Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball

When William James describes consciousness as something that “does not appear to itself chopped up in bits” and uses the metaphor “stream of thought” I assume he refers to multiple parts joined together. Each part is aroused by a situation or event. A simple event arouses a simple feeling. A more complicated event, an 18th century masked ball for instance, arouses abundant feelings. Moments considered in an earlier time can evoke feelings and thoughts in the present.

As we age and move closer to death, events that were stimulating and exciting in youth, grow wearisome. We invest less emotion into them. This is the mood of Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball. Deeply influenced by psychology, Brophy’s novel deals with psychological time, which is subjective and measured not only by the emotional intensity of an event or moment, but also by our half-buried associations and interpretations. The multiple parts come together in ways that sometimes surprise us in their emotional response.

Each of Brophy’s novels that I’ve read so far have tiny temporal frames, yet invest all the life of their characters into the duration of that frame. It is no more possible to imagine the lives of Brophy’s characters beyond the frames of her stories than to imagine Vermeer’s figures stepping out of his paintings.  Each character can exist only within themselves and to the other characters and time frame and setting of the story, recalling Kenneth Clark on Vermeer’s “flawless sense of the interval”.

Events in The Snow Ball are mediated partly through dialogue, and Brophy’s dialogue is especially crackling, an intricate role-playing game with perfect balance between what is said openly and what must be implied or hinted. But events are also mediated through the character’s thoughts and feelings, which expand and snowball (!) growing more intense as they roll upon themselves.

Without discounting Brigid Brophy’s originality and brilliance, she would be a very different writer without the influence of Freud and Mozart, both strongly present in The Snow Ball and to a lesser or greater extent the other of her novels that I’ve read. Brophy’s originality is to respond in fiction to the influence of both imaginations and make something uniquely her own.

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Anna’s Fantastic Face

The following extended passage is from Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball. I doubt that I’ve read a better description of a face anywhere; it improves on Jane Austin with just a smidgen of Oscar Wilde. If I never read another word of Brophy’s work, this passage would afford me sufficient proof of her immense artistry.

Her face did not preclude her from being an attractive woman, any more than theirs precluded decorative putti from being decorative. But it was, or it provoked, a question of taste, a question of style. Anyone who contemplated forming an intimate relation to this face must ask himself whether he possessed such a taste and, possessing it, was prepared to develop it. That would demand that he immerse his senses in it, undergoing a larger and larger dose of exposure to it, until he became in a way calloused. The face would yield sensuous pleasure: but the sensualist must undertake an ascetic self-discipline first. He must harden himself to tolerate a tragic face whose tragedy was couched in half-formed baby features which, individually smudged and then squeezed up close together, had finally slipped or been twisted sideways in relation to the face, making it the face of an immortal baroque baby pettishly carrying into middle age the impress of being newly, and distortingly born.

Anna, whose own answer had long been Yes, she could tolerate it, cherished her face without pity or special pleading. She knew that to the eye of love its spoiled prettiness presented hints, minimal but recurrent, of the erotic, like the idea of an unfrocked nun. In the eye of self-love, the mirror, she had found its infinite rococo complexity infinitely interesting. A beautiful face might lead the mind that contemplated it into a daydream so unimpeded as to verge on sleep. Anna’s face, like one of those lizards called monsters, would have startled you awake if you had been asleep to begin with, so grossly did it contradict every dream satisfaction: and yet it was to the imagination that it was addressed: it was as much a flight of fancy as a swag of putti supporting a cloud; the word it recurrently brought to mind was fantastic.

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Discovering Brigid Brophy

So far, this year’s reading has been remarkable. Not only some extraordinarily good first works, some singular nonfiction, and the discovery of no less than three writers to add to my list of old chestnuts, those favourites I will probably read in their entirety. Tomas Espedal, Denton Welch and Brigid Brophy.

I’ve thought of whether anything unites these often flawed but brilliant writers. What is it about their works that has bowled me over to the extent that I wish to read every word they wrote (or will write in Espedal’s case)? I recognise these are idiosyncratic passions that might not command the wide scale appreciation of Mann or Woolf, but for me their work is no less fascinating.

All three are brilliantly subtle, elegant and bookish writers but what sets them apart for me comes down to a certain tone of voice. In Brophy’s case I wrote recently of a stylish but insubordinate edge to her prose, that I got the feeling that Brophy would  look great in pearls but be the first to storm the palace when we all decide to kick the scoundrels out. That description applies equally to Welch and Espedal, replace tweed with pearls if you feel inclined.

