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.
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.