Thursday 29 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 7, 8, 9

  • By the time she wrote A Private View Anita Brookner was well established and in mid-career. The novel shows great ease and confidence. Its long passages of introspection are masterly. In chapter 7 we get a metafictional line she probably wouldn't have risked in an earlier novel: 'It was like a detective story, or a novel by Henry James'. Indeed.
  • Bland's walk into the suburbs of Fulham is precisely recorded, and the interested reader can now follow his journey on Google Earth.
  • The stakes are high for George Bland - but not as high as they are for later Brookner oldsters: in The Next Big Thing, Strangers and 'At the Hairdresser's'. They're in real jeopardy, and so (perhaps) was their creator.
  • Bland's vision of a rakish life with Katy in foreign locales 'might have been the supreme emotional adventure'. Supreme emotional adventure: this is a favourite phrase. See an earlier post here.
  • 'The beauty of the plan was that each would think he had the best of the bargain': there's something wonderfully antique about this sentence, something you probably wouldn't read very often now, or indeed then. It's the use of 'he' to refer to 'each'. Here 'each' means George and Katy, male and female. What would another writer write? 'They'? 'She'?
  • How much time passes? A Private View is surely the most condensed of Brookners, but so involved and 'exhausting' are George Bland's thoughts that the reader loses all track of the days. How much time separates the opening in Nice from, say, the scenes in chapters 7, 8 and 9, more than halfway through the book? Two or three? But no, chapter 1 takes place in November and chapter 9 on 18 December. I could of course go back and trace the time-scheme, but I actually haven't the time - and in any case I reckon it's completely off-kilter. This isn't the only Brookner novels where time is confused and confusing.
  • But the dates given in chapter 9 are very specific to December 1992.
  • I note Brookner's use of the phrase 'undue influence', which would be called into service again as the title of her 1999 novel.
Cranach, Das Ungleiche Paar,
Akademiegalerie, Vienna

Tuesday 27 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 5, 6

  • Chapter lengths: Brookner lived by her routines, and in most of her novels (though not the last ones) her chapters are noticeably even in length. A Private View is like this but (along with the previous one, A Family Romance) unlike too, in that its chapters are about double the normal Brookner length (twenty rather than ten pages). It suits A Private View in particular, which focuses on a short period of time in the protagonist's life. Chapter 5, for example, covers a single day. But why impose on oneself a chapter-length format anyhow? Such structure was necessary for the likes of Trollope, who was writing for serial publication, but not in the late twentieth century. I guess Brookner was one of those artists whom restriction rather than freedom made creative.
  • Sickert. For more on the Royal Academy's 1992 Sickert exhibition, click on the label below. (I find Bland pays a second, weekday visit to the exhibition, but on a Monday not a Tuesday, so, again, he failed to cross paths with Jim Lees-Milne.)
  • Brookner skewers with a passion Katy's 'airy Californian make-believe' of encounter groups and self-affirmation. In this way she places herself in a determinedly English tradition. Kingsley Amis does something similar in Jake's Thing.
  • There's a nod to Stefan Zweig in chapter 6, in the line about being 'beware of pity'. Zweig had a vogue in the early twenty-first century, but Brookner was there already.
  • Bland's upholstery - pink and green stripes - is rather jollier than Brookner's grey and white stripes, visible on the National Portrait Gallery website (here) in a photo of the time.

