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.