Friday 26 October 2018

The Comforts of Scott

Mr Ramsay, the patriarch in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, loved it. Nineteenth-century families would act out tableaux from it. The Antiquary (1816), to the Victorians, meant comfort and nostalgia - but of the highest order. It cannot be ignored. Sir Walter Scott, of course, can't be ignored, but The Antiquary in particular must not be lost - however scantly its manifest eccentricities might recommend it.

For one thing it isn't a costume drama with a fast plot. This isn't Ivanhoe. Instead it is the story of a mysterious young Englishman, calling himself Lovel, who arrives in a Scottish seaside town in the 1790s, only twenty years before the novel was written. Lovel comes in contact with Jonathan Oldbuck, the antiquary of the title, a uniquely entertaining and frustrating character, obsessed with books and history. There's a violent storm and a heroic rescue, and it becomes clear that Lovel has some back-story that involves Isabella, a local aristocrat's daughter. But Scott is chary with the details, and the reader must read on, once more fascinated and frustrated.

It's a flimsy story, but weirdly alluring. 'It was early in a fine summer's day, near the end of the eighteenth century...' the novel begins, and who cannot be charmed by such a line? Possibly, I concede, those whose imaginations are less conservative may not be enamoured by Scott's view of the world and the past. They might gasp in disbelief at the minutiae with which the novel concerns itself. They might despair of Scott's depiction of, celebration of, the settled order - typified by the honourable beggar, Edie Ochiltree. But Scott isn't for everyone, and certainly isn't appreciated by most readers nowadays, though he was by many of the Victorians who came after him, and that's why we can't and shouldn't avoid him. We think of the novels of his time and we think of Jane Austen. The Victorians would have said 'Who?', and thought only of Sir Walter. He was a major European phenomenon.

Like her own father Virginia Woolf had a passion for Scott and for The Antiquary. She praised its 'complete presentation of life'. Her father, and perhaps also she herself, always shed tears towards the end of the novel, when Scott's plot meanders (but Scott proceeds through indirection) into an episode of loss in a fisherman's family:
the scene in the cottage where Steenie Mucklebackit lies dead; the father's grief, the mother's irritability, the minister's consolations, all come together, tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole ... which, as always, Scott creates carelessly, without a word of comment, as if the parts grew together without his willing it, and broke into ruin again without his caring.
Sometimes I fear I may be getting to the end of the nineteenth century. But there is always Scott. If you have never read him, start with Waverley. My favourites are Ivanhoe (I'm in good (?) company here, as Tony Blair was known to keep Ivanhoe by his Downing Street bed) and Kenilworth, as I'm partial to a spot of Merrie England.

Henry Liverseege, Edie Ochiltree,
Sir Arthur Wardour and Isabella in the Storm,

Whitworth, Manchester

Friday 19 October 2018

Who Else Should I Read?

  • Read Trollope. For decent feelings, she said. In her own novels she references He Knew He Was Right and Orley Farm. I'm not keen on either. I love the later works, not all of which are the gloomy old things of repute. I think the likes of Ayala's Angel are among my favourite novels of any writer.
  • Read Roth and Updike. And the rest of the great American warhorses. Brookner always made a thing of her devotion to these most unBrooknerian writers. She was putting it on a bit, no doubt; but she made a good case.
  • Read Wharton. Brookner made a case for Wharton too. But I'm not sure she was right. She said she thought of herself as much more like Wharton than James. Again, I don't think she was right.
  • Read Sebald. She valued Sebald's sudden emergence, fully formed, on to the literary scene. She liked especially his evocation of old-style life and feelings.
  • For much the same reason, read Mann. The bourgeois past, European angst - and Switzerland.
  • Read Stendhal. I reckon he wasn't so much her favourite writer as her favourite person. His style, his attitudes, his insouciance.
  • Read Goncharov. Brookner said Oblomov was her favourite novel, and she quoted from it twice in her own novels. She liked it, she said, because it was about a man who failed at everything. This was probably something of the truth, but also a bit of a posture. I found Oblomov a dull read, and that line about the meads and kvasses brewed at Oblomovka was a lucky find of Brookner's, but not really representative.
  • Read Chekhov. For true Brooknerian sadness and nostalgia, that is. Not that Brookner recommended any particular Chekhovs, though she approved of his life. She approved in particular of his death - in Switzerland, wasn't it, and after a glass of champagne? A stylish way to go, at least in imagination. Brookner wasn't herself a drinker, and champagne gives a number of her characters a headache.
  • Read James. Well, of course. She loved The Portrait of a Lady, with its depiction of the passage from innocence to experience. She loved, of the later novels, The Spoils of Poynton, but found The Golden Bowl a little too redolent of the madness of art. For my part, I love that early late period of James's typified by Spoils: short brief astonishing novels, made for the future.
  • And of course, of course, read Dickens. She read one a year, having been introduced as a child. Her father saw the author as the key to Englishness. An only and perhaps lonely child, she was surprised when she went to school to find not everyone had a funny name.

