Thursday 31 December 2020

Reads of 2020

It's traditional to post on Twitter one's reads of the year. I'm not in the same league as those lightning-fast folk for whom the above pile would represent the books digested in an average month, or even week. I'm not sure I feel too much envy. Let slow reading be a thing.

No Anita? a contributor enquired. And it is true: I sometimes take long breaks. I first read her in 1990, and read them all - a mere handful in those days. From then on, yearly, I'd wolf down her novels as they appeared: usually in late August, or so it seems in sunset-lit memory.

I prefer, perhaps, especially at times such as now, a long digressive immersive meandering novel, a novel to get lost in, and the nineteenth century usually supplies. Of the above I think I loved Quentin Durward most. You read it and you're in the nineteenth century again, and yet also in the fifteenth. It's a strange, complex, mazy fantastical reading experience.

(The bisque bust, by the way, is a Robinson and Leadbeater of Sir Walter Scott, c. late Victorian. I bought it in that wonderful little shop, Mark Sullivan Antiques in Cecil Court, London, which always reminds me of the place the Prince and Charlotte Stant pay a fateful visit to in The Golden Bowl.)

Monday 28 December 2020

Lively Curiosity

Anita Brookner was never one for easy hyperbole, only for that which was earned and justified by time. One wonders what she would have made of 2020. No doubt she would have reserved judgement.

Her essays and reviews are often at their most piquant when considering something from which she withholds praise. I've been reading 'Descent into the Untestable', a review in Soundings of a book of 1980 on regression in the arts from the eighteenth into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Analysis of large movements, notions such as the Enlightenment and Romanticism, will be familiar to readers of Brookner. In Providence (1982), Kitty Maule and her students mount lofty seductive arguments: Existentialism as a late manifestation of Romanticism - and the like.

But Dr Brookner herself would caution her own pupils: Art doesn't love you and cannot console you. Here she argues for the limitations of art. 'Artistic traditions are self-generating and at best reflexive. One cannot live by the light of ideas expressed in pictures, although their images will colour one's thinking'.

Mr Harbison, the author of the book under review, fails in Brookner's eyes to provide the necessary underpinning. Pictures, she counsels, occasionally need the corroboration of the written word: 'Quite simply, a different kind of information is being imparted'. Look at the writing, she says, and you'll find that the eighteenth century, though it may have been when it all went wrong, might also have been the last time when 'it might just have come out right'. She repeats this line, I think, in an early interview. It is the writers, not the painters, who will save us - those writers who are, as she said, saints for the godless. Montesquieu and Diderot she reveres: 'neither of them afflicted with any beliefs they could not verify'. Fragonard and David do no more than 'weight the argument'.

If we ever wondered why Brookner turned always from art to writing, or perhaps why she never herself seems to have picked up a brush, the answer is here. Here also is her answer to suggestions of the Apocalypse, for the unfortunate Mr Harbison apparently believes we are living at the end of the world:

If the Apocalypse is really just around the corner the correct attitude would seem to be one of lively curiosity.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Comfort Reading

I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us - the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.

A shared bathroom, a newly brushed carpet, the funny little bags you get tea in abroad, a bombed-out church: Excellent Women depicts a world as distant as Pompeii. Manners are antique too: a celibate clergyman is no cause for speculation, a spinster may happily disclaim the slightest hint of experience, and everyone smokes. It's funny, of course, because it is Barbara Pym, but funny in a particular and hard-to-define way. Self-deprecating doesn't quite cut it. Irony? Mockery? A celebration of the trivial and the ridiculous? Her voice, so prized, is unmistakable.
'Do we need tea?' she echoed. 'But Miss Lathbury...' She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. 
I've read Excellent Women before, possibly more than once; and I read it recently following a diagnosis for coronavirus and subsequent self-isolation. It seemed appropriately gentle and ascetic. Other options crossed my fevered mind: The Eustace Diamonds? The Antiquary?

I appreciated on this occasion Pym's reference to Lily Dale and Grace Crawley, 'who were both accustomed to churches and "almost as irreverent as though they were two curates"'. Perhaps The Small House at Allington or The Last Chronicle of Barset should be added to my little list.

I can report that I am now improving, but at a slow rate. I can report moments of Götterdämmerung and much longer periods of dull slog. It is for sure a bleak - one might almost say a Brooknerian - Christmas.

Saturday 21 November 2020

Wilde Brookner

As ever, Brookner scholar Dr Peta Mayer offers insightful comment (see Liverpool University Press blog here). Her reading (misreading?) of a photograph of a smoking Brookner in a Wildean pose is particularly tangy. I myself have spied in Brookner's images wily references and analogues. Were the photographers in on such jokes, one wonders?

The National Portrait Gallery holds another Lucy Anne Dickens (here), possibly taken at the same sitting as the Wilde shot. (The chair is the same, though not the sweater.)

The chair to the side, the body in profile, the sidelong glance... the lamp... What bells ring in the subversive Brooknerian mind?

Step forward, Madame Récamier...

Sunday 15 November 2020

Ages Long Ago

I read Hardy as a child, or in my teens. A favourite teacher introduced him, and, alert to signs, I took it as the done thing to consume the lot. At some point I read The Trumpet-Major, possibly in the very edition pictured. I remember little, my reading memory erased by other encounters. Hardy cannot by any stretch of the imagination be deemed a Brooknerian writer. This was but one of the reasons for a prejudice I've maintained to this day. Other reasons include a suspicion of auto-didacts and an impression of awkward style.

Having read, in recent years, a lot of Scott (having exhausted the Brooknerian reservoirs of James, Dickens, Trollope), I idly wondered how Hardy tackled the historical novel genre. The Trumpet-Major has a backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Real figures - George III, Captain Hardy - intermingle with fictional. Where the novel departs from the Scott model is in its flash-forwards. Hardy cannot resist reminding us that all these people in what's ostensibly a comic tale are long-dead, and that many died tragically in war: long perspectives that break frame and stop just short of heavy-handedness.

