Monday 24 December 2018

Christmas in London

I live no more than a twenty-minute train ride from the centre, but now rarely visit. I was in Charing Cross Road on Saturday, and realised I hadn't been there for perhaps a whole year. The old Foyles has been razed to the ground. Its replacement is next door, and a sort of glorified Waterstones. Further down the street two or three secondhand shops remain. Henry Pordes is now run by Italians.

There are dearer, more specialist stores in Cecil Court, haunt of more than one character in Anita Brookner. Several dealers hold Brookner first editions, some of them signed. I like Cecil Court because of Mark Sullivan's antique shop, which always makes me think of the place the Prince and Charlotte Stant visit in The Golden Bowl.

I bought a little KPM figurine of an actor or brigand, or actor playing a brigand. Does anyone recognise this fellow, either as type or individual?

I returned to the bookshops, but could find nothing that appealed. I considered a volume of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters, but would I really ever read it? I was attracted, in Foyles, by several of those new Fitzcarraldo editions. But I already have plenty of books to be read on my shelves. Or 'TBR', as I think it is called. Am I 'peak books'?

I'm actually nearing halfway through an old copy of Trollope's late novel John Caldigate at the moment. I've had it for years, but never got round to it. It's very good and very pacy. There's a brilliant sequence of chapters set on board a ship to Australia and then among the goldmines of New South Wales. Trollope was the most well-travelled of the Victorian novelists, and sometimes he takes us to places we never expected to see.

I finished in the National Portrait Gallery, at their exhibition of Gainsborough's family portraits. Gainsborough grew to disdain portraiture, but he was a master. A character views a society portrait in Berlin in Brookner's Latecomers, but the NPG's show focuses on paintings and sketches of the artist's immediate circle. Of particular strength are the half-dozen images of his daughters Mary and Margaret. The pair are painted at different stages through their childhood and young adulthood. Their later lives were not happy, taking in loneliness and mental illness, and inevitably one seeks signs in the earliest pictures of the dangers to come.

A very happy Christmas to you all!

Saturday 15 December 2018

'We shall never see these shores again...'

All comes together in Scott, said Virginia Woolf - 'tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole, a complete presentation of life, which ... 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'.

Nowhere is this truer than in the closing pages of Redgauntlet, Scott's last major Scottish novel. A third, fictitious, Jacobite uprising has foundered; the Hanoverian ascendancy is merciful; two minor characters kill each other; two major figures find love; and an ageing Bonnie Prince Charlie bids an affecting farewell to his native land. The novel ends as Von Karajan said of Brahms's Fourth, in 'complete catastrophe', and yet it somehow also completes a whole, though we can't quite know how. And afterwards? Afterwards it dissolves - dissolves into history or a fantasy of history, leaving not a rack behind but lingering long in the imagination.

Celebrity Historicals

Fulfilling in some way the BBC's injunction to entertain and educate, the earliest days of the time-travelling sci-fi show Doctor Who featured, alongside tales of bug-eyed monsters in outer space, a number of stories set in Earth's past. The travellers met Marco Polo, visited Ancient Rome, were caught up in revolutionary France's Reign of Terror, and even landed in Scotland during the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden.

Fans have several ways of classifying these stories. The early stories, for example, tend to be classed as 'pure historicals', meaning that the only science fiction element is the Tardis and its crew. Stories of this kind became less frequent as the show developed. Indeed The Highlanders (1966) was the last such serial until Black Orchid in 1982. As far as I can recall, there have been none since.

There have, however, throughout the programme's long run, been many further historical stories. But these, known as 'pseudo-historicals', have included alien or sci-fi elements other than the Tardis crew. An example, set in the time of Rosa Parks, was broadcast recently.

This was also an example of another fannish sub-class: the 'celebrity historical'. This was a feature of many, though not all, of the earlier tales. The Highlanders, for instance, doesn't include a role for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

But over the years the Doctor and his/her companions have met Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, Dickens, Nero, etc., etc.

Who invented this kind of story? Plays and novels have often been based on real historical events. Many of Shakespeare's plays centre on actual lives and choices.