Thursday 11 October 2018

Wuthering Heights

'No books!' I exclaimed. 'How do you contrive to live here without them? If I may take the liberty to inquire - Though provided with a large library, I'm frequently very dull at the Grange - take my books away, and I should be desperate!'

The other day I found myself publicly asked (the circumstances needn't concern us) what I was currently reading. Caught off guard, I replied honestly, adding 'I'm afraid' or 'believe it or not'. That's what you do with Wuthering Heights: you get all embarrassed, all apologetic. It's one of those books. One of those books everyone knows about, but no one actually reads?

I read it in my teens and never felt any need to revisit what was, I recalled, a baffling experience of time shifts, multiple narrators, narratives within narratives, and too many characters with similar or identical names.

But I've a fondness for those 1990s World's Classics covers. I kind of collect them. So I bought this rather nice Wuthering Heights...

...and, stuck for something to read one day, actually got around to opening it.

It's a revelation. The plot is a dream. The characters are vivid. The settings are completely convincing. The violence is shocking. The love story is powerful and affecting. Yes, a dream of a book. One to return to again and again, and this time not after a gap of thirty-odd years.

But one thing I take issue with. It crops up time and again. It's in my edition's blurb. This thing about Wuthering Heights being 'imaginative'. Yes, I see what is meant, but I prefer to see the book differently, as a work of literature. I prefer to see Emily Brontë's whole project as a uniquely literary endeavour. Let's take one example from the second half of the novel. Young Catherine corresponds secretly with Linton. We learn much about the mechanics of the correspondence. The secret missives themselves are all but fetishised. Others seek them, but they're hidden away. Their purloining is an intimate trespass.

Imaginative, yes. But literary too. The chapter is, of course, pure Clarissa.

No - no one should feel ashamed of reading Wuthering Heights.

Saturday 6 October 2018

Married Brookner

She had, she said, offers of marriage, but none she could accept. Whom could she entrust her life to? And how could she be married while at the same time living the life she wanted to live? How could she be married while also being an art historian? She told one interviewer she never seriously thought the puzzle was solvable.

At some point, she said, a wariness sets in, an understanding of other people’s motives – of men’s motives, the agendas of men. She didn’t want to be someone else’s prop. She said she never came close to marrying, because she never wanted to be married to the men who asked her. But she would have liked companionship and she would have liked children. Six sons, she said. One of her favourite pictures was David’s Oath of the Horatii in the Louvre, an image of three heroic brothers willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of Rome.

Her parents wanted her to marry. When she didn’t marry, they wanted her to nurse them. If she had married she wouldn’t have been so accessible – an irony that wasn’t lost on her.

And if she had married, she wouldn’t have been able to write. Or have wanted to, or needed to. But how does one spend the time in marriage? – the years and the months and the days and the hours? The novels of the past, ostensibly novels of marriage, are in fact concerned only with courtship and provide little instruction on what comes afterwards. Or indeed on what follows a failed courtship.

