Monday, March 8, 2010


Anybody who has read an Anita Brookner novel will have noticed the way her prose heats up whenever the plot permits her to describe a painting. Brookner's two careers as art historian and fiction writer suddenly intersect at such moments, and always to good effect. I just read the paperback reprint of A Friend from England, originally published in 1987. The climax takes place in Venice – an abrupt change of scene, and requiring the first-person narrator (unreliable, of course) to describe the Giorgione reproduced here. The painting is never identified in the book. Brookner assumes you will recognize it from her description, which of course you do.

Time seemed to be passing very slowly. I had lunch, then forced myself to go to the Accademia. The gold polyptychs of what seemed to me a primeval time gleamed dully in the high wooden arched rooms; short flights of stairs floated me down to more altarpieces, curious repositories of mournfulness on these secular walls. The flailing limbs of several martyrdoms assailed me. There seemed to be no visitors. I sought the refuge of corridors, unable to tolerate those dark floating spaces. Bellini's Madonnas turned cheeks shadowed with sorrow in my direction, their heads describing an arc of grief which nevertheless excluded my inheritance. In a deserted room I found the only picture I wanted to see. The woman suckling her child had a heavy face, immanent with meaning, but from which all explanation had been withdrawn. To her right, on the left of the picture, stood the mysterious and elegant knight, intense and remote, his face in shadow. The storm that broke on the scene bound the two together in puzzling complicity. In the background, a banal hill village. In the middle distance, two broken columns.