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The Genius of the Future, Recycled in the Present

National Post, 18 November 2000

Book Review
Romanticism and its Discontents, by Anita Brookner
Viking/Penguin Canada, 198 pages, $50.00

Romanticism and Its DiscontentsSince winning the Booker Prize in 1984 for Hotel du Lac, Anita Brookner has written more than a dozen novels chronicling the inner life and quiet desperation of life’s “tortoises.” As the heroine of Hotel du Lac explains, “In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. . . . The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation.” Her readers might be surprised to discover that in her previous life as an art historian, Brookner cheered on the hares. As a lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art until 1988, she was an authority on the artistic giants of the nineteenth century—men who travelled the world, fought in the Napoleonic wars, and still managed to create some of the world’s most dazzling masterpieces. She now returns to this subject in Romanticism and its Discontents, a book that her publisher calls “her first major work of art history for many years.”

Well, publishers do exaggerate. This is an exceedingly modest book, consisting of brief profiles of three French painters (Gros, Delacroix, and Ingres) and six French writers (Musset, Baudelaire, the brothers Goncourt, Zola, and Huysmans). In her thoroughly conventional account of French Romanticism, Brookner takes the reader through France’s spiritual crises of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Enlightenment knocked out the props of religious certainty, while Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was a bitter setback to dreams of national greatness. “By almost common consent,” writes Brookner, “the Romantics in France transferred their idealism to the domain of art, either as practitioners or as critics.” This idealism, this “longing for the infinite,” as Baudelaire called it, found as many different forms as there were artists to express it, from Delacroix’s exuberant excesses to Ingres’ cool detachment.

But this is less a book about art and artists than it is about art criticism. Brookner seems particularly interested in how writers responded to art, what kinds of philosophical reflections were provoked by looking at canvases. This is not a new idea for Brookner. In fact, she explored this very question thirty years ago in her book, The Genius of the Future, which was based on her own lectures to students from the early 1960s. If there’s been any rethinking since then, there’s little evidence of it. In fact, about half the book simply reproduces the thirty-year-old text with a few changes—a detail the publisher should have revealed. The other half, dealing with Gros, Delacroix, Ingres and Musset, was probably taken from lectures she prepared for the same course on French art criticism.

The stale air of the lecture hall wafts through the book’s chapters, each of which, not surprisingly, can be read aloud in about fifty minutes. Who else but a captive student audience could sit still for such insights as this: “Romanticism is ultimately about forms of behavior; it is therefore recognizable,” or “It is a paradox that the solution to a problem is rarely the same as the problem itself.” Perhaps Brookner’s students, unlike most general readers, would understand immediately who the Parnassians or the Nazarenes are, or nod knowingly at the Goncourt brothers’ “famous ‘écriture artiste.’” But it’s hard to imagine that many readers outside the Courtauld Institute’s faculty lounge would appreciate her observation that one of Gros’s paintings had a “profound effect . . . on Boissard de Boisdenier, on Charlet, on Raffet.” Or that the Goncourt brothers were friends with “Gavarni, Raffaelli, Helleu.” Whoever compiled the book’s index seems just as baffled, and was unable to come up with the first names for several of these artists. Paul Helleu is even rechristened “Jean-Marie Helleu.” And don’t turn to Professor Brookner for help if you’re looking for some remedial reading—she’s provided no notes and no bibliography.

Given the forty years of preparation that went into this book, it’s surprising to find such a mess. But Viking’s editors seem to have given this book a pass. When Jacques-Louis David exhorts his pupil Gros to read Plutarch, Brookner quotes the line three times, twice on the same page, punctuated two different ways in French and a third in the English translation. Another quotation—Baudelaire’s “Nous célébrons tous quelque enterrement” (“We are each of us attending some funeral or other.”)—is powerful when it is first used on page 60. But when it reappears on pages 62, 71, and 94, and another two times in English translation, surely somebody has fallen asleep at the switch.

In all fairness, English critics in the Economist and the Daily Telegraph have raved about the book, calling it insightful and beautifully written. It’s possible that this reviewer is simply wrong. So if shelling out fifty bucks for a slim volume of forty-year-old lecture notes sounds like a great idea, then run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore and buy Anita Brookner’s Romanticism and its Discontents.