Monday, July 4, 2011

6. Eros

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

In Brookner’s 1984 Booker Prize winning novel, Hotel du Lac, the main protagonist, Edith Hope, a mildly successful romance novelist, ventures out to lunch following her involvement in a sexual scandal. She meets with her literary agent, Harold Webb, who tentatively suggests that the demure conquests of Edith’s novels are in danger of being superseded by the ‘sex sells’ mentality of the contemporary marketplace: ‘I have to tell you that the romantic market is beginning to change,’ he says. ‘It’s sex for the young woman executive now, the Cosmopolitan reader, the girl with the executive briefcase.’ Edith counters Harold’s argument with what is probably Brookner’s most-frequently quoted line. ‘Aesop was writing for the tortoise market,’ she retorts, defending her mousey heroines by arguing that losers only win in fiction because only losers have the time to read and therefore subject matter is manipulated to flatter their egos. Edith’s statement is not only a comment on her readers, however, it also attributes to the publishing industry an enormous influence on the novel-writing process. What should sex, or desire, look like in the contemporary novel?

You’d be hard-pressed to argue that Brookner’s novels are full of sex, yet in a way that’s what I do throughout my 80,000 word PhD thesis. When it was put to Brookner that her novels should contain ‘more explicit sex,’ she stated, ‘These matters are private and should remain so. In fiction as in life. That’s part of my old code, which I can’t break.’ But the ‘infinite longing… a longing for what is missing and an attempt to supply it’ - which for Brookner informs the emotional response and creative process of the Romantic artist  -  also speaks of a form of desire. Brookner resists the cultural enforcement towards emphatic articulation, so that everyone knows who desires who and what these desires and identities look like. Yet at the same time, her novels are suffused with a sense of longing, making the sexual energy of the Brookner text ambiguous and multivalent. Readers bring to the novels their own interpretation of what they know and see and feel (or want to). And this changes historically, especially when, as in Brookner’s case, the text is left fairly open. When Brookner began writing fiction in the 1980s, there was outrage because if single women spoke of unsatisfied desire they were either too passive or not exploiting their legendary freedoms. This was the notorious ‘old-fashioned’ time-lag of the Brooknerine and reflected the way in which ‘old-fashioned’ functioned as a euphemism for ‘not heterosexual’. Nowadays, it’s possible to read Brookner a little more queer. The mainstreaming of the queer canon, combined with Brookner’s reluctance to define desire exclusively through identity politics and the homosocial environment of the Brookner text all suggest that eros in Brookner’s novels is as complex as it is in life. There’s good news though: ‘I don't think sexuality ever goes away,’ she says.

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