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


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: