Thursday, 5 December 2019

The Captain and the Enemy


My school librarian (I spent most lunchtimes in the school library), a Mrs Davies, very Welsh, was a literary woman. Gradually down the years one pieces together one's prehistory. She was over the moon when Graham Greene wrote what was to be his final novel, The Captain and the Enemy; she even had a publisher's promotional poster, which she displayed in the library. This was in, I now learn, 1988.

I saw The Captain and the Enemy in a charity shop, and was at once transported. I had to have it. Such discoveries are like reclaiming the lost past.

The Captain and the Enemy concerns a conman. Who else does these plausible figures with such aplomb? Le Carré of course; Brookner has several too: an Ainsworth in Fraud, a Colonel in A Friend from England. An ersatz military moniker is often de rigueur.

Greene's Captain arrives at the narrator's boarding school, claiming to have won him from his father in a game of backgammon. The boy follows the Captain to a fading down-at-heel suburban address, where he lives for the rest of his childhood as the adopted son of a woman named Liza. The Captain visits infrequently, never without a tall tale or a promise of better times just around the corner. Later passages, when the narrator is grown up, take place in Panama (where else?), where the mystery of the Captain at last unravels.

I read most of Greene in my youth, but in recent years I've picked up the odd, less regarded, later novels and found them rather wonderful. The Captain and the Enemy is a bonne bouche, yet with unexpected moments of sympathy and pathos. Mrs Davies had taste.

Monday, 2 December 2019

And a fox coughed in Markham Square...

A curious anecdote, this, from the Chelsea Society (see here) - reminding us, as ever, that so reclusive a figure as Brookner was in some sense doomed to be constructed by such stories (as she surely knew):
A resident who was on greeting terms with the novelist, the late Anita Brookner recounts this very early morning exchange on a near-deserted summer King’s Road. Resident: ‘Good morning, Miss Brookner, and what an exceptionally bright and sunny morning it is.’ Anita Brookner: ‘Quite so. And passing Markham Square I heard a fox cough.’

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Home and Abroad


I was writing this book during the last year or so before Britain's deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union.
Julian Barnes, 'Author's Note', The Man in the Red Coat (2019)


Not a few critics of The Man in the Red Coat have made good use of Barnes's afterword, in which he makes tentative links between the Parisian fin de siècle world that is the book's topic and the troubled politics and discourses of today. Altogether, The Man in the Red Coat is something of a disappointment. Its art and literary criticism are second to none, and it is richly illustrated, but it is confusing book, with meanderings that mimic W. G. Sebald but without his unpredictability. I found it smelt a little too much of the lamp. I fear the red-coated Pozzi, whose Sargent portrait Dr Pozzi at Home, inspired Barnes's book, may simply not be very fascinating as a subject.

Ah, but when was Julian Barnes writing? That's what perversely interests me. Was it in 2015, the year before Britain's EU Referendum? That's when Barnes first saw the picture, in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. But the UK didn't 'depart' from the EU in 2016. The UK remains a full member to this day.

Perhaps Barnes means he wrote the book in 2018, the year before the first expiry of the Article 50 period? The book was published shortly after the next major departure deadline of the end of last month: so maybe Barnes believed the Prime Minister's 'do-or-die' pledge to extract the country from the European bloc by that date. I guess the 'Author's Note' was probably penned for posterity, for a future time when Barnes fatalistically supposes Brexit will be a fait accompli.

I note the absence of Anita Brookner's name from the book's Acknowledgements page. If ever something was written for her, or would have benefited from her input, this is it. She died in March 2016, and Barnes lamented the first year of her 'deathtime' in an article in the London Review of Books a year later (LRB, 27 April 2017), a piece in which he also inveighed against Brexit and the turbulence of the times. The Man in the Red Coat is, I reckon, a book to return to, but when the dust has settled.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Sensational Innocence


The novel of sensation, that mid-Victorian phenomenon typified in the novels of Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood and, to an extent, Dickens (Great Expectations) and Trollope (The Eustace Diamonds), grew out of the earlier success of the Gothic novel, though now the terror and disruption are domesticated, rooted in the modern world of the 1860s: railways, the telegraph, suburbs, the anxious middle classes and the rising lower orders.

East Lynne, Wood's breathless blockbuster of 1860, tells a story of murder, jealousy and unwise alliances. There are aristocrats, but they're on the way out. Like Collins, Ellen Wood knows better the grimy world of the middle classes, of anonymous uncertain suburbia. The novel is fast, slangy, sloppy, trashy - quintessentially 'sensational'.

Anita Brookner, a regular reviewer in the highbrow journals, once in a way was given a little something to tickle her fancy. Can we believe she was asked to write about Catherine Cookson (see post here) or The Thorn Birds (here)? She read them with a sort of fascinated awe, praising both for their innocence.

Monday, 28 October 2019

The Man in the Red Coat

One looks forward to Julian Barnes's forthcoming The Man in the Red Coat. The painting that inspires the book, Dr Pozzi at Home by John Singer Sargent, and Sargent himself, crop up interestingly in the Brookner literature.

For more, see here and here.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

The Observer Observed

Accounts of meetings with Anita Brookner are often treasurable. Julian Barnes (follow the 'Julian Barnes' label at the foot of this post) was a friend; Roy Strong enjoyed several chance encounters (ditto 'Roy Strong'); James Lees-Milne commented acidly on her hair (here); and even I once met her, not quite by chance, in a London street (here).

The artist Zsuzsi Roboz sketched a portrait of her, the experience of which Roboz wrote about in 2011:

In the case of my meeting with Anita Brookner, I felt this was an occasion for mutual observation; she didn't miss a thing and seemed to be storing up every detail of my character and appearance as much as I was hers. The 'face to face' project was, in a sense, a series of duels between myself and the sitter, and also an occasion to witness the observer observed.

The resulting picture, with its clairvoyant stare, complements the many memorable photographs of the author, and can be seen here.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

What would he make of Brexit?


The political agitation which for a year and a half had shaken England to its centre...

So begins an early chapter of Coningsby - not a novel about the battles of today but about a past constitutional upheaval and its consequences, the passing of the Reform Act of 1832.

Coningsby (1844) is, in parts, an addictive read if, like me, you're something of a political geek. But as a novel it fails.* Its characters are shallow, artificial, irritating, either uttering blandly witty aphorisms or acting as mere mouthpieces for policy positions. It is unpersuasive to argue that the fate of a nation may be as compelling as that of an individual - or I, at least, find it unpersuasive.

And I confess I bailed out. Oddly I found myself looking forward to Disraeli's long chapters on the politics of the 1830s, and rather dreading those following the lives of Coningsby and his Etonian pals, their arch conversations, their boring cynicism, their moments of sickly romanticism. Perhaps I should read more pure history.

