A little behind schedule, I have completed my reading of February’s “Dance” book, “A Buyer’s Market”, aided by the easier reading of my recently purchased omnibus volume. I hadn’t actually appreciated how I was struggling with my reading simply because my vintage Penguin has small type and is physically a bit frail so I had to be careful how I handled it. However, the new volumes with the bigger type and flexible binding will be much easier to handle.
Anyway – to business. ABM is the second book in the sequence and as well as featuring many of the characters from the first volume, it also introduces several new ones. One of the most important is the painter Mr. Deacon, who is introduced in the opening pages, and has quite an influence on the action. There is also his female colleague Gypsy Jones plus a variety of people from princes and gentry to musical performers. We also are treated to the return of Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool, as well as Nick’s first love, Jean. Much of the action takes place in a long sequence set over one night in the late 1920s, where Nick attends a debs ball and then a more down-market party where he and his fellows are taken by Stringham, whom they encounter at a late night coffee stall. Over the summer Nick falls out of love with Barbara Goring, visits the country, has an amorous encounter with Gypsy and meets an artist called Barnby, who it seems will be important in future volumes. The book ends as it has begun, with Mr. Deacon.
The first thing to say about this book is that the prose is just lovely, something I’m really appreciating with Powell’s writing. He is the master of introducing a lot of characters without being overwhelming and he captures in almost Proustian detail the mood of a debs ball down to the minutiae. His way of telling a story is to focus on one event or a series of events and by capturing a series of snapshots in a life he can reveal so much more than a simple sequential narrative – his skill lies in using this technique to portray an era and the changes taking place.
In some ways, it is pointless actually trying to describe what these books are about because they are simply about life. We see the ebb and flow of human relationships and Powell teases us with hints of things to come. A sentence will suddenly cause you to stop short, as the depth of Powell’s understanding and insight into life and humans hits you.
“The illusion that egoists will be pleased, or flattered, by interest taken in their habits persists throughout life; whereas, in fact, persons like Widmerpool, in complete subjection to the ego, are, by the nature of that infirmity, prevented from supposing that the minds of others could possibly be occupied by any subject far distant from the egoist’s own affairs.”
“Even in the quietest forms of life the untoward is rarely far from the surface…”
There is a strong contract between the two different parties which occupy the bulk of the narrative: one a much more conventional gathering, where many of the participants are on the marriage market; and the other showing society on the cusp of change, reflecting the influence of the Bright Young Things and the questioning of this particular way of life:
“…for a moment, the terrible suspicion even suggested itself that, night after night, he danced his life away through the ballrooms of London in the unshakable conviction that the whole thing was a sham.”
The writing is always discreet and subtle – sometimes actually too subtle so that you have to read a section several times to be sure it means what you think it does. I am thinking in particular of the scene near the end where Nick sleeps with Gypsy, which is couched in terms that are so vague as to make you wonder whether you are in fact reading too much into it! This may seem more exaggerated because we are so used in modern literature to having everything spelled out for us, but I think I would have preferred Powell to give away a little more here than he does. And Nick is still surprisingly reticent about his own affairs – very detached and reserved. He portrays himself as a somewhat naive observer, whereas he hints very strongly at Stringham’s dissolute nature:
“It was, indeed, clear to me that strangeness was what Stringham now expected, indeed demanded from life: a need already become hard to satisfy.”
There is also plenty of Powell’s dry wit on show:
“If certain individuals fall in love from motives of convenience, they can be contrasted with plenty of others in whom passion seems principally aroused by the intensity of administrative difficulties in procuring its satisfaction.”
And the reappearances of Widmerpool are hilarious – poor Nick is obviously to be haunted by the man, and his turning up unexpectedly in the dungeon is enough to shock anyone! Alas, Nick is destined to dine with Widmerpool and his mother, not an occasion I would have relished!
But what struck me most, looking back on this book, is that it is actually very much about love in all its shapes and forms. Nick begins the book by thinking he is in love with Barbara Goring but then realises he is not; he then relives his attraction to Jean Templer and ends up sleeping with Gypsy. Mr. Deacon’s amorous motivations are unclear; many people are pursuing Baby Wentworth; Widmerpool is also in love with Barbara but then also sleeps with Gypsy (and if I decipher Powell’s oblique prose correctly, is responsible for pregnancy and an abortion); Stringham ends up marrying Peggy Stepney, possibly in an attempt to rescue himself from a life of sin; Gypsy is a victim of love, presumably looking for something or someone to care for her, and trusting too many people. Nick often seems a little remote, but there are plenty of deeply felt emotions there which we might miss as readers because he expresses himself somewhat dispassionately:
“Such emotions, sudden bursts of sexual jealousy that pursue us through life, sometimes with the smallest justification that memory or affection might provide, are like wounds, unknown and quiescent, that suddenly break out to give pain, or at least irritation, at a later season of the year, or in an unfamiliar climate.”
“At that stage of life all sorts of things were going on round about that only later took on any meaning or pattern. Thus some people enjoyed distinctly public love affairs, often quickly forgotten, while others fell in love without anyone, perhaps even including the object of their love, knowing or caring anything about these covert affections. Only years later, if at all, could the consequences of such bottled-up emotions sometimes be estimated: more often, of course, they remained entirely unknown.”
Oddly enough, the more I think about Powell’s writing, the more his technique (certainly not his subject matter!) reminds me of the way Solzhenitsyn told his story in “In the First Circle”. Both focus tightly on a particular event, or series of events, over a short time period, but within this framework expand their story to tell the tales of the people in the middle of the action, and also hint at characters who will appear in the future (“that came later” or “Barnby told me later” etc). It’s a very effective way to present a story, and the more I get to know Powell’s characters, the keener I am to follow them on their journey through life – roll on this month’s book!