Brookner was as clear-eyed here as everywhere. She didn’t think she’d have been a good wife, a good mother. She was, she said, too self-absorbed, too inward. But she still valued the idea of marriage, and in her later, more reckless interviews she said she wished she had married several times. You should, she more than once said, play Russian roulette with your own life.

And marriage is a major theme in Brookner’s fiction. From the middle period onwards many of her protagonists are married. A Misalliance, Latecomers, Lewis Percy, Brief Lives, A Closed Eye, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Altered States, Visitors, Falling Slowly, The Next Big Thing, The Rules of Engagement and ‘At the Hairdresser’s’ all feature heroes and heroines who are married, widowed or divorced. So much for Brookner’s novels being only about lonely spinsters.

But in Brookner the ending of a marriage is only a matter of time. You can come across the most shocking scenes, especially in the later novels, where the iron has entered the soul, and the screw is turned and turned. Take Altered States: the decline and suicide of the narrator’s wife Angela. I read it aghast, my heart in my mouth. One’s heart is often in one’s mouth when one reads these later works, such is the atmosphere of dread.

A third of the way through The Rules of Engagement, as another example, the heroine’s heavy but inoffensive husband dies: the experienced Brookner reader has probably already suspected Digby’s time will soon be up. But the manner of his going is appalling. He is brought home by his secretary, having obviously suffered a stroke, though this isn’t named. No medical attention has been sought, and none is enlisted by his wife, the narrator, who maintains a vigil over him through the few dark days and nights that follow. Then he dies. These scenes are set, at a guess, in the 1970s, in an age perhaps less medicalised than today. But would you really not at the very least have called a doctor? The narrator doesn’t, and there’s no further comment on this. In Brookner we’re beguiled into such acceptances. Why? Is there a reason? Or is it just a part of the true weirdness and uniqueness of the Brookner world, the enigma that keeps us reading and kept her writing?

Monday 1 October 2018


Brookner died on 10 March 2016, ‘peacefully in her sleep’, according to the death notice in The Times. One thinks of Mrs March in Fraud, daily scanning the columns. The piece continues less conventionally. At Anita’s request, we learn, there would be no funeral. Donations should be addressed to Médecins sans Frontières.

(It is disappointing to find ‘Médecins’ spelt ‘Medicins’.)

No funeral? This was subject to some comment at the time. It was becoming fashionable – a green alternative to the expense and waste of a traditional ceremony.

One senses in Brookner other motives. Feelings of dread and shame. The thought of all those gushing tributes, perhaps from people who were little more than strangers. The absence or near absence of family. The shame?

Peacefully in her sleep? But we know Anita Brookner’s death was far from benign, that her flat was on fire, and she had had to be dragged from it, that she survived for a time afterwards in hospital, but that adequate rehabilitation wasn’t perhaps at hand. Again and again I think about those circumstances. She had money enough to afford private care, but probably there was no one to speak for her. One needs spokespeople, advocates. How conscious was she? How lucid? Dying among strangers, what were her thoughts? Did anyone know who she was? Did anyone care?

(In 2009, in her last interview, she had spoken of the inspiration for what was to be her final novel Strangers. She had had, two years back, a spell in hospital. She had never been in hospital before. She had been, she said, literally dying among strangers. Yes, she said, she was frightened.

But she recovered. God’s little joke, she said.)

Emma Roberts, heroine of Leaving Home, Brookner’s penultimate novel, is one of her most dejected. Young, she maintains a relationship with an older doctor, stoical Philip Hudson, who has a son. Earlier in the novel Emma witnessed the son sleeping, experienced a coup de foudre. But she didn’t act, and Brookner, perversely, doesn’t explain why. And of course she doesn’t need to.

It is the son’s intention, we discover, to join Médecins sans Frontières. It is, Philip Hudson says, what he would have done at the son’s age. Henry James is recruited. Live all you can! says Dr Hudson.

Will we ever know what private memories or experiences prompted Brookner to choose MSF as her chosen charity after death?