Monday, July 4, 2011

5. Expect to see a reflection of yourself, not necessarily in the best light

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

I once read a criticism of Brookner to the effect that her characters were unemotional. I don’t know if the critic was especially suicidal at the time, or perhaps channelled intense feeling into sport, but I was under the impression that the Brooknerine’s relatively quiet public life reflected immense internal activity; an ongoing dialogue between the emotions and the intellect. Precisely because the Brooknerine is not running for public office, her survival is based on a highly intuitive and observant interplay with the mainstream culture. With a sentimental education, the Brookner protagonist elicits information primarily from her emotions and from art and literature. In fact, insofar as ‘plotlessness’ (also a marker of the avant-garde novel) constitutes another criticism of the Brookner text, it could be argued that, in lieu of plot, Brookner’s novels are propelled primarily by pathos and constitute a veritable narrative of the emotions.

In Romanticism and its Discontents, Brookner writes that ‘infinite longing’ characterised the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, remarkable for producing ‘an organically connected number of resounding masterpieces in a relatively short space of time.’ Following the death of God in the Enlightenment, the death of Reason in the French Revolution, and loss to a traditional enemy in the Battle of Waterloo, les citoyens of France were feeling anxious. It was the mal du siecle from which the figure of the Artist was born; the personae whose reputation for genius and madness still pertains today. This suffering, self-examining figure cultivated experiences either real or imaginary in order to produce a range of idiosyncratic emotional responses which stimulated artistic expression. Through recourse predominantly to the emotions, the artist became a symptom of the culture and aimed to make the historical malaise accessible to everyone (whether welcome or not).

In the context of Brookner’s fiction, there is both Brookner the-writer-as-artist, and the Brookner protagonist as cultural observer. From her role as an historian of the artist, Brookner is well aware of the significance of the emotions for both the artistic producer and consumer. ‘It should be remembered that the Romantic painter has designs on the spectator,’ she writes. ‘He is out to remove the spectator from his normal or appropriate perceptual field, and in doing so to infect him with his own personal doubts.’ The discomfort that arises from reading Brookner’s fiction comes precisely from her skilful wielding of pathos. The critical backlash against Brookner and her stereotyping as a boring, lonely woman stems from her ability to restage cultural anxieties in her fiction.

Across Brookner’s fiction, the Brookner protagonist enacts a range of emotional responses which reflect how we engage with the world, and also, in our response to the Brooknerine, how we respond to other people’s responses. Sometimes desire is  blinding and results in the misreading of a situation. At other times, action is subsumed to self-examination, with varying repercussions. On occasion, emotion may be sublimated to an intellectual position, without acknowledgment. Or else a response is confected because authenticity is unwelcome. Through the Brooknerine’s observations, we see that emotional responses are deemed acceptable in some people and not in others. There is a certain status behind public emoting, which adds another dimension to the solitary Brookner protagonist, who often experiences emotions in isolation. The gamut of emotional experiences tested and analysed by the Brooknerine is what informs her uncanny resemblance to the nineteenth-century French male artist.

When asked to comment on the Brookner heroine, described by interviewer Nigel Ford as ‘a woman of uncertain age, probably genteel, who strives for much more than she’s got,’ Brookner replied:  
When reading Brookner, therefore, expect to see a reflection of yourself; one that you may not necessarily like and that may normally be kept hidden.
Brookner’s ability to elicit an emotional response is what makes the criticism of her so interesting and is what underwrites her ability to reflect the zeitgeist. The spray of abuse directed at Brookner, which shaped her public stereotype and initial reading, might more productively be geared towards a practice of self-examination. A reader might inquire, for instance, exactly why a single woman is old-fashioned and boring? What expectations about time and sex inform such a prejudice?
I think that’s a little bit reductive. I think that these women do exist. But they exist as a reflection of, I think, other people’s difficulties, as well as their own. They seem to be blank screens. I’m interested in where they stand outside the pressures that other people put on them.  
The significance of gender roles in our society is such that when we criticise behaviour it often seems to be a critique of how someone is not fulfilling the cultural enforcement to enact gender in a certain way. A quarter of Brookner’s novels feature main protagonists who are men: Latecomers (1988), Lewis Percy (1999), A Private View (1994), Altered States (1996), The Next Big Thing / Making Things Better (2002) and Strangers (2009). Generally speaking, the Brookner novel travels along fairly consistently regardless of who’s at the helm. For the most part this is because of Brookner’s privileging of the emotional response. (Note: for astrology buffs Brookner is cancer sun, cancer moon [like Harrison Ford]. Cancer is a water sign ruled by the moon and the emotions.)

Brookner’s own comments (not about astrology) reflect the degree to which she weighs the significance of gender against that of the emotional response in a way which effectively deconstructs the ideology of sexual difference. ‘I don’t think women are victims,’ she said in 1998. ‘Men have feelings too and suffer just as much as a result.’ And in 1989: ‘I think men aren’t given enough credit for their hurt feelings. I think feminism has made heroines out of some very unworthy women – and I think men deserve a hand now and again. They have the same emotions, they really do. Bedrock emotions: hope, fear, loneliness, that sort of thing.’ For Brookner, men and women are both susceptible to human flaws and frailties, the denial of which supports the cultural enforcement to conform to gender roles. Men are vulnerable – or manipulative and irrational. And by the same token women exhibit so-called masculine qualities: competitiveness - and strength ‘Women are not automatically good to women. There’s a great pecking order there which is sort of undisclosed. And they don’t want to be left behind in the race.’ She maintained, somewhat controversially, that ‘the women in the book are strong’, when discussing A Start in Life.

Brookner’s thoughts are also interesting to consider in light of her own stereotyping as a ‘women’s writer,’ a label which has arguably undermined her status in the literary field. While Brookner has expressed ‘delight’ at being described as a ‘women’s novelist,’ she nominates the comment: ‘you write French books, don’t you?’ as her all-time favourite critique. Just as Brookner herself has been called a Parisienne, the Brookner novel might then be thought of as a French book. This genre- and canon-shifting is fascinating insofar as the ‘poisonous’ French book (so described about Huysmans’ A Rebours in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) functions as a euphemism for the scandalous sexual tale.

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