I have been devoted since Bert died to writing by Anita Brookner. My devotion became a joke to others and then a bore. Nobody I know reads her. People’s eyes glaze over but mine track and focus.
I discovered a few of her novels in the little library in town where I’d gone to get reading for Bert. He was still able to read well though deathly ill. Our friendship was built of books, written and unwritten. We had been friends for many years. Our deep pleasure, in reading and discussing Brookner were the last pleasures we shared. We knew I would be left alone, as Brookner’s characters often are left alone. Something in them would if not provide example, give me company as life went on. So it goes. Brookner has no pretending to innocence in herself, but more importantly, no pretending to innocence in the reader.
I remember Brookner characters like they are admired friends, better known and more articulate than I have known. They are interior, similar. Each is instructive, with his or her circumstance. Their likeness to one another annoys some critics. She writes the same character again and again they say, but I’m not sure they’ve read all the novels. I am a painter, used to doing multiple studies of one thing, sometimes painted years apart, as my insight, skill and notice altered, so I have no difficulties.
Asked in an interview “Which qualities do you value most in a friend?” Brookner said
“I think accountability, that’s to say explaining actions with full knowledge of emotions and procedures. You get it in Russian novels: the complete confession. Accountability in friendship is the equivalent of love without strategy, and it is the Grail.”
Brookner’s characters are quite often Jews, displaced by the world wars into England, or they are children of displaced persons, sometimes you are not sure. She never uses the word “Jewish”. Your family knows, knew, displacement. Dp’s they were called in Canada, by those who had immigrated here earlier and were still busy displacing the Indian. Now they’re resenting Syrian refugees while standing on unceded territories. I recall the usage “Dirty dp.” I remember “Dirty Indian” too. A white woman corrected me the other day on my usage of the word “Indian.” She suggested a better word, something current. “First nations”. She had no idea I was Algonquin, I don’t always look like a radio book defender and the artsy coffee bar in town was white. I suggested she announce herself on unceded territory before she decreed vernacular. I was dressed like a cowboy. Unceded is not in spell check either. I’m not even sure I’ve got it right.
Now I’m here in the woods I don’t have the city habits of an artist’s studio gallery. I’d rather eat my own leg than talk to artists most of the time. There’s no passing trade. There are no fellow artists in my studio. There are none of the shop-worn talks and givens.
Is old art obsolete, is all of it? Is the recently made inherently better, more profound, more telling about today? Can government grant funded art be radical? Is garbage, arranged indoors for contemplation with explanatory if defiant treatise the equivalent of worked marble? Can an object made by the human hand even be art any more or are we only making prototypes for reproduction, an art made for perusal at remove, for the museum without walls, for the internet. Do we really need more flyblown painting, dry and theoretical, crazing in storage, mere envious or angry commentary on past art? Is a really stupid installation that can be experienced but not sold, morally superior to an intelligent commentary in a less traditional medium with a capitalist price tag?
In the absence of such crucial talk I don’t find my paintings’ subject matter changes. My cousin says my work is too personal. I’m not sure what she means but I think about it, even if she is a basket case. My writing, I can see, is too personal, but what would be the point otherwise, for me? What would an impersonal painting look like? Would it have my handwriting’s inflection? What would it portray? Someone else’s yard? Someone else’s love? Someone else’s abstraction, engagement or detachment? Somebody else’s culture? Something you could print on a calendar? To which commission would my cousin have me pander? Oh death, where is thy sting?
Another cousin Arden, a rockabilly singer who died young of hard living, used to say of our rural family, as if beginning a sentimental story “We were simple people, poor but stupid…”, and we would laugh. In a Brookner novel civil contacts with waiters, shopkeepers with” the simple folk” are sometimes the crucial balm in Gilead. They mean everything of belonging to an interior wanderer. Brookner’s minor characters, her housekeepers and window cleaners are as coolly, deeply drawn as are her main protagonists, just more briefly. We do not enter their interior world much but they are sometimes wrenchingly forthcoming in their talk, discretely telling in their gestures, across class gulfs. That is how they deeply concern and move.
They are complaintive and healthily greedy, clumsy but kind. She applies the same stern affection, the pitiless compassion of analysis to us all, I think.
I rather keep to myself more than I used to. It is a modest comfort to be recognised. It has taken me a long time to respond to your letter. I quit writing letters long ago, as they became a function of grieving and then of just private thought. Not that they were all unhappy letters, but their composition was less for the reader than for Bert, or for me. They were a displacement activity at first. As so much became in time, a private place.
On holiday I am a white flaneur, free in my movement. I am also a half breed from the north in plantation linen, displaced and drinking rather too sedately on Bourbon Street early on a Sunday morning.