Studies in the art of sadness

<i>Romanticism and its Discontents</i> by Anita Brookner (Viking, &pound;25, 173pp)
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This is a collection of essays, an art form at which Anita Brookner excels. They are, of course, beautifully polished, eloquently concise, shot through with an erudition untinged by intellectual posturing, and illuminated with synoptic brilliance.

This is a collection of essays, an art form at which Anita Brookner excels. They are, of course, beautifully polished, eloquently concise, shot through with an erudition untinged by intellectual posturing, and illuminated with synoptic brilliance.

But most telling of all is her grasp of defining moments. It enables her as a critic to translate a fourth-rate biography, perhaps of a French dancer or courtesan, into a scintillating article. Here, this gift brings out the conflicts and ironies within the Romantic movement.

Others might dismiss the behaviour of David's pupil, Gros, at Girodet's funeral as a pathetic incident. But the fact that his eulogy developed into a paroxysm of self-accusation, as he lambasted himself for abandoning his master's ideals, is a gift to Anita Brookner. For here is a man who wants to uphold a set of inherited rules which his own work has betrayed; who has fallen prey to anxiety, isolation, doubt and melancholy - all of which are endemic to Romanticism.

Because Romanticism in some way enters all our lives, these essays resonate widely. Their subject, however, is the Romantic movement in France during the period 1800-1880. Brookner reminds us of the tragic bewilderment that followed the eclipse of Napoleon and the shame of defeat. Grieving, introspection, disenchantment and protest gave rise to Romantic melancholy. This doubt-filled period also produced, in a short space of time, a number of innovative, organically linked masterpieces.

They begin in the Napoleonic era with Gros's quasi-religious allegory The Plague Hospital at Jaffa. Based on fact (Napoleon visited the fever hospital in 1799 and embraced a dying soldier), it portrays Napoleon as saviour, seemingly blessing a victim. But an oblique message is suggested by the sick man kneeling nearby: if he were to stand up, he would be twice Napoleon's height. Brookner is surely right: this image of victimhood dominates the canvas and diminishes Napoleon's heroism.

These essays focus on some of the key figures within the Romantic movement. They teem with insight without altering the overall view. Brookner, for instance, uncovers nothing new writing about Baudelaire, but the conundrum he represents is beautifully explored, for he gave voice to an obstinately persistent need for heroism which he found in contemporary life.

She has written on Baudelaire before, and on the Brothers Goncourt, Zola and Huysmans, in The Genius of the Future, a book which grew out of the lectures she delivered as Slade Professor in Cambridge in 1967-8. Certain ideas have been revived here in essays that are less factual and more aphoristic. But the degree of overlap is surprising, with observations, phrases and quotations recurring in familiar, if now vintage, form. There is no reason to complain: there are very few writers on art whose words would have kept so well.

If addressed to the informed reader, these essays do not preclude those coming to the subject for the first time. Brookner's gift lies in giving the reader the sense that we have reached the nub of an artist's achievement, be it Gros, Delacroix or Ingres. She reminds us that Ingres used to rage and weep until he had found the exact place for everything on his canvas. A certain heroism lies behind his meticulous presentation and this is what makes him a Romantic. But this belief, "in perfection, in perfectibility, and in the infinite potential for improvement of human material", rests, as Brookner observes, on a fundamental innocence which he inherited from an earlier age.

As an art historian, Anita Brookner, like Kitty Maule (a character in one of her novels who teaches the Romantic Tradition), has in the past given the impression that the Romantics, after the Enlightenment, were a sorry decline. But this new book leaves the reader in no doubt as to the immense historic, social and aesthetic significance of Romanticism.

Its legacy is discernible in Brookner's own novels, with their recurrent vein of yearning and regret and their protest against dishonesty, thoughtlessness and betrayal. A person who is shortly to bring out her 20th novel in as many years has a natural sympathy with this hard-working troupe of Romantic individuals. "There is no doubt," she writes in her essay on the ailing but ambitious Brothers Goncourt, "that work... had the ability to change their rancour and loneliness into authentic energy".

Edmond and Jules Goncourt wrote six novels in which Romantic melancholy gives rise to immense sadness. Henry James, reviewing one of these novels, said it was marked by "the simple breakdown of joy".

From Brookner's description of how the Goncourts lived, much could be deduced about their psychology. But her aphoristic gloss ("Those who make claims on the future are generally unhappy in the present") reveals how deeply her own thought is now coloured by Romantic pessimism.

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