Visitors by Anita Brookner

[I’m up to number 17 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels.]

There is something telling about the fact that the main character in Visitors, Dorothea Day, is called Mrs Day by the narrator. The other characters don’t have titles and they don’t call her Mrs Day, but Brookner is clearly making a point. Mrs Day is a widow and her social sphere mainly revolves around her husband’s cousins Kitty and Molly and their husbands. Indeed her place in the world seems to be entirely entangled in theirs. She doesn’t necessarily want to be drawn into their world and perhaps keeps up the relationships more out of a sense of duty than any real positive desire. She has one friend from her single days, but she lives out of London and I don’t think the two ever see each other over the course of the story. Even Mrs Day’s solicitor and doctor  are leftovers from her husband.

Strangers, introduced to her for the first time, assumed that she had never married, thinking her self-sufficiency no more than the sum of others’ indifference. That was their business; hers was to give no sign of anything out of order. This she succeeded in doing. Unbeknown to herself, she was considered slightly forbidding. She had few friends now, but that, she thought, spared her the pain of losing them.

Into this world drops Ann, Kitty’s granddaughter from America, who shows up with her monk-like fiance and their (not outwardly) gay friend Steve. Ann stays with Kitty and her husband Austin while Kitty tries to pull out all of the stops to keep Ann’s wedding from becoming a makeshift affair. Ann’s macrobiotic fiance David ends up staying with Molly and her husband Harold, the latter of which becomes rather enchanted by David’s over-earnest, rather un-English variety of Christian belief.

And their friend Steve ends up staying on the other side of London with Mrs May, whose life may be empty but not so empty that she wants a visitor around. In fact from the start of his stay, Mrs May makes it pretty clear that he is only welcome to stay in his room and occasionally other parts of the flat when he is explicitly invited for a meal. If this were a different kind of book, Steve would find his way into Mrs May’s heart and it would transform the rest of her life. And certainly if Hollywood got its mitts on the film rights that is exactly what this would turn into. But this isn’t a different kind of novel and, based on the gloriously staid film version of Hotel du Lac, it seems unlikely that there is a director out there waiting to wreak havoc on Brookner’s perfect vision. At least I hope not.

There are subplots that revolve around Gerald, the estranged father and son of Ann and Kitty, as well as Ann and David’s future, and even to a certain extent, a thought or two about Steve’s prospects. But none of this seems to be the point. It’s all background to Mrs Day’s attempts to be left alone. There are glimmers here and there that suggest Mrs Day might actually be enjoying the company of her visitor, but they are short-lived, beaten out by her focus on solitude. It is only after all the action of the honeymoon is over and the three young people have gone off to France that Mrs May starts to think that having someone around might not be such a bad thing after all. It’s when she is alone again that she realizes that as much as she disliked Steve–and why? there is never any clue as to why he was so unlikable to her–he seemed to have the effect of forcing her to live in the present. In spite of this or perhaps because of it, she did everything she could to make sure that Steve moved on after the wedding. Did she really dislike Steve or was she simply unable to deal with the possibility he represented that the solitude she thought she cherished was not providing her with the life she wanted.

In the end it’s not all for nothing. Steve, and the young in general, may not have been the answer for Mrs Day, but he does seemed to have provided her with a revelatory moment that promises to alter the trajectory of her final years. She realizes after he is gone that something had shifted.

She knew, quite calmly, that her days were empty, as the flat, which she now entered, was empty, with an emptiness she had not quite anticipated. She had thought to enjoy her solitude, but in fact she found herself listening for another’s presence, however fleeting, however indifferent. She would have welcomed a stranger, for now she knew that this was possible.

If the novel had ended there, her future would have seemed pretty bleak. She had her chance and missed it. But in the short, final two chapters she appears to have found a way forward that would make the most of what she had. A way that has her looking at Henry’s relatives less like an obligation and more like an opportunity. Certainly doesn’t seem like like much, but it just may be enough.

