Saturday, 31 July 2021

Cartomania

'Mute oblongs' Brookner calls the photographs Herz lugubriously sifts in The Next Big Thing. A photo sets the ball rolling in Family and Friends; and a Brookner favourite, W. G. Sebald, of course, began the vogue of actually interspersing tracts of text with wordless rectangles that at once somehow reveal and remystify the past.

All photos, of whatever age, are both accessible and resistant. I've considered this in recent weeks as I've traded a collection of cartes de visite I picked up in a job-lot years ago. Patented in the 1850s, this species of visiting card became extremely popular in the following decade. (Oddly enough, I cannot think of references to cartomania in novels of the time, though the likes of Trollope and Thackeray both trotted down to one of the numerous studios that sprang up everywhere. There is an image of Thackeray wearing trousers so aged they have patches on them.) Suddenly the past bursts into the light. The thousands of people, famous and unknown, who posed have a watchful look, not unlike the Tudor noble men and women we see in the drawings of Holbein.

Also fascinating is the community of collectors, and what appeals. I sold cheaply a fishwife scene, little realising Victorian tradespeople were much sought after. A face with character, something indefinable, sells fast, full-length images are preferred, older men are hard to shift, a pet will be snapped up.

The cartes below range from the 1860s to the 1900s. The gentleman in the centre is named, an undistinguished man, but his dates are to be found on the Internet. The girl in the bottom right is one Clair Barth of Bern. The scrawl on the back is otherwise inscrutable. But it is something. Most of these oblongs, of which there are many hundreds on auction sites, remain entirely mute.


Friday, 23 April 2021

Brookner Puts Her Feet up


Christopher Hampton's film of Brookner's 1984 Booker-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, was broadcast on BBC2 on Sunday 2 March 1986 at 10.05 p.m. Brookner would be watching it 'at home, with my feet up, just like anyone else'. The interview she gave the Radio Times on the occasion of the broadcast is light and airy, as befits the medium. But Brookner is Brookner, and darkness glimmers.


'People like the Puseys always win ... You can't keep them at bay. You can only repossess yourself from time to time by examining things really clearly.'

'I like writing, but it's a nerve-wracking, dangerous business.'

'Writers are like stateless persons. They can't easily be absorbed.'

'I don't aspire to anything. I'm non-aligned, I'll settle for being marginal.'

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Honest Affection

Boulanger's Répétition du 'Joueur de flûte' et de la 'Femme de Diomède' chez le prince Napoléon, Musée d’Orsay, is one of those vast canvases in vogue in the middle years of the century before last, a loose baggy monster of the kind that is still found lurking in most art museums, or rather in their archives. There used to be a Hans Makart on display in Hamburg that was truly colossal. It depicted the entry of an emperor into a medieval town – or something like that.

In the Burlington, in 1962, we find a young Anita Brookner commenting thus:

There was, for me, a great reward in seeing precisely the kind of picture against which, we are always told, Manet reacted, although we rarely have an idea of what it looked like. This was La Répétition du 'Joueur de Flûte' dans la maison romaine du prince Napoleon, dated 1861, by Gustave Boulanger, the French Alma-Tadema and, within its limits, not half bad. I particularly liked the attention meted out to the tiger-skin rug on the marble floor, the reproduction of the pink, blue, and yellow Percier and Fontaine décor, and the painstaking red key-pattern painted dizzily around the cornice. It is about time we stopped being frightened of the so-called bad pictures of the nineteenth century (they are, after all, no worse than the so-called good ones of today) and allowed ourselves to expend a little honest affection on them.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Distinctly European

Clues as to Hermione Lee's approach as she begins the process of writing are to be found in the Bookseller. The proposal synopsis reads:

Anita Brookner (1928–2016) is a seductive subject for a literary biography. She was a writer like no other, of stylish brilliance, wisdom, passion, sadness and irony, and she was a magnetic, witty and complex woman, at once well-known and private, candid and secretive, loved by many and close to very few. Her personal style, more French than English, was impeccably self-concealing; her attitude to life was both romantic and grimly realistic.

The publisher adds:

The richness of Brookner’s life, which in recent years has been occluded by a reputation of quiet and isolation, more than warrants another look. Her life was multifaceted, distinctly European, and offers tantalising mysteries.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Brookner Biography Announced

A brief post to let Brooknerians know the moment has arrived: a biography commissioned by Chatto & Windus, to be written by Hermione Lee. Hermione Lee interviewed Brookner on television in the 80s. Brookner joins illustrious company. Lee has lifed, among others, Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Recent Reads

'Kazuo Ishiguro joins Jeanette Winterson and Ian McEwan in the AI debate'? Not quite. Ishiguro, in Klara and the Sun, is only really debating with himself. Klara, an 'Artificial Friend', is his latest defamiliarising narrator. Quite what the purpose is of all Ishiguro's defamiliarising has never been clear, but the ride is often pleasantly disconcerting. Ishiguro has learned from the reaction to The Unconsoled, and scaled back his subsequent narratives. Critics complained The Unconsoled induced nightmare and debility. Skewed perspectives and bizarre quests persist into Klara and the Sun, but jeopardy is lacking, possibly because Klara remains uncanny and unrealised. Is it allegory? Is it about autism? Is it about visual disturbance? It may well be that. I suspect Kazuo Ishiguro suffers from classic migraine. Klara's vision frequently pixelates, and she is driven to perform weird tasks in spite of the oncoming storm. At the centre of the novel is a long, long episode in which Klara tries to walk across a field at nightfall. It's reminiscent of the set piece in When We Were Orphans, where the narrator traverses a bombed-out city in search of his parents. I preferred that novel.

Rather sadly, part of the delight I took in reading John Dryden's translation of the Aeneid was the edition I was sent: a brand-new Penguin Classics, but in 90s livery. I never read Dryden at university. My syllabi were traditional; even so, I suspect Dryden was too Tory. I enjoyed his Aeneid greatly. It's in attractive couplets, and very easy to read. It slips down, though perhaps isn't too quotable.

Exhausted after Christmas - I had Covid, and am still easily fatigued - I read Kipling's Kim. Its episodic, picaresque qualities appealed. I do not recognise the charges often levelled against Kipling. I think he extended both the landscapes and the sympathies of the English novel.

I tried Joseph Andrews - another picaresque - but gave up halfway. I once did the same with Tom Jones. Both the comic and the psychological traditions emerged from the primeval soup of the 1740s, and I guess I'm just on team Richardson.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

A Charming Letter

I found myself involved in an unseemly tussle on Ebay the other day. The price rose and rose, and eventually - fatalistic - I retired from the fray. And then I found I'd won. The prize? A letter from Brookner to a fan.



Such items always have cachet, the magic of authenticity, of presence. Ah, did you once see Shelley plain...

For other Brookneriana, see here.

Monday, 22 February 2021

Repetitions

Kazuo Ishiguro's interview in the Guardian this weekend is interesting, in the light of a criticism often levelled at Anita Brookner:  

He is unapologetic about repetition, citing the “continuity” of great film directors (he is a huge cinephile), and likes to claim that each of his first three books was essentially a rewrite of its predecessor. “Literary novelists are slightly defensive about being repetitive,” he says. “I think it is perfectly justified: you keep doing it until it comes closer and closer to what you want to say each time.”

Ishiguro defends himself, we're told, by constantly switching genre, something that can’t be said of Brookner

Again unlike Brookner, he mightn’t seem a fast writer. But the following is fascinating. One recalls Shostakovich who advised: think slowly, write quickly.

Each novel takes him around five years: a long build-up of research and thinking, followed by a speedy first draft, a process he compares to a samurai sword fight: “You stare at each other silently for ages, usually with tall grass blowing away and moody sky. You are thinking all the time, and then in a split second it happens. The swords are drawn: Wham! Wham! Wham! And one of them falls,” he explains, wielding an imaginary sword at the screen. “You had to get your mind absolutely right and then when you drew that sword you just did it: Wham! It had to be the perfect cut.”

