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.