Sunday 25 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 3, 4

  • For so apparently metropolitan a writer suburbia exerts a curious lure. Lewis Percy was Brookner's explicitly 'suburban novel'. In other works - Visitors - the areas beyond the centre are foci for nostalgia and a sense of lost authenticity. In A Private View, Bland's London home, by comparison with his dreams of the past, seems 'flimsy, meretricious, unconvincing'.
  • The encounters with Katy Gibb in her differing guises - hippy, waif, courtesan - crackle with energy. Brookner hates her but is fascinated. The private view is under way.
  • Reading Brookner is an education in looking. Some might say she interprets too much from characters' outward appearances. But one would counter-argue that Brookner the art critic is at work - looking, looking, looking, and missing nothing. As a child, she said, she was very good at looking.
  • Bland isn't Brookner, but she sneaks in little details. He has, for example, large hands. Anita Brookner, one notices, also had large hands.
  • By chapter 4, Bland is 'near the edge'. His condition is persuasively depicted. As readers of this blog will know, A. N. Wilson in his Daily Mail obituary of Brookner recounted an incident at a party in the 1990s. Brookner was in her sixties; the host was twenty years younger and, Wilson claims, the object of Brookner's love. At one point she disappeared from the party. Wilson found her upstairs, sitting alone on the host's bed, among the guests' coats. She looked quite abject. It was, he thought, the closest she would ever come to the man's bed. An indiscreet, even a shocking anecdote. But it shows us that the likes of A Private View (1994) may well not concern emotion recollected in tranquillity, but instead may have been written in the very thick of the action.

Saturday 24 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 2

My copy of the UK hardback
  • The claustral atmosphere intensifies. Once inside his block of flats, Bland feels he has 'definitively left the outside world'.
  • Bland 'cautiously' watches soap operas, seeking knowledge of other lives, suburban lives like those of his forebears. For more on Brookner and television, click on the label below.
  • Bland's porter is called Hipwood, which I always thought of as a made-up name - the sort you might find in Dickens. But it is a genuine name.
  • I'm rereading A Private View alongside a piece of more recent literary fiction, which is lots of fun but reads like a children's book. (The title and author shall remain unsaid.) Brookner absolutely is an author for grown-ups.
  • The closeness of Brookner's observation is remarkable. She misses nothing. She's fully one of those on whom nothing is lost. Take Bland's sudden access of tears at the end of the chapter.
  • Also to be remarked is the extreme fineness of the language. Bland and his neighbours' 'Lilliputian concerns'.
  • While we may bracket A Private View with The Next Big Thing and Strangers, both also novels about older men, George Bland isn't so much old as on the brink of old age. The first of Brookner's truly old sole protagonists is Mrs May in Visitors, a few years later. But with A Private View Brookner enters a new phase. Over the remaining decades of her writing career she would commit herself more and more to a topic many novelists avoid.

Thursday 22 November 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 1

  • Blank London windows, hazy indistinct light, a barrier of trees: Pelham Crescent by Robert Buhler. I have a great liking for the first UK paperback edition. This is a novel of private life, of retirement, of the end of a public life, of the claustrophobia of home, the ambiguities and ambivalences of home.
  • With reference to a previous post (see here), I find that the character who drops dead at Kempton Park is in this novel.
  • George Bland isn't Anita Brookner, and Brookner was at pains to point this out in her 1994 interview. 'Clearly I'm not a 65-year-old man who has worked in personnel.' But she was a year shy of that age when she wrote it, or when we can assume she wrote it. (The novel is set in the last months of 1992 - a later visit to the Royal Academy exhibition confirms this (see here for more on this detail) - and I take it that Brookner probably wrote it then too.) And something else of interest: when she wrote an intro to an edition of Madame Bovary, A Private View was the only one of her novels cited in her biographical note. George Bland - c'est moi?
  • The start of the novel is masterly, and as John Bayley once said, we could go on considering Bland's situation indefinitely. 'He felt a moment of fear, as if he were no longer safe. Darkness, sudden as always, pressed against the window; cars roared along the corniche. He was aware of an alien life, nothing to do with him, utterly indifferent to whether he stayed or left.'
  • And how much longer has he got? A 'few more years', he reckons - a few more years before he must rely on the ministrations of strangers. These are preoccupations that would grow and grow in Brookner's later novels - and perhaps too in her life. One reads with a chill.

Saturday 17 November 2018

On Thinness

Somebody once saw one of Anita Brookner’s shopping lists. She lent a student a book; the list fell out. It was for only two items: slimming biscuits and a small pot of Marmite. Evidently, concluded the speaker, she was very keen to be very thin. She was indeed thin, though perhaps she didn’t want to be. Speaking of the other positive things that had accrued to her from her entry into the life of a writer of fiction she said she even put on a little weight. At first writing had been, as it is for Frances in Look at Me, penitential, a penance for not being lucky, but later Anita Brookner had only good things to say. Her second career, if not perhaps as involving as her first, brought its rewards, made her well.

What were slimming biscuits? Evidently some healthful preparation, now obsolete. She was, when I met her, very thin, almost brittle. As thin and as brittle – one might ask – as her fiction?

In her fiction, in 1992’s Fraud in particular, there are themes of food anxiety. Anna Durrant is very probably anorexic. Her doctor worries about her. She dreams of sweet food, a vast sugary cake that breaks apart to reveal… a wedding ring. Freud would have had a field day with that one.

A huge disgusting pudding features in the disastrous climactic scene of Look at Me. Terrible truths are revealed, and everyone is enjoined to eat – eat – eat!

At the close of A Private View, his adventure at an end, his illusions dismantled, George Bland, in the act of biting into a biscuit, doubles up with grief.

The form of Brookner’s novels – their briefness, their thinness – led to accusations of slightness. Certainly there was a lack of full engagement or commitment to the notion of creation, a suggestion that such activity – such storytelling – was somehow a little vulgar. She said once she wasn’t imaginative; she could only invent. And yet there was a hunger to write, an almost pathological desire. And yet there was also a longing to finish and have done.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

In love

She lived a life, then wrote about it: that was the myth. The writing part of her life, that second life, second career, was somehow posthumous. But it possibly wasn’t like that. And how could it have been? A. N. Wilson, after her death (and this could have been said only then), wrote of having met her at a party in the late 1980s or 90s. The party was given by a London publisher with whom Anita was (wrote Wilson) hopelessly in love. She was in her sixties, he in his forties. She seemed to disappear from the party. Later he found her, in the man’s bedroom, sitting on his bed, on which were piled all the guests’ coats. She was staring sadly ahead and had been sitting there for more than an hour. It was, said Wilson (unnecessarily), the closest she would get to this man’s bed.

One prefers the myth. The great writer, high and dry, with her messy life behind her. But search in the archives, deep in the protean early years of her novel-writing, and you come upon white-hot glimpses. From 1983, for example: we learn Brookner allowed her life to be determined by someone else’s needs: a man, who became ill and died. There was also, the interviewer tells us, another love affair in Brookner’s past, on which, like Frances in Look at Me, she was not to be drawn. Simply, said Brookner, she was not good at reading signs. She thought that as an art historian she had learnt the skill, but in life you either develop it young or not at all.

Sunday 11 November 2018

Poynton, Utz and the Mania for Collecting

I had a James wobble not so long ago. James's last, unfinished novel, The Ivory Tower, in a nice NYRB edition, had been sitting on my shelves for some years, and at last I gave it a try. The first couple of chapters were OK, but then James started introducing characters willy-nilly, and when I'd read a dozen or so pages thinking 'Gussy' was a man, only to find she wasn't, I decided life was too short for what Martin Amis once called the arctic labyrinth of late James.

I don't elsewhere concur with Amis's views on James, but he seems to nail it when it comes to The Ivory Tower. And so? Give up? No! I chose The Spoils of Poynton, an old favourite - and it had only grown richer and more elegant and delightful. Published in 1897, it's a transitional novel, cementing the 'late style' and 'scenic method' that characterise James's last major phase.

Mrs Gereth, a recent widow, must leave Poynton, her home for more than twenty years and a monument to her mania for collecting. Owen, her mild but philistine son, wants to marry the even more vulgar Mona. How can Mrs Gereth save her antiques from the predations of this unsatisfactory pair? Enter Fleda Vetch, dreamy and Jamesian: 'no one in the world was less superficial than Fleda'. Mrs Gereth loves Fleda, loves her with a collector's eye. Fleda in her turn loves Mrs Gereth's old things - and soon loves Owen too. What's more, Owen loves her back, and says he'd be more than happy to break with Mona, if only... But Fleda will not yield. And why? Here rests the pleasure of the text. Is Fleda principled or perverse - motivated by her own mania? It's an ambiguity that is, as David Lodge says in his Introduction to my Penguin edition, irreducible.

Here's Anita Brookner on The Spoils of Poynton:
The best sure cure for homesickness, which can strike at any point on a foreign holiday, is a detective story. I shall unashamedly take Patricia Highsmith, whom I am re-reading, and who does not seem to date in the very least, and hope that Ripley - her amoral character - will give me the independence to sail through any uncomfortable encounter. I shall also take Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton, which is a kind of detective story, and read breathlessly until the new owner of the property is revealed.
'Holiday Reading', Observer, 4 July 1993

One book always leads to another. Poynton is rich fare, and I admit I found myself, midway, picking up something a little lighter - Bruce Chatwin's Utz (1988)I'd love to know whether Brookner read it. Its mittel-European atmosphere would surely have appealed.

I'm always a little slow on the uptake. Of course Utz is, like Poynton, about collecting, so it all in its way meshes together. I have, too, my own fascination in this regard. Take a look at my own modest collection of porcelain, acquired over several years from various locations in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, and from an excellent place in London's Cecil Court that always makes me think of the little shop in The Golden Bowl:

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Deserted, and in want of me

Fibich in Brookner's Latecomers travels to Berlin. It is before 1989, which adds to the peril. He wanders homelessly the scenes of his abbreviated early life. He visits certain streets. He views a Gainsborough. It is only later, back in England, while eating in a London restaurant, that he breaks down. He should have stayed, he realised. As the Kindertransport began to move, he should have opened the train door and run back to his mother as she waited on the platform and who, in truth, he never saw again.

Brookner had plans to visit her father’s home city, Piotrków Trybunalski in Poland, but did not. It would have been too difficult, especially before the fall of communism, and she mightn’t have found whatever she was looking for.

Brookner’s father, known as Newson, came to England before the First World War. Her maternal grandfather, also Polish, from Warsaw, was already established in the new country, and indeed supplied cigars to the Royal Family. This isn’t directly a story of the Holocaust.

Yet he retained, she said, all his life the simple incomprehension and unhappiness of an exile. So many of Brookner’s characters have such feelings, even those that are fully English, such as Zoë in The Bay of Angels. Newson Brookner, shy, quiet, diffident, compared unfavourably with the showy, effusive, successful men of her mother’s family. They found him difficult to talk to. His only comment on his translated life was that he missed the smell of pine forests. His sadness seemed unlovely to the young Anita, who was more easily attracted by her uncles’ expansiveness and jollity. Later she didn’t miss her father, or dream of him. But she came to feel as he had felt. He was encoded in her personality.

In writing of her father, Anita Brookner finished with a quote from Little Dorrit, from the letter Amy Dorrit writes to Arthur Clennam from Venice:
Another difficulty that I have will seem very strange to you. It must seem very strange to anyone but me, and does even to me: I often feel the old sad pity for – I need not write the word – for him. Changed as he is, and inexpressibly blest and thankful as I am to know it, the old sorrowful feeling of compassion comes upon me sometimes with such strength that I want to put my arms round his neck, tell him how I love him, and cry a little on his breast. I should be glad after that, and proud and happy. But I know that I must not do this; that he would not like it ... and so I quiet myself. Yet in doing so, I struggle with the feeling that I have come to be at a distance from him; and that even in the midst of all the servants and attendants, he is deserted, and in want of me.

Thursday 1 November 2018

Tales of Two Cities

Brookner’s ‘About the Author’ pieces, those little spiels of biography that adorned the dustjacket flap or the inside front cover of her books, and which in the early, primitive, pre-Internet days of my fandom were almost my only source of information about her, were brief and non-committal, often terse, and sometimes rather defiantly ludic. But one fact was never withheld: that Brookner, having been born in London and lived there most of her life, had spent three postgraduate years in Paris.

Brooknerians dream of Paris. They long for it. It lures them. The reality is often quite different. Julius Herz in The Next Big Thing, not in the pink of health, heads for the French capital for the day, and finds it exhausting, monumental. This isn’t the Paris he remembers, that place of charm, of charming youthful encounters. He doesn’t belong any more. It isn’t his Paris.