Friday, 19 February 2021

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: 'Too late'

Chapter 12 is rich with Proust, Paris and the return of Tyler, made more powerful by the length of his absence from the text. (Something similar will happen in Brookner's next novel, Altered States.)

The meeting with Tyler, though this is not referenced, is surely akin to the reunion at the end of Washington Square. When she parts from Tyler, Maud knows it will be 'for life, as it were'.

And so Incidents, such a strange novel, stutters towards its conclusion. Did Brookner conceive the frame narrative afterwards, or was it always intended? I think it might have been the former: this would explain the highly eccentric time scheme. The 'incidents' take place in 1971; Maffy, the daughter, is born in 1980 or thereabouts. Maffy then turns out to be the narrator of the frame narrative, which is written after the deaths of both Edward and Maud, the first of whom dies in his early fifties. The time of writing, therefore, of this narrative, published in 1995, must be well into the twenty-first century.

But it is all, of course, as the frame story reminds us, a 'fantasy', 'fictitious'. Brookner's 'postmodern' novel, like all such performances, stimulates more questions than it will ever answer. And to what end?

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: the power of Kroll

What are we to make of chapters 10 and 11? The story is over and Brookner's vainly trying to pad things out? Edward visits his shop in London, and a new character, Max Kroll, appears: Mittel-european, his accent both sibilant and cockney, a prototype for Julius Herz in The Next Big Thing or Max Gruber in Falling Slowly? Then the rather studied detail about the books: Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann (for more, see here and here). Then in the next chapter we find ourselves in Eastbourne at the heart of Edward's middle-class family, a world away from Dijon and the rue Laugier. Why? Why all this detail, all this plot? I suggest it's about absence rather than presence: the extended absence of Tyler, a representation of the disappearance he has effected from lives for whom he is the only emotional capital: not just Maud's, but Edward's too.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: 'She saw the whole thing as an allegory'

Brookner's novels fall into groups, with thematic as well as actual contiguities. Incidents (1995) follows A Family Romance (1993) and A Private View (1994). In chapter 9 Edward is cast as a voyeuristic shepherd: one thinks of the shepherds and shepherdesses in the lesser Bouchers in the Wallace Collection, visited by Jane in A Family Romance, in the summer of 1976. (The rue Laugier incidents take place in a similar summer five years earlier.) Meanwhile Tyler is again mythic - mythic to the 'earthbound' Maud - as was Katy Gibb to poor George Bland in A Private View. Crucially Tyler is Apollo, who of course features in A Family Romance's 'great Bouchers', at the top of the main staircase.

Boucher, The Setting of the Sun,
Wallace Collection

UK first edition

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: 'To be so free of earthly ties!'

Chapters 7 and 8 comprise the 'incidents'. Masterly and languid, the chapters lengthen, like those monsters in the immediately previous two novels, A Private View and A Family Romance. Brookner plays on familiar themes: the 'mythical status' of Tyler recalls any number of earlier godlike characters on whom Brookner, fascinated though appalled, turned her basilisk stare, most recently the terrible Katy Gibb in A Private View; and the moment of a life's turning point, here, as in Family and Friends, taking place in Paris.

Recruited to the cause is great art, a Samson and Delilah in the Louvre (Moreau?) and Masaccio's Eve, in Florence, the latter a fine representation of the fallen world Edward and Maud, sans Tyler, must now inhabit.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: revels

They conferred on him the function of master of the revels. As each golden day succeeded the last they imagined that they saw in him the spirit of summer incarnate.

Everything in Brookner comes back to Watteau, the subject of her first important study in art criticism. In chapter 6 of Incidents the 'very sexy' atmosphere she spoke of takes, as it were, centre stage, in the enchanted atmosphere of a French summer. Everyone assumes roles, the old, the young, and Tyler is the undoubted star. Brookner depicts the scene with sureness, as though it were a painting, and Tyler one of the gods.

