Wednesday, 24 February 2021
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
|Boucher, The Setting of the Sun,|
|UK first edition|
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.
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.'
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
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 faintlyclichéd 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.
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.
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.
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?
‘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: