Yes – I *know* I’m meant to be reading “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell, and I *know* this isn’t one of the books from the series – but it got a lot of referencing in “Bright Young People” and sounded quite fun, so I figured it might be a good way to get to know Powell’s style (well, that’s my excuse for buying another old Penguin and I’m sticking to it!)
Wikipedia describes the book thus:
“What’s Become of Waring” is set in large part in the publishing firm of Judkins and Judkins, and informed by Powell’s experiences with both Duckworth and Warner Brothers. Dinner parties and seances abound, featuring unusual and uncomfortable mixtures of guests. Coincidence, often noted as a significant feature of “Dance to the Music of Time”, here plays a larger role than in any of Powell’s other early fiction.
The novel is narrated by an anonymous publishing firm employee, who is himself working on a book about Stendhal and violence. At a séance, an apparent warning is received that something is wrong with bestselling travel writer, T.T. Waring. Waring, anticipating Thomas Pynchon in his insistence on privacy and anonymity, is soon confirmed dead. Through various efforts to bring out an official life of Waring, many secrets are slowly revealed, especially concerning Waring’s identity and the sources of his travel literature.”
This was Powell’s fifth novel, published in 1939 and was the first to feature a first-person narrator. We first encounter our unnamed guide (shall we call him Tony, just for the hell of it?!) as a disinterested wedding guest, where he runs into an old acquaintance, Eustace Bromwich. He knows Eustace through another mutual friend, Roberta Payne, who flits in and out of the story but is one of the pivotal characters, strongly influencing and affecting the other players in the book. Judkins and Judkins is run by the two brothers Bernard and Hugh, who are very amusingly at permanent loggerheads about the type of book they should publish (and just about everything else too!). We also meet Tiger Hudson, currently with the TA, and persuaded into researching the life of T.T. Waring; and the Pimley family of Camberley, including daughters Beryl (engaged to Tiger) and Winifred, plus ga-ga grandfather Captain Plimley who knows more than it seems.
The plot is surprisingly complex, with rapid shifts of location. With its deadpan, matter-of-fact narration, it initially reminded very much of “The Rock Pool” by Cyril Connolly, which I read recently – and this is interesting, because Connolly and Powell were of course contemporaries and ‘Bright Young People’. However, “Waring” is by far the better book, much wider in its scope and brilliantly constructed. It is, in fact, a marvel of assembly – there are a large number of characters and plot strands woven together very cleverly which are all drawn together by the author by the end of the book. ‘Tony’ is an impassive observer in many ways, often seemingly to be a still point in the middle of the tale, while a wonderful supporting cast of authors, spiritualists, army men and general hangers-on swirl around him. Somehow it turns out that all of these disparate figures are linked in very unexpected ways and towards the end of the book the coincidences are fast and furious and very funny.
The book is very cleverly written so that the reader often feels he or she can see what’s coming before the narrator. I was trying to analyse this and then found a wonderful piece of description of the effect on the emilybooks blog:
“….the feat of rendering a gap between what is understood by the narrator and what is understood by the reader. To my mind, this is one of the cleverest things a novelist can do. The writer has to create a blinkered narrator, deliberately limiting their knowledge, while at the same time dropping sufficient hints of the greater truth for the reader to grasp it. It’s a tough balance to get just right – not too obvious, not too obscure.”
That nails Powell’s effect beautifully! But it isn’t just a clever-clever piece of literature – it’s humourous and very readable and I found myself enjoying it hugely. The style, once you get used to it, is really easy to read and I got really absorbed in the plot, wanting to know what wonderful surprises were in store next!
‘Tony’ concludes at the end that all most people are looking for is power. Whether this is the message of the book or not is debatable. It’s a lively and entertaining portrait of the publishing world, with the firm of Judkins based on Duckworths, where Powell was working in the 1930s (and helping a lot of his friends get into print). But it also considers the nature of books and their authors, and whether any work can be original and whether this matters to the general reading public. The subject of fictions in life is covered too – the characters deceive themselves and each other on a regular basis, with one crucial protagonist leading a double life. The novel also reflects the strangeness of the 1930s – there are seances, religious cults and a general feeling of unease and uncertainty. Is everything in life coincidence or design? Whichever it is, this novel presents an enjoyable example of the intersections and complex links of modern society.
I ended up loving this book – it’s witty, clever, brilliantly written and compellingly readable. As an introduction to Powell it’s got me well hooked and I’m now very much looking forward to embarking on “A Dance to the Music of Time”!