A post about music in Anita Brookner’s Brief Lives. (NB: Contains spoilers!)
Fay, the fey narrator of Brief Lives, had a brief career, before her relatively early marriage, as a singer on BBC radio in the years of post-war austerity. Although she gives up singing to become the perfect subservient stay-at-home wife to Owen, not even having a piano in her marital home, the songs of her youth continue to haunt her and reappear periodically in the protracted analepsis that forms nearly all of the novel.
Although they have provoked very little commentary in the existing scholarship on Brookner, the songs cited in this novel seem pervasive and central. In particular, they provide a key to the fantasy status of heterosexual love and fidelity, offering an emotionally invested point of nostalgia (nostalgia being, as usually, for a past or place that in fact never existed). In reality, the women in the book are all ill-served by men. Fay’s husband doesn’t give her the children she wants, their sex is perfunctory, dutiful, and ultimately non-existent. In this novel, husbands desert by dying young, leaving women to age and cope alone (as is the case for Fay’s mother, Julia’s mother, Julia, Fay, and, to some extent, Millie). Or they never become husbands, leaving the mothers of their illegitimate children as social outcasts (Pearl Chesney). Fay’s men in particular are either unfaithful (Charlie) or uninterested in her (Dr Carter, Owen) and much more interested in something else: Owen in his homosocial business trips, Charlie in his respectable marriage, Dr Carter in running and playing the piano.
The songs in Fay’s repertoire are nearly all about faithful, heterosexual love, and serve, in a different medium, the same function as romantic novels in Hotel du Lac, or literature in A Start in Life, where the protagonist’s life is ruined by an enshrined childhood belief in the promise that ‘Cinderella shall go to the ball’. By serving a similar function in an aural form, these songs enable perhaps even greater access to memory, nostalgia, and fantasy in the form of periodic earworms for Fay.
Near the start of the narrative, Fay recalls how her mother sent her to a Polish singing teacher as a child, with the resulting strengthening of her chest and diaphragm ‘probably why I kept my figure for so long’ (p.14). In a rare reference to the external political situation, we are told that the ‘pretty songs’ that Fay used to sing are now only remembered by old people and have been replaced by ‘new frenetic music’ (p.38) of the late 1950s (think Elvis’s ‘All shook up’ or Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’). As Fay notes, ‘I had always sung for a staid and settled population, modest people for whom listening to the wireless was treat enough at the end of a working day, or housewives and mothers at home. They were songs of love and longing, all kept in decorous perspective and proportion. I did not understand the shouting and enthusiasm of the new music or its lack of charm’ (p.38). Without a piano, Fay tries a few scales in her marital home, oppressively decorated by Owen’s first wife and then, ‘“Arcady,” I sang fearfully, in the cruel indigo room. “Arcady, Arcady is always young”’ (p.38).
‘Arcady’ is from Act II of the three-act 1909 Musical The Arcadians in which the innocent country dwellers of the title, intrigued by tales of a savage and evil London desire to meet a Londoner. Father Time causes the philanderer, fibber, and ageing London restaurateur to crash-land his plane in Arcady where he is dipped in a magic well that transforms him into an Arcadian (now called ‘Simplicitas’) until such time as he should tell a lie. In the Act II, the Arcadians take the transformed Smith with them to a racehorse meeting in an attempt to bring their message to the benighted Londoners. Far from helping, Simplicitas hides up a tree while one of the Arcadians, Sombra, sings this song in the hope of bringing their message of truth, youth, and beauty.
Far away in Arcady Summer never passes, Warm the wind that wanders free Thro’ the bending grasses; Sunbeams peeping through the shade Mint a golden treasure; Dimpled Youth goes down the glade Hand in hand with pleasure!(x2) Land of Love and land of Mirth, Land where Peace and Joy had birth, There the birds have ever sung; Arcady is ever young! Flying nymph and laughing faun Sport amid the roses; Flora, fresh with dewy dawn, Binds her fairest posies; Beauty in the shining pool Mirrors all her graces Where the lillies, white and cool, Lift their gleaming faces. (x2) Land of Love and land of Mirth, Land where Peace and Joy had birth, There the birds have ever sung; Arcady is ever young! Arcady, Arcady, Ah!
In singing alone, Fay remembers the end of the chorus here, as the melody moves up to the high-note, on which, she tells us ‘my voice cracked very slightly’ (p.38).
Later, Fay visits her mother and is asked to sing to her: ‘So I held her hand and sang her some of my old songs. It was then that we both knew that she would die very soon’ (p.66). Singing brings tears to Fay’s eyes and her mother indeed dies that very night, Fay having effectively provided a swansong. After her death, Fay knows she ‘should never again be all the world to anyone, as it says in the song’ (p.69).
Once her husband dies and Fay moves out of Gertrude Street she things ‘with a burst of relief, I can have a piano again’ (p.96). However, her plans of getting a job and a piano are put on hold while she pursues an adulterous affair with Charlie, Julia’s husband. At this point she claims that ‘I never got a job’ (p.104) and ‘I never sang again. Who would want to hear a fifty-five-year-old woman singing love songs, which were the only songs I knew?’ (p.105). Typically for Fay’s vacillating and self-deluded narration, neither statement is exactly true. On the same page (p.105) she details her employment reading a story on Woman’s Hour and, with some prompting, she sings again when she visits her friend Millie near Moreton-in-Marsh. Millie, whose voice has become ‘thinner, whispery, like an old record’ (p.124), plays the piano while having initially refused, Fay allows herself to be persuaded for Millie’s sake.
