This is the third volumes in my monthly read of AP’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence (see earlier reviews here and here) and with this book I feel that I’ve really hit my stride with Powell! The title refers to a type of financial trading, but Powell applies the phrase to life – more of which later.
The book’s opening chapter has Nick Jenkins visiting the elusive Uncle Giles for dinner at his slightly seedy hotel. Uncle Giles seems rather friendly with a fellow guest Mrs. Erdleigh, who is something of a fortune-teller. Our next setting is the Ritz, where Nick is due to meet Mark Members but instead bumps into his old crony Peter Templer and ends up dining with him and his wife Mona, and also his old love Jean Templer (now Duport). Members does not show, but instead sents another old acquaintance, Quiggin – he and Members have been rivals for the position as secretary to St. John Clarke, a somewhat out of fashion novelist. Nick is invited back to the Templers’ house for the weekend, where he rather suddenly begins an affair with Jean, which continues throughout the rest of the book. Also invited to the house party are Quiggin, Mrs. Erdleigh and Jimmy Stripling, yet another old acquaintance. A rather surreal seance is held using a device called a planchette but the weekend disintegrates with the news that Clarke is ill and the rapid departure of Quiggin for London.
Events move on and the next set piece has Nick coming across a workers’ demonstration in which the unlikely figure of Clarke is taking part, pushed along in a wheelchair by Quiggin and Mona Templer. The affair with Jean continues and they come across the wonderfully named Umfraville, who Nick has heard of in the past and whose presence will also impact on the complex relationships of his circle. The book ends with Jenkins, along with Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool, attendaning an Old Boys dinner at the Ritz hosted by their old housemaster Le Bas. Needless to say, all does not go well – Stringham is late and drunk, Nick picks up more gossip about his circle and Widmerpool makes a dreadful, unexpected speech which is only halted when Le Bas collapses with a stroke. Stringham is so wasted that Nick and Widmerpool (I can’t bring myself to call him Kenneth!) have to take him home in a taxi and put him to bed. The book ends with Nick visiting Jean, although whether their affair will continue is not clear, as her husband is returning from abroad, perhaps a slightly reformed character?
This simplistic summary does not of course do justice to the richness and complexity of the narrative and the apparent ease with which Powell weaves all the strands of Jenkins’ life together. The prose is again beautiful and you can’t help but admire his deftness of touch as he handles the various elements of his plot. There are old characters and new, some making fleeting appearances or just being mentioned, and some taking a larger part in affairs, and Powell’s hand never falters as he manages them all expertly, controlling the dance.
“Pausing, with a slight gesture of exhaustion that seemed to imply arduous travel over many miles of arid desert or snow waste (according to whether the climate within or without the hotel was accepted as prevailing), he looked around the room; gazing as if in amazement at the fountain, the nymph, the palms in their pots of Chinese design: then turning his eyes to the chandeliers and the glass of the roof. His bearing was at once furtive, resentful, sagacious, and full of a kind of confidence in his own powers. He seemed to be surveying the tables as if searching for someone, at the same unable to believe his eyes, while he did so, at the luxuriance of the oasis in which he found himself. He carried no hat, but retained the belted leather overcoat upon which a few drops of moisture could be seen glistening as he advanced farther into the room, an indication that snow or sleet had begun to fall outside. This black leather garment gave a somewhat official air to his appearance, obscurely suggesting a Wellsian man of the future, heirarchic in rank. Signs of damp could also be seen in patches on his sparse fair hair, a thatch failing to roof in completely the dry, yellowish skin of his scalp.
This young man, although already hard to think of as really young on account of the maturity of his expression, was J.C. Quiggin.”
