Monday, July 4, 2011

8. Zeitgeist

[The following is part of Peta Mayer's 10 Things to Expect From a Brookner Novel.]
Brookner’s passion for nineteenth-century art and literature is one reason for her representation as old-fashioned. The interesting thing here is that it was in the nineteenth century that our present day understanding of both the contemporary and the old-fashioned were articulated. Nineteenth century Romanticism broke away from previous art movements (Classicism etc) with the aim to represent the present moment, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. In
The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire’s prophetic staging of urban personae, he characterises a contemporary representational practice as that which is combined of ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.’ Art, then, is meant to show something of the Now and something of the Then, something contemporary and something old-fashioned.

Is Brookner, then, old-fashioned because she conforms to a nineteenth-century ideal of art or is she old-fashioned because she’s classical and she doesn’t conform to a nineteenth-century ideal? Indeed is she ‘contemporary’ - for the very same reasons? Is the ‘zeitgeist’ an historical or universal concept? Perhaps Brookner’s novels provide some insight. What you can expect from her fiction is a juxtaposition of the old and new. With few exceptions, Brookner’s novels are set in contemporary Britain, but it is through the rendering of minor characters, of youth, of urban scenes and pop culture iconography that a contemporary time/space is most effectively represented.

In A Private View (1994), there is Katy Gibb, an aspiring practitioner of Shiatsu, Vibrasound, Tantric Massage, Reflexology, Chakra, Crystal Therapy, Essential Oils, Flower Remedies, Colour Counselling: ‘you name it.’ There’s Doris, The Big Issue seller in Undue Influence. There is twenty-two year old laconic Steve Best who emerges, through a haze of rollerbladers, to stay with Dorothea May in Visitors and ‘check out the music scene.’ In Falling Slowly, there is Anne Marie Kinsella, the sixteen year old dieting daughter of Miriam and Beatrice’s cleaner, whose preoccupation with school means she doesn’t get a lot of time for reading and prefers to catch Pride and Prejudice on the telly. The contemporary personae of Brookner’s fiction are testimony to her ongoing engagement with the zeitgeist. Or are they more so caricatures of a culture of degeneration?

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