The present writer, to whom this party has been described times out of number by members of the Loveday family and other old people now passed away, can never enter the old living-room of Overcombe Mill without seeing the genial scene through the mists of the seventy or eighty years that intervene between then and now. First and brightest to the eye are the dozen candles, scattered about regardless of expense, and kept well snuffed by the miller, who walks round the room at intervals of five minutes, snuffers in hand, and nips each wick with great precision, and with something of an executioner’s grim look upon his face as he closes the snuffers upon the neck of the candle. Next to the candle-light show the red and blue coats and white breeches of the soldiers — nearly twenty of them in all, besides the ponderous Derriman — the head of the latter, and, indeed, the heads of all who are standing up, being in dangerous proximity to the black beams of the ceiling. There is not one among them who would attach any meaning to ‘Vittoria’, or gather from the syllables ‘Waterloo’ the remotest idea of their own glory or death. Next appears the correct and innocent Anne, little thinking what things Time has in store for her at no great distance off.

I suggest this is the Whig view of history, in which history can only be understood by reference to a better, superior present. Scott, conversely, valued history in its own right: it is the present that can only be appreciated by referring to what has gone before, which may have been equally as valid, or more so.

Of Hardy's prose style I now have little complaint. I guess I've educated myself in the time since in the rhythms of nineteenth-century English. Even the auto-didacticism no longer repels.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Video Brookner

This mere four-minute piece (click here for the BBC Archive #OnThisDay feed) should be top of the list for any Brooknerian, not least because it is, to my knowledge, the only video of the author freely available. Anita Brookner made only rare media appearances. Buried in archives are, I know, a Channel 4 interview with Hermione Lee and a programme (in the 100 Great Paintings series) Brookner made in 1980, still only an art historian, on, I think, Delacroix.

We should be gladdened by this marvellous vouchsafement. There she is: stylish and a-swagger; trenchant in her commitment to the truth.

Saturday 3 October 2020


Not too skilled at literary multitasking, and having enough tasks of other kinds to complete, I don't often have more than one book 'on the go'.

But sometimes very different texts will complement one another. As the year darkens I find myself at once in 1870s New York and one of those weird hothouse Italianate courts beloved of Jacobean dramatists.

The Age of Innocence depicts 'a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs', while Thomas Middleton's The Maiden's Tragedy is about knowingness and frankness, but not among everyone. In both there is a gender divide, and a further polarity between women who 'know' and those who don't. Edith Wharton distinguishes the 'nice' from the 'free': the virginal May Welland is that 'terrifying product of the social system ... the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything', and for Middleton,

... let the boldest ruffian touch the ear 
Of modest ladies with adulterous sounds,
Their very looks confound him and force grace...

Each text is a masterclass in style, but each is sometimes too rich, sometimes too finely woven. Both worlds are utterly venal and utterly disillusioned. I shall look out for other such informative pairings.

Sunday 20 September 2020

Ebay Brookner

The available photographs of Anita Brookner date almost exclusively from her fifties onwards. We have a school photo, but nothing from her later youth or early middle age. Most available photos are staged publicity shots. They follow conventions. Brookner no doubt gave as much thought to the tenor of such images as she evidently did to the character of the information she was willing to disclose in the few interviews she allowed. She doesn't often smile.

A set of 'new' photos is available to view on Ebay at the moment (type 'Anita Brookner photo'). They comprise a collection of images turned out of an old newspaper archive. We see Brookner reading Spycatcher on her familiar striped sofa. We see her in a flowered dress smiling (this is from 1989, at a Lewis Percy signing). We see her clutching Hotel du Lac at the 1984 Booker Prize dinner. And we see a rare impromptu shot of a startled Brookner in what looks like a hotel lobby. I suspect this was taken on one of her few trips to the US.* Worth a look.

* There are one or two 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.

Sunday 6 September 2020

Quietly Quiet: Washington Square

Little seems to happen for much of Washington Square, Henry James's short novel of 1880. Catherine Sloper, apparently unmarriageable, but also an heiress, receives the attention of the young handsome plausible impoverished Morris Townsend. His motives are obvious if unconfirmed, or never fully confirmed. Catherine's father strongly objects to the match, and the bulk of the novel concerns the conflicts that result.

The ending of the novel is often seen as its best feature, and that was my experience the first time I read it, in my youth. But it is how Catherine arrives at her understanding that should be the focus of both study and marvel. James's 'plain' heroine is really nothing of the sort. The manoeuvres her consciousness achieves are conveyed with astonishing deftness and subtlety: I think I simply missed them first time around. That she might 'accomplish something by ingenious concessions to form' is Catherine's great, quiet discovery. It is also, in this early novel, James's.

Nevertheless the concluding chapters still dazzle and move, and the last line is one of the best in literature.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Brookner on the Radio

My Dream Dinner Party, in which a celebrity's dream guests' recorded output is spliced together, is a concept that's been knocking about BBC Radio 4 for a few years. It just about works, but has obvious limitations. I was surprised when British actress Alison Steadman 'invited' Brookner to join Charles Aznavour, James Stewart, Beryl Reid and John Lennon. The result is arch and artificial, but also a delight, insofar as it makes available passages from Brookner's media interviews from her 1980s heyday. We hear her discoursing on writing as therapy, her parents, and her style. Several points. Steadman was apparently introduced to Brookner's work after a friend gave her Strangers (2009) in the 80s. Would Brookner really have accepted a glass of wine with such enthusiasm? And mightn't she have left the party early, certainly before Lennon got out his guitar? Brookner once called the guitar a specious instrument.

Saturday 29 August 2020

Rob Roy Country

I was delighted to visit the Loch Lomond and the sublime landscape above Aberfoyle, having read Rob Roy during the lockdown. The weather was cool but sunny with some good cloud shadow. The heather on the hills was of a hue so heavenly as to be almost unbelievable.

Light as Air

Gallery-going nowadays can be a strain. Warders have been made into martinets: you must walk in this direction, wait here, move on, never linger. Some appear resentful you should wish to indulge in anything as frivolous as art. In the Palace of Holyroodhouse I asked a question about a painting of George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Who was the man kneeling before the king? The kilted attendant performed a pantomime first of not hearing - I had to repeat - then of appearing not to recognise my words as English. I said again: 'Do you know who is presenting a gift to the king?'

