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?'