But it was probably Sir Walter Scott who wrote the first 'celebrity historicals', i.e. stories in which ordinary people have adventures at key moments of history, and in the course of events encounter the celebrity players. Queen Elizabeth has a walk-on part in Kenilworth, Richard the Lionheart in Ivanhoe, and of course the Young Pretender in Scott's debut novel Waverley: each episode offers moments of genuine frisson and readerly delight. But it is in Redgauntlet, which tells of a third, fictional Jacobite attempt, and is thus divorced from the demands of the historical record, that Scott delivers his greatest punch. Now the Chevalier has a complicated love life; he's older; and he's nowhere near so bonnie as he was in Waverley.
He was a man of middle life, about forty or upwards; but either care, or fatigue, or indulgence, had brought on the appearance of premature old age, and given to his fine features a cast of seriousness or even sadness. A noble countenance, however, still remained; and though his complexion was altered, and wrinkles stamped upon his brow in many a melancholy fold, still the lofty forehead, the full and well-opened eye, and the well-formed nose, showed how handsome in better days he must have been. He was tall, but lost the advantage of his height by stooping; and the cane which he wore always in his hand, and occasionally used, as well as his slow though majestic gait, seemed to intimate that his form and limbs felt already some touch of infirmity. 
Only later, some time later, does Scott confirm the identity of this man: 'It is needless to add,' says Scott, flattering the reader. Who was fooled? Did Scott suppose anyone would be?

Friday 14 December 2018

The Fallen World

'Well, this dame had a daughter—Jess Cantrips, a black-eyed, bouncing wench—and, as the devil would have it, there was the d—d five-story stair—her foot was never from it, whether I went out or came home from the Divinity Hall. I would have eschewed her, sir—I would, on my soul; for I was as innocent a lad as ever came from Lammermuir; but there was no possibility of escape, retreat, or flight, unless I could have got a pair of wings, or made use of a ladder seven stories high, to scale the window of my attic. It signifies little talking—you may suppose how all this was to end—I would have married the girl, and taken my chance—I would, by Heaven! for she was a pretty girl, and a good girl, till she and I met; but you know the old song, “Kirk would not let us be.”
'But the best jest was behind—I had just power to stammer out something about Jess—by my faith he had an answer! I had taught Jess one trade, and, like a prudent girl, she had found out another for herself; unluckily, they were both contraband, and Jess Cantrips, daughter of the Lady Kittlebasket, had the honour to be transported to the plantations, for street-walking and pocket-picking, about six months before I touched shore.'
Sir Walter Scott, Redgauntlet (1824), ch. 14

A tale of the eighteenth century - it concerns a third, fictional uprising by the Jacobites - Redgauntlet is reminiscent of that earlier century in other ways: not only in formal terms - it has long epistolary passages - but also in its treatment of sexual matters. It is always instructive to see how pre-modern writers tackle such themes. David Lodge has marvelled at Dickens's ability to write so copiously but without a word of bawdy. Other Victorian novelists - Thackeray, in particular - manage the issue skilfully and subtly. Trollope, in The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870), caused a small stir with his use of the word 'prostitute'.

Scott wasn't a Victorian, and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by pieces like the above, part of a longer inset narrative spoken by a salty and attractive character called Nanty Ewart. Note Scott's use of indirection, evasion and euphemism. When by the end of the nineteenth century Scott's status had declined to that of a worthy children's author, were bowdlerised editions required?

In the next chapter we find Scott essaying something subtler still, as his adventurers approach the dwelling of a pair of religious ladies:
'The place they live in was some sort of nun-shop long ago, as they have them still in Flanders; so folk call them the Vestals of Fairladies—that may be, or may not be; and I care not whether it be or no.—Blinkinsop, hold your tongue, and be d—d!'
Scott doesn't tell us what this Blinkinsop, and others elsewhere in the speech, say. He doesn't need to. The innocent reader reads on, unconcerned. The knowing reader infers. But whose side is Scott on? Emphatically he was a denizen of the fallen world, yet his heroes and heroines remain virtuous and hopeful. With this author you're always in danger of sinking - as if, in this novel, into the sands of the Solway Firth - but somehow Scott always draws you clear, and your resultant gratitude is excessive.

