I’m cutting it a little fine with this review, but just managing to scrape together some thoughts on May’s “Dance to the Music of Time” volume before the end of the month! I’m now onto the fifth book of my reading, “Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant” and I feel very much as if I’m getting into my stride with Powell. I think Keith Marshall from the AP society really nailed it when he commented that the books should read like anecdotes round a dinner table. I’ve stopped expecting a straightforward narrative or conventional character development and I’m just going with the flow!
The story opens with Nick observing a bombed-out public house so we are obviously starting off during the Second World War. However, Powell instantly wrong-foots us as Nick flashes back several years and introduces us to one of the main characters in the book, the composer Moreland. Although we have not come across him before (I think!), he turns out to be one of Nick’s good friends, and is also associated with old crony Mr. Deacon and also Barnby. We also meet some other new characters, notably Maclintick, Gossage and Carolo, who will all feature prominently in the story. The first long chapter culminates with them dining and discussing in the Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant of the title, and Powell will have his characters recall the significance of this meeting later in the book.
As the story moves on through the 1930s, Nick marries Isobel, although little is told about this marriage. The Tollands are much in evidence, including the wonderful Erridge who jaunts off to take part in the Spanish Civil War. There is much discussion of the politics of the time, although this is never boring. Both Isobel and Moreland’s wife Matilda become pregnant, but Isobel miscarries and Matilda’s baby does not live very long. Widmerpool makes a fleeting appearance, Stringham a longer one, there are marital issues, deaths and then an engagement.
It’s difficult as always to summarise the plot of one of these books because they are strands and events from a life. It’s now clear that Nick is going to tell his story as a series of vignettes, glimpses of particular experiences and people in his life that, put together, make up the whole. No-one can recall their life in a linear, sequential way and so the books are very true to life in that way. In each one, Powell focuses tightly on a specific group of characters – they overlap with others in Jenkins’ life, but each book chooses to relate a series of events with one particular central group/set of people.
And at the heart of this story are two marriages – that of the Maclinticks and of Moreland to Matilda. There is a third marriage mentioned in passing, that of Nick to Isobel, but Powell has his narrator state his position quite planly in a paragraph that makes it clear that he believes it is not possible to write about a marriage whilst in the middle of it; and therefore we know that we will have no deep study of the Jenkins’ relationship. However, the contrasting pairings of the McLinticks and the Morelands are covered in the some detail, and there is considerable anguish involved for both couples. Maclintick, who is a music critic, seems to be in a permanant state of war with his wife Audrey, who comes across as a harridan initially, but develops depth as the story goes on. In contrast, Moreland is an indecisive man, but falls deeply in love with Matilda (who has connections to characters in earlier books) and marries her just before Nick and Isobel’s ceremony. However, despite what seems to be an ideal match, Moreland strays after their baby dies and it takes a dramatic event to send him back home to his wife. Strangely enough, it is the warring Maclinticks who seem to have a stronger bond, at least on his side, so that when Audrey Maclintick leaves him, the critic is devastated and unable to cope.
Powell in fact sets the scene early for the kind of environment Macintick lives in, which in retrospect makes his fate quite inevitable:
“We took a bus to Victoria, then passed on foot into a vast, desolate region of stucco streets and squares upon which a doom seemed to have fallen. The gloom was cosmic. We traversed these pavements for some distance, proceeding from haunts of seedy, grudging gentility into an area of indeterminate, but on the whole increasingly unsavoury, complexion.”
As always, I marvel at Powell’s skill in interweaving his materials with previous volumes; although these new characters are acquaintances of Nick’s we haven’t met before, Powell blends them into his milieu perfectly. And it’s interesting to note how Nick in many ways thinks of his friends in particular groups or compartments, only to be surprised when they escape and intermingle when he least expects it. There are plenty of old favourites making reappearances, most notably that of Stringham in a long sequence at Mrs. Foxe’s party; and thinking about it, the relationship between Stringham and Miss Weedon (“Tuffy”) is another intriguing one. It has sinister undertones, as Stringham is almost being kept prisoner by his family, deprived of money and doted over by the old governess in an attempt to control his drinking.
I have started eagerly awaiting each book’s Unexpected Appearance of Widmerpool and I was not let down in “Casanova” as he turns up rather wonderfully where you really wouldn’t think he would be! He is still as appalling as ever, though peripheral in this book because he is not closely connected with the people whose tale Nick is relating. The wonderful eccentric that is Erridge only appears off-camera too, as do Quiggin, Mona and several other well-loved characters, but they are present enough to ensure continuity.
I seem to be enjoying these books more and more as I read on through the series. Powell’s prose is as lovely as ever, eminently readable and he has the skill to capture the strangeness, the unexpectedness and the interconnectedness of life beautifully. Roll on June’s book!
“In the end most things in life – perhaps all things – turn out to be appropriate.”