Trollopian Alliteration

I’ve recently finished re-reading Doctor Thorne and Framley Parsonage and have noticed a Trollopian tendency toward alliteration when it comes to proper names. It prompted me to take my Oxford Reader’s Companion to Trollope (R.C. Terry, editor) off the shelf to see what else I might find. I knew that one of my favorite names in the Palliser series and perhaps all of Trollope is Sir Gregory Grogrom, what else would I find?

As I went through the whole list (which can be found at the bottom of this post) I noticed that the harder the consonant the more fun it is to say. I also noticed that sometimes other non-alliterative syllables add to the fun. For instance Gregory Grogrom isn’t half as fun to my ear as Sir Gregory Grogrom. And the more repetition the better, only two letters like Pickering Park can work, but it’s not as good as Polly Peppercorn or Polly Poppins. But, add an additional syllable at the beginning can really punch it up. That’s why Sir John Joram is a little more fun than Griselda Grantly. If she had been Lady Griselda Grantly that would have been a different story (both figuratively and literally, when she did end up getting a title she became the Marchioness of Hartletop and her alliterative days were over).

And what can be said of vowels? Not much. Oliphant Outhouse is a great name but it doesn’t bounce along like the others. Similary, Sir Henry Hotspur of Humblethwaite doesn’t do much for me.

My favorites

Captain Benjamin Batsby
Sir Boreas Bodkin
The Brownbies of Boolabong
Dr Dugdale
Phineas Finn
Gumption, Gazebee and Gazebee
The Goose and Gridiron
Griselda Grantly
Sir Gregory Grogrom
Sir John Joram
Lord Ludovic Lufton
Sir Marmaduke Morecombe
Mowbray & Mopus
Plantagenet Palliser
Polly Peppercorn
Pickering Park
Polly Poppins
Peter Prosper
Thomas Tappitt
Wickham Webb
Sir Warwick Westend
Sir William Weston
William Whittlestaff
Ziska Zamenoy

The whole list

All the examples I could find in the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Trollope.

Baroness Banmann
Captain Benjamin Batsby
Sir Boreas Bodkin
Mr. Boothby
Judge Bramber
Brayboro’ Park
The Brownbies of Boolabong
Lieutenant Brumby
Bartholomew Burgess
Brooke Burgess
Catherine Carmichael
Castle Corry
Cauldkail Castle
Chase of Chaldicotes
Courcy Castle
Crabtree Canonicorum
Columb Creagh
Creamclotted Hall
Dr Dugdale
Earl of Earlybird
Frederick Fawn
Frank Fenwick
Phineas Finn
Frederic Frew
Gumption, Gazebee and Gazebee
Lord George Germain
Gabriel Gilliflower
Goffe & Goffe
The Goose and Gridiron
Griselda Grantly
Sir Gregory Grogrom
Harry Handcock
Harrington Hall
Harry Heathcote
Hendon Hall
Henniker’s Hotel
Hiram’s Hospital
Hoppett Hall
Hannibal Hoskins
Hetta Houghton
Sir John Joram
Kelly’s Court
Sir Lords Longstop
Mr Lookaloft
Ludovic, Lord Lufton
Meg McEvoy
Margaret Mackenzie
Major Mackintosh
The Misses Macmanus
Mick Maggott
Major Macgruder
Maurice Maule
Madame Melmotte
Mr Millepois
Matthew and Mary Mollett
Michael Molloy
Lady Margaret Momson
Mr Momson
Sir Marmaduke Morecombe
Mistress Morony
Matthew Morris
Mahomet M Moss
Sir Magnus Mountjoy
Mowbray & Mopus
Mrs Mulready
Oliphant Outhouse
Plantagenet Palliser
Polly Peppercorn
Pickering Park
Polly Poppins
Peter Prosper
Rachel Ray
Richard Roby
Ruby Ruggles
St Peter’s-cum-Pupkin
Sir Henry Hotspur of Humblethwaite
Thomas Tappitt
Tom Taylor
Thomas Toogood
Tom Towers
Tom Tozer
Tom Tringle
Dr Trite Turberry
Sir Walter Wanless
Walter Watt
Wickham Webb
Sir Warwick Westend
Sir William Weston
William Whittlestaff
Ziska Zamenoy

Altered States

[I’m up to number 16 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels.]