On the birth of the Conservative Party out of the leftovers of eighteenth-century Toryism, Disraeli is intimately knowledgeable. Disraeli's Conservatism - pragmatic, managerial, adaptable to circumstances, never dogmatic or ideological, never fervid, and, most important, professing a belief in 'One Nation' - seems more and more bewilderingly divorced from its present-day manifestation.


*Unlike Trollope's Palliser novels, which more deftly balance and interweave the personal and the political.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

The large tear gushed reluctantly

Christmas, 1900, and Henry James is visited at Lamb House by his young niece Peggy, whom he plies with sweets and good food. Into the old oak parlour he plants her, directing her to read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. The weather is poor, and Peggy, a good reader, gets through Redgauntlet, Old Mortality, The Pirate and The Antiquary.


All a Novelist Needs: the title of a book by Colm Toíbín on Henry James. One wonders whether James took a similar view of Sir Walter Scott.* For my part, I avoided Scott for years, limiting my attention to what seemed like the more conventional and familiar worlds of Dickens, Trollope and George Eliot. That Scott was read simply by university literature students, interested in how later, greater writers had been 'influenced', seemed the accepted view. I retain a sharp cold memory of sitting one early morning at seventeen in a deserted refectory in the youth hostel in the rue Vitruve, Paris, struggling to read the opening pages of Waverley, as prep for my undergraduate course.

Scott is an unpredictably elusive writer. When his writing works, it works wonderfully, creating 'carelessly' a 'complete presentation of life', as Virginia Woolf says: 'tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole'.

And with perseverance one can discover remarkable moments, equal to whole passages in Dickens, such as this encounter between an old courtier and King James I in The Fortunes of Nigel:
These suggestions, however reasonable in the common case, gave no comfort to Lord Huntinglen, if indeed he fully comprehended them; but the blubbering of his good-natured old master, which began to accompany and interrupt his royal speech, produced more rapid effect. The large tear gushed reluctantly from his eye, as he kissed the withered hands, which the king, weeping with less dignity and restraint, abandoned to him, first alternately and then both together, until the feelings of the man getting entirely the better of the Sovereign’s sense of dignity, he grasped and shook Lord Huntinglen’s hands with the sympathy of an equal and a familiar friend.
*

*Elsewhere James commends Scott for being a late starter as a novelist. It would have been well, he says, that writers such as Balzac had waited. No doubt James would have admired others who bided their time, Anita Brookner in particular.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Deserving of a Blue Plaque

Adam Scovell's piece (here) about Herne Hill and Brookner's birthplace is highly recommended, not least because it contains some intriguing biographical information. Anita was born, we learn, at 55 Half Moon Lane, a comfortable property Mr Scovell depicts in an appropriately wistful Polaroid; but later, following a decline in their affluence, the Bruckners/Brookners moved to a smaller place, a flat, at 25 Half Moon Lane.

Is it in The Next Big Thing (2002) that the fortunes of the protagonist's family are marked by just such a decline? One remembers Brookner's remark in 2002, in interview (here), when the similarities between herself and Julius Herz were put to her: 'He's me, really. You were longing to say that, weren't you?'

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Tulips

Brookner, 1982
 
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the night lies on these white walls...

Sylvia Plath, 'Tulips'

Friday, 20 September 2019

The Fortunes of 'Nigel'

There's one in Anita Brookner's 2003 novel The Rules of Engagement. I'm 47*, and there weren't any in my peer group at school. Recent news reports suggest it is a rare choice for parents.

My copy of Scott's The Fortunes of Nigel (1822) dates from the 1920s. This is very likely one of the last times the novel was in print. And why? Could it be the title? The novel itself is wonderful, a fantasy of the past, in this case set in Jacobean London, and richly literary.

No doubt the political associations** of the name 'Nigel', in the UK at least, will continue to keep the novel from our bookstores.



*That is my actual age. I haven't been that age 'for some years'. For more on this intriguing topic, see here.
**I faintly recall a Farage-themed TV documentary named after Scott's novel, but cannot find the reference.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

The Great Desert of Life

He had nothing to do, his occupation was gone, and it seemed to him that he should never find it again.
Henry James, The American, 1879 edn.

He had nothing to do, his occupation was gone, had simply strayed and lost itself in the great desert of life.
The American, 1907 edn.

The days before him were empty, and the emptiness was as much of a burden as it had always been.
Brookner, Strangers, 2009


The curiously downbeat ending to The American takes the reader by surprise. Newman has lost his great love, but surely he'll be reunited with her by the end? This is a nineteenth-century novel! But time passes, and he wanders listlessly around Europe and America, his malaise not so much tragic in a Shakespearean way ('his occupation was gone' echoing a line in Othello) as proto-Existentialist.

Brookner's Sturgis suffers a similar dying fall as he gathers up what remains to him at the end of the author's last novel Strangers. Like Newman, Sturgis wanders aimlessly, though less extensively. But Sturgis is truly old, as only modern people find themselves to be old, whereas James's old man is merely in his forties.

Once more I side with the greater riches of Henry James's 1907 New York Edition of The American, especially in the masterly closing moments. And I am pleased to have been treated to a copy of Henry James's New York Edition: The Construction of Authorship, which, years back, I remember looking through whenever I visited the old Border's in Oxford Street. A series of essays, it takes in several of the gloriously wilder outposts of 90s scholarship.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Too Grand

'Not as grand as we. They date from the sixteenth century. It is on my father's side that we go back - back, back, back. The family antiquaries themselves lose breath. At last they stop, panting and fanning themselves, somewhere in the ninth century, under Charlemagne. That's where we begin.'
Henry James, The American


Whose side is James on? Fineness in a writer is sometimes to be measured in this way. Does James align himself with an ancient French family, a scion of which vocalises the above patrician words? Or is he with 'the American', the new man of the novel's title, Christopher Newman?

Such ambiguities are to be found in Anita Brookner too, in those many, many novels of hers exploring the clash between the outsiders and insiders of this world. Such clashes are irreducible, and this is perhaps why she wrote so much. Ever potent because ever unresolved.

The passage from The American set me remembering. The Princess Michael of Kent, when she joined the British royals, made known her ancestry, which stretches back, like that of James's personages, to Charlemagne. The Queen (descendant in large part of mere minor north-German Electors), before meeting Marie Christine for the first time, is said to have described her as 'much too grand for us'.

Monday, 26 August 2019

All Too Short a Date

So the English summer ends in a blaze of unwonted heat, and I reflect on my reading.

