Monday, July 4, 2011

3. Walking

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

Stendhal described novel-writing as walking with a mirror. The flâneur is the archetypal modern walker, the traveling artist-poet observing the multiple sites and sounds of the urban metropolis. For Baudelaire, the flâneur is a ‘passionate spectator’ for whom ‘it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – such are the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.’ Writers make good flâneurs insofar as they are solitary figures who are at the same time fascinated by human behaviour.  

 ‘I have thought about leaving England, but I am a recluse,’ Brookner commented in 1985: ‘It doesn’t really matter where I live, because I’m indoors most of the time, I like solitary walks in cities – yes – I love that.’ Brooknerines are flâneurs. They mostly walk the streets of inner London but they walk Paris, the South of France and Venice too. They walk to process emotion; to leave silent living-rooms; they walk to work or without a destination; they walk to the shops, to cafes, to galleries. Occasionally they might walk out to dinner. They don’t walk to parties.

In Undue Influence (1999) Claire Pitt walks from her flat in Montague Mansions to her work at a bookshop in Gower St, London’s famous literary district. Her job entails editing a manuscript entitled ‘Walks with Myself,’ a text she finds disappointingly dull until she unearths its scandalous history. Similarly, Claire’s walks through the cathedral cities of France are opportunities for her own sexual adventures, so walking assumes a subtext of illicit desire. At the novel’s denouement, Claire’s walking forces her to confront a reality which incessant her imagining has previously encouraged her to deny.

Brief Lives (1990) is another great Brookner walker narrative. ‘I would escape from the house, which I hated, and take long walks,’ recalls the narrator, Fay Dodworth. (Note: Fay Dodworth = ‘faded worth.’ Brookner is also a doyenne of the realist convention of totemistic naming.) Through her walks around town, Fay’s narrative maps the local environs of Kensington and Chelsea in London’s west, referencing the residences of major and minor characters in Onslow Square, Sloane Ave, Hanover Sq, Swan Court, Chelsea Manor St, Gertrude St, Foubert’s Place, Egerton Crescent, Drayton Gardens, Great Portland St, Baron’s Court and Lowndes Sq. As a citizen of the consumer class, Fay is processed through Harrods, Selfridges, Peter Jones, Regent St, Fulham St, Harley St, South Kensington Station, the Kensington Library, the Soane Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum. Yet, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, these sites are not uninvested in personal/political history and memory and reflect a variety of private experiences. The streets and shops and parks and galleries of Brookner’s novels locate the text in contemporary time and space and therefore provide an interesting contrast to multiple references to the nineteenth century in the narrative. As traces of the city summoned in the glimpse of the passerby, they also symbolise the transient and ephemeral nature of modern life so recorded by Baudelaire and the nineteenth-century aesthetes.

On a research trip to London, I mapped Undue Influence and Brief Lives for a forthcoming publication (due 2012). You can view the photos of the main sites of Undue Influence at this flickr site.  

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