'I do.'

'Well, who is it?!'

Eventually, sulky, and with unaccountable emphasis: 'The Duke of Hamilton.'

Wilkie, Entrance of George IV at Holyroodhouse
(Scott stands, at ground level, second from the left.)

The palace is picturesque, laid out and furnished in decadent Carolean style. Beside the house rises the wildness of Arthur's Seat.

The art, like much in royal palaces, is hit and miss. Some, such as a whole hall's worth of hastily painted pictures of every Scottish monarch, including the legendary (they've all been given Charles II's nose), is poor. As always, sooner or later one finds a Cranach, this one an Adoration of the Magi:

I liked this Lely of Catherine of Braganza:

My afternoon was similarly mixed: hounded by warders round the few spaces deemed safe in the Scottish National Gallery. Much is missing. I noted this Cranach, an Allegory of Melancholy...

...enjoyed seeing this James Drummond of the Porteous Riots, a real event and scene in The Heart of Midlothian...

...and marvelled at this Tiepolo sketch of Antony and Cleopatra - just because it's Tiepolo. I sense quite a few Brookner personages would have been drawn to this marvellous light-as-air picture, not just Blanche Vernon.

Thursday 27 August 2020

To Abbotsford

I can now add Abbotsford House, Tweedbank, in the Scottish Borders, to a small list of writers' homes I've visited. (A list that comprises, for those interested, Hardy's Max Gate and birthplace, Dickens's houses in Portsmouth and Doughty Street, James's Lamb House, any number of Goethe-Häuser in Germany, and of course a certain block of flats in Elm Park Gardens, London, the only trip that included a meeting with the author in question.)

Abbotsford isn't easy to access without a car. I do drive, but never on holiday. I wished I had my car with me today: rain sheeted down as I trudged along a deserted A-road through countryside cultivated but rugged. Abbotsford is a genteel fake baronial nineteenth-century castle in sight of the rushing Tweed. Scott built it from novel proceeds, but he didn't enjoy the finished article for long and his last years were ruined by ill-health and debt.

Abbotsford House

View of the Tweed

Back of the house

Books in Scott's study

Scott's desk and chair


Scott died on a camp-bed
in the bay window.

Death mask

The Scott Monument

It is unmissable but oddly neglected. I don't just mean the last-century smog-discolouring, but also the lack of interest from passers-by. I felt rather self-conscious taking my photos. It is possible to go up the monument but not at present. On upper levels stand blackened statues of, no doubt, Dandie Dinmont, Effie Deans, Ivanhoe - but you can't make them out.

Wednesday 26 August 2020


How near the past is. Travelling by train from London to Edinburgh, I passed halts I'd previously only read of. Beyond Newcastle the land grew gradually wilder, mistier: forests, rocky descents, expanses of heath stretching into foggy distances, sudden glimpses of the grey sea. I was reading Scott at the time, appropriately. The Scottish Borders is his world as much as the Highlands, probably more so.

Always I come back to Virginia Woolf's assessment of a scene in The Antiquary:

...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.

In Guy Mannering, Scott's second novel, Scott tells, early on, of the disappearance of a small child. It is a distressing episode. Later, much later, when the child, now a man, is restored, the scene is overwhelmingly affecting - because it is so long earned, and because Scott makes it human and stays on just the right side of sentimental. The following is a spoiler. Let it be a taster:

‘There,’ said the Colonel, ‘I can assure Mr. Brown of his identity; and add, what his modesty may have forgotten, that he was distinguished as a young man of talent and spirit.’

‘So much the better, my dear sir,’ said Mr. Pleydell; ‘but that is to general character. Mr. Brown must tell us where he was born.’

 ‘In Scotland, I believe, but the place uncertain.’

 ‘Where educated?’

 ‘In Holland, certainly.’

 ‘Do you remember nothing of your early life before you left Scotland?’

 ‘Very imperfectly; yet I have a strong idea, perhaps more deeply impressed upon me by subsequent hard usage, that I was during my childhood the object of much solicitude and affection. I have an indistinct remembrance of a good-looking man whom I used to call papa, and of a lady who was infirm in health, and who, I think, must have been my mother; but it is an imperfect and confused recollection. I remember too a tall, thin, kind-tempered man in black, who used to teach me my letters and walk out with me; and I think the very last time - ’

 Here the Dominie could contain no longer. While every succeeding word served to prove that the child of his benefactor stood before him, he had struggled with the utmost difficulty to suppress his emotions; but when the juvenile recollections of Bertram turned towards his tutor and his precepts he was compelled to give way to his feelings. He rose hastily from his chair, and with clasped hands, trembling limbs, and streaming eyes, called out aloud, ‘Harry Bertram! look at me; was I not the man?’

 ‘Yes!’ said Bertram, starting from his seat as if a sudden light had burst in upon his mind; ‘yes; that was my name! And that is the voice and the figure of my kind old master!’

 The Dominie threw himself into his arms, pressed him a thousand times to his bosom in convulsions of transport which shook his whole frame, sobbed hysterically, and at length, in the emphatic language of Scripture, lifted up his voice and wept aloud. Colonel Mannering had recourse to his handkerchief; Pleydell made wry faces, and wiped the glasses of his spectacles; and honest Dinmont, after two loud blubbering explosions, exclaimed, ‘Deil’s in the man! he’s garr’d me do that I haena done since my auld mither died.'

Sunday 23 August 2020

Masking and Unmasking

Will anyone ever get round to writing Anita Brookner's biography? It is less likely than it might have been once. The golden age of literary biography was in the last century. Simply, the economics of publishing probably wouldn't support a latter-day Bevis Hillier or Norman Sherry, whose multi-volume John Betjeman and Graham Greene lives respectively were the fruit of decades of work (Sherry was said to have visited every place Greene ever set foot in).

Then there are the lesser 'hack' biographies that often appear more quickly after an author's death. These are culled largely from material already in the public domain. Such a biographer might find so private and retiring figure as Anita Brookner a recalcitrant subject for such a job. She was a public figure, but only up to a point, and only really from her fifties onwards. Any more comprehensive life would entail a lot of research and a lot of interviews.

