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11 February 2023

Michael Bracewell’s anatomy of English nostalgia

In Unfinished Business one of our finest cultural critics returns to fiction with a meditation on memory and national decline.

By John Burnside

The underlying malaise of our time is an improperly diagnosed and so routinely untreated nostalgia. The most persuasive historian of this condition was Svetlana Boym, who identified two types of nostalgia. The first stresses nostos, or homecoming, and is “reconstructive and collective”:

The second type puts the emphasis on algia, and does not pretend to rebuild the mythical place called home; it is… ironic, fragmentary, and singular. [It] accepts (if it does not enjoy) the paradoxes of exile and displacement. Estrangement, both as an artistic device and as a way of life, is part and parcel of ironic nostalgia.

Today, in Britain, we see manifestations of both nostalgic modes. We hanker (legitimately) for a time when, as corrupting as money and power might have been, the idea of some greener, more gracious, less mercenary homeland seemed at least feasible. But we are also obliged to search for individual strategies (artistic creation, self-invention, style) that might allow us to express resistance towards a society that seems terminally degraded by narcissism and greed. The result is a form of internal exile, in which community as such seems improbable, at the very least, and any expression of individual freedom is purely gestural.

If anyone understands the complex nature of this dual nostalgia in an English context, it is Michael Bracewell. Over the past three decades, his writings on art, popular music and celebrity culture have explored the way we live now with grace, wit and an exemplary fondness for his subject matter.

Yet fiction readers will recall that, through the Eighties and Nineties, Bracewell also published a series of poignant and painfully funny novels in which the principal characters attempt, often vainly, to come to terms with a damaged sense of community or national culture on one hand, and dissenting expressions of identity – mostly through a personal aesthetic – on the other. Usually, that aesthetic disdains conventional measures of “success”, or worth: as one character in Bracewell’s new novel, Unfinished Business, says: “I only had a minimal education – cleverness never really interested me. I was educated by style, and that was positively Jesuitical.”

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That Unfinished Business is Bracewell’s first novel in more than two decades may say something about the state of British fiction but, whatever the reason for the hiatus, the book is a welcome return from a master of the form. In some ways, its concerns are familiar from Bracewell’s earlier work: Martin Knight, a middle-ranking office worker now in his late fifties, has reached a professional and personal impasse, having recently separated from his wife after a brief infidelity (to which he was foolish enough to confess).

As the novel progresses, a wistful, highly ironic and eventually tragic narrative unfolds, but it is not his actions in the present that matter so much to Martin as the memories that his random perambulations around London recall, memories of a time when a more elegant, less compromised life seemed possible. He had begun as something of a dandy: handsome, stylish, with “an undeniable sense of presence”, and his one flaw had, in some ways, been a likeable one. “He was eager to please and eager to impress. The way he conducted himself was like a succession of beginnings – hopeful shots at the world that resembled offerings or auditions.”

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It is this eagerness, this sense from “40 years ago” that “the road ahead seemed to draw us steadily on towards real life”, which pulls Martin down. Captivated by style (according to his one real friend, he is one of those for whom “atmosphere always atrophies action”) he slides into the hapless condition of perennial romantic, a boy from the suburbs whose ordinary bedroom becomes a “museum of himself”, a construct whose “tenebrous atmosphere of falling dusk and church choral music and cigarette smoke” forms the basis of a persona that is nowhere near robust enough for the world he is about to enter.

Then, as an aspiring member of hermetic communities to which he cannot possibly belong (his wife’s family, for example, whose mind games are defined by the belief that “it’s never enough… to win. Others must be seen to fail”), he is not so much rejected as politely ignored by the men and women whose power he is inherently incapable of sharing.

One of the most poignant moments in the novel comes when he is invited to the engagement party of his ex-wife, Marilyn, and the wealthy, superficial, but instinctively self-confident Thomas. Studying her from a distance, Martin notices that Marilyn looks different, but he cannot put his finger on what has changed. A moment later, however, he sees that, “She looked rich – that was it: not just well-off, in that tasteful yet bourgeois north London way, but noticeably wealthy. She was in transit… It was suddenly present in everything she did and wore; in her demeanour as much as her aura.”

What Martin is experiencing here is the recognition of a simple, brutal fact: “the rich are rich, and we’re not”. Because owning the world is a serious vocation, the wealthy are interested only in those who play some part in maintaining that possession: “They sought only the company… of people who increased their status – who brought something to the table, as it were; be that best of all an aristocratic, old or famous name, or great wealth, glamour or personal beauty; at the very least – lowest entry level – a talent to amuse.” Martin, who possesses none of these attributes, is bound by his nature to be invisible among such elites. At the same time, he is unable to see past them – unlike his acquaintance, Basil, the man “educated by style”, who knows that it is pointless looking to them “for anything”.

[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]

As Unfinished Business moves towards its close, Bracewell introduces overt tragedy, with a genuinely upsetting turn of events that comes out of nowhere, along with a faint possibility of partial redemption, but overall, the mood is elegiac.

At times, the ghost of Proust hovers discreetly in the background, not only in the wonderful invocations of how memory works but also in fleeting glimpses of a mortality that spares not even the privileged and the entitled: “The socialites and minglers, their laughter spilling out so easily; still blissfully, proudly at ease with their achievements; yet to notice the shadows lengthening on the lawn.” In the end, Martin arrives at “a pause in time, neither distant nor sudden, but the start of a beginning”, in which “the former things” pass away.

This is not to suggest an easy resolution, or any resolution at all, but Unfinished Business more than earns the right to take its reader this far into a further, subtler realm of estrangement. As it does, it reminds us that, in Bracewell’s hands, nostalgia is less a symptom of decadence than a source of illumination in dark times.

Unfinished Business
Michael Bracewell
Orion, 192pp, £16.99


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[See also: In search of lost time: how nostalgia broke politics]

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere