Monday, July 4, 2011

7. Expect reading to be dangerous

[The following is part of Peta Mayer's 10 Things to Expect From a Brookner Novel.]
Just as Brookner protagonists are flâneurs, they are also readers. (I once read a review which lamented that if only Brooknerines could read Brookner they might not feel so alone). Similar to how Brookner’s references to nineteenth-century art open up the intertextual field of the novel, her references to nineteenth-century literature add another dimension of knowledge to the text. While Brookner herself is a voracious reader of contemporary fiction, Brooknerines nevertheless incline towards the nineteenth-century French writers such as Balzac, Constant, Stendhal, Proust, du Stael and their token compadre, Maestro Henry James (to whom I dedicate an entire point). Other writers on the Brooknerine’s bedside table include Colette, Charlotte Bronte, George Gissing, Rimbaud, Tennyson and Heine. When contemporary writing is mentioned in the Brookner text, it is usually popular fiction which is portrayed in a negative light, such as romance novels in Hotel du Lac and Falling Slowly. Note: Brookner began a reviewing career with the fine art journal, the Burlington Magazine, in the early 1960s and, at age eighty-three, occasionally reviews for The Spectator.

Reading is central to the Brookner novel but it is also a huge problem. Witness the first line of Brookner’s first novel A Start in Life: ‘Ruth Weiss, at forty, knew her life had been ruined by literature.’ Insofar as reading, or misreading, is held accountable for perpetuating cultural myths, creating false hope and propagating a lack of reality in everyday lives it is deemed a central cause of misery in the lives of Brookner’s heroines. As Brookner told John Haffenden in 1984, ‘the lessons taught in great books are misleading. The commerce in life is rarely so simple and never so just.’ Of course there is the irony that reading about books being misleading, may in fact be misleading. The solution? Re-reading! ‘Rereading is more important than reading for the first time?’ Brookner was asked in 1990. ‘I think it is, I think it is,’ she replied. In which case, if you’re thinking of choosing one of Brookner’s twenty-four novels to read for the first time, by now you should be feeling increasingly anxious about the fact that there’s actually forty-eight novels to read. Fear not. Part 2 of this series is entitled ’10 Things To Expect From Re-reading A Brookner Novel.’

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