Thus Powell brilliantly introduces one of the main players in this particular volume by describing his incongruous arrival at the Ritz. So much is revealed by this one extract – the change in the social order, the conflict between old and new beliefs and systems, the hint of the political upheavals to come. We are in the 1930s, a tumultuous decade, where life is changing and it seems that the old order is well and truly on the way out. Nick straddles these various worlds and observes the polarised political differences, watching artists adopting different positions in an attempt to keep up to date; we are shown the extremes, from the young Italian following the Fascists to the far left in the form of Quiggin and co. So many characters flit in and out of the dance – Templer and Stringham plus Las Bas and Sillery; fairly briefly but memorably Widmerpool; Anne and Peggy Stepney; Baby Wentworth; many just by a mention; and most remarkably the novelist St. John Clarke (based on John Galsworthy, I believe) who, although he is an important character in the story, we never actually meet. The representation of political and social change is not always dealt with head on, but subtly so it is all the more effective. And Powell is the master of the sudden surprises of life: the discovery of that unlikely couple, Mona and Quiggin on a workers’ march is brilliantly done, and also represents the strange nature of life and the fragmented times in which this novel is set. He’s also a wonderful observer of how pivotal some moments in life can be e.g. the dinner where he once again meets Jean:
“Afterwards, that dinner at the Grill seemed to partake of the nature of a ritual feast, a rite from which the four of us emerged to take up new positions in the formal dance with which human life is concerned. At the time, its charm seemed to reside in a difference from the usual run of things. Certainly the chief attraction of the projected visit would be absence of all previous plan. But, in a sense, nothing in life is planned – or everything is – because in the dance every step is ultimately the corollary of the step dance, the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be.”
“The Acceptance World” is definitely the book where this series starts to really shine for me. Much as I loved the first two books, I struggled in places with the density of the prose and the obliqueness of what Nick was telling us. Powell seems to have gained a little clarity in this book – the writing is still gorgeous and I hope some of the quotes I’ve pulled out will illustrate this – but without sacrificing anything in the quality of what he’s written, Powell somehow manages to make things more transparent, easier to grasp. Things gelled for me while reading TAW in a way they hadn’t quite done so in the first two novels. Maybe this is because of the slightly harder edge of the world Powell is writing about, with the intrusion of politics and the societal changes around him. There is still humour – Widmerpool is always good for a laugh, let’s face it – and Nick still has a wry, dry way of expressing himself – but it feels more like we are being narrated to by a real person in TAW and less of a cipher.
There is also more about love and Jean (Templer) Duport takes centre stage as Nick’s first love returning for an affair, so that we can see him actually involved with another person – though once again there is that slight detatchment:
“There is always a real and an imaginary person you are in love with; sometimes you love one best, sometimes the other. At that moment it was the real one I loved.”
Although their affair appears to continue over a period we only see glimpses of it, and indeed of Jean’s life. There are absences from the story – Jean’s daughter barely gets a mention which is perhaps indicative of a world where children were palmed off on nannies and governesses, or simply because she is not allowed into Nick’s sphere at all. There is the sense that Jean gives herself to Nick in compartments and keeps most of her life separate from him; and with the imminent return of her husband, the reader is left wondering if there is a future for them.
I ended this book eager to simply jump into the next one and carry on living these characters’ lives with them, but I’m going to pace myself. Powell’s books are too good to be rushed and I feel you need to give yourself time for your impressions to keep forming and for the book to settle in your brain. Fiction of this quality is, alas, sadly lacking in modern times and I’m very glad I’ve embarked on my monthly read of this great work.
“When, in describing Widmerpool’s new employment, Templer had spoken of ‘the Acceptance World’, I had been struck by the phrase. Even as a technical definition, it seemed to suggest what we are all doing; not only in business, but in love, art, relligion, philosophy, politics, in fact all human activities. The Acceptance World was the world in which the essential element – happiness, for example – is drawn, as it were, from an engagement to meet a bill. Sometimes the goods are delivered, even a small profit made; sometimes the goods are not delivered, and disaster follows; sometimes the goods are delivered, but the valule of the currency is changed. Besides, in another sense, the whole world is the Acceptance World as one approaches thirty; at least some illusions discarded.. The mere fact of still existing as a human being proved that.”