In Switzerland I read Henry James, as followers will have noted. I'm still a little puzzled as to why I didn't get on with Confidence. I'm presently reading The American, which is earlier still, and it is a pure pleasure. Every page, every line, has something to savour. I can't quite decide whether I've read it before. It's the classic 'International Theme' novel in which American manners clash with the ways and mores of old Europe. I would like to have read Confidence in a revised form, but it doesn't exist: James didn't include the novel in his New York Edition. The version of The American one chooses to read is, I think, crucial - it affects one's reading experience and even says a little about one's character. Absolutely I favour the later version. The differences between an early James and its revised form are in evidence practically everywhere. It's a layered complexity the current Oxford edition of the novel fruitfully discusses and exemplifies.

(And would one like to have later, revised versions of early Brookners? Of course. I'd love to read a revised Start in Life. But Brookner never revised. Perhaps she might rewrite a last chapter, if she had rushed it. But otherwise, she said, it was all first draft. There just wasn't time! She had left it late, and it was as if she were writing for her life.)

Later, in Germany, I read The Bertrams, a lesser Trollope and one I've never previously been tempted by. Is it any good? Trollope in his autobiography is scathing, but the book has much to offer. There's a chapter in the middle of the novel called 'Miss Todd's Card-Party' and it's a gem and a beauty, not least because it's one of those Trollopian moments when a breath is taken and the endlessly genial, endlessly tolerant narrator takes in the minor lives of some of his less central personages, in this case a group of shambolic oldsters whose heyday was in the Regency. I adored it, but perhaps this was because I was on vacation, and in Kassel, such a charming backwater.

And all the while I've been improving my Shakespeare. I've never really got to grips with the histories. But the two parts of Henry IV, how lovely they are - such poetry, such prose, such counterpoint!

Saturday, 17 August 2019

In Kassel


Continental galleries have an atmosphere distinct from their English counterparts. Walk into the National Gallery, say, or especially Tate Modern and you might be on a station concourse or in a shopping centre. The lack of an entrance fee probably explains the difference as much as any notions of greater European sophistication. In Europe you don't wander in and wander out. Your visit is an event.


I was practically the only visitor to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the small central German city of Kassel. Misjudging the distance and incline, I toiled up the Wilhelmshöher Allee towards a curving palace on a hill. Coolness descended among rooms of huge canvases: airy generous displays of masterpieces by Rubens, Jordaens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt: whole salons devoted to each, with side-aisles full of smaller pictures by their workshops or contemporaries. Several works stand out: this Jupiter and Callisto by Rubens...


...this Rubens Mary with saints and sinners...


...this Bean Feast by Jordaens (I've seen other versions in Brussels and Vienna)...


...and this Childhood of Jupiter also by Jordaens:


Of the two artists the latter most appeals. I like to look for the figures in Jordaens who look out at us, collusively across the centuries.

The gallery occupies a stately site overlooking Kassel. Landscaped English-style but also unEnglish gardens and parkland dotted with follies and mock ruins rise towards the famous Hercules monument.



Thursday, 8 August 2019

Brits Abroad

Carl Spitzweg, Engländer in der Campagna, 1845, Berlin

Having read and enjoyed Scott's The Talisman, set in the Middle East, I next selected Trollope's The Bertrams from my shelves a) because it's also partially set in the Holy Land and b) because it's by now one of the few Trollopes I haven't read. It's a mark of age to have made such headway into so massive an oeuvre. I never thought, when I began, that I'd make it this far. Earliest Trollope (The Bertrams (1959) is number eight) plus a few oddities from later (e.g. The Landleaguers and The Vicar of Bullhampton) remain for another year. Will I ever read La Vendée?

You can never tell. One book leads to another. Trollope was the best travelled of the Victorian novelists; he actually visited Jerusalem and its environs, which Scott never did (not that you'd know it from reading The Talisman). The foreign episode in The Bertrams takes up a lengthy section near the start, and it is very funny. The novel's hero George Bertram falls in with a group of his compatriots, including the doughty Miss Todd, a clergyman, a strapping beauty, her aunt, a finicky fellow named Mr M'Gabbery, and assorted other comic creations. At one point the party enjoys a disgraceful picnic among some ancient Jewish tombs, where they drink champagne and eat ham.

The Bertrams isn't well known. But I reckon E. M. Forster read it. Where but in A Room with a View do we find a like situation, even down to the picnic and the vicar? Forster's setting is only Italy. Not for the first time, Trollope takes the prize for exoticism.

How parochial and Eurocentric or merely English is so much of English fiction! Brookner leaves Europe only once, in A Family Romance, in a chapter set in an American women's college. Bland's friend in A Private View has dreams of the Orient, but dies before realising them. Anita Brookner herself was a great traveller in Europe - in France, in Germany, in Switzerland, favouring quiet sedate towns, cities and resorts and stolid hotels. The Beau Rivage at Nyon; the Du Lac at Vevey; Dijon, Baden-Baden, Scheveningen, Bonn! In her heyday she visited the States (summer 1989 seems to have been the date) and very likely was welcomed on to a liberal campus or two. There are toothsome tales of Brookner in New York - in particular of her lunch with a Boston reporter. She felt, she told the journalist, too European for New York, and insisted their interview take place within the safe confines of a formal restaurant. I think I rather fancy the notion of being too European.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Forgotten James

We have a fairly clear idea what Henry James thought about his own novels. He revised many and wrote illuminating Prefaces for the summative New York Edition, released near the end of his life. And he left several out*. One to be excommunicated was Confidence of 1879 - an early work, but not that early. Either side of it sit The Europeans and Washington Square, both favourites and always in print. But Confidence is forgotten. I'd never read it - and I'm at the stage where I'm reduced to mere rereading. I decided this summer to give Confidence a try.

Who was it who first described Confidence as a light and awkward comedy? It's something that comes up often in relation to the novel. My money's on Leon Edel. Otherwise there's almost nothing anywhere. And yet it's a short to medium-sized work, written when James was close to entering his middle phase and the decade of The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians. How could Confidence have been all but lost?

So is it any good? Is it James-lite? And what's it about?

Bernard Longueville, leisured, itinerant, is loafing around Italy when a beautiful stranger strolls into a scene he's idly painting. He sketches her in, she objects, then accepts, and the encounter ends there. Some time later Longueville is summoned to Baden-Baden** by his friend Gordon Wright. Wright is to be married, and he wants his old pal to give an opinion on his intended. Few readers will be surprised to learn the identity of Wright's fiancée. Re-enter the mysterious girl Longueville painted in Siena: Angela Vivian. Longueville, on deeper acquaintance with Miss Vivian, expresses scant confidence in her, and this seems to motivate Wright in his breaking off the engagement. Years pass, Gordon Wright marries elsewhere, and Longueville announces his own intention to marry... to marry Angela Vivian...