The following are the Watteau in the Staedel in Frankfurt and a few lines from Brookner's 1967 monograph.


The women he paints have a sparkling miniature solidity, the men an engaging quirkiness, a sharpness of knee, an intense turn of head which prompt admiration for Watteau's realism; yet these sharp little characters who, even in repose, seem always to be pouting, to be urging, to be inclining their tiny thoughtful heads, exist in a vacuum of apparent purposelessness. Their clothes, of satin slick as the oil into which Watteau translates them, are beautiful, flimsy, and bizarre; the context in which their languid activities take place is grandiose and vague, like a stage set. They look, in fact, like a group of professional actors, either warming up half-heartedly for a performance or enjoying a break in rehearsal, falling into a day-dream while a musician improvises softly on his guitar.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: Paris

Chapter 5 finds us at last in the rue Laugier and again on familiar Brookner ground: Paris. Characters free but anxious and disenchanted in Paris abound: Sturgis in Strangers, Herz in The Next Big Thing. Paris is here, as there, bigger and more dangerous than in the characters' dreams and memories.

I recognise in myself such feelings. I haven't been to Paris in more than a decade, but I used to be a regular. I think on my last visit, in something like 2009, I was, like Edward in Incidents, debilitated by the unexpected largeness of the place, its monumentalism. In dreams one traverses great spaces with ease, and there is little traffic.

John Bayley said of George Bland in Brookner's 1994 novel, A Private View, as he endures a crisis of nerves in Nice, that one might contemplate his situation indefinitely. But the plot must go on. And so it must here too.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: very sexy

Her next novel - which, her annual cycle working as it does, she has already finished - is 'about a passionate love affair', she says, and 'very sexy, though the act itself is never described. Physical description is never necessary. It's reductive. These matters are secret. Or should be. It's a matter of truth, too. Much sexual description is boasting, self-promotion, display. I would want sex to remain unknown by those to whom it's not relevant. I don't know why I have to go out with a placard.'

Interview in the Independent, 1994

The novel is, of course, Incidents. Is it indeed 'very sexy'? It is certainly picturesque in its depiction of late summer in rural France: 'A golden light lay on the park; beyond the spacious lawns the trees of the little wood stood motionless'. There's a kind of faintly clichéd Go Between atmosphere to the thing. I am sure my earlier readings were more indulgent.

One further point about chapter 4. This line: 'This was something she was used to do'. One finds these lapses from time to time. One guesses that by 1995 Brookner was difficult to edit. One must console oneself by recalling the inelegances one sometimes encounters in Jane Austen: things like the superlative being used to distinguish between a pair of items. Always fun to find.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: greatest hits

Inheritance, second-hand bookshops, a flat above the shop, dreams of flight, the longing for Paris, the contrast between London and Paris, the sense of living a provisional life, Eastbourne, minor Dickensian characters with vaguely unlikely names, solicitors, habitual visitors to the family home, an atmosphere of baffled innocence...

Chapter 3 introduces us to Edward and to an astonishing number of Brooknerian favourites - surely typical of the very prolific artist Brookner was. I recently watched what will surely be, for various unseemly reasons, Woody Allen's last film, A Rainy Day in New York. It's practically unwatchable: tedious, unconvincing, questionable, anachronistic. But it is also fascinating, in its parade of situations, tropes and motifs familiar to any viewer who has stayed loyal to a yearly output that stopped being wonderful in about 1992. Not that I'd say any of that about Brookner's Incidents in the Rue Laugier. But perhaps by the time she wrote it, more than half her way through her strange second career, she was beginning to indulge herself, beginning to see the enterprise in ritualistic terms, or as a service to the fans.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: Musée des Beaux Arts

Maud, we learn in chapter 2, grows up in a flat in Dijon, in the rue des Dames Blanches, a 'short quiet grey street'. In the distance we're aware of the 'imposing bulk of the Musée des Beaux Arts'.