As I sat down to write this review this morning I found I needed to go over the second chapter pretty closely because I was getting some of the names and relationships a little bit confused. As I wrote who was who on the back of an envelope, it struck me as a bit Trollopian. I’m currently re-reading Dr. Thorne and Brookner’s relationship matrix in Altered States began to make me think of Trollope’s intricate social and familial networks. Brookner’s hero Alan’s mother Alice was the second wife of the father of her friends Sybil and Marjorie. Sybil and her husband Bertram have a daughter Sarah who is not just Alan’s obsession but also the obsession of Jenny the childless Polish wife of Sarah’s uncle (and Bertram’s brother) Humphrey.

Got that? Of course Trollope would have littered it with a few sirs and ladies but the feeling was the same. The fact that Brookner has Alice re-reading The Claverings and quoting Lady Mason from Orley Farm kind of makes the connection feel complete.

In some ways it isn’t all that important to really remember who any of the characters are since the plot distills rather simply down to Alan’s obsession with Sarah. Even the life and untimely death (not a spoiler) of his wife Angela is secondary to the presence, and absence, of Sarah. My oversimplification is meant to summarize rather than discount the fine detail that Brookner puts into the cast of characters and how they interact with and impact each other. In fact, all the other relationships seemed much more compelling than anything Sarah was involved in. Perhaps that is because I can get a little bored with unrequited love, but as I sit now thinking of it, it seems as if the main event–Alan’s fixation on Sarah–is really secondary to the rest of his life, at least as the reader sees it. No doubt the rest of the cast is secondary in Alan’s mind, but surely, it could be no accident that those are the people and relationships that Brookner really explores. Sarah spends most of the book offstage and never makes much of an impact when she is on the scene.

Alan’s ill-fated marriage to Angela, one of Sarah’s acquaintances, is one of those perfect Brooknerian sequences in which someone finds themselves married without really knowing how or why. Angela certainly trains her sights on Alan until he finds himself somehow engaged and then married. It’s possible he gets married to forget about Sarah, but it seems more likely that she simply wore him down. As the happy couple head off into their life together Alan seems to want to be alone.

I longed for nothing but a cup of good strong tea, preferably drunk in complete silence. Angela, I knew, would sit up half the night dispatching pieces of wedding cake, the very cake that was giving me such unaccustomed indigestion. I wondered if there were any precedent for a bridegroom wanting to spend his wedding night on his own.

The fact that this was more or less the high point of their marriage says quite a bit. But, as I alluded to, Altered States really isn’t about Alan’s marriage. There is a matrimonial tragedy that Alan has to live with the rest of his life, but stronger than any remorse or regret is an underlying sense of I wonder where Sarah is.

The 10 LPs that turned me into a classical music hound

No doubt many of you have seen, or been tagged on, a FB meme to post (without comment) the covers of 10 albums that changed your life.  I played along with my 10 choices for pop music, but then followed it up with 10 days of classical music albums–but for those I couldn’t remain comment-less.

You might notice that this roughly chronological list is light on orchestral music. That is because my gateway to classical music was through church choirs and my own interest in singing. I was always drawn to choral works more than orchestral works. Over time that eventually changed and I now listen to tons of voice-less classical music, but overall, the records that really got me going had a vocal element.

Rejoice in the Lamb by Benjamin Britten

I am going to start with a record I checked out from the Elk River Public Library that turned out to be my gateway drug to Benjamin Britten. Not for Ceremony of Carols but for Rejoice in the Lamb. When I first heard the Nimrod section it was like my brain exploded. Over the years I’ve heard many recordings that I like but I decided to post this one because it was my first. It holds up pretty well despite what sounds like an electronic organ and some perhaps overly crisp American diction. I’ve not much bad to say about the adult soprano and alto soloists either

Concert Arias by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I think I discovered this one in the music library my first year at the University of Minnesota. My initial interest in taking a listen to this LP was for Exsultate Jubilate, but what really blew me away was the concert aria Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! There are a few moments when you can’t tell the difference between the oboe and Blegen’s voice. I’ve heard many recordings over the years but none matches what she does in this recording. I’m so glad that streaming has brought the recording back into my life.