She herself gave few interviews and rarely appeared on the radio or TV. One gets a sense of her 'curating' her life as it happened. Such endeavours are doomed to fail, but can frustrate the unwary. But one of the incidents over which she had less control was her involvement in the Anthony Blunt affair. In short, her boss and mentor at the Courtauld Institute, former Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, and pillar of the Establishment, Sir Anthony Blunt was unmasked in 1979 as having worked as a Soviet agent. There was a media furore and Blunt was stripped of his honours. Brookner remained loyal, visiting him in his enforced retirement, and supplying him with art books from the Courtauld's library. It was only later in the 1980s, with the publication of the notorious Spycatcher book, that Brookner learned of how Blunt had used her in a small way in the 1960s to obtain information unwittingly from a minor person of interest. Brookner's horror when she realised the full personal extent of Blunt's treachery and double-dealing was immense. She expressed her wounded feelings in an excoriating Spectator article in 1987.

One cannot but think that such dismay must have informed, affected, confirmed a worldview already familiar within her developing fictional oeuvre. And yet how would others see the matter? How was the Blunt scandal seen at the time? Ungenerously, it would appear, if a recently collected poem by Sir John Betjeman is anything to go by (Harvest Bells: new and uncollected poems, 2019).

I've never found Betjeman altogether hilarious, though I confess a liking for his later persona, but that's because I like most things from the 60s, 70s and 80s, love that time and that world.

In 'Lines on the Unmasking of the Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures' Betjeman is at his most jovial and sniggering:

Poor old Bluntie! So they got him,
'Mole Revealed' they say 'at last'.
On a bleak November morning,
What an echo from the past!...

Who'd have guessed it - 'Blunt a traitor'
And an homosexualist?...
... Now the nine-day wonder's over,
Back he goes to Maida Vale.
In his comfy little Rover,
Home to gin and ginger ale...

The volume's editor seeks in a note to explain the tone. Apparently Blunt made Betjeman feel he had wasted his talent in the pursuit of popularity; the poet felt, he wrote in a letter, 'trivial and shallow' beside his old acquaintance.

The Maida Vale detail is incorrect. In fact Blunt (no longer Sir Anthony) retired to a flat near the Courtauld: at the cocktail hour he would entertain old colleagues, Brookner among them (though she doubtless left early and didn't partake). Putney Vale Crematorium, a few years after 1979, was the scene of Blunt's funeral. If you type 'Anthony Blunt funeral' into a search engine you'll find photos of the affair, including one in which Anita Brookner is identifiable.

Monday 27 July 2020

At the National

Titian, The Death of Actaeon

Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto

Perseus and Andromeda

Bacchus and Ariadne, left - referenced in Brookner's
The Next Big Thing

Nicolaes Maes, Girl at a Window, 1653-5,
on loan from the Rijksmuseum

It was a great pleasure at last to visit the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery, curtailed by lockdown but now resurrected. We find Titian's late masterworks painted for Philip II reunited for the first time. They're starry attractions and a great novelty, but finer still is the feeling of being in a gallery again. The National Gallery is much changed. It's practically deserted. You must book, cannot just wander in. It has lost that old communal feel. At times its bigger halls could feel like railway station concourses. Now one might be in Europe, not England.

A great discovery downstairs, barely advertised: a Maes show, Dutch Golden Age painter. And beautifully lit, by which I mean almost in darkness.

Historical Romance

When Ford Madox Ford wrote his Fifth Queen trilogy in the 1900s the reputation of historical fiction was on a downward slope. The extreme popularity of Scott in the early part of the previous century had declined gradually but relentlessly. The twentieth century saw the genre consigned to the schoolroom or to those sections of bookshops where the covers are lurid and the often embossed. Then the second half of the century happened and the historical novel was again respectable. Examples won the fledgling Booker Prize. Novels grew in length, scope and depth. Some would no doubt posit Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall novels as the apotheosis.

Novels are the product of their own historical contexts, and none more so than historical novels. Mantel's Tudor past is perhaps no more authentic than Ford's. Both cover similar grounds. It is all really a matter of taste. Do you favour Mantel's gritty hyper-realism or Ford and Scott's romance? Do you hate tushery and gadzookery, or find it flavoursome when well deployed?

One thing that occurs to me as I read Ford and Scott is how close such novelists were to a later and apparently quite different genre: sci-fi and fantasy.

Most nineteenth-century novelists after Scott tried their hand at the historical novel: A Tale of Two Cities, Romola, Henry Esmond, La Vendee, The Trumpet-Major.

Anita Brookner, not a nineteenth-century novelist, but somehow one all the same, wrote perhaps in similar fashion her own lone example: Family and Friends. But Brookner's grasp of timelines is often troubling: I have explored in this blog the tortured and indeed impossible chronology of Incidents in the Rue Laugier (see here), not to mention uncertainties over the eras depicted in Family and Friends (here).

Ford is a stylist. The Fifth Queen tells an enthralling story, but he's the sort of novelist for whom style matters most. The textual surface on every page glitters with phrasing and word choices that give pleasure. But his world is constrained, delimited. Not a criticism: the Henrecian court is a 'house of eyes': but by contrast Scott, whose style is straightforward if ornate, conjures an imaginative space that seems infinite and lives in the mind long after one has finished a book.

Conrad called The Fifth Queen 'the swan song of Historical Romance', a premature judgement of a genre that would see a revival within the century and indeed never really went away. And who has it right? Was Ford right? Is Mantel? Was Scott? We can never know what the past was actually like.

Sunday 19 July 2020

Sadder and More Confusing

An undoubted Establishment figure - Keeper of the Queen's Pictures no less - Sir Anthony Blunt was exposed as a spy in the 1960s (an episode of The Crown deals with the affair), though the information wasn't publicised until Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979. Anita Brookner, who worked with and for Blunt at the Courtauld, was unaware of his secret past. (She would later discover, on publication of Peter Wright's Spycatcher, that she had herself been unwittingly used to gather information possibly useful to the Soviets.)

