Saturday 21 July 2018

Loitering with Muriel

What a subversive joy it is to discover Muriel Spark. Of course I knew The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but I left it at that. But this Spark centenary year I've delved further, and Loitering with Intent (1981), Spark's sixteenth novel, is easily the most pleasurable so far.

On one level it's because of the story, a social comedy about a fairly ridiculous organisation called the Autobiographical Association. Why has Sir Quentin Oliver set it up? Why does he want to entice old friends to commit their scandalous secrets to paper? Has he blackmail in mind? And what are the connections between these events and those to be found in the novel the beady-eyed narrator is writing? The plot is intriguing; the atmosphere of post-war London is precisely evoked; the characters ('which resembled more and more the bombed-out buildings that still messed up the London street-scene') are funny and surprising; and the narrator, a true Spark avatar, is sharp and engaging.

But it is Spark on writing that gives the reader pause:
I wasn't writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person, but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder...
Warrender Chase [the main character in the narrator's novel] never existed, he is only some hundreds of words, some punctuation, sentences, paragraphs, marks on the page.
Such utterances are as disturbing as they are thrilling. They seem to stretch the reader's good faith. There's something diabolical about Spark; there always is, but elsewhere it has more to do with her manipulation of her characters, who nevertheless exist, aren't in quite so much doubt.

What sort of writer was Muriel Spark? 'The true novelist, one who understands the work as a continuous poem, is a myth-maker, and the wonder of the art resides in the endless different ways of telling a story...' I think of Brookner as I read this, though she was a writer who made many fewer claims for her work. Spark's headstone, in Italy, reads 'poeta'. If Anita Brookner had wanted one (she didn't) the same word might have applied.

And lastly, what is the relation between Spark and autobiography? Is Loitering with Intent 'autofiction'?
People often ask me where I get ideas for my novels; I can only say that my life is like that, it turns into some other experience of fiction, recognisable only to myself.
The awkwardness of the phrasing suggests a straining at the limits of expression - suggests the expression of something authentic, personal, radical.


The Polygon centenary editions of Muriel Spark's twenty-two novels are highly recommended.


The Brooknerian will now be taking its summer break. Thanks for reading!

Thursday 19 July 2018

A Misalliance: Closing Remarks

And so we come to the end of A Misalliance. A minor Brookner in some ways, a little under-powered, and tonally variable. A novel other writers probably wouldn't have written. Others would have let a fallow year go by. But not Anita Brookner.

And yet I'm glad we have it.

The closing chapter is a classic Brookner conclusion, though you probably wouldn't have known it in 1986. But now we see all the familiar things. The urgent desire to travel. Seasonal change. The wistful ending of a misalliance and the throwing in of one's lot with altogether safer concerns. And a sudden last-paragraph reversal.

No, I rather like A Misalliance. Unlike its creator I wouldn't dismiss it with the Ratner word.

A Misalliance: Far Gone

He is far gone, she thought.
A Misalliance, ch. 11

Early Brookner, later Brookner. What are the differences? Chapter 11 of A Misalliance comprises a three-way conversation between Blanche, her ex-husband, and her old admirer Patrick Fox. The tone, typical of the early novels, is witty, comic, sarcastic, aphoristic. It reads a little like Wilde or Coward.

And Patrick Fox's love with Sally, one of the novel's several unsuitable attachments, is played for laughs. But fast-forward just a few years to A Private View, and we have George Bland and his obsession with Katy Gibb - and few laughs, and no repartee. A Misalliance summarises several early Brookner themes - flirting with other lives, mismatched pairs - but we must look to later novels for truly serious analysis.

Sunday 15 July 2018

A Misalliance: Je redoute l'hiver

Je redoute l'hiver, parce que c'est la saison du confort.
Arthur Rimbaud, Une Saison en Enfer

Brookner, like Scott, had a well-stocked mind, and she had her favourite quotes, just as we Brooknerians have favourites of hers. Lines recur interestingly in the novels. This Rimbaud line ('I dread the winter, because it is the season of comfort') is invoked in both A Misalliance (Ch. 10)
...the temperature had noticeably dropped; perhaps the season had ended. The darkness that had filled her vision the night before had perhaps been the true darkness of night falling, rather than the fading vision brought about by her headache. 'Je redoute l'hiver, parce que c'est la saison du confort,' thought Blanche...
and The Rules of Engagement (Ch. 16):
Je redoute l'hiver, parce que c'est la saison du confort. Rimbaud had said that, and, perhaps wisely, cut his winters short. But death, even when not entirely involuntary, was not the ideal solution.

Saturday 14 July 2018

A Misalliance: Blanche's Migraine

My thing with Brookner goes back exactly 25 years ago when Hotel du Lac won the Booker prize. To an aspiring literary critic, this frail, thin book about a frail, thin heroine coming to terms with loveless solitude at a Swiss hotel seemed the epitome of the bloodless, sexless, plotless English novel that had led us to study American literature at college. 
Subsequently, one of the subjects for my debut appearance on the Radio 3 chatshow Critics' Forum turned out to be the latest Brookner, in which another west London spinster didn't quite get it together with a semi-comatose widower. What passed for a plot twist was the heroine experiencing a severe migraine. I have a memory of a moment when the central character was forced to return early from a stroll because the weight of the spectacle frames on her nose had become unbearable.

