Monday, July 4, 2011

1. Expect to Laugh

[The following is part of Peta Mayer's 10 Things to Expect From a Brookner Novel.]

In the opening chapter of Fraud (1992), Brookner’s twelfth of twenty-four novels, two policemen attend the rooms of Dr Lawrence Halliday after he reports the uncharacteristic absence of a patient, Miss Anna Durrant. A notebook is produced and the doctor questioned.

‘Was she very dependent on you, Sir?’
He shrugged. ‘She may have been.’
‘In love, perhaps?’
‘I wouldn’t know.’
‘And you, Sir. Were you attracted to her?’
‘Good God, Inspector! She was a woman of fifty!
For the younger officer (age twenty-nine) this response is enough to exculpate Halliday (age forty-eight) from any nefarious involvement. Reassuring the doctor that ‘women disappear all the time,’ the officers move their investigation to the flat of Anna’s acquaintance, eighty-one year old Mrs Marsh.

‘Inspector Maigret!’ Mrs Marsh greets the officers, proceeding to inform them of her relief at Anna’s disappearance, a woman whom she declares is highly irritating, hopeless around men, gratingly perfect, divorced from the real world and worst of all - tactless. Noting Mrs Marsh’s use of the word ‘whom,’ the older officer concludes she is a reliable witness. Old-fashioned, unmarried and childless, the police diagnose Anna as a ‘typical spinster.’ A new problem emerges however. ‘There aren’t any spinsters any more, Barry’, the officer remarks: ‘They’re all up there at the cutting edge. I blame Joan Collins.’

Written when Brookner was sixty-four, Fraud is one of her funniest novels and it travels along so lightly as to seem like it was effortless to write. Only nine pages in and satire already infuses her characterisation of age, sexuality, the legal system, gender, relationships, the single woman and popular culture. In Fraud, as in Brookner’s other novels, the archetypal hero or narrator ‘the Brooknerine’ (male or female) is an intelligent outsider whose discreet observations expose the hypocrisies and contradictions of those with social and cultural status while objectifying the flaws and self-deceptions of the human character. Funny… or depressing? I guess that depends on your own expectations of the world, the writer and what you do with the information Brookner imparts.

In 1985, Brookner spoke about her reputation for writing ‘depressing’ novels.

My books differ [from romance novels] in the sense that they’re more realistic – things don’t work out. They’re more fragmented. There is no safe conclusion. They’ve been called very depressing. But anyone who has had unhappy experiences won’t find them depressing. Life is depressing if you’re too frightened of it. The thing is not to be too frightened.

In England, they say, ‘Why do you write such depressing books? You poor thing, if that’s all you’ve got to write about’. [The English] are a high-spirited and ungracious people. Foreigners always saw them like that in the nineteenth century. They haven’t changed. And I speak as a semi-outsider.
Brookner’s interviews are in fact a great source of the author’s irony and indicative of how she transgresses the cultural injunction that, as she put it in 1983, ‘lady writers are meant to be cute’. In this 2001 interview, Brookner, known for being unusually polite, was uncharacteristically ruthless in response to a series of unimaginative questions from the Observer’s Robert McCrum.

Observer: [The Bay of Angels] is your twentieth novel in about 20 years. Is that how you like to work - at the rate of a novel a year?
Anita Brookner: I'd like to be writing all the time, but that's not possible.
Obs: Why not?
AB: Lack of ideas, I suppose.
Obs: You've been very successful for a late starter.
AB: I wouldn't say that. I'm not very popular, because they're bleak and they're mournful and all the rest of it and I get censorious reviews. But I'm only writing fiction. I'm not making munitions, so I think it's acceptable.
Obs: Are your books, in some sense, your children?
AB: No. Not at all.
Obs: So you've now finished the book, and you're a free woman?
AB: Very boring.
Obs: You're bored?
AB: Oh terribly.

A great thing about Brookner’s voice in this interview, apart from the way she refuses to romanticise writing, is how she satirises her stereotype as ‘boring.’ A popular criticism of Brookner is that she writes boring novels about boring people; a judgment which stems partly from a reluctance to read women’s writing figuratively. Irony breaks up the deterministic force of literal meaning in a text. When read ironically, ‘boring’ doesn’t always mean ‘boring.’ It can mean ‘sexually restless’ or ‘sexually charged’. It can be about subverting the idea of what is culturally interesting or acceptable, when what is interesting too often equates to a media story about Brangelina or Kate Middleton. ‘Boring’ can refer to a type of social or class privilege. It can signify ennui, an emotional and intellectual condition brought about by industrial capitalism. Boredom might operate in a similar way as Oscar Wilde’s proposition that ‘all art is useless.’ In Wilde’s aesthetic manifesto, the idea of having function, and therefore of not being bored or aimless, implied conformity to the mainstream, bourgeois, rationalist ideology. Therefore, to sign ‘boredom’ was a potentially radical act.

My point is that if you think you’re bored reading Brookner, you’re probably really rolling around the floor laughing. No, not really. My point is that Brookner should not always be read seriously.

The funniest Brookners: A Misalliance (1986), Hotel du Lac (1984), Fraud (1992), Visitors (1997), Falling Slowly (1998) (also very sad) A Friend from England (1987)(kind of weird) and Undue Influence (1999).

1 comment:

  1. That's a fabulous way to look at Brookner. I see the funny ironic and even the sad ironic in so many things and certainly in Brookner's books - although sometimes I want to shake a few of the characters because they're too passive or isolated, the way I can be (another one of your points).
    Very fun reading.