Sunday, May 30, 2010

being many flavoured and subtle

Reaching the end of Incidents in the Rue Laugier after A Friend From England I thought, "I have read two Brookners in a row. Every other time I've read two Brookners in a row I have felt too enervated to read a third. Now I will want to read something else." So I made myself read Chinese Poems, a collection of translations by Arthur Waley, who tells us that he chose this group of poems above others not because they were "a balanced and representative anthology of Chinese poetry through the ages," but because he liked them, and because they "happen to work out well in translation." Waley died in 1966. Transparent plastic on the book's cover is curling off with age, and the publisher's blurb starts like this,

A taste for Chinese poetry is not hard to acquire. It is as easy to enjoy as chop suey, and has in fact something of the same quality, being many flavoured and subtle, yet full of honest nourishment

but I was uneasy throughout, and afterwards rushed on to another Brookner, finally discovering that she was the author I had wanted all along. I had misread myself, I had tried to stop the flow of my attention, which had not been enervated after all; I had betrayed myself as a reader. If to dedicate time to reading is to make a blind way through a jungle (how to identify the destination, how to reach it once identified?) then I had misinterpreted the cry of some bird, the broken branch, the crushed leaf, the weather. I had substituted science for intuition.

The Brookner I chose was her 1988 Latecomers -- why? -- because I liked the first couple of words: "Hartmann, a voluptuary ..."

Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.

I did not like the cover, which was black. It seemed wrong for the author, who previously I'd only read in coloured volumes, a blue streetscape, a reproduction of a girl's portrait, but inside everything was as it should be, ordered and dense, deep, close, observant, although, unusually for her, there were four principal characters. At the end of Latecomers I read the first page again and came to the conclusion that Hartmann had changed over the course of the book. He was not the person he had promised to be. I remembered that she writes her books (she's said) from beginning to end, in a single draft, longhand, and that's it, as did Iris Murdoch, who sat with a stack of clean paper on one side and the written-on pages on the other, moving one pile, page by page, onto the table in front of her so that it could be transferred to the top of the second pile. So I've heard ("a new Murdoch manuscript ... many thousands of pages of illegible handwriting carried in a blue laundrette plastic bag," wrote her publisher).

Do you ever rewrite what you have written?

Never. It is always the first draft. I may alter the last chapter; I may lengthen it. Only because I get very tired at the end of a book and tend to rush and go too quickly, so when I have finished it I go over the last chapter.

Do you know exactly how a novel would develop and end when you start, or do you let its organic growth take over?

The latter. I have an idea, but I don’t know exactly what will happen.

I wondered if Hartmann had managed to mutate by degrees, over the course of her writing him, into a less doomed man than he'd seemed in chapter one. By pages two and three I had decided that he was going to get some sort of comeuppance (like the retired actor in Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea, and from a similar direction: his self-pleasure was going to be assaulted) but no, he never did. The funny thing was this: I had been reading about him in Chinese Poems. Not him by name, but people like him, the kind of man who, in Brookner's words,

considered his life's work to lie in the perfecting of simple pleasures, mainly of a physical or domestic nature, far from the strife and pain of more ambitious purposes ... a mundane task supremely devised and carried out, however small -- the buying of cheese, for example -- filled him with a sense of completion

Men like this recur throughout Chinese Poems. They live in the countryside, admiring the flowers, or the irregular shapes of pine trees, or the sight of a river moving over stones, or a mist that "hovers / Then scatters."

My friend is lodging high in the Eastern Range,
Dearly loving the beauty of the valleys and hills

says Li Po

A pine-tree wind dusts his sleeves and coat;
A pebbly stream cleans his heart and ears.

Rapture is contained and coiled in these small things, about to be released, the larger matters realisable but not yet -- or not ever -- they are too profound, says this delicate treatment (Proust's narrator, stepping on the loose stone: these poems are the moments of step). Old Po Chu-I, remembering a day in his youth when he went with a beloved friend and a pair of horses into the mountains, sharpens the memory down to the tinkling of a jade bridle-strap. The last poem in the collection sabotages itself by adding "and their tears fell like rain" to a scenario that has already been drawn sad. "They tap at the door, but no one comes; they look in but the kitchen is empty," writes Ch'en Tzu-lung, "They stand hesitating in the lonely road and their tears fall like rain." Up to those last few words they might have been showing their sadness in a multitude of complicated ways; after "rain" their reaction has been blanded down to a single generic act: they weep.

These Chinese poets are voluptuaries too, and in Latecomers their pines trees and stream-noises become Hartmann's "grilled fish with a vegetable" and "the blue tracery of smoke above the white linen tablecloth, the spray of yellow carnations in the silver vase" which "pleased him profoundly." But the tone in Chinese Poems is congratulatory, assuring the reader that this way of regarding life, this attention to beautiful aesthetic moments, is the best, the natural, way to live, while the tone in Latecomers is detached and critical. It doesn't involve itself in this simplicity movement as Waley's poets do. Instead it shows us Hartmann comparing himself to the businessmen at a nearby table, "benevolently," condescendingly, because they do not have his poise.

My dears you do not look well, thought Hartmann: your complexions are not clear, your haircuts unbecoming. You give your time and attention to business and save too little for yourselves. There is not a lot of point in talking about a zero-growth scenario ... if you are going to dispatch a lobster cocktail followed by steak and kidney pie: mineral water will not save you.

His restraint becomes a lens through which to focus his self-admiration. Hartmann's equivalent exists in Chinese Poems but Brookner's does not. Her place is outside the book, looking in on the poets as they venerate themselves, and speculating on the biographical history being masked or adjusted with that love of streams.*

Lodging with the Old Man of the Stream [excerpt]

Men's hearts love gold and jade;
Men's mouths covet wine and flesh.
Not so the old man of the stream;
He drinks from his gourd and asks nothing more.
South of the stream he cuts firewood and grass;
North of the stream he has built wall and roof.
Yearly he sows a single acre of land;
On spring he drives two yellow calves.
In these things he finds his great repose;
Beyond this he has no wish or care.

by Po Chu-I

* The day after I made this post an analogue hit me: myself, last year, reading first ER Eddison, then Pierre Louÿs' Aphrodite, both authors scornfully in love with the idea of a strong, pure, ancient Greek aesthetic -- then Jacob's Room, in which Woolf's protagonist has the same enthusiasm, but Woolf shows it to us from the outside, where Edddison and Louÿs are men on the inside. They're so far deep within this ancient-Greek fandom that from their vantage point it becomes the whole world of the novel. But Woolf murmurs, "It is a popular trend among educated men. It is not a superior, separate existence. It is of this world." What's more: "The people who espouse it are not as seamless as they would like you to think, or as they think. There are passions concealed behind that passion ..." After Jacob, Aphrodite seemed changed.

Jacob knew no more Greek than served him to stumble through a play. Of ancient history he knew nothing. However, as he tramped into London it seemed to him that they were making the flagstones ring on the road to the Acropolis, and that if Socrates saw them coming he would bestir himself and say, "my fine fellows," for the whole sentiment of Athens was entirely after his heart; free, venturesome, high-spirited


  1. Reading this has reminded me how very much I like Anita Brookner's writing. I love the quiet texture of her work, and I love her representations of women in all their complexity. Her books make me look at middle-aged women differently...

  2. More than once I've seen her described as Jamesian, as in Henry, and it took me a while to work out why someone would call her that, because she doesn't write like James, her sentences aren't like his, and she doesn't circle an emotion gingerly, as he does. I wonder if it's because her huge dramas take place invisibly, inside the concealed world of a person, and her heroisms take place in secret, and are often negative heroisms, performed by people who feel that the integrity of their personality has to be maintained through renunciation.