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.