Key Paris episodes are to be found in A Start in Life, Family and Friends, Lewis Percy, Fraud, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Leaving Home and Strangers. One’s favourites shift and alter. I used to love the romance of the Paris scenes in Incidents – I even once visited the rue Laugier (it was oddly unevocative) – or Family and Friends. The scene in the latter, at the Hôtel Bedford et West End, where Mimi waits for her lover, who does not come, who never would have come, affected me deeply in my youth, and on early Paris visits I would walk up and down the rue de Rivoli in search of that hotel, which I didn’t find.

A Start in Life and Lewis Percy process memories of Brookner’s student days, in the Fifties. We know for certain that her first sojourn in the city was from 1950, when Anthony Blunt brokered for her a scholarship to the École du Louvre, and that her parents were against the plan. They thought she might be conscripted into prostitution! (No such luck, an older Dr Brookner later commented.) A plaintive cry went up: Come home! They tried everything. They kept her short of funds.She lived in poverty. But as she said elsewhere, sometimes you have to save your own life. But when exactly her famed three postgraduate years in Paris actually were is anyone’s guess. They were probably in the 1950s, but in her later brief memoir about her Paris landladies Brookner describes much later residences. She was probably shuttling fairly constantly between London and Paris, like characters in Falling Slowly and Leaving Home.

The two contrasting cities – the one dark, restrictive, costive, the other full of light and openness and good fellowship – function in Brookner’s novels much like the Old and New Worlds in the novels of Henry James. It’s Brookner’s International Theme. But the reality is often another matter, as it was for poor Julius Herz. He heads into a church in the Latin Quarter to see a favourite painting, but really nothing works. And in Brookner’s final novel, Strangers, we get, right at the end, our final Paris visit. The story’s over, Brookner’s run out of road, but she still has pages to fill, and this is where she comes into her own. She sends her protagonist on a wild goose chase to Nice, and then back up through Paris, where nothing is as he remembers it. And he’s old, like Herz, and gets alarmingly tired. It is always to the safety of London that Brooknerians must return.

I first went to Paris when I was about twenty, with a couple of friends. We drove, took the ferry – this was before the Channel Tunnel opened – and stayed in a pure dive of a youth hostel in one of the banlieues. Later, and many times, I returned by myself, staying in various small hotels closer to the centre. Once I met Marie, my French friend, the woman I’d been with in London when I met Anita Brookner. Marie had lived in Paris in her student days, possibly during the événements of 1968. (Brookner wasn’t a soixante-huitard, was most likely completing her year as Slade Professor at Cambridge at the time, and looked back rather sceptically on those allegedly heavenly, blissful days. There’s a critique in her novel The Rules of Engagement.)

Marie took me to the rue Mouffetard, where she had lodged. She showed me Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame, and we wandered along the Seine and browsed the booksellers’ wares. We ate omelettes in a Left Bank crêperie called something like Miam-Miam. She took pleasure in pointing out at another table a group of students who were, she said, involved in a deep philosophical discussion. This was real life, this was real living. That was her lesson.

I was in Paris alone in 2002, when I bought the newly released The Next Big Thing from the W. H. Smith store on the rue de Rivoli and took it back to my dark little hotel room to read with horrified, enervated delight. I was in Paris another time, on a summer’s evening, reading Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Magical long-ago days. But during those later visits the disenchantment was unignorable. I think I last went there in 2009, and I hated it. It was so large, so adamantine, and so international. There were still all the old movie-set locations - but take a step away from them and you might be anywhere. I saw it was a city to which, like Mimi in Family and Friends, I would never return.

How often Anita Brookner went back there in her later years we don’t know, though Herz’s dismal daytrip on the Eurostar in The Next Big Thing has an air of authenticity. But in her fiction, in almost every book, there is at least a mention, some memory of heady days. But precisely when those days were in her real life, and what they comprised, and who was there, and what happened, we’ll probably never know. Brookner wasn’t averse to speaking of her past, but she spoke legendarily. She was good at covering her tracks and she was never going to reveal all.