It's a tantalising and inspired set-up, but the book's weakness lies in its characterisation. Miss Vivian is the most interesting personage. She elicits 'intellectual excitement. He had a sense of having received carte blanche for the expenditure of his wits'. But she's undeveloped, and largely hidden from the reader. Both Longueville and Wright are off-the-peg young men. James seems to realise this. He gamely tries to engage with the novel, but Longueville is his centre of consciousness, and there's really nothing doing there, and the novel ends in scenes of bare melodrama. But there's a better novel somewhere underneath, and Angela Vivian lets us know it, with a metafictional cri de cœur that might come from the lips of many a greater heroine:
'You certainly made a study of me - and I was determined you should get your lesson wrong. I determined to embarrass, to mislead, to defeat you. Or rather, I didn't determine; I simply obeyed a natural impulse of self-defence - the impulse to evade the fierce light of criticism. I wished to put you in the wrong.'

* I had always thought the exclusions were voluntary. But I find James was limited by his publisher as to the number of volumes allowable in the New York Edition. Of The Bostonians, surely one of the finest novels in English, James later wrote, 'I should have liked to review it for the Edition - it would have come out a much truer and more curious thing.'

** Baden-Baden has several Brooknerian resonances. For more on this charming German spa town, click on the 'Baden-Baden' label below.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Old Haunts

Switzerland again

Though not Brooknerland this time. To Zurich first, and the top of its local mountain, the Üetliberg, where I stayed. This involved a train ride and a steep trek through a forest.




In the city I revisited the Kunsthaus, admiring this Rubens sketch of Orpheus and Eurydice leaving Pluto and Proserpina - such a range of emotions so swiftly depicted -


and drama of a different kind in this large, almost monumental Vuillard - the planar masses crowding and bulging, the figures trapped and overwhelmed, and yet alive and throbbing in their still potent domestic maelstrom:


Later I mooched about a huge open-air fleamarket and bought these cartes de visite for two francs each. Their reverses are fascinating. Several are addressed to 'Elsa' or 'Else'. One is from 'Amelie', another from 'Clary Barth', a third from 'Judy Bietenholz'. All employ the phrase 'soeur de pension': they were friends at a girls' school, and the photos were holiday or Christmas gifts. They date from 1906. A whole vanished world is evoked and I am put in mind of the antique European lives in several of Anita Brookner's novels.




To Interlaken

In the evening, stepping out like Major Pendennis, I took a sedate turn about the resort, which was thronged. I paused in the bar of the Metropole, a hotel I've stayed at many times. In the restaurant upstairs sat the usual mix of foreign and English guests, the English anxious, ageing, and haggling about tap water and what was in the salad. I walked in the gardens of the Kursaal - the flowerbeds dim and intense in the twilight. I am often so seduced, put in mind of scenes in literature. But then one goes beyond, behind - and sees how everything is false, gimcrack. I can never quite endure the faces of the folk who staff such places.



Into the mountains

I've never really read Byron, but often fantasise about doing so. Sitting outside a pub, waiting for his evening to begin, Kingsley Amis once read Don Juan and thought it wonderful, until he realised he was merely getting drunk. I thought about Byron as little trains and cable cars took me into the mountains above Interlaken and up the Schilthorn, where James Bond associations were being milked for all they were worth. The Piz Gloria station is where On Her Majesty's Secret Service was filmed. Now even the loos are themed ('Bonds', 'Bondgirls') and recorded snippets of dialogue - 'Well, hello, Mr Bond!' - issue from stalls.

The clouds lifted enough to reveal the classic trio: the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau. It took me back, that view, to my relative youth: I would vacation in the region every other year, staying at the Metropole. And I remember what I read: Pendennis, Is He Popenjoy?, The Claverings. This time I read Confidence by Henry James.




Friday, 19 July 2019

'Like an actor entering upon a stage'


The place is Syria, the time the past - the era of the Crusades - and a 'long row of tents and pavilions, glimmering or darkening as they lay in the moonlight or in the shade, were still and silent as the streets of a deserted city'. On to this exotic, enchanted scene steps a no less fantastical dwarf, 'like an actor entering upon the stage'. And this is the key to Scott and to The Talisman in particular, a tale of Richard the Lionheart, a brave Scottish knight, a hermit, Saracens, veiled ladies and dropped tokens of love.

It's heady and theatrical throughout, and I fail to see why it shouldn't be constantly in print. But perhaps the subject matter is too strong for these days. Yet the portrayal of Islam is often noble and positive; indeed, one marvels at Scott's knowledge of the East, which must have felt much more distant in 1825 than it does today.
Even Sir Kenneth, whose reason at once and prejudices were offended by seeing his companions in that which he considered as an act of idolatry, could not help respecting the sincerity of their misguided zeal, and being stimulated by their fervour to apply supplications to Heaven in a purer form, wondering, meanwhile, what new-born feelings could teach him to accompany in prayer, though with varied invocation, those very Saracens, whose heathenish worship he had conceived a crime dishonourable to the land in which high miracles had been wrought, and where the day-star of redemption had arisen.
Sir Kenneth is the norm, the Saracens the other; and yet there is an undercurrent of uncertainty, a saving subtext struggling beneath the restrictions of the convoluted syntax.

The novel's opening sections are magical, archetypal: a brave knight riding alone, an alliance with an emir, a trek into the hills to meet an ascetic. The novel continues strong but in a different vein as King Richard and his wife Berengaria, shifting allegiances and expediencies, politics and court intrigue, take the stage. The King and Queen are complex and human. As elsewhere, Scott presents his characters as if casually and seemingly unplanned. They develop over time and out of circumstances. The effect is cumulative. And all is rendered in Scott's slow, at times ponderous, but also intensely relaxing and comforting prose: a perfect balm for anxiety.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Brookner's Trollope

Reading Barchester Pilgrimage reminded me that we all construct our own versions of our favourite authors. Brookner was a Trollopian: she read him, she said, for decent feelings, and in her review of Victoria Glendinning's Trollope biography Brookner insisted any prospective reader must gain as an initial qualification a familiarity with every one of Trollope's forty-seven novels: a notion that seemed to me at the time, though not now, distant and exotic.

She refers directly to Trollope in her 1996 novel Altered States, speaking in the voice of the narrator Alan Sherwood:
Like Lady Stavely* in Orley Farm, my mother's favourite novel, 'She liked to see nice-dressed and nice-mannered people about her, preferring those whose fathers and mothers were nice before them.'
Was Orley Farm Brookner's own favourite Trollope? It seems an odd choice: an early novel, with more than a few misfires. Or perhaps she just happened to be reading or rather rereading it while writing Altered States. My own favourite would probably be something late and light like The Duke's Children or Ayala's Angel. But I guess, as I say, we all have our own Trollope.