Max Hastings, writing in the Spectator in August 1980, laid into those he saw as forgiving or making light of Blunt's misdemeanours: all those former students, colleagues and hangers-on who continued to be seduced by his charisma and didn't demonstrate the sort of kneejerk condemnation Hastings (and the Leaderene, no doubt) would have seen as confirmation of the right stuff.

Brookner's letter to the Spectator of a few weeks later was nuanced and oblique. In her second life as a novelist, soon to be inaugurated, we would come to recognise this tone - and its deployment as a bulwark against very real horror and pain.
I owe my entire career to Anthony Blunt. With a number of co-signatories – from England, France, Germany, Italy, and America – I and some of my colleagues wrote to The Times last November to state our gratitude to our former teacher. The letter was not printed. I also attended a meeting of Convocation at which it was proposed to strip Anthony Blunt of his Emeritus Professorship: a ludicrous and intemperate occasion which was preceded by a lecture on the solar system – the very stuff of black comedy. 
But it should also be placed on record that some of us do not attend those dinner parties at which the matter is laughed away. Indeed, the position has grown sadder and more confusing since November. There is an inescapable moral point, but it is not the one hammered home by Mr Hastings. Those who mislead by omission find it such a trivial offence. Those on whom such an offence is practised find it devastating. You must understand that it is difficult to reconcile the very real memory of the charismatic influence with realisation that one kind of truth can run parallel with unsuspected powers of deception. Some of us are still trying to make sense of these respective positions. For my part, I must confess, without success.

Monday 13 July 2020

Crisis Management

I'm surely not alone in suffering the odd reading quandary. I flit from book to book, feel restless, unrooted. My time is limited, my tastes restricted. I prefer longer novels and rarely enjoy short works. I favour the nineteenth century. How I ever found Anita Brookner is anyone's guess. But I do like style.

Down long years I read all of Trollope, James, Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot and the like. Some time back I started on Scott - long avoided - and adored him. Rereading is always an option, but one likes new things. They brighten and lighten.

I settled on Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South a few weeks ago. I'm back teaching (if to a rather ridiculously small group ('bubble', if you will)), so time is at a premium. North and South is an elegantly written novel, full of social, political and human interest, and it takes us into regions and corners of Victorian England other novelists ignored or, as in the case of Hard Times, obfuscated with satire and moments of cosiness. But it is just a little second-rate. It's worthy, it works like clockwork, but it's also plodding and predictable and lacking in the humour of Cranford, the only other Gaskell I've read.

Oh, but what next? I'm hooked on a miniseries about the women's movement, Mrs America, currently showing in the UK, and it may send me back to The Bostonians for the remainder of the summer. I have also in mind Scott's The Pirate, Thackeray's Pendennis, Woolf's The Years and Smollett's Humphrey Clinker. But all the while one longs for the wonderful discovery, something new and fresh, something that fills one's dreams.

Saturday 6 June 2020

Lobster bisque

Susan Hill, whose lockdown reading recommendations are a weekly joy, chomps in the latest Spectator on a T-bone in her reading of American crime fiction, but finds time for the 'lobster bisque' that is an old favourite.
The novels of Anita Brookner seemed to have vanished without trace but they have all now reappeared in a fine series with new cover designs. My copies were old and battered so I have bought the set, because Brookner is one of the women writers I most admire, and re-reading her in new copies helps me consider them afresh. V.S. Naipaul despised her work, probably without having read it, but that is just an added recommendation. If you have been told they are ‘all the same’ — well, only in the sense that Bach’s organ preludes or piano variations are all the same, because Brookner’s works are indeed variations on a theme. Think of them that way and her genius will reveal itself over these wonderful novels.

Monday 25 May 2020

Consolations #3

The reason people don’t read Scott anymore is that they think he’s prolix. They are right. There’s no getting around the fact: he’s a deeply prosy, long-winded writer. If the only thing that will hold your attention is a string of staccato action set-pieces you will surely struggle with him. But the secret to enjoying him is to accept this. Instead of impatiently yearning for things to hurry up, you need to surrender yourself to the prose, to sink into it as into a warm bath.
Adam Roberts, 'The Victorian novel: a guide to reading in lockdown', Spectator, 16 May 2020

Adam Roberts was one of my teachers at university in the early 1990s. He's still there but is now also an acclaimed science-fiction author. His recent Spectator recommendations gratify me in that they accord with my own preferences: Scott (The Antiquary, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian), Thackeray (The Newcomes) and Eliot (Daniel Deronda). I applaud his impeccable taste, in particular his defence of Sir Walter Scott - in which happy task he joins no less than Virginia Woolf.

I happen to be reading Rob Roy at the moment, and I read The Bride of Lammermoor a few weeks back. I agree with Professor Roberts that Bride is uncharacteristic - over melodramatic - and Rob Roy a masterpiece. In essence it's a Waverley encore, but so much more assured.

I found a different sort of melodrama - arch, brittle - in my reread of The House in Paris. If Scott is a warm bath, Bowen is an icy shower. One should not perhaps read for style alone, but for me it's Bowen's chief strength:
Round the curtained bedhead, Pompeian red walls drank objects into their shadow: picture-frames, armies of bottles, boxes, an ornate clock showed without glinting, as though not quite painted out by some dark transparent wash.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Drowning in Blueness

Rumour has it the sky has seldom been as blue since pre-industrial times. One is reminded of the skies of Tiepolo, or of Boucher - as experienced so memorably at the Wallace Collection by the protagonist of Brookner's A Family Romance.

Tiepolo, Rest on the Flight into Egypt:
last seen at the recent exhibition in Stuttgart

Boucher, The Rising of the Sun

Scott Illustrated

Three paintings in British collections depicting scenes in Scott:

John Everett Millais,
The Bride of Lammermoor,
City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
James Drummond, The Porteous Mob,
National Gallery of Scotland
Richard Parkes Bonington,
Quentin Durward at Liège,
Castle Museum, Nottingham

Saturday 2 May 2020

All the Conspirators

Despite many appearances to the contrary, James's novels are tightly plotted. Even the late masterpieces, The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl, apparently so distanced and cerebral, harbour sensational conspiracies at their heart. But in the latter novel James, in the second half, turns the tables - on the conspirators, and on the reader - as Maggie becomes less victim than victor.

