Saturday 16 July 2022

Thursday 14 July 2022

Two Princesses

What do you do when you've finished Henry James? You reread, of course - recommended for many authors, though usually I leave at least ten years. With James there is an added dimension: the presence in print of two distinct versions of most of his novels and many of his tales. The New York Edition, a grand magnum opus collected works, afforded him the opportunity in late career and having written all his major work to review and amend. He set to with enthusiasm, taking everything line by line and penning prefaces that, though often impenetrable, represent the foundation of twentieth-century criticism. James's focus was at the level of the sentence and the word. No major text-level changes were made, though there are instances of the New York Edition developing and embroidering paragraphs. The ending of The Portrait of a Lady is an example.

I read The Princess Casamassima some years ago, in the original 1886 version published by Penguin. Tracking down the 1909 revised edition for my reread proved quite a trial. Most book websites don't give the information. It involved examining pages for differences. I at last bought a John Lehmann edition, 1950.

Most changes involve a tendency towards a less formal or more conversational tone: 'Hyacinth did not mention...' (start of chapter 14) becomes 'He didn't mention...' Punctuation is deleted, especially commas.

There is an increase in metaphor:

His thoughts were tremendously active, but his body was too tired for restlessness.

becomes the magnificently baroque

His thoughts rattled like the broken ice of a drink he had once wistfully seen mixed at an 'American Bar,' but he was too tired for unrest... (Ch. 45)

In the same chapter:

'Oh, thank you!' said the Princess, with a kind of dry impatience, turning away.

becomes, with a pre-echo of Milly Theale

'Oh thank you!' said the Princess impatiently. And she turned from him as with a beat of great white wings that raised her straight out of the bad air of the personal.

The social changes between 1886 and 1909, a growing openness, are shown in this change: 'That was a rather nice little girl in there; did you twig her figure?' says Captain Sholto of a barmaid (chapter 20). This becomes in the New York: 'That was a rather nice little girl in there; did you twig her good bust?' You can spot the alterations after a while, the things that seem just a little out of place in a Victorian novel, and The Princess Casamassima is the most Victorian of James's, and an homage to Dickens and the London novel.

Likewise in chapter 21 James develops a scene in a revolutionary tavern with several harsher additions of the expletive 'bloody', previously used more lightly. E.g.

'I don't care what no man says!' 


'I don't care a bloody rap what no man says!'

The Princess Casamassima, in whichever version it is read, is an atypical James. It's a novel the relevance of which increases with time, inasmuch as it is about what we would now call radicalisation. Were Hyacinth Robinson alive today, an urgent referral to Prevent would very likely be demanded.

It is also a thing of beauty. I offer these two random passages, tales of two cities, the second not least for its glorious (one might almost say) proto-Brooknerianism:

She was, to her blunt, expanded finger-tips, a daughter of London, of the crowded streets and bustling traffic of the great city; she had drawn her health and strength from its dingy courts and foggy thoroughfares, and peopled its parks and squares and crescents with her ambitions; it had entered into her blood and her bone, the sound of her voice and the carriage of her head; she understood it by instinct and loved it with passion; she represented its immense vulgarities and curiosities, its brutality and its knowingness, its good-nature and its impudence, and might have figured, in an allegorical procession, as a kind of glorified townswoman, a nymph of the wilderness of Middlesex, a flower of the clustered parishes, the genius of urban civilisation, the muse of cockneyism. (Ch. 4)

The boulevard was all alive, brilliant with illuminations, with the variety and gaiety of the crowd, the dazzle of shops and cafés seen through uncovered fronts or immense lucid plates, the flamboyant porches of theatres and the flashing lamps of carriages, the far-spreading murmur of talkers and strollers, the uproar of pleasure and prosperity, the general magnificence of Paris on a perfect evening in June. (Ch. 29)

Sunday 24 April 2022

'Fifty-five minutes, with slides': Brookner at the Booker

A welcome arrival on YouTube: a recording of the 1984 Booker Prize dinner at which Anita Brookner learned of her win. Brookner's surprise is genuine; it was a strong year. The clip includes Julian Barnes (see last week's post) and Brookner's future biographer Hermione Lee.

Monday 18 April 2022

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

Brookner's second novel, Providence, published in 1982, has several extended scenes set in Kitty Maule's tutorial room. For Kitty Maule read Anita Brookner, a lazy but inevitable parallel. The tutorials focus on a nineteenth-century French novel, Adolphe by Benjamin Constant, about a young man's affair with an older woman.

Now in 2022 we add to the mix a third slim volume, Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes. Elizabeth Finch is a tutor, not in French literature (like Kitty Maule) or art history (Brookner) but in 'Culture and Civilisation'. The viewpoint in the tutorial room isn't Elizabeth/Kitty/Anita's, but rather a Julian Barnes substitute, a student named Neil who soon becomes fascinated by his inspirational teacher.

Finch shares many of Brookner's peculiarities: her appearance, her clothes, her big eyes, her hair, her smoking, her voice, her diction, her handwriting, her high seriousness, her lunch habits (seventy-five minutes max.). Or rather she shares almost all of the idiosyncrasies Julian Barnes set out in his Guardian obituary piece about his friend in 2016: 'There was no one remotely like her'. It was a fine tribute, as is Elizabeth Finch, but our representations of others can sometimes become caricatures; at all events they're more often than not more about ourselves than anything approaching a truth.

But Barnes knows this, knows Finch will always remain 'exotic and opaque'. She dies less than a third of the way through the novel, which then becomes a sort of Aspern Papers, as Neil inherits her private notebooks. A lengthy investigation into one of Finch's pet projects, the life of Julian the Apostate, follows. Brookner celebrates paganism throughout her novels, notably in A Misalliance. But Finch is perhaps a Brookner who never, so unexpectedly, and so late in her life, wrote fiction:

'Perhaps she'd even tried to write a novel,' I ended.
'I very much doubt that.'
'No, you're right.'

Elizabeth Finch is a mainstreaming of the Brookner myth, and a bonne bouche for Brooknerians, all the more for the fact that Anita Brookner herself isn't referenced once. But she's there on every page.

Sunday 13 February 2022

Brookner, Stendhal

Although he set out to be a man of letters, he did not in fact write much until the active part of his life was over, and this of course is what sets him apart as a writer: he has the authority of a man whose preoccupations are not exclusively literary and who is informed at all times by memories of the immense experiences behind him.

The Genius of the Future, 1971