*It's actually 'Staveley'. Not for the first time, Brookner's spelling is amiss. See also here.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

'Barchester as we knew it was dead'


About thirty years ago I worked in a library and was not a reader of Trollope. But, shelving, I grew familiar with titles. Our Trollopes seduced me with their covers, their titles, their quantity. Most were World's Classics editions, and years later I have assembled my own collection:


I read Trollope over many years. I read the Barsetshire series haphazardly, retaining an impression lacking in detail. Barchester Pilgrimage (1935) is the work of a man of much more detailed (though not always accurate) Trollopian knowledge, Ronald A Knox, a well-known man of letters in his time, a Catholic priest, and the subject of a biography by Evelyn Waugh.

It's essentially 'fan fiction'. Knox takes the characters from Trollope's novels and depicts their lives and those of their descendants in the later Victorian age and into the twentieth century.

The book comprises six longish short stories:
  1. 'The Loves of Johnny Bold', a hobbledehoy's progress, is a low-powered start, taking in atheism, a brief love affair with a suitable girl, and a trip to Cannes and a flirtation with a middle-aged temptress. Names from the Barsetshire series come thick and fast. Best to let your eyes glide over them.
  2. 'The Graces of Marmaduke Thorne' is about another young man, this time in the decadent 1890s. He considers Roman Catholicism and dallies with an American heiress.
  3. 'Is She Not Fast?' depicts an advanced woman in the new century, the craze for bicycling, and the first motorcars. There's a lot of talk about tariff reform and Imperial Preference, the Brexit of its day.
  4. 'Mr Theophylact Crawley-Grantley' starts with a minor slip. It's Josiah, not Joshua, Crawley. Theophylact, grandson of Mr Crawley and Archdeacon Grantley, is a controversial vicar whose radical career is thrown off course by the Great War, when 'Barchester as we knew it was dead'.
  5. 'There's No Holding Them', set in the 1920s, features some argy-bargy between Anglicans and Catholics over the millennium of St Ewold, and an engagement between two parties called Dumbello and Lufton. The names may be familiar, but nothing feels real and nothing quite charms.
  6. The Barset chronicles began with The Warden, and Knox attempts some circularity in his last instalment, 'Septimus Arabin's Wardenship'. A dull finish. Copious skipping advised.
Ronald Knox's pilgrimage is less a sentimental journey than a twee and rather sad one. His 'modern' Barsetshire is a fallen paradise. If the project has a virtue, it is to return the reader to the original.

Dickens the Fan

…remembering that when FIELDING described Newgate, the prison immediately ceased to exist; that when SMOLLETT took Roderick Random to Bath, that city instantly sank into the earth ; that when SCOTT exercised his genius on Whitefriars, it incontinently glided into the Thames ; that an ancient place called Windsor was entirely destroyed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth by two Merry Wives of that town, acting under the direction of a person of the name of SHAKESPEARE; and that MR POPE, after having at a great expense completed his grotto at Twickenham, incautiously reduced it to ashes by writing a poem upon it…
Preface (1850) to Oliver Twist
My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company.
David Copperfield (1849-50), ch. 4

Who stands and who falls? Of the classics listed by Dickens in the examples above, only Gil Blas and Scott haven't quite stood the test of time. The Scott is an interesting one. The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), set in Jacobean London, was well regarded in its time, but has long been out of print - I suspect not least because of its slightly ridiculous title.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Something worse than all

'Thank Heaven upon your knees, dear lady,' cried the girl, 'that you had friends to care for and keep you in your childhood, and that you were never in the midst of cold and hunger, and riot and drunkenness, and - and something worse than all - as I have been from my cradle; I may use the word, for the alley and the gutter were mine, as they will be my deathbed.'
Further to the previous post: Dickens comes to some kind of specificity late in Oliver Twist in Nancy's conversation with Rose, though the confession is coded. It is only outside the text, in his introduction to the third edition of the novel, speaking perhaps in a different voice, that Dickens throws caution to the wind:
...Sikes is a thief, and Fagin a receiver of stolen goods ... the boys are pick-pockets, and the girl is a prostitute.
But that was in 1841. Fast-forward a few Victorian decades to the edition of 1867, and we find those lines omitted from Dickens's intro. It would be left to the editors of later academic versions of the novel to determine Miss Nancy's Profession.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Miss Nancy's Profession

'Bill Sikes and the prostitute Nancy', reads the blurb of the current Penguin edition of Oliver Twist, promising spice that isn't quite warranted. Dickens's text is altogether less specific - indeed not specific at all. The most we hear is that Nancy has been groomed by Fagin into a life of thieving, like the Artful Dodger, from a young age. And George Cruikshank's famous illustrations present her as a somewhat homely figure, certainly older than she is suggested to be in the novel.


David Lodge has marvelled at Dickens's capacity to avoid in his writings any mention of the sexual life; and the question of Dickens's own illicit experiences in London and elsewhere have puzzled biographers, though Claire Tomalin's book about Nelly Ternan dredges up a letter to a friend, a letter in which Dickens speaks of 'conveniences of all kinds at Margate (do you take me?) And I know where they live'.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Mr Bumble a-wooing


The serial publications of Dickens's very early novels The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist overlapped, confounding some readers. The easy geniality of the former was at odds with the harshness and cynicism of the latter much shorter, less expansive novel. 'It's all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers, and Pickpockets ... I don't like those things; I wish to avoid them,' commented Lord Melbourne, the prime minister.

I haven't read Pickwick for some years, but I remember a happy time. A heavenly Christmas episode stays in my mind. I marked it down as a reread for future times of strife; I've had need of it since, but somehow haven't returned.

Oliver Twist is indeed rather relentlessly bleak and dispiriting - and therefore, perhaps, unDickensian - but one seems to reach an interlude at the beginning of the second Book, when Mr Bumble visits the appalling Mrs Corney, the workhouse matron. The tone shifts throughout the scene, starting with Bumble in regular bumptious beadle mode and Mrs Corney as heartless as ever. But then follows a love scene between the pair that is certainly ridiculous but also cosy and rather warm. We're in a different novel suddenly, the sort of light-and-shade affair that would later become Dickens's hallmark.

But then abruptly appears a 'withered old female pauper' with shocking news: 'old Sally is a-going fast' - to which Mrs Corney responds with her usual asperity. We're back to base with Oliver Twist.

The chapter ends curiously. Mr Bumble, left to himself in Mrs Corney's parlour, dances 'with much gravity four distinct times round the table'. Dickens finds such behaviour 'inexplicable', and we might concur, while also having some inkling as to the beadle's thoughts. Oliver Twist as a whole is hard to ignore or indeed like, but harder still to come to a conclusion about: an orphan, a foundling among the wider Dickens family.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Further Reports

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Some people never write negative reviews. It is their policy. They tactically ignore the offending book, or damn it with faint praise, or try to like it, or...

There's probably an epigram in there somewhere. Oscar Wilde would have turned a pretty phrase, as he does tirelessly and tiresomely in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. “My dear fellow, mediæval art is charming, but mediæval emotions are out of date. One can use them in fiction, of course. But then the only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact. Believe me, no civilised man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilised man ever knows what a pleasure is.” (Ch. 6)
Ignore the rhetorical dazzle - of specious value at the best of times - and consider the meaning, which is where Wilde's epigrams come a cropper. Their meanings are either facile or confused. But he keeps on trying. More, he thinks, means more. More chance of success, certainly. In fact he scores very few authentic hits, but he knows a good one when he's written it - for he'll almost certainly recycle it in one way or another. There are whole lines of The Picture of Dorian Gray that find their way into Wilde's drama - where they work, I would say, much more effectively.

Wilde would probably counter that it's the likes of Lord Henry who talk in this way. 'You cut life to pieces with your epigrams,' (ch. 8) complains Dorian of his lordship: surely a case of an author preempting criticism. But what of Wilde's narrative voice? That's florid, overblown, sickly: 'beautiful' writing in all its naffness.

The book's central idea - that Dorian's portrait ages over time, while he remains young - is famous and brilliant, but rather uncertainly handled. It comes to the fore after quite a lot of conventional social comedy and a touch of realism. The introduction of a supernatural element feels sudden and tonally askew.

The novel's second half involves a gear shift, as many years pass and Dorian sinks into a life of 'sin'. The East End scenes of his adventures are daringly depicted, but the lack of specificity, and the commentary of shame and guilt, though necessary for publication in 1890, are nevertheless distancing and difficult. But all the while the fantastical detail of the portrait - in many ways an add-on - keeps intruding, giving the book its novelty and fame, but weirdly at odds with the story as a whole.


A Word Child

In a moment of expansiveness (ever to be mistrusted) I confessed on Twitter that I'd never read Iris Murdoch. A flurry of suggestions coalesced around A Word Child, which I duly acquired.

My awareness of Murdoch was fragmentary. I knew Philip Larkin and Monica Jones had enjoyed private games centred on mocking and parodying her. I knew she was considered in urgent need of an editor. I knew she suffered from dementia, only to become a further victim at the hands of her husband John Bayley's seemingly endless memoirs.

She was the kind of writer I was always aware of in my formative years, along with Angus Wilson, Margaret Drabble and the like.

I made a real effort with A Word Child. The failure was mine alone. I could have gone on reading; I would certainly have appreciated the exquisite style. But there was so much of it. And I didn't want to be there. I think it was her world I turned away from: a grim grey 70s world of dully middle-class folk, all of them entitled, if only to their tragic sorrows and neuroses. I broke down after fifty or so pages. Such defeats always leave me obscurely depressed.


Oliver Twist

The world I always seek out when in a reading quandary is that of the nineteenth-century novel. I am not proud of this, wish I were more varied. I've read all of Dickens, but haven't read Oliver Twist since I was a child at school. I remember Mr Crisp's English lessons, an airy Victorian classroom, wooden desks with lids and defunct inkwells, and reading round the class, or silently to myself.

Dickens's main mode in Oliver Twist, as elsewhere, is irony: 'the impious and profane offence of asking for more'. This can be confusing to young minds and to less than engaged teachers, of whom I had a few. Mr Crisp was a good teacher, but I didn't really enjoy or 'get' Oliver Twist.

One should be careful of editions. I recommend the current Penguin, which reproduces the original serial text - in many ways quite different from what I probably read before: less polished, less corporate, more spontaneous and unexpected.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

A Report from the Front

...an art, if not of actual improvisation, then of rapid execution, of kaleidoscopically swift movement across a mental landscape of remembered physical reality, imagined characters and events and literary texts, quotations and narrative figures both actual and postulated.
Tony Inglis, Introduction to Scott's The Heart of Mid-Lothian, Penguin, 1994

Who cannot fail to be seduced by such a depiction? It's the dreamlike vividness of Scott that fills my imagination as I read further and deeper into his world. And the relationship with literature. When literature is one of the most important things in your life, you can't help but call Scott a kindred spirit. And it's the three-dimensional quality he conjures in your mind - like Dickens, but less ordered, more reckless than Dickens. Things, you feel, might go absolutely anywhere. Or rather, perhaps, the four-dimensional - for Scott is all about time.

I'm reminded of Virginia Woolf's peerless comment on The Antiquary:
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.
Elsewhere I've been reading - or rereading - Roderick Hudson, an early novel by Henry James. I say rereading and I say early, but there is always a factor to be borne in mind with James: the question of our texts. Roderick Hudson was written in the 1870s and then heavily revised thirty years later. I read the novel in the later version, with the earlier edition near at hand: something of an arcane activity, and certainly dilettante - but hey. In fact you don't need to check where the later James hand has been at work. It's obvious. Much of the text is 1875, with minor adjustments. But then there comes a sudden flowering of extended metaphors - metaphor upon metaphor - and you know you're now in Lamb House and it's 1907.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: I'm not especially a Brontë fan, but recently I've been reading according to a new regime. Whatever appeals in charity shop, I buy and read. It's a long novel and consists of a central flashback sequence told in diary form. Some have criticised this structure, but it seemed to me strikingly modern, or modernist: rather 1930s (I'm thinking of The House in Paris or Tender is the Night). The tone of the novel is striking. We're far from the tradition of the English comic novel. Anne Brontë is relentlessly sober, serious, minatory. Rarely in English fiction is drinking so demonised.

Last of all I've been reading a spot of Conrad: Lord Jim. Lord Jim, like the Brontë, also plays with narrative and narration, but much more radically. It's the story of a young man whose progress is eclipsed in a single confused moment. It's about failure, and the glamour of that failure. The first two thirds are brilliant, the last section harder to navigate.

In April I was in Berlin. I visited the palace of Sans Souci, in Potsdam, having enjoyed Waldemar Januszczak's BBC series on the Rococo. I should have done a little more research, because it's actually several palaces spread over a vast campus. I was quite tired at the end of that day. Back in Berlin I looked up old haunts, among them the museums in the Kulturforum, viewing paintings, viewing porcelain, adding to my collection of postcards, though I didn't buy one of Gainsborough's Joshua Grigby, because it didn't quite reproduce the 'subtle pink' of the man's coat, so lauded by Brookner in her novel Latecomers.



Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Thank You and So Long

Yes, the Gone Fishing sign is going up. The Brooknerian will be taking a break for the while, possibly returning later in the year. Thank you for reading!

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Old and New

Remainer? Brexiter? Here's a fun if rather silly way of beguiling the time.

Henry James? Remainer.
Dickens? George Eliot? Remainers.
Thackeray? Brexiter.
Trollope? Not sure about him.

Sir Walter Scott? The knee-jerk response would be to say: High Tory, therefore Brexiter. But many such are Remainers. Scott exalted - indeed, exulted in - the notion of a United Kingdom. He championed the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian settlement. He cherished above all else the status quo that had been achieved, and was at pains to show how it might be, and had been, threatened.

I confess my knowledge of Scottish history is sketchy. Before reading Old Mortality (1816) I had no idea the English Civil War in effect continued in Scotland into the 1670s and 80s. I didn't know about the Covenanters and the Killing Time. It was all new to me, and I was glad to be taught.

Scott is brilliant at depicting periods of conflict and divided loyalties. Henry Morton, the son of a Civil War parliamentarian, gets sucked into the war between extremist puritans and Charles II's forces. Events move rapidly. There are battles, marches, a siege, night scenes, and a torture incident that really ought to carry a warning. There are also several love subplots involving high and low characters. All human life is there.

The war scenes are often harrowing, but the novel ends peacefully some years later. We see the story from new and surprising perspectives - perspectives well earned through the course of a tense and chaotic story. There are reunions that are genuinely affecting. There's a beautiful final line, a satisfying resolution as the curtain falls. We see time and change at work, and we see the triumph of Scott's conservative imagination:
Let the tide of the world wax or wane as it will, Morton thought as he looked around him, enough will be found to fill the places which chance renders vacant; and in the usual occupations and amusements of life, human beings will succeed each other as leaves upon the same tree, with the same individual difference and the same general resemblance.
Men, we learn, 'had begun to recover their ordinary temper, and to give the usual attention to their own private affairs in lieu of discussing those of the public'.

One lives in hope, in our own present times, of such an outcome.


***
For not altogether illuminating thoughts on Brexit and Brookner, see here.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Winners and Losers

Shortly after Anita Brookner's death, Penguin reissued most of her novels with new covers. Most, but not all. Two novels from the 1980s, A Friend from England and A Misalliance, were missing, but they had been out of print for some decades. I don't know why exactly - except that in an interview in the 2000s Brookner described her early novels as 'crap', and also that she said disparaging things at least about A Misalliance at the time of its publication.

But from the 2016 reissue there were several surprising absences. Where was Leaving Home, or Visitors? Visitors (1997), in particular, has always been considered very highly. 'Almost certainly a masterpiece' - as Brookner once said of another author's novel.

I notice similar things happening to the likes of Kingsley Amis. His novels, following a period of neglect after his death in the 1990s, have been reissued under the Vintage label: period classics. But not everything is there. I don't find two late novels, The Russian Girl and The Biographer's Moustache. Are they not vintage enough. Both are very entertaining, the former especially. Both have the sort of extended drunken scene that no Kingsley Amis novel should be without.

In these ways an author's oeuvre becomes fossilised. In this manner, likewise, wider canons are established. Take the nineteenth-century as represented by Penguin and Oxford World's Classics. All of Dickens, George Eliot and the Brontës are available, but other novelists must suffer the selectiveness of the modern eye. Thackeray is a big loser. Only Barry Lyndon (because of the film) and Vanity Fair (because it's Vanity Fair, I guess) are in print. Even Henry James, a much more fashionable author than Thackeray, isn't completely available. His Confidence hasn't been seen for many years. The case of Trollope is interesting too. He had a vogue in the 1980s and 90s, and Oxford at one point had editions available of every one of his forty-seven novels. But now we're back to the basic rump of the Barsetshire and Palliser series, plus a rather random batch of standalone novels.

Recently I've been reading Sir Walter Scott. Only about half of his novels are in print, and the criteria for selection fascinates me. Why Old Mortality but not Woodstock? Why Kenilworth but not Fortunes of Nigel? (I think The Fortunes of Nigel is probably disregarded because of its distinctly risible title.) Of course everything is now to be found online, ready to be downloaded on an e-reader. But sometimes one wants the guidance and consolation of a scholarly editor - especially with Scott.

The future probably isn't bright. Economic factors play as much a part as literary taste or judgement. I can foresee only a gradual shrinking of the canon.

Let me finish with Samuel Richardson's last novel, Sir Charles Grandison, out of print for some decades. It was very popular in its day, and Jane Austen's favourite. A World's Classics edition was available in the 1980s, but it has never been re-released. It now sells for silly prices.

Friday, 18 January 2019

On Spark and Comprehensibility

Do you read for pleasure? I do, and I know it is wrong. I know I should read to be challenged and discomforted. But I want consolation. I'm nervous of very short novels, and almost never read short stories. Having to work out what's going on and who everyone is! The stress and anxiety of it!

Some writers make almost no effort to put the reader at their ease. Muriel Spark is one of these, especially in her later work. I read Aiding and Abetting (2000) recently, and it was an alienating experience. Two men, each purporting to be Lord Lucan, consult a psychoanalyst in Paris. The analyst has her own preposterous secret: she is wanted for fraud after pretending to be a stigmatic and harvesting money from the gullible. Then we're in Scotland with two fresh characters who are in pursuit of one of the Lucans. Then Spark starts to tell the story as though one (or possibly both) of the Lucans were the real thing. The novel ends in Africa and involves cannibalism.

Aiding and Abetting flies by, and at times it's a romp. But it's a difficult read. I don't like to feel I'm only just keeping my head above water. I want to be taken just a little by the hand, and I want things to make sense. And it makes me rather uncomfortable when I get the feeling that the author, who will always know more than I, is quietly having a diabolical little laugh at my expense.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Running out of Plot

The Times, reviewing Trollope's John Caldigate at the time of its publication, reckoned it 'a good novel expanded into a dull one'.

Trollope was usually writing for serial publication, and he was here. The chapters, accordingly, are regular in length, and a particular quantity was required.

I don't know what Trollope's planning looked like, but I suspect it wasn't quite at the level of the chapter. He knew where he was going but there was a danger he might get there too quickly.

Perhaps the last sixth of John Caldigate is markedly drawn-out. And yet I loved it. I never like saying farewell to characters. I like a long goodbye. I like discovering new things about them, perhaps unrelated to what has been their main function. I even don't mind meeting new characters so late in the day, though that's usually a novelist's no-no. So we find ourselves in London, with the Home Secretary, or lounging among legal eagles in gentlemen's clubs. Or we learn about the love life of a Post Office clerk. Or we witness a heartening reunion in all its affecting detail. I was charmed. The main business was all but at an end, or the outcome assured; the tension was released. I could simply enjoy the company of an urbane and sensible author and his personages. I had the time, and I didn't find it dull.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Less than Explanatory

Having spent many years mentally time-travelling to Victorian England, I might feel I know it fairly well, its modes and mores, its customs and practices. But I think of the warning at the start of Michael Faber's novel The Crimson Petal and the White, as he guides his modern reader into the nineteenth-century past: 'You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well ... The truth is that you're an alien from another time and place altogether.'