The growth of her feeling of suspicion is difficult to trace but it predates the moment of revelation, that 'first sharp falsity she had known in her life, to touch at all or be touched by; it had met her like some bad-faced stranger surprised in one of the thick-carpeted corridors of a house of quiet on a Sunday afternoon'.

'Stories with a twist' - and in the Brookner canon one thinks of the last-minute reveals in Providence, Undue Influence and others - involve legerdemain, also often a degree of bad faith between writer and reader: we who have been led to believe one thing must now accept a quite different interpretation. Perhaps the narrator - and use of the first person is common - has betrayed enough clues; perhaps the author, somehow from behind the scenes, has been able to telegraph alternative truths; but the mystery's solution cannot but feel a little of a cheat.

Or there is James's way, in The Golden Bowl. In the second section, 'The Princess', James all but starts another novel, this time from Maggie's point of view. Patiently, stealthily, she begins the process of her own survival: it is she who is the novel's true conspirator, and the quiet house is Maggie's creation, and a trap for her unwary, her almost innocent foes.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

The Sum of Her Books

The Spectator Annual 1992

Lived through, the Nineties seemed a dull and disappointing decade after its glitzier predecessor. Now one looks back with longing on an era of civilised quietude and gentility.

The cover says it all: Mr Major temporarily distracted from a game of cricket on a sunny afternoon. Within: a time capsule; names long-forgotten or still very much with us; antique attitudes (Auberon Waugh's 'Why we over-50s are quite happy with Europe'); Jeffrey Bernard's incomparable 'Low Life' columns; and a piece by Anita Brookner, 'How to be very, very popular', a review of a novel by Mary Wesley.

(I get confused between Mary Wesley and Rosamunde Pilcher, whose nostalgic countrified books were also once very, very popular. They continue to be so, oddly, in Germany: at Christmas in Stuttgart I had a stilted conversation with an old lady who knew little of England other than what she had gleaned from the work of Rosamunde Pilcher.)

I find Mary Wesley, about whom, and about whose popularity, Brookner is unusually sniffy - I find Wesley more or less out of print now. Whereas Brookner...

I guess the Spectator editors had a small laugh when they gave Brookner A Dubious Legacy to read. Brookner knows the joke is on her, depicting herself as a 'critic, perhaps a little morose at being excluded from what seems to be universal enjoyment and appreciation'.

She finds the novel slight, unreal and tedious. 'A certain doggedness is needed to keep one's eye on the page.'

And yet she admires Wesley, her determination, the 'sheer grit of composing a novel a year'. A novel a year? Perhaps Brookner is comparing herself, just as prolific, with Wesley? If so, it is Wesley who comes off worse. Mary Wesley, also a late starter, and later than Brookner, older than Brookner too, may seem worldly and cynical, with her ancient eye, but Brookner detects a soft sentimentality beneath the facade. She has a lot of fun at the expense of Wesley's swaggering appearance in press photos. But Brookner's own portraits were just as stagy.

'The lady herself is clearly more than the sum of her books,' Brookner concludes. One would hardly know where to place Anita Brookner herself in such an equation.

Sunday 19 April 2020


Brookner once said she saw in The Golden Bowl, of all James's novels, evidence of the 'madness of art'. No doubt she had in mind his many wild extended metaphors, metaphors that take wing and carry the reader into quite other worlds. Here Adam and Charlotte sense they possibly shouldn't outstay their welcome in Adam's grandson's nursery:
Treated on such occasions as at best a pair of dangling and merely nominal court-functionaries, picturesque hereditary triflers entitled to the petites entrées but quite external to the State, which began and ended with the Nursery, they could only retire, in quickened sociability, to what was left them of the Palace, there to digest their gilded insignificance and cultivate, in regard to the true Executive, such snuff-taking ironies as might belong to rococo chamberlains moving among china lap-dogs.

Friday 17 April 2020

Dotted or Sprigged

One takes delight, in these curious times, in curious details, such as this passage of rare specificity in The Golden Bowl (New York Edition). Devotees of the full Henry James cosplay experience should note that Adam Verver's necktie in the first edition was 'sprigged'.
He wore every day of the year, whatever the occasion, the same little black ‘cutaway’ coat, of the fashion of his younger time; he wore the same cool-looking trousers, chequered in black and white—the proper harmony with which, he inveterately considered, was a white-dotted blue satin necktie; and, over his concave little stomach, quaintly indifferent to climates and seasons, a white duck waistcoat.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Consolations #2

I beguile the time with Shakespeare and James. I'd left Trollope's Vicar of Bullhampton on the shelf for years - years after I read the rest of Trollope - and I must have sensed why. It's a dull book, but with everything going for it: characters high and low, intriguing issues (sex work, daringly, among them). But it has little jeopardy, the conventional love story is dreary, and the prostitution (Trollope uses the word) theme proves hesitant and too slight: Trollope veers between sympathy and condemnation. We never see Carry Brattle's life in London. There are no Clarissa-style scenes.

Henry IV Part 2: Was there ever such a perfect play? The high and the low here complement one another. It would be formulaic, if it weren't brilliant, the way we alternate between the poetry of the court and the prose of Falstaff's world. The story, concerning various plots and treacheries, is negligible. What matters is the language. The King and Falstaff are given the best speeches: 'Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown' in Act 3, Falstaff's tribute to sherry in Act 4. Then there's this, from King Henry, later in the same act:
my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death:
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary th’ unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
And so to James. From only the second chapter of The Golden Bowl, on Fanny Assingham (a character name David Lodge has, at James's expense, a little fun about):

Type was there, at the worst, in Mrs Assingham's dark, neat head, on which the crisp black hair made waves so fine and so numerous that she looked even more in the fashion of the hour than she desired. Full of discriminations against the obvious, she had yet to accept a flagrant appearance and to make the best of misleading signs. Her richness of hue, her generous nose, her eyebrows marked like those of an actress -these things, with an added amplitude of person on which middle age had set its seal, seemed to present her insistently as a daughter of the south, or still more of the east, a creature formed by hammocks and divans, fed upon sherbets and waited upon by slaves. She looked as if her most active effort might be to take up, as she lay back, her mandolin, or to share a sugared fruit with a pet gazelle.

