976-1991 (above) is the second volume.

It reads a little like Lodge's great campus novels of that era, but with one major exception. Lodge declares himself a kind of war reporter in the sexual revolution that coincided with his adulthood, rather than a participant - whereas his characters were always enthusiastically and energetically involved. This makes the memoir a little pedestrian at times, even a little disappointing. But lives are often like that.

Lodge's 'global campus' novel Small World was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize, along with works by J. G. Ballard, Julian Barnes, Anita Desai, Penelope Lively and Anita Brookner. Lodge was of the popular opinion that Ballard's Empire of the Sun was the runaway favourite. The bookies gave Ballard 6-4, but Lodge's novel was second at 3-1.

He describes the glittering but stressful Booker banquet at the Guildhall, with its magnificent chandeliers, old panelling and white napery, the circular tables, the roaming camera teams. The dinner ended, the speeches began, and the tension rose still further. The chairman of the judges that year was the Oxford historian Professor Richard Cobb. 'The 1984 Booker McConnell Prize for fiction goes to...' - and Cobb paused dramatically. All eyes were on Ballard's table, but the TV crews had been tipped off as to the true winner, and thus were able to catch the look of shocked amazement on 6-1 outsider Anita Brookner's face as her name was announced.

Friends commiserated with Lodge afterwards. Hotel du Lac, they felt, was a slighter book than his, but Lodge hadn't read it. But he had enjoyed Brookner's previous novel Look at Me, and indeed had reviewed it for the Sunday Times. Later in the evening, in the bar, one of the judges confided to Lodge some details of the judges' discussions. Apparently another of the judges, the writer and journalist Polly Devlin, had swung the argument in favour of Anita Brookner by reading out words of praise for Look at Me, taken from the back cover of Hotel du Lac. The words of praise were from none other than David Lodge's Sunday Times review. The irony of this wasn't lost on Lodge.

Writing about the event thirty years later in Writer's Luck, the matter is plainly still on David Lodge's mind. He seeks out his Look at Me review:
Like a tear trembling in an eyelid, it continually threatens to spill over into existentialist metafiction ... but manages to stay - just - within the bounds of the English novel of sentiment and manners ... If she should ever transgress those bounds the results would be interesting. Meanwhile I cannot praise too highly this novel's poise, perceptiveness and purity of style.
Lodge admits he didn't keep up with Anita Brookner's 'formidable rate of production' over the years; nevertheless, he doesn't think she ever did transgress 'the limits of the well-made English novel of manners' - and certainly not in Hotel du Lac, which, when he read it, he liked, though he thought it lacked the 'dangerous edge' of its predecessor.
She was however, in her own line, a very skilful artist, and in retrospect by no means an unworthy winner of the Booker.

See also a previous post (here) on David Lodge, Brookner and the Booker.