Well, what a fabulous title, to start with! This is the tenth book in the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, and I must say it is one of the ones I’ve enjoyed most.
The story starts just after the end of WW2, with Nick demobbed and trying to take up normal life again. He revisits his old university to do some research on the writer Robert Burton, and encounters an old friend in the form of Sillery, as well as meeting Ada Leintwardine, who will have quite a major part in this volume. Ada is notionally acting as Sillery’s secretary as he prepares to publish his diaries, although she has literary pretensions herself. In fact, much of the book focuses on literature and publishing, as we are treated to the reappearance of one of my favourite characters, Quiggin. He has set up a new publishing firm with Howard Craggs, naturally enough called Quiggin and Craggs. The firm is also starting up a literary magazine, with which Nick becomes involved, very topically entitled “Fission”. Also involved is Ada, plus behind the scenes the firm is being bankrolled by Rosie Manasch and Widmerpool. Add into the mix the fact that Lady Craggs is the former Gypsy Jones, and you have a recipe for quite a publishing operation with a lot of personal axes to grind!
There is sadness too, as Nick’s brother-in-law Erridge dies suddenly, and there is a spectacularly awkward funeral where the Widmerpools, Quiggin and the Craggs’ appear noisily. Erridge had been going to fund “Fission”, and so the group feel obliged to attend, but Pamela Widmerpool (née Flitton) is in her usual contentious form