Messiah by Georg Friedrich Händel

I was really tempted to use the old Philadelphia/Ormandy/Mormon/Eileen Farrell LP for this one since that is the one I remember from when I was a kid. But the Gardiner is the one that restored my joy in the work.

The first time in my life where “classical” music ever punched me between the ears and said “hey check this out” was when I was about six or seven and the new choir director at our church had the choir sing “For Unto Us a Child is Born” at Christmas. Now I always liked the choir, and not just because my mom was the star soprano, but when they started on those runs I thought it was insane. It was as if I had never heard music before. (Later when I was about nine or ten my mom sang “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” for Easter and I had sung along with the recording so many times I think I could have filled in if she had taken ill, like the Brady Bunch episode where Carol almost couldn’t sing at the Christmas service–the Bradys at church? yes, look it up.)

Anyhoo, the old Ormandy record is a nostalgic favorite, but after years of hearing and singing Messiah at community concerts etc. I was more than a little tired of the piece in general. Then this Gardiner recording came out. It was, and still is, delightful in pretty much every way.


Neue Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 65 by Johannes Brahms

The summer between 11th and 12th grade I went to a music camp for two weeks at the University of Minnesota. I was in the chorus (they also had band and orchestra). There were maybe about 30 kids in the chorus. Three of the pieces we studied/practiced/sang over those two weeks were numbers 1, 2, and 7 from Brahms Neue Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 65.

When the two (yes two) pianists at camp began the four-handed accompaniment for these Brahms pieces I was blown away. First the music itself is amazing, but then here were these two accomplished pianists going to town on what had to have been a 9-foot Steinway Model D. Crazy! And I got to sing with them.

I bought this LP soon after that experience. Of course the pianists are amazing, but so too are the singers making up the quartet.


Orchestral works by John Adams

Although this is not the album that turned on the lights for me (as it were) it is a stand-in for all the John Adams CDs that I discovered in my late teens and earlier 20s. Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Nixon in China, Shaker Loops, Grand Pianola Music, etc. I loved all of it (his more recent stuff I am less drawn to).

Mass by Leonard Bernstein

The summer after my freshman year of college I read lots of biographies and memoirs of classical music figures. One of those books was Joan Peyser’s biography of Leonard Bernstein. I became fascinated by the story of the premiere of his Mass which was commissioned to open the opera house at the Kennedy Center. Nixon had the FBI keeping tabs on rehearsals and after some observation of lefty Bernstein’s work, Nixon decided to skip the premiere.

When I checked the record out from the library I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the work. It has some odd quadraphonic taped bits at the beginning and a lot of other stuff going on, but then it came to the Gloria and I had one of those head explosion moments. By that point in my life I had heard and sung a lot of Glorias, but holy moly nothing as electric as that.

Over the years it has been disparaged, neglected, and revived, but no matter what anyone says about it, I love this piece to pieces. In recent years there have been a fair number of recordings, some of which are pretty good, but none, none, match the perfection of the original cast.

Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler

The summer after my freshman year I was in a chorus that performed Mahler’s 8th with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi. Up to that point I had never heard any Mahler, and if you have ever heard the 8th, you can imagine what that sounded like to a 19-year old–especially being part of, and in the middle of all that sound. It was an outdoor (under a tent) performance and I can still remember the headline of the review in the StarTribune: “Heat Deals Death Blow to Mahler”.

Today’s record is a stand in for all the Mahler recordings that I have loved over the years. It’s good, although not the best recording of the first symphony, but it is the one I cut my teeth on.

Cello Concerto and Sea Pictures by Edward Elgar

After I washed out as a music (vocal performance) major and switched to history, I didn’t quite leave music behind. I had a Scandinavian history class for which I wrote a paper on Sibelius. And then I wrote my capstone history paper on Sir Edward Elgar, OM. That emblem of Imperial England who, as the Roman Catholic son of a shopkeeper who never studied at the Royal Academy, had none of the establishment credentials.