Mark Lawson's review of Brookner's 2009 novel Strangers isn't the only example of a critic recanting on his former dislike of the author. But what interests me is the depiction of an earlier critical climate. The book under discussion on Critics' Forum was surely A Misalliance.

Blanche's migraine (in which a pair of spectacles plays no part - and who the semi-comatose widower is, I don't know) arises out of probably Brookner's oddest set piece, a negotiation with a moneyed American pair, the Demuths, at the Dorchester Hotel. It is brilliantly described and very atmospheric - Brookner's handling of weather is as good as always - but it is also, well, odd. And though the object of Blanche's misalliance, Sally, is involved - it is Blanche's peculiar job to negotiate on behalf of Sally's flighty ('volage' ) husband Paul - she is absent from the scene, and this perhaps weakens the focus of the novel.

But Blanche's subsequent migraine is every bit as harrowing as Frances's nighttime trek down the Edgware Road in Look at Me. As a migraine sufferer myself, I approached a reread with trepidation. And sure enough I felt, in sympathy, a minor throbbing pain over my left eye - and took some pills - and all was well. All isn't well for Blanche, who knows what is in store for her.

Her triggers are fairly standard: champagne, stress, smells, atmospheric conditions. The natural history of Blanche's migraines, which Brookner clinically records (and which I shrink from quoting), is similar to her own experience, as revealed in a 1993 review in the Spectator of Oliver Sacks's book, Migraine:
I learn from this book (and I allow that this may occur from actually reading the book) that my headaches are in fact migrainous and not untypical, and that the sensation of waking from a dream with the onset of a migraine is fairly standard. In fact it is probable that the precipitating dream, which is accompanied by a feeling of panic or horror, may be implicated in the migraine itself. Waking, which is always abrupt, is not caused by anything as specific as the alarm going off or the radio coming on. A rapidly beating heart may continue for an hour, to be succeeded by a pain over the left eye. More interesting than the pain, which is unpleasant but endurable, is the feeling of extreme dejection, and of unwelcome rumination. This too, it seems, is characteristic. The attack is therefore less of an attack than a defeat, an invasion of unpalatable memory. This will last for 12 hours and be cancelled by a night of sleep without dreams. Thus I learn that I suffer from common migraine, as opposed to classic migraine, which may be accompanied by more radical distortions, including the saw-toothed aura or blot in the centre of vision which afflict major sufferers. I have also learned to look away from flashing blue lights which punctuate the opening sequence of The Bill on television. It would be interesting to know how many are felled by a night in the disco. Coffee helps.

A Misalliance: Not a Night Club

'Life is not a night club,'
says Blanche to her old friend Patrick in chapter 8 of A Misalliance when he reveals unwise feelings for the flaky Sally and an even flakier association with an analyst. It's a good line, and I've pointed out before that A Misalliance is a quotable novel. And here's Anita Brookner herself in interview in 1994:
...if someone said to her, not that she was gloomy and sad, but that her novels were, how would she reply? 'I'd agree. I don't intend them to be like that, but I think they're an accurate reflection. Life is not a nightclub, and some of the reviews I've had, particularly from women, which assume that it is, seem to have been quite defensive. These women are angry. They believe they can get what they want from life. Maybe they're just lucky enough not to have found that out that they can't.'

Friday 13 July 2018

A Misalliance: An Essential Commentary

A Misalliance, disowned by Brookner, out of print for years in the UK, is a minor but significant novel. It might be called transitional. The character of Sally, feckless, sybaritic, entitled, is a preparation for the monsters to come: Julia in Brief Lives, Dolly in A Family Romance, both more fully realised. Blanche's marriage lays the ground similarly for those stories of marriage Brookner would tackle in later books: in Lewis Percy, in A Closed Eye, to name only two. A Misalliance is not to be lost. And it is very quotable. One seems to hear Brookner working out her very philosophy.
The unease she felt at the National Gallery, the curious faintness that had overcome her at the sight of the archaic smile of the kouros in the Athens Museum, seemed to her an essential commentary on her own shortcomings. I could have saved my own life, she thought. But I was too weak, shackled by the wrong mythology. (Ch. 7)

Thursday 12 July 2018

A Misalliance: Fantasies of a High Order

Brookner was perhaps always a sceptic. Art doesn't love you and can't console you, she would tell her art history students; and Blanche in A Misalliance has similar doubts as to art's transcendence. What do all her visits to the National Gallery yield but 'fantasies of a high order'? (Ch. 6)

Likewise with writing. For a time in the 1980s, after the Booker win, Anita Brookner was lionised. But publication of A Misalliance inaugurated a period of reassessment: Brookner was a one-trick pony; Brookner had nothing new to offer; Brookner's bloodless fiction sounded the death-knell for English literature: that kind of thing.