Whatever the subject, the strong individualities of these writers emerge, and I find my way of looking at the world transfused with the colours of their thoughts and feelings.  I’ve only limited immersion in Brigid Brophy’s work, first the full, flowing freshness of The King of a Rainy Country and now the pyrotechnic flare of Hackenfeller’s Ape, but the sui generis nature of her voice is clear.

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How Literature Moves Us and Why

How do literary works move us and why? In Uses of Literature, Rita Felski proposed a taxonomy to describe this engagement and how certain texts may trigger recognition, absorption or disorientation. Any attempt to classify our affective response to particular literary works is hugely difficult and beyond the reach of objective observation. However, what Uses of Literature opens up is a way of seeing and reading that intensifies the wonder not only of literature but of how it transforms the world around a reader.

What I particularly like about Uses of Literature is that Felski takes Jane Bennett’s idea that secularism does not mean an end to enchantment, and gives a convincing argument about how literary theory should develop as a result.

Felski’s latest book The Limits of Critique is addressed to an academic audience, developing her argument that it is about time that the teaching of interpretive modes address similar concerns, without throwing away entirely the depth hermeneutics that is at the heart of contemporary scholarship. Despite its audience, The Limits of Critique, is clear, lucid and makes a perfect companion to Uses of Literature. Both are invaluable catalysts to thinking what affinities are shared by the works of literature you value as transformative, and what that says about your society, culture and you.

I can make out many shared characteristics in the literature that generates the strongest affective response in me: an enigmatic quality usually captured in depthless, allusive prose and linguistic intricacy; a tautness of style that distrusts metaphor and simile over concrete nouns and adjectives; a voice whose doubt and indecision allows me to feel included in the thought process; a recognition that fiction and non-fiction are, at the level of narrative, just fictive constructs and both products of human perception; and resistance to notions of completeness, finality and absolute truth.

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Privileges of Fiction (Rita Felski, Theory Without a Capital T)

Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, like her Uses of Literature, is admirably clear and accessible but the former is aimed primarily at an academic audience. I don’t have, nor wish to acquire an insider’s perspective of recent debates in American academic cliques about the use of theory (as in poststructuralist theories – no longer given the capital T).

I do however subscribe to the importance of theory in its most general sense as offering a way of interpreting the social world, particularly its shaping around gender and class, and theory as critique, that is, as an analytical framework to understand how sociopolitical divisions are constructed and maintained in literature, visual arts, language, culture and our psychic processes.

I’m strictly a dilettante theorist unpicking what I can from reading theoretical work, and resist a fair amount because it is often difficult or deliberately obscure. Although The Limits of Critique is written for the academy, it is neither exclusive nor forbidding, and offers riches aplenty for rigorous readers of serious literature (even within the first 50 pages). I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about the book as I read on.

The following fragment interested me with its implication, if I understood correctly, that theory is informed and fashioned by literature to the same degree that Kundera contends that philosophy is shaped by literary works.

Rather than being innocent victims of suspicion, literary works are active instigators and perpetrators of it. That we have learned to read between the lines has everything to do with the devices deployed in modern works of art: unreliable narrators, conflicting viewpoints, fragmented narratives, and metafictional devices that alert readers to the ways in which words conceal rather than reveal. Reading Kafka is more than enough to make one paranoid; the texts of Beckett anticipate many of the tenets of poststructuralism. Suspicious readers are preceded and often schooled by suspicious writers. Indeed, much of what has counted as theory in recent decades riffs off, revises, and extends the classic themes of literary and artistic modernism.


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We shortchange the significance of art by focusing on the “de” prefix (its power to demystify, destabilise, denaturalise) at the expense of the “re” prefix: its ability to recontexualise, reconfigure, or recharge perception. Works of art do not only subvert but also convert; that is not just a matter of intellectual readjustment but one of affective realignment as well (a shift of mood, a sharpened sensation, an unexpected surge of affinity or disorientation).

Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique, The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

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Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project

Somewhere around St. Petersburg and W. Somerset Maugham, it became clear that The Dead Ladies Project isn’t to be shoehorned into any of the recognisable classifications that exist for contemporary memoirs. Superficially, The Dead Ladies Project is a meandering meditation about a Grand Journey wandering in the landscape of literary, some by association, women (and a few men) who are either unappreciated or little known. Each chapter is built around an excursion and mines the life of Crispin’s ‘dead ladies,’ some that she admires unreservedly, like Claude Cahun, and others, like Rebecca West and Jean Rhys, with whom she lovingly dissents.

Each of the chapters is beautifully executed. On each of three readings I picked a different favourite journey, though I suspect the Nora Barnacle chapter is the one will bewitch me for longest. Or the Maugham. Or the Rebecca West.

But Crispin is more unique among contemporary travel writers and memoirists for her courage in using The Dead Ladies Project as a backdrop to engage with the core existential questions of how to live in a sociopolitical (perhaps I should say biopolitical) system that subsumes all sexual, sensual and social experience. Crispin wrestles with two familiar extremes, that of enjoying the freedom of libidinal hedonism, contrasted with withdrawal into monadic seclusion. What is distinctive to Crispin in The Dead Ladies Project, compared to a writer like Houellebecq that travels down similar roads, is that despite the despair and dark humour, there is optimism. How rare to come across an imagination fresh and rich enough to shift our vision, even by a small degree, on the society that is coming into view.

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Sigrid Hjertén


Sigrid Hjertén. 27 October 1885 – 24 March 1948

Sigrid Hjertén’s work fascinated me when I came across it first in Stockholm, the sensuality of her studies and the way she uses colour. I do wish one of London’s galleries would curate a Hjertén retrospective.

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Privileges of Fiction (Kundera)

The space defined by Milan Kundera’s The Curtain is one that privileges the novel to an extraordinary degree, attributing it to a position distinct from not only other forms of art, but also as a reflection on existence that informs philosophical thought. As Kundera says, “… for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”

By using novels to reflect on human existence as opposed to portraying reality, novelists dissect new existential categories and refashion our perception of those we are familiar with. Kundera writes, “Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time – considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy – had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel.”

Kundera, like Edward Said – in turn influenced by Adorno’s essay on Beethoven – is also much preoccupied by ‘late style’:

What interests me in this piece [a text of Cioran’s] is the amazement of the man who cannot find any link between his present “self” and the past one, who is stupefied before the enigma of his identity. But, you’ll say, is that amazement sincere? Certainly it is! How in the world could I ever have taken seriously that philosophical (or religious, artistic, political) trend? or else (more banally): How could I have fallen in love with such a silly woman (stupid man)? Well, whereas for most people, your life goes by fast and its mistakes evaporate without leaving much trace, Cioran’s turned to stone; one cannot laugh off a ridiculous sweetheart and fascism with the same condescending smile.

[Any blog that continues for long enough knows this amazement when one stupidly decides to reread old posts written by another “self”.]

The force and richness of Kundera’s perceptions in this book and in Testaments Betrayed, which I read previously, puts him in good company with Nabokov and Brodsky. That all three were bilingual exile writers who reworked their own texts and worried endlessly about translation perhaps also made them ideal readers, enacting Derrida’s argument that writing is itself an act of translation.

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Drowsy Rambling about Kundera and Adorno

Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré DaumierIt might be that Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts is one of the best books I have read on the art of the novel. I pause at the word “read,” which feels inadequate because I immerse myself. I devour. I use the term “might” as I will follow with Kundera’s other explorations The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Encounter, and perhaps these will be even better, surely better than similar investigations by David Lodge, EM Forster or James Wood, and at home with Rita Felski’s unforgettable Uses of Literature.

A fortnight’s medication has imbued my reading of Testaments Betrayed with a somnolent quality, a few pages separated from the others by the necessity of a few moment’s sleep. Testaments Betrayed can be read this way without loss of understanding. As Kundera writes of Nietzsche, his is a composition that is “maximally articulated” and “maximally  unified” without filler or weak passages.

Testaments Betrayed is also one of the better books I’ve read on the art of musical composition, not a match for Adorno’s essays on modern music, but stimulating nevertheless. I read a few pages and then feel compelled to listen to the piece of Janacek or Stravinsky that Kundera is addressing. It has also sent me back to Adorno’s essays.

A friend asked this week why I still read Adorno, what relevance I still find in his work. I hadn’t even thought that people might no longer read Adorno. I’ve mentioned him reasonably often on this blog, especially in my post about his cultural criticism. Minima Moralia is a supremely important work to me, to the extent that my friend nox.rpm and I talked seriously about devoting a blog just to its exploration.

I might devote a separate post, or several to Adorno (or might not: I lack the grounding in either philosophy or sociology), but two aspects struck me most immediately when asked this question: across an extraordinary range of subjects, Adorno always wrote with such coherence. He was one of the few thinkers of his age, or ours, that retreated from Marxism-socialism, and yet still considered lucidly the nature of a post-capitalist society. But he also understood the poison that lies at the core of humanity, that potential within any one us to either destroy others, or ignore their destruction. And yet, somehow, most of us, we go on.

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