While I was writing that paper, friends of mine sent me this budget re-issue CD which did, and continues to this day, to contain the superlative recordings of both the Cello Concerto and Sea Pictures. No one has come close.

Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass.” by Charles Ives

Could Charles Ives or the New England Transcendentalists he was channeling in his Concord Sonata ever have imagined a 26 year-old Minnesotan living in Honolulu laying on a futon in his 3rd-floor walk-up cinder block apartment listening to this CD as the trade winds brought the scent of plumeria through the room?

Of course they couldn’t, but I was very aware of the rather moving universality of it all when I first put this in my Discman. I found the first two movements of the Ives sonata exhilarating, but then the third movement, “The Alcotts” came on and it truly was a transcendent moment. Twenty-three years later I still think the movement is one of the most sublime five and half minutes of music I will ever hear. And especially as played by Marc-Andre Hamelin.

(I’m also counting this one as a Beethoven selection given all the quotations in the sonata.)

We Shall See Him As He Is by John Tavener

This one makes the list not just because I think the piece is amazing, but also because I was in the Royal Albert Hall the night it was recorded at the Proms in 1992. I had a season ticket for the promenade “seats” (really standing room on the main floor) and I had no idea that night what I was going to be hearing. I loved the contrast between the grouped forces and the soloist and solo instruments, I loved the progression and repetition of certain musical themes, and I loved the soprano aria that starts in a very low register and ends up in so far above the staff I couldn’t believe it was Patrica Rozario singing both notes. The range for that one aria makes me think that is the reason I never hear of the piece being performed.

There are moments where the orchestra and chorus just open up into this wall of sound and then drop away to the quietest of strings. Still gives me a thrill to listen to it.

Incidents in the Review Laugier

[I’m up to number 15 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels.]

I have often mused about Anita Brookner’s personal life. Partly because she kept it largely out of the public gaze while she was alive and partly because it’s hard to read her output and not jump to conclusions about her private life and personality. This is a sloppy approach to understanding a novel for sure, and I have done it less and less as I make my way through these re-reads of her novels, finding far more depth and breadth in her characters than I did the first time through. But, I must admit, as I read Incidents in the Rue Laugier, I found myself sliding back into wondering about how dire and depressing Brookner’s life must have been to have written these characters and this story.

On the surface Maud Harrison (née Gonthier) is someone completely stuck in a reality defined by others. Her mother, her lover, her husband, and her in-laws. At no point does Maud seem to have any agency. At an early age her fate seems sealed by situations seemingly out of her control. As I silently urged her to find her feet I began to think again about how this must be a reflection of Brookner’s life. But as Maud lamented her lack of independence and freedom, it occurred to me that Anita Brookner was not one of her characters, indeed she was the antithesis of her characters. Her life, at least from the outside, was nothing but an exercise in independence and freedom. She made significant inroads in the male bastion of her academic career, she upturned her academic life at age 50 to become a prolific novelist, and, as far as the public can see, was never encumbered by romantic relationships that so often prove so stifling to her characters.

In Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Maud’s mother Nadine is focused on finding a suitable way to get Maud married off as soon as possible. When they go to Nadine’s sister’s place for their summer holiday Maud is introduced to her cousin Xavier’s English friend Robert Tyler and to his college friend Edward Harrison who has been invited to help make up numbers for tennis. There are actually spoilers in this Brookner so I am going to skip over a few things and just say that Maud and Edward end up marrying. Neither really want it but neither seem to have the will to make anything else happen. Time and again there are suitable opportunities to call it off but both lack enough imagination to come up with any alternative plans for life.

For the most part I have no problem speaking my mind and am often honest to a fault. But what I have realized over the years is that sometimes I work through issues in my head and forget that I haven’t shared that process or outcome with others. The result then in those circumstances is not un-Brooknerian, leading to missed opportunities, confusion, miscommunication, mistaken impressions, and even bad feelings. When discussing one of the most consequential moments of her life, Maud asks her mother why she didn’t warn her or try and save her from a bad situation. Nadine’s response?

