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.