But this was a second career, and this should never be forgotten. She wasn't starting out. She was simply trying her hand. She was playing. She could afford to do as she pleased. She made no claims for her fiction; in fact she often downplayed its significance. She probably knew her fantasies were actually of a high order. But she also knew they were mere fantasies.

Sunday 8 July 2018

A Misalliance: Do not look to me to be Millie [sic] Theale

'I plan to become dangerous and subversive,' says Blanche in chapter 5 of A Misalliance, before (as she puts it) 'raving on about Henry James'.

'A silly girl,' says Blanche of Milly* Theale in The Wings of the Dove. 'She should have bought that rotter outright. What else is money for?'

And so Blanche continues to purchase the company of her own new acquaintances, Sally and her daughter. Quantities of ten-pound notes are placed under the lid of a chipped teapot in Sally's ruinous kitchen.

It is not the only time in Brookner that protagonists buy the time of others. One thinks of Elizabeth in 'At the Hairdresser's' or George Bland in A Private View. Each time the donation of funds is effected in clandestine ways, bringing analogous transactions into the mind of Brookner's knowing and fallen ideal reader.

Not that Blanche's wealth is really quite in the same ballpark as Milly Theale's. But Sally's former mythic existence is evoked in truly Gatsbyish terms: 'Morocco for breakfast, dinner in Venice': or, this being Brookner, in terms of the fêtes galantes of Watteau.

The Embarkation for Cythera, Louvre

* Brookner misspells the name. A rare slip.

A Misalliance: A Creator's Imagination

No wonder A Misalliance, when it was praised, as it was in the US, was called Jamesian. As the child Elinor is introduced in chapter 3 we get a flurry of literary vibrations: not just of James's Maisie but also, in her name, of Jane Austen, and in a mention of foundlings, of Tom Jones and Dickens's Esther Summerson.

Blanche finds herself thinking with 'something like a creator's imagination'. One remembers James again, The Sacred Fount, and 'the joy of determining, almost of creating results'.

It's a heady brew, and all the while there's the art: those nymphs in the Italian Rooms of the National Gallery, mocking Blanche's progress.

Tiepolo, An Allegory of Venus
with Time

Saturday 7 July 2018

A Misalliance: What is the Matter with You?

'What is the matter with you, Blanche?' he said impatiently.
Anita Brookner, A Misalliance, ch. 2

It is a perennial quandary in a Brookner novel. We kind of know what's wrong with her protagonists, but it's never anything that can be easily expressed, never anything that can be explained in a lot less than seventy thousand words.

Blanche is possibly a more straightforward case. She longs for her ex-husband. She would have liked children. She drinks too much. This last detail distances her slightly. The Brookner world is usually very sober, but here we have Vouvray, Sancerre, Madeira. How persuasive is this? Julian Barnes had something to say on the topic:
In one of Anita's later [sic?] novels, the female protagonist, when having supper alone in her flat, regularly has a glass of white wine. Being interested in wine, I couldn’t help noticing that each time supper occurred, the wine was different: first a chardonnay, then a pinot grigio, then a sauvignon, and so on; but the last wine to be drunk in the book was, unexpectedly, sweet – a sauternes. I wondered if such changingness might be significant, intended perhaps as an emblem of the protagonist's volatility. At lunch I mentioned this theory, and referred to that puzzling late switch from dry to sweet. 'Oh no,' replied Anita unconcernedly, 'I just went into a shop and copied down the names.'

A Misalliance: Expertise

Look in any British bookstore and you won't find it. In fact I don't think it's been in print in the UK since the 1980s. It was Brookner's sixth novel, published in 1986, and it was the first to receive a significant degree of negative press. The Paris Review interview tackled this with Brookner, who spoke out against the often personal nature of such criticism, but suggested A Misalliance 'wasn't a very good book, but it wasn't that bad either. I've written it off'.

It has remained in print in the States, where it enjoyed a more favourable reception. Its 'Jamesian' qualities were praised - 'which I would not have dared to presume'.

It represents, perhaps, a turning point, and as the Paris Review exchange makes clear, the character of the protagonist is the main issue. The interviewer finds her boring and irritating; Brookner calls her 'aseptic'.

There is certainly, from the off, a sense of authorial distance. This is a new type of heroine. Blanche isn't the 'lonely spinster' lazy critics had perhaps come to expect. She's a divorcee. This is the first of Brookner's meditations on marriage.

It is also, even more than its predecessors, a notably stylish novel. One can understand the Jamesian tag. In the first chapter Brookner evokes the 'stony fastness' of Blanche's mansion flat, and her memories of holidays in warmer climes, with a brilliance that marks a new self-assurance. She's also confidently aphoristic:
The only child of parents long since dead and almost forgotten, Blanche had begun her apprenticeship of living alone from an early age, and was thus an expert. An expert is not necessarily contented with his or her expertise, and Blanche found her skill sorely tried as the days grew longer.

(I wonder: did Anita Brookner herself place some kind of embargo on A Misalliance? Authors have been known to make such rash decisions. Look at James, who wrote off The Bostonians. (He excluded The Sacred Fount also from the New York Edition, but that's very much more understandable.))