Thursday 6 December 2018

On e-reading

I listened to a rather hopeful piece on Radio 4 recently (I spend far too much time listening to Radio 4) about how consumers may be falling out of love with online retailers and returning to actual shops, and how Internet giants are beginning to set up bricks-and-mortar outlets in order to give shoppers the more tangible, human experience they apparently crave.

It set me thinking about e-books and e-reading. I was, as in most things, a late adopter. I bought a device in about 2014 because I wanted to read Clarissa. I'm like that. And I managed it. I simply never could have read the only print edition of Richardson's eighteenth-century masterwork available, the biggest Penguin ever. From then on, I was a convert. I read James on my Kindle, I read Dickens, I read Anita Brookner. And I found myself reading more smoothly and quickly - not least because I was able to adjust for my own comfort the size and spacing of the text. I suspect in myself a mild undiagnosed dyslexia.

But I also read more shallowly. I found I couldn't remember what I had read. I glided; I no longer plunged.

There are practical considerations. I like the search facility on e-readers; I like being able to highlight passages. But I don't like not always having a feel for the shape of a book. In a print edition, if I'm not quite enjoying it but reading it because it's worth reading and 'good for me' (this goes for almost all of my reading, truth to tell), I'm always doing things like flicking forward and finding out how much of a chapter remains or rereading an earlier passage to remind myself who a certain character is. You can't do any of that so easily with an e-reader.

A short while ago someone gave me several lovely 1990s World's Classics editions of Scott. (I'm a growing fan of Scott and a big fan of those particular liveries.) The print is small and the pages are yellowing, and I had Scott on my Kindle so I turned to that. But I could make little headway. Real books had reclaimed me at last. What's more, I found myself a different, better reader - a retrained reader almost.

I shall still keep my Kindle for vacations, for lounging in foreign climes, sipping a gin and tonic and darting promiscuously between a piece of James travel writing, a Shakespeare play, and an essay by Sebald. But at home, when the long dark autumn and winter evenings come, one looks for consolations more homely, more timeworn.

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Book Dreams

Last night I dreamt of Wingfield Park, a thousand-page Trollope novel published in 1861. I got no further than this information, and found out even less about Lord Grey, the book beside it on the shelf in the sitting-room of the little seaside caravan I found myself in. Both were substantial 1990s World's Classics paperback editions - pale lemon spines with pictures. I remember being disappointed by Wingfield Park's publication date. I prefer later Trollope.

From time to time I also dream of a lost Anita Brookner, published in some other universe between, say, Visitors and Falling Slowly. It has a photographic cover. I have the book in my hand, open it - and wake up.

Even less graspable is that early Victorian author whose name I can never remember. A lesser George Eliot, a lesser Trollope, but a prolific source of reading pleasure all the same. In dream after dream I take down his books and start to enter into his world - rural, bourgeois, endless.

Saturday 1 December 2018

A Private View: Chapter by Chapter: 10, 11

  • Bland, with Katy, sees himself almost as a novelist with one of his characters. Compare Bland with Mrs May in Visitors, who experiences a similar creative thrill, though the circumstances of her shipwreck are less extreme, more sublimated.
  • One is lost in admiration at the excellence of Brookner's clairvoyance: 'The strange odyssey that he had planned for them had indeed something childlike about it, proof of his own childlike wishes, in which sex and sin played no part.'
  • The books we read in our youth retain a special magic, and A Private View is one such for me. I read innocently then, or more innocently than I might now - by which I guess I mean I 'identified' with George Bland. Reading the novel again, I identify again, and again sink back in sheer admiration at the fineness of the writing, the intensity and ingenuity of the analysis. There really are some masterful passages. Is it, then, my favourite Brookner? I couldn't say. I thought that was The Next Big Thing. But it is a thing to marvel at, a thing to be grateful for.