So I sang. I sang ‘Only Make-Believe’, and ‘You Are My Heart’s Delight’, and ‘I’ll Be Loving You Always’, and, of course, ‘Arcady’. Sometimes my voice broke on a high note but I sang on, for those songs said better than I could the emptiness and longing of my life. Singing reminded me, weakened my resolve. Why end what was there, why cancel it? What right had I to think it the correct course of action? those songs were somehow too much more me. When I was young they did not move me so much: I sang them unaffectedly then, unshadowed by knowledge. Now, even the words seemed unbearable. But I sand on as if I were giving my final performance, as if all that mattered was to get through the programme, and then to say goodbye. My breathing was still good, and I sounded quite well, even to myself, although by now there were tears in my eyes. (p. 125)
The other songs mentioned alongside ‘Arcady’ include Conway Twitty’s only number 1, an Englished version of a song from an operetta by Léhar (Das Land des Lächelns, 1929), and a song Irving Berlin wrote as a wedding gift in 1925. Like the singing to her mother, this resurrection of Fay’s singing voice portends a death, this time of her lover Charlie, who she learns on her return to London has had a stroke.
The emotional cast of all these songs is similar to yet another song, which is mentioned as lodgeing in Fay’s head in the period following Charlie’s death, the 1894 parlour song ‘Just A-Wearying for You’. Fay describes this as ‘an appallingly wistful song, which had always moved me’ (p.134). Its domination of her mental soundscape makes her inattentive to the real world: ‘I longed to be along, if only to listen to the songs playing in my head’ (p.136).
Meeting her GP at a party back in her marital home (now occupied by Owen’s nephew and his wife), Fay meets with the recognition of a fan. But the question Dr Carter asks is telling: ‘It was a lovely voice, but why were all the songs so sad?’. Fay replies, ‘I didn’t know how sad they were at the time. I was young, you see; nothing had happened to me then. It’s strange how the words come back to me now.’ (p.153). Dr Carter reveals that his daily forty minutes of piano practice include ‘all the old music hall songs’, asking Fay if she knows ‘Our Clara’s Clicked Again’ (p.155), making it clear that his own tastes might be equally antiquated but are emotionally different from Fay’s ‘lugubrious’ repertoire (p.157). And here Fay’s unusual flushed confidence at the dinner party where she is clearly the much-appreciated centre of attention leads her to attempt a justification of these songs:
But you see we were far more sentimental in those days, far less inhibited about feeling, although we were shy. We used those songs to do our courting with they were about longing and loyalty, very big feelings that simple people can’t bring themselves to name. And the war made them that much more important’ (p.157).
Ultimately, both main protagonists—Fay, the narrator, and Julia, whose death opens the book and prompts the entire narrative—face the temptation of a return to their childhoods, Julia back to her tardily produced frater-ex-machina (her ‘first affection’, p.205; this plot device is the main weakness of the book in the opinion of my fellow book club readers and me). But Fay attempts not to go back there by eschewing ‘those old songs that I used to sing, when I was innocent of their longing’ (p.216). She claims, unconvincingly in the penultimate page, that they:
do not haunt me. If I were to succumb to them again the pain would be immeasurable. They would remind me of the durability, the hopelessness of desire, as if underneath all experience lurks the child’s bewilderment. Why do you not love me? say the songs? And if I love you, why do I still year for something beyond? These songs seem to me profound because they underline a rather sophisticated acknowledgement, namely that the act of love is finite and what is being voiced in not only the disappointment of this but one’s exacerbated need for permanent transformation, exacerbated, that is, by the act of love itself. ‘Only Make-Believe’, runs the song. And ‘You Are My Heart’s Delight’. And ‘I’ll Be Loving You Always’. But though the words are affirmative the melodies are in a minor key, and sadder than they know (p.216).
Here, the ability of song to lie—the thing the Arcadians supposedly cannot do—is supposedly attested through the mismatch of words and key, although Brookner (or Fay) is actually wrong on the latter point, since all of the songs mentioned are in major keys. Instead, the emotional freighting of the musical aspect of songs are able to convey their sadness in a mixture of melodic contour and the specifics of their harmonic progressions. Be that as it may, the ability of music to contradict verbal or dramatic aspects of presentation is a feature well known to scholars of opera. Fay’s self-delusion about not being haunted by these songs is similarly a lie, as is attested by her repeated quotation of them, and the significant role their singing has before the deaths and disappointments of experience that signal the end of her love relationships (with her mother, with Charlie). The project of the Arcadians to restore the Londoners’ lost innocence ultimately fails in The Arcadians, which means that the promise extended by Sombra’s song ‘Arcady’ is ultimately unfulfilled. Similarly, neither the Arcadian countryside existence of Millie’s Moreton-in-Marsh, nor the aristocratic existence of ‘Morton-in-Town’ (i.e. Julia Morton) can offer Fay an enduring freedom from desire, similarly unfulfilled.
Fay’s ability to be a living exemplar of clichés (the disappointed childless widow, the cast-off lover, the orphaned child, the lonely old lady) is amply reflected in the periodic recourse to verbal cliché in her narration (‘tomorrow is always another day’, ‘the kindness of strangers’, etc.). And song, it seems, explains both forms of cliché: ‘I had sung for Millie, yet I was conscious of lacking a voice, or perhaps my own words’ (p.126). But which is it? Does she lack a voice, or simply her own words? Unlike Julia, whose detailed dress sense, entourage of staff and career as physically present on stage, Fay was a radio singer, a voice and nothing more. In the tension between the words and melodies, the real Fay is more present in the pre-linguistic desire of the latter, in music’s wordless melancholy, the longing, the wistfulness, the nostalgia for a life lived, lost, and lonely without love.