The 'indolent afternoon in the provincial museum': I quote from Brookner's 1981 essay on Rosa Bonheur in her Soundings collection. I do not know whether Brookner had Dijon in mind. I don't know whether there are any Bonheurs there. There probably are. Brookner almost certainly knew the city - the chapter is replete with touristic detail - though the rue des Dames Blanches (we discover later) is an invention.

Brookner doffs her disguises briefly but unforgettably, and no doubt with full intent. These are the pleasures of fandom: a line or two here chimes with a line or two there. Hers was a legendary life.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier reread: the known part of a life

The known part of a life is often misleading, a disguise.

Incidents in the Rue Laugier, ch. 1

The statement, presented as a truism, but in fact subversive, might be easily passed over. But one cannot but feel, as time passes, that Brookner may have been speaking personally. She was a writer whose work often seemed close to home, or rather to the bone, however much - or possibly because - she took pains to deny it. Will there ever be a biography? What could it know? Would we be presented with merely the disguise?

Incidents in the Rue Laugier - reread

‘John Updike goes post-modern’ is the publishing strapline Brookner icily suggested for his Memories of the Ford Administration as she reviewed it for the Spectator in 1993. The novel, she complained (Brookner was an Updike fan, so her disappointment was deeply felt), collapses into different parts, representing different epochs and states of consciousness, a challenge to accepted structures. The ‘post-modern novel’, says Brookner, is a genre in which the writer-reader contract has been ‘arbitrarily renegotiated’.

The result … is too often incoherent, and the hero of such a novel, usually a scholar or historian researching his own past, would provide a service if he were to write a short introduction or prologue informing the rest of us of his intentions.

Two years later comes Brookner's Incidents in the Rue Laugier, in which a writer interrogates her past, reconstructing or rather imagining the stories of her forebears in full postmodern knowledge of their unreliability. A frame narrative - a short introduction or prologue, as it were - is duly provided.

Below we see the first UK hardback and paperback editions. The hardback seems to show a generic scene. The other is View with Reflection (1987) by Avigdor Arikha, a Paris-based Israeli artist. In an essay in David Britt's Modern Art, Marco Livingstone writes,

In his paintings of empty interiors Arikha was intent on conveying, through the quivering presence of each brush-stroke, a palpably physical sensation of stillness and comforting warmth of light.

And here is the rue Laugier itself as I found it a few years later, probably around 1999. It gave little away, was merely one of those blank monumental Right-Bank streets, silently residential for the most part, though it also had, I recall, a dry cleaners', possibly derelict.

An idle moment found me a few days ago digitally travelling around Google Maps. The rue Laugier is, I find, very long. This, I think, is the same scene today:

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Up to a Point

Aurora Floyd is an heiress, handsome and rich, with a native cleverness. A year of her life is mysteriously missing, but this is 1860s sensation fiction and the seasoned reader will spot the clues. When she marries a bluff young landowner all seems set fair, till a face from her past appears and the secrecy and double-dealing run out of control.

Written hot on the heels of M. E. Braddon's other famous bigamy novel, Lady Audley's Secret, Aurora Floyd is a fast, racy, slangy read. Its atmospherics are notably creepy; Braddon, like Wilkie Collins, is a very visual writer. The novel builds to a climax set in high summer: Braddon is brilliant at night scenes. She owes debts to Dickens too in her fondness for low eccentrics and detailed lists. The higher-class scenes feel a little like Trollope. But of course Trollope also sometimes sounds a little like Braddon, or at least he does in The Eustace Diamonds, his own attempt at the sensation genre. Except that Trollope is too honest, perhaps too decent a writer for the genre. He can't - he won't - keep secrets from his reader, which isn't something that can be said of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who has the annoying habit of allowing a degree of intimacy between the reader and a character's innermost thoughts, but only up to a point - the point being where the plot, and the need to keep the reader guessing and turning the pages, take priority.

Looking back through my blog, I recall I had plans at one time (November, 2019: innocent days) to plug the gaps in my knowledge of Victorian sensation fiction (see here). I have tended in the interim to prefer more settled, less calamitous reads. We all know why.