Friday 17 January 2020

Sheer Sharpness and Elegance of Mind

Rupert Christiansen in this week's Telegraph:
For sheer sharpness and elegance of mind, I have never encountered anyone to match the art historian and novelist Anita Brookner. I used to sit next to her on a tedious committee otherwise stuffed with blowhard civil servants: the way she could cut through their pompous waffle with a single pithy point was awe-inspiring. 'Idiotic men!' she would mutter furiously under her breath when the meeting was over. 
[She left the bulk of her estate to] Médecins Sans Frontières, the no-nonsense charity that sends doctors to war‑torn areas. There was nothing sentimental about Anita, but her kindness ran as deep as her intelligence.

Tuesday 7 January 2020

Brookner's Will

Anita Brookner featured somewhat incongruously in the British media this weekend when details of her last will and testament were emblazoned across a page of the Mail on Sunday and here on the Mail Online site. No other papers picked up the story, though I think the Express may have run with it on the following day. Incongruous again.

In fact it was thin enough to be a non-story. The main point seemed to be that she'd left the bulk of her estate to the medical charity Médecins sans Frontiéres. Quite why this might be of interest is anyone's guess. There's possibly an undercurrent in the reporting, given that the subject of foreign aid isn't particularly flavour of the month at either the Mail or the Express.

Brookner's interest in MSF was already known, as an earlier Brooknerian post makes clear (see here). The reason for her interest in the charity isn't clear. But should it be?

Other details in the Mail article are in any case more salient: the references to artworks by Manet, Lear and Romney. I knew about the first two, but not the Romney.* The Manet was his portrait of Baudelaire.** It can be seen on the wall in one or two photos of Brookner.

And then this. Tantalising indeed.
Brookner left her literary agent Bill Hamilton any 'manuscripts, letters, art books and unfinished literary material' which he wanted and requested that all her other papers be destroyed.

* 'I was greeted with a welcoming smile and led into her small, bright drawing room. It overlooks a long, pleasant communal garden, with a huge chestnut tree on one side. On the walls are a few pictures by Edward Lear, an etching portrait of Baudelaire by Manet, and rows of bookshelves.'
 Shusha Guppy, 'The Secret Sharer: A Profile of Anita Brookner', World and I, July 1998

** 'Baudelaire's main criticism of Manet was the latter's desire to arrive and be accepted, a quality far removed from the detachment of the true dandy.'
Brookner, 'Baudelaire', The Genius of the Future

Thursday 2 January 2020

Legends of Brookner

A measure of the addictiveness of an author is the quantity of legendary material that surrounds her. Dickens does not inspire the Dickensian life, nor Trollope the Trollopian. One doesn't long to be subject to a Bildungsroman, living in a world where everyone has a funny name*; nor to be a provincial clergyman or a British parliamentarian. But one follows yearningly the course set out by Brookner, odd and unique as it may prove. She is uncompromising: this is the life, and it is the only life to live.

To Germany again, for she perversely visited small towns and cities in France and Germany, the more obscure the better. To Karlsruhe, to the Staatliche Kunsthalle, where I saw a Hans Baldung Grien exhibition...

...along with favourites from the permanent collection: this Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck...

...and this Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Loose Living:

The St Anthony, one of the most arresting paintings, is hidden away and uncelebrated. You can't even buy a postcard of it.

In Stuttgart I had to race round the picture gallery and the Tiepolo show before it closed early for New Year's Eve. In the evening I saw La Cenerentola at the rather dowdy opera house - but a riotous and joyous performance, with singers invading the stalls, cross-dressing, quotes from the 'Dinner for One' TV sketch Germans love so much, and general Silvester horseplay.

*Enjoined by her emigrant father to read Dickens from an early age, that she might discover the key to Englishness, she was, she said, surprised to find, at school, that not every English person had 'a funny name'.

Addictive Reading

Too often disappointing, sometimes one's reading truly works, in the way it worked in childhood. How often as an adult does one experience that? When I first read Hotel du Lac, at seventeen, one summer. When I read The Small House at Allington, another summer, in Rome. When I read Anthony Powell, tears smarting in my eyes in an Amsterdam hotel breakfast-room as I learned, via a throwaway remark, of poor Stringham's death.

Rereading almost never matches up. Or else one identifies with new things. In Great Expectations I am cold now to the story of Pip's love for Estella. But I break down when Pip tells Magwitch, at the last, that his lost child lives and is now a lady. Or when old Pip returns to the forge to find Jo and Biddy and their own little son - and Pip sees himself: 'sitting on my own little stool looking at the fire, was - I again!'

Guilty reading can be compulsive too. I'm halfway through May at 10, Anthony Seldon's almost day-by-day account of the Theresa May premiership. It's a horror story. I wince on every page. Why would anyone with so few of the required skills put herself through the hell of being Prime Minister? It's the human details that shine through: a shattered Mrs May falling asleep during a meeting; May's too rare moments of largesse - wine and crisps from Waitrose; her unlucky encounter with a rowdy stag-party of Englishmen at a tourist spot in Estonia. Her security team feared the worst, but the revellers were delighted to meet her, and all wanted selfies.