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No. 88 Anita Brookner's Portrait Painting

"The truth I’m trying to convey is not a startling one, it is simply a peeling away of affectation." -- Anita Brookner


I wanted to share with you this splendid description of a writer’s writing.


First, some background:

Anita Brookner published her first novel at the age of 53 after retiring as a Reader at the Courtauld Institute of Art. If you don’t know, a Reader is an academic rank representing an appointment for a senior academic with a distinguished international reputation in research or scholarship. She started her career as an expert on French 18th-century art and eventually expanded to French Modernism.


Brookner went on to publish 26 novels. In 1981 she won the Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac.

My local library holds 13 of her books on their shelf.


Here is the quote from the habit-forming Backlisted Podcast:


“I think the reason her books don’t follow the narrative rules a lot of the times is because the rules that Brookner is following, although she has a great respect for the 19th Century novel, in particular, in a sense it’s her background as an expert on art which is coming into play in the novels. They are like portraits. She does something in the opening chapter of the book where she will literally sketch out what she’s going to write about. She will mark out her canvas. And as each chapter goes on, she will go to a different part of the canvas and fills it in. And what she does brilliantly is go back to the same bit of the canvas five chapters later, scrub it out a little bit, repaint it, so you only understand the part of the canvas that you are looking at. Then when you get to the end of the book, you can suddenly see the whole portrait that you’ve been watching being painted before your eyes.”


Here are the opening lines of Brookner’s first book, A Start in Life -- one of her character sketches.


“DR. WEISS, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education, which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponders the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.


But really it had started much earlier than that, when, at a faintly remembered moment in her early childhood, she had fallen asleep, enraptured, as her nurse breathed the words


“Cinderella shall go to the ball.”


The ball had never materialized.”


I’ve read two of Brookner’s books. Altered States and Hotel du Lac. This summer seems to be about revisiting Virginia Woolf and research reading for a play I’m writing. But in the autumn, I plan to read several of Brookner’s novels. Despite their seeming lack of action, they are page turners.

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