cover image Romanticsm and Its Discountents

Romanticsm and Its Discountents

Anita Brookner. Farrar Straus Giroux, $35 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-374-25159-8

Following her earlier biography of the neoclassicist painter Jacques-Louis David, acclaimed novelist and art historian Brookner (Hotel du Lac; Falling Slowly; etc.) here tackles the French Romantics. As a brief outline of the movement, this study breaks no new ground, but it is a fluent and shapely introduction that covers the major names, with chapters devoted to artists Ingres, Delacroix and Gros, writers Musset, Baudelaire, Zola and Huysmans, and the Goncourt brothers. As in the David biography, which focused on how the artist's later career was ruined by his homosexuality, and as in Brookner's novels of the rich, sensitive and depressed, the latter part of the title (a takeoff on Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents) rules the interpretations here. With artists like Baron Gros, Brookner wonderfully integrates psychobiography with social history, implying that during the Terror following the French Revolution, this artist's paranoia was sensible and lifesaving. The Goncourt brothers are lauded for their ""unflinching pessimism which cannot quite conceal a sorrowing outlook."" Brookner overrates Madame de Sta l and misleadingly calls the tyrannically gifted 18th-century epistolary artist Madame du Deffand ""a modest and discreet person."" Despite a novelist like Zola, who personified ""Romanticism as energy,"" the final word is given to the ""constitutionally depressed"" critic Sainte-Beuve. (Surprisingly, there is no bibliography or list of suggested reading.) Brookner definitely paints the Romantics with her own brush--making sure that no one has too good a time--but she communicates her highly personal view with the sureness of a professional in literary low spirits. Illus. not seen by PW. (Oct.)