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).