Do we need guides? On my e-reader I've a number of cheap 'complete works', which do without explanatory notes. I've read Dickens, James, Trollope in these editions, and seldom been flummoxed.

I've tried the same with Scott, and quickly come a cropper. It isn't just the dialect words; it's the legal stuff. And it was a legal point that caused me minor grief while reading Trollope's John Caldigate.

The major part of the novel takes place in the later 1870s. This isn't stated explicitly but is implicitly clear from dates earlier in the text. The last section of the novel concerns a trial for bigamy, and a questionable verdict. 'There ought to be some Court of Appeal for such cases,' opines the put-upon Home Secretary.

This set me wondering. When was the Court of Appeal established? I was reading John Caldigate in the World's Classics edition, which has explanatory notes. Surely this would be a worthy topic for a scholarly comment?

But no. Mine is one of those editions in which every biblical reference is carefully detailed, along with other banal or fairly well-known information such as Newmarket being a horse-focused town. But there's nothing that a general or even an academic reader might genuinely want to know. And vast chunks of the novel go unannotated, followed by little flurries of activity. That always gets me suspicious and irritated.

So I've had to do my own research. The Court of Appeal was apparently established in 1875. So why isn't it a recourse for the characters in John Caldigate? Is this a rare Trollope slip? I'd love to know. But I've paid my money, bought the World's Classics edition. Surely it isn't for me to do the donkey work?

Thursday, 10 January 2019

On Trollope and Predictability

Trollope for decent feelings, said Anita Brookner when asked whom she read and why. (And Dickens for indignation and James for scruple.) Anthony Trollope is often cited as a source of comfortable predictability, a salve for the troubled. He is certainly comfortable, even at times cosy. But predictable?

John Caldigate is a little-known standalone Trollope from near the end of the author's career. Like other Trollopes from this period, such as Is He Popenjoy?, it constantly veers off in surprising directions, taking the reader into unknown corners of the Victorian world.

But Trollope was always unpredictable. His usual starting point, unlike Dickens or Wilkie Collins, wasn't a mystery, but a moral puzzle. A character has one of several choices to make. What will he or she decide? And when? And what will happen next? The variables multiply. The fascinated reader imagines an ever-branching tree of possibilities.

John Caldigate seems at first a story about the conflict between a father and son. So - the novel will end with a reconciliation? No, that happens early on. Then it's a story about the hero's love for a young woman brought up in a puritan household. We envisage an eventual union. But no again - the girl yields easily, and there's an early marriage. Then we're on board a ship to Australia and there's some repartee under the stars with a progressive, proto-feminist widow. Before long we're in the pioneer goldmines of New South Wales. And sooner than we supposed, we're back in England for a bigamy plot and a trial, which comes earlier in the novel than expected and has an unexpected outcome...

John Caldigate is perhaps the closest Trollope came to writing a 'sensation' novel. But Trollope's surprises are justified and rooted in character. There is an early cavil: the plot depends on whether Caldigate was married in Australia to the woman claiming to be his first wife. Trollope gives us access to Caldigate's rough life in the colony, but stops short of information that the later bigamy trial will depend on. This feels like a breach of faith. But slowly yet surely Trollope smooths it over, giving us over time an impression of what went on, if not every detail. There is really no mystery in the past. The only mystery is in what is to come, as the novel, like real life, puts one surprising foot in front of another.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

The Element of Time

Why don't women paint? November 1979 in the TLS (and reprinted as an archive item in this week's issue) sees Anita Brookner taking on Germaine Greer. Greer had written a book about the women painters lost to history; Dr Brookner, then known only as an art historian, was reviewing it.
Dr Greer did not win me to her cause because there are even more numerous male painters of obscurity and mischance awaiting the art historian's attention, and obscurity, in any case, is sometimes temporary but more often deserved.
Dr Brookner goes on to suggest her own answers to the 'durable enigma of why women write but do not on the whole paint'. These include, unsurprisingly, education and economics. More contentious, perhaps, is the following:
There is the question of stamina: painting is a hefty profession, wafted about with fairly sickening smells, and these do not combine easily with other pursuits.
More intriguing is Brookner's concluding comparison between writing and painting, not least in light of the great literary project she herself was, in 1979, about to begin:
There is the fact that behaviour, observed, described, enacted, is, I think, of greater interest to women than the comparatively abstract reification of it in paint. I would even say that the element of time, which is obviated in painting, is of more pressing significance to a woman than to a man.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Two Operas

How to make it new? I saw two operas in Frankfurt last week, and each sought to reinterpret or repackage canonical works. You almost never get a 'straight' reading nowadays, and certainly you don't in Frankfurt, a quietly radical venue.

Bellini's Il Puritani tells a story set in England in the 1650s. It's a tuneful if gloomy work. There's a suggestion that Sir Walter Scott was an influence, though there's no exact original in his work.

The Frankfurt production, played and sung well, is ruined by creative decisions outside the singers' and musicians' control. The costumes, for one thing: they're a bizarre mix of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century styles, and there's no differentiation between Cavaliers and Roundheads. Sometimes the puritans are in black, at other times in bright silks. It's very confusing.

The biggest disaster is with the visual effects. Why do we need visual effects? At the start of the show a gauze net screen descends over the entire front of the stage. The gauze is transparent, but not completely. On to the screen are projected arty images: fluttering butterflies, falling petals, scudding clouds. More, the screen seems to muffle or deflect some of the sound from the voices. So you can't see properly, and you can't quite hear. But the butterflies were very pretty.

Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel is a seasonal children's favourite - though here suitable for children only of ten years old and over, as the publicity states, and so, I suppose, we have been warned. We open not in the familiar fairytale cottage but in the ward of a rundown children's hospital or asylum. Hänsel and Gretel's 'parents' are a brutal and drunken doctor and nurse. The forest, later, is textual: made of text. And the witch's house - not a trace of gingerbread in sight - is an horrific psychopath's murder lair, with blood-spattered walls and a chest-freezer full of dead children. When the 'witch', a baritone, abandons 'her' female drag and appears in male clothes it's truly disturbing. Children were being ushered in tears from the auditorium. The production ends uncertainly, with Hänsel and Gretel grown up and the father and mother doctor/nurse figures from Act 1 younger than before - why, I'm not quite sure. It's a troubling but rather brilliant production.