Monday, July 4, 2011

2. Expect an aesthetic experience

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

Brookner’s novels transport the reader to a world in which the inner life is a treasured companion, resource and guide. ‘Introspection,’ Brookner remarks in her biographical studies of nineteenth-century French art critics,
Romanticism and its Discontents, ‘is the fallen creature’s guiding light.’ Through a subtle yet potent and idiosyncratic mix of subject matter, character and writing style, the Brookner novel attributes to the individual the power to register and craft an aesthetic response to the everyday. In doing so, Brookner implies that the aesthetic has a political and ethical capacity: insofar as the aesthetic response is not just a reaction, what might it say? How might it look? What meaning can be construed from the aesthetic experience? And how does that meaning help us interpret what we are generally told is true? In Brookner, form (aka aesthetics) is paramount. ‘It’s form and style and standards of behaviour that are going to save us all. Once we abandon any kind of obligation to behave well or to present ourselves in a good light, then I think it’s the jungle.’ Without wanting to sound too Ayn Rand-like, the privileging of aesthetics in Brookner attributes the Brooknerine with a particular type of subversive power.

Brookner’s fiction is at once light and deep, soft and broad. There’s something spare and efficient about a soft-cover Brookner (always around 210 pages) which is in itself, easily transportable. The simple structure of the Brookner text is complemented by her ability to render a sensual experience. You might read of a pyramid of oozing plums, already spoiling, moist, blackish pink, overripe, releasing their fragrance in a market in the South of France, or smell the delicate steam of a soup scenting a kitchen with the fragrance of the greenhouse, of wet grass, while the sun breaks through to shine on rain-spotted windows. You might have your attention drawn  through the window to a tiny silver plane as a point of brilliance in a cloudless light blue sky, or, indeed, to a plate with its traces of marmalade which doubles now as an astray. Brookner’s eye for detail is extraordinary and compassionate and inspiring. Her novels represent a l’invitation au voyage, not only for access they enable to fictional worlds and alternative experiences, but for the effortless way in which they facilitate self-knowledge and a greater understanding of human behaviour.

Brookner identifies as both an outsider and as a teacher. 'My real work was as a teacher and an academic, and I loved it. This is really just filling the time' she commented on novel-writing in 2009. While academics are notoriously bad novelists, it is interesting to consider Brookner’s very undidactic form of knowledge-sharing, in conjunction with her elegant aesthetics, in light of the fact her first career was an academic French Romantic art historian. Examples of Brookner’s art criticism can be found in Romanticism and its Discontents, which includes studies of green-haired poet, Charles Baudelaire, and neurotic civil servant, Karl-Joris Huysmans. Her collection of review essays, Soundings, is also a great exposition of her original voice, largely empathetic and faintly sarcastic. Among other things it features a great tale about the murdering mistress of the man who invented the Scarsdale diet and another about Rosa Bonheur, horse-painter extraordinaire, whose rediscovery Brookner contextualises with the insight that ‘nostalgia for idealised simplicity is one of the oldest vices of a civilised society.’ Brookner’s criticism is accessible and entertaining and makes an excellent reading companion alongside her fiction. 

In the 1990s, The Simpsons was considered the canonical ‘intertexual’ form for the way it referenced multiple other texts. Brookner is better. Never overwhelming, her references to art and literature change and develop throughout her fiction. Her first novel A Start in Life (1981) was, like many first novels, thought to be autobiographical. But this interpretation is complicated once you realise that its title also makes a reference to a Balzac novelette of the same name Un Debut dans la vie – especially in light of the fact that the heroine of Brookner’s novel is a Balzac literary critic. In her later novels, Brookner’s intertextual strategies transform into a more subtle and allusive practice and constitute a veritable archive of surprises for the well-read or interested.

Throughout the novels, Brooknerines remain habitual attendants of London’s galleries and museums and this patronage enables Brookner to reference particular works of art. The Brooknerine’s relationship with the National Gallery, The Wallace Collection, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert etc etc are familiar to anyone who’s ever wandered around a gallery alone. ‘She did not expect art to console her,’ explains the narrator of main protagonist, Blanche Vernon, in A Misalliance: ‘Why should it? It may be that there is no consolation. But, like most people, she did expect it to take her out of herself, and was constantly surprised when it returned her to herself with no comment.’ While Brookner might occasionally strike a utilitarian pose about the capacity of art, she is also a Romantic who uses the symbols of art to create unexpected effects in her writing. In A Misalliance, Blanche’s attendance on the National Gallery becomes so obsessive that her sister-in-law implores her to stop going. What is so captivating about the nymphs of Italian Renaissance painting? In A Friend from England (1987), Rachel Kennedy has an epiphany in front of Giorgione’s Tempest at l’Accademia in Venice. Why this painting? Miriam Sharpe’s day is arrested by her sighting of Eugene Laloue’s ‘Place du Chatelet under snow’ in a Duke St gallery window on her way to work in the London Library. And in Undue Influence (1999), Claire Pitt meets her best friend in front of Paul Delaroche’s ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey.’ What does it mean? In all these novels, Brooknerines themselves are initiated through different types of aesthetic experiences which Brookner leaves open-ended. It is up to the reader to determine the significance of these experiences both for him or herself and for the character in the novel.

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