Wednesday 1 April 2020

Top Ten Brookner

The much-loved Backlisted podcast (here) returns with a 'lockdown' episode that includes a lot of Anita Brookner talk. Prompted by discussion about Hotel du Lac, never the most representative Brookner, the chat meanders pleasantly on to the potential for compiling an Anita Brookner 'Top Ten'. At a loose end myself, though this week at the chalkface entertaining the children of keyworkers, I considered the question myself. I'm sure there are similar such lists elsewhere on this blog - I forget, and I don't particularly want to consult them anyhow.

Of course, Brookner - like Henry James, like Trollope, indeed like many prolific authors - passed through phases. Brookner's novels, I contend, fall into three, neatly divided by the decades she wrote in: the raw, vital 80s; the settled magisterial 90s; the bleak, experimental 2000s. A Brookner novel from the 80s seems very different from any of her final works - just as 'James I', 'James II' and 'the Old Pretender' can sound like quite distinct authors.

Another thing: I read Brookner's novels over time, more or less as she wrote them. My affection for certain works is determined by memories of my own life; my preferences at a particular time; associations the novels conjure.

But anyway...

10. A Start in Life (1981). Not actually a favourite, but surely indispensable, if for the astonishing opening chapter alone.

9. Visitors (1997). An elegant character study, and with such a sense of the English summer.

8. A Friend from England (1987). One of Brookner's most disaffected protagonists. Despite all appearances, this is extreme writing.

7. Strangers (2009). Brookner's last, and as bleak as lockdown.

6. Family and Friends (1985). A superior saga, told in the most exquisite and stylish prose.

5. Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995). A deeply affecting study of regret and missed opportunities.

4. The Next Big Thing (2002). Often so well-heeled, Brookner's protagonists seem immune from real harm. But for Julius Herz the abyss is opening at his very feet.

3. A Family Romance (1993). 'Magisterial' is indeed the word.

2. Look at Me (1983). If only for the heroine's seemingly endless night trek through London: almost apocalyptic.

1. A Private View (1994). Poor George Bland, and his unsuitable passion. Yet Brookner's sympathy is boundless.

Thursday 26 March 2020

The Rev. Henry Fitzackerley Chamberlaine

From The Vicar of Bullhampton, another delicately spiced character sketch to break up your day:
He was a very handsome man, about six feet high, with large light grey eyes, a straight nose, and a well cut chin. His lips were thin, but his teeth were perfect,—only that they had been supplied by a dentist. His grey hair encircled his head, coming round upon his forehead in little wavy curls, in a manner that had conquered the hearts of spinsters by the dozen in the cathedral. It was whispered, indeed, that married ladies would sometimes succumb, and rave about the beauty, and the dignity, and the white hands, and the deep rolling voice of the Rev. Henry Fitzackerley Chamberlaine. Indeed, his voice was very fine when it would be heard from the far-off end of the choir during the communion service, altogether trumping the exertion of the other second-rate clergyman who would be associated with him at the altar. And he had, too, great gifts of preaching, which he would exercise once a week during thirteen weeks of the year. He never exceeded twenty-five minutes; every word was audible throughout the whole choir, and there was a grace about it that was better than any doctrine. When he was to be heard the cathedral was always full, and he was perhaps justified in regarding himself as one of the ecclesiastical stars of the day. Many applications were made to him to preach here and there, but he always refused. Stories were told of how he had declined to preach before the Queen at St. James's, averring that if Her Majesty would please to visit Salisbury, every accommodation should be provided for her. As to preaching at Whitehall, Westminster, and St. Paul's, it was not doubted that he had over and over again declared that his appointed place was in his own stall, and that he did not consider that he was called to holding forth in the market-place. He was usually abroad during the early autumn months, and would make sundry prolonged visits to friends; but his only home was his prebendal residence in the Close. It was not much of a house to look at from the outside, being built with the plainest possible construction of brick; but within it was very pleasant. All that curtains, and carpets, and armchairs, and books, and ornaments could do, had been done lavishly, and the cellar was known to be the best in the city. He always used post-horses, but he had his own carriage. He never talked very much, but when he did speak people listened to him. His appetite was excellent, but he was a feeder not very easy to please; it was understood well by the ladies of Salisbury that if Mr. Chamberlaine was expected to dinner, something special must be done in the way of entertainment. He was always exceedingly well dressed. What he did with his hours nobody knew, but he was supposed to be a man well educated at all points. That he was such a judge of all works of art, that not another like him was to be found in Wiltshire, nobody doubted. It was considered that he was almost as big as the bishop, and not a soul in Salisbury would have thought of comparing the dean to him. But the dean had seven children, and Mr. Chamberlaine was quite unencumbered.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Never glad confident morning again

In the absence of more reliable signposts one seeks parallels in literature. In the time ahead, when every day, for many, will seem like Christmas Day, one thinks of Anna Durrant in Anita Brookner's Fraud (1992), the lonely walk Anna takes across a deserted, Pompeii-still London in windless air under a low grey sky.

Later in the novel another character, the elderly Mrs Marsh, nurses her son Nick through a bout of the flu. His convalescence is powerfully described, the reduction in his routine, his devotion to the predictable rhythms of the Radio 4 schedule.

A recent New Yorker piece (here) considered episodes of social distancing in Victorian novels: Bleak House, Jane Eyre. Elsewhere in Brookner there are more than several chapters on illness and recovery. One recalls the end of Look at Me (1983), Frances cared for like a child after her traumatic night walk; or the horribly extended migraine that afflicts the protagonist in A Misalliance (1986) and the blessed ministrations of a saintly neighbour, with her gifts of lemon barley water and a cold chicken.

In Altered States (1996) Alan Sherwood gets the flu and is looked after by Angela, who soon, almost inevitably, becomes his wife. Somehow his world has changed, his options narrowed:
Illness serves as a corrective: one emerges from it sober but diminished. One learns that one's continuation cannot be taken for granted, or, as the poet puts it, never glad confident morning again.

Saturday 21 March 2020


Among several scuppered plans was a visit to see the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery, now closed. Seven late masterworks were included, reunited for the first time since they sat in Titian's studio in the second half of the sixteenth century. Paintings would take years, returned to after long absences. 'According to eye witnesses,' writes Martin Gayford, lucky enough to see the show, in this week's Spectator, 'Titian would begin a work, then lean it against the wall. Some time later he would scrutinise what he had done as if it were a "mortal enemy", add a touch or two, set it aside again to dry - and so on until he was satisfied ... there is a controversy about whether some of his late works ... were finished or not.'

Brooknerians will know Titian from the much earlier Bacchus and Ariadne, part of the National Gallery's permanent collection. In The Next Big Thing Julius Herz, one of Brookner's later and most debilitated protagonists, finds consolation and also challenge in front of the painting, its 'shock of blue' and the 'charged glance' that passes between the truant god and the mortal abandoned woman on Naxos. Herz feels 'suddenly faint', excluded from such a world of youth and easy conquests. Other gallery 'pilgrims' (a Brookner word - she spoke of herself as one such) pause before the picture, puzzled but moved to recognition: the recognition that what Bacchus and Ariadne have found is 'the real thing'. 'Quite simply', Brookner tells us, 'nothing could take its place.' 'Even to see it, to hear about it at second hand, was enough to cause wonder. Or indeed dismay.' Bacchus, of course, will grow into a 'sozzled wreck'; the story ends badly. Even so, Brookner honours the matchlessness Herz witnesses in Titian's image. And love, as she said in interview, was ever her theme: all the rest was mere literature. Her standards were always the highest: and there's something joyous - never bleak - about that.

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Miss Marrable

What a joy is this passage from Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton. I love the sideswipe at Dickens, and the bit about Wycherley's plays is a sophisticated treat.
As to Miss Marrable herself nobody could doubt that she was a lady; she looked it in every inch. There were not, indeed, many inches of her, for she was one of the smallest, daintiest, little old women that ever were seen. But now, at seventy, she was very pretty, quite a woman to look at with pleasure. Her feet and hands were exquisitely made, and she was very proud of them. She wore her own grey hair of which she showed very little, but that little was always exquisitely nice. Her caps were the perfection of caps. Her green eyes were bright and sharp, and seemed to say that she knew very well how to take care of herself. Her mouth, and nose, and chin, were all well-formed, small, shapely, and concise, not straggling about her face as do the mouths, noses, and chins of some old ladies—ay, and of some young ladies also. Had it not been that she had lost her teeth, she would hardly have looked to be an old woman. Her health was perfect. She herself would say that she had never yet known a day's illness. She dressed with the greatest care, always wearing silk at and after luncheon. She dressed three times a day, and in the morning would come down in what she called a merino gown. But then, with her, clothes never seemed to wear out. Her motions were so slight and delicate, that the gloss of her dresses would remain on them when the gowns of other women would almost have been worn to rags. She was never seen of an afternoon or evening without gloves, and her gloves were always clean and apparently new. She went to church once on Sundays in winter, and twice in summer, and she had a certain very short period of each day devoted to Bible reading; but at Loring she was not reckoned to be among the religious people. Indeed, there were those who said that she was very worldly-minded, and that at her time of life she ought to devote herself to other books than those which were daily in her hands. Pope, Dryden, Swift, Cowley, Fielding, Richardson, and Goldsmith, were her authors. She read the new novels as they came out, but always with critical comparisons that were hostile to them. Fielding, she said, described life as it was; whereas Dickens had manufactured a kind of life that never had existed, and never could exist. The pathos of Esmond was very well, but Lady Castlemaine was nothing to Clarissa Harlowe. As for poetry, Tennyson, she said, was all sugar-candy; he had neither the common sense, nor the wit, nor, as she declared, to her ear the melody of Pope. All the poets of the present century, she declared, if put together, could not have written the Rape of the Lock. Pretty as she was, and small, and nice, and lady-like, I think she liked her literature rather strong. It is certain that she had Smollett's novels in a cupboard up-stairs, and it was said that she had been found reading one of Wycherley's plays.

Monday 16 March 2020


Seeking solace can be a tricky business. As the news worsened I immersed myself in the novels of the past; but the serpent of unease wriggles beneath the seemingly most innocent of flowers. Yet literature is perhaps only great when it is also subversive.

Scott's Quentin Durward depicts a young Scottish gentleman abroad in the forests of fifteenth-century France. So far so sylvan and romantic, but Scott has other ideas: at pains to emphasise the anachronism of Durward's devotion to chivalry in a world of low politics that has left such ideals behind.

Trollope's The Warden should be safer territory, I thought. I read it years ago. Indeed it retains much charm: Trollope, we might recall, conceived the novel while wandering one midsummer evening the tranquil environs of Salisbury Cathedral. But modernity intrudes, the eschewing of tradition and the beginnings of a soulless corporate sensibility in Mr Harding's ejection from his comfortable but unjustifiable wardenship.

I next read Victory by Joseph Conrad, the tale of Axel Heyst, who has 'perceived the means of passing through life without suffering and almost without a single care in the world - invulnerable because elusive.' But the book's tone, as so often with Conrad, shifts constantly and unsuccessfully, and by the end a contemplative novel has become a rather repellent violent thriller.

In 'The Madonna of the Future' Henry James takes us to Italy in the 1880s and the full lucidity of his nevertheless supremely sophisticated middle style. The narrator befriends a fellow American who once planned to become an artist. But he hasn't noticed the lapse of the years, the withering of his talent, and of his muse, now a vulgar matron. A delightful bonne bouche.

I turn finally to The Vicar of Bullhampton, a mid-to-late Trollope I've somehow never read before. And again, what promised to be idyllic is actually rife with trauma and disruption, as the well-meaning eponymous hero struggles to improve the lives of his parishioners - including, daringly, the 'castaway' Carry Brattle - and gets precisely nowhere.