We were at dinner, if you remember. Nobody argues at the dinner table.

I would never let something as trivial as that keep me from an important discussion, but my own communication foibles can have the same result. For myself, whatever challenge I may create or find myself in I tend not to let them add to any sort of cumulative inevitability. One of the glories of adult life is the ability to redefine or reset your own destiny even if within broader constraints. But for Maud and Edward and most everyone else who ambles across the pages of Incidents in the Rue Laugier inertia is an unalterable functional reality.

Brookner chooses an uncharacteristically unconventional narrative approach. The novel begins and ends with Maud’s daughter Mary finding her mother’s notebook after her death. She tells us right off the bat that she is to be our unreliable narrator as she launches into Maud’s life story. What we don’t find out until the end is just how little real information that notebook offered and that what we have been reading is more or less pure fantasy on Mary’s part.

But it is also true that most lives are incomplete, that death precludes explanations…But that notebook serves as a reminder. Its lesson–that any notation, any record, is better than none–tells me that life is brief, and also that it is memorable, that the trace it leaves behind is indelible. And if the trace is inscrutable, this too may be appropriate. The dead, perhaps even more than the living, have a right to their mysteries. And who knows? We, the survivors, may be called upon to explain them, if only to ourselves.

A bookish 22 hours in Dublin

On my way back from Italy I had an overnight stop in Dublin. I had never been to Ireland before and had limited time and daylight to really do much of anything. One thing I knew I had to do was find books to read on the plane ride home. I had deemed the two books I took with me to Italy too boring to continue so I left them behind. This meant I had absolutely nothing for the 8-hour ride home. Thankfully the front desk clerk at the fantastic guesthouse I stayed at (Number 31) knew exactly where to send me and it happened to be close by.

Thankfully I arrived in Dublin early enough to make it into Hodges Figgis with plenty of time before they closed.
Such things don’t tempt me much anymore, but I can think how this numbered set of Muriel Spark novels would set more than a few of you into a completist manic episode.
And without even trying I bumped into this lovely shop as well.
Between the two stores I bought four books. I have to say, this was my most successful book buying stack of all time. Usually I might read one off the bat and then the others get get mixed into the general population of my TBR and it takes me much longer to get around to them. But with these, not even a month later and I have already finished all four AND, they were all amazing, 5-star reads for me.
What I didn’t remember/realize when I saw this book was that I had seen it in a different livery a few years ago. I started reading it on the plane and couldn’t put it down.

But what did you read in Milan?

I’ve written a bunch of posts about my week in Milan in February but I’m not sure I have said anything about books or reading. Normally for a trip I would post about what books I was going to take with me on the plane, what I read while I was away, what bookshops I went to, what I read on the way home, etc. The fact is, I really didn’t do much reading at all. Given that the point of my trip was to immerse myself in Italian as much as possible I kind of went out of my way not to have a book with me.

But let’s get real, I’m still me. Bookish things happened.

I saw three or four grand libraries like this one. As lovely as the are to see, I always am frustrated I can’t start pulling stuff off of shelves. I think this is the one at the Pinacoteca Brera in Milan.
At least at the library at the Palazzo Reale in Turin I got a chance to really wander through the room. Plus I was pretty much alone and had a fair amount of time at hand so I felt a bit more immersed in this one.
I thought of walking purposefully and confidentially past this sign but thought that my poor language skills would ultimately trip me up.
As I scanned the titles on the shelves at the Palazzo Reale I began to fantasize about the possibility that some of these books could contain secrets just waiting to be rediscovered. Overlooked tidbits that could lead to some grand new discovery or stand conventional thinking on its head.

I went to a few bookshops in Milan as well including the wonderful Rizzoli in the Galleria. I was hoping to find some books that have the Italian on one page and the English translation on the facing page, but no such luck. I know they exist but I supposed general bookstores aren’t the places to find them. I did, however, buy about four young adult/juvenile books in Italian thinking that those might be better for my comprehension level and not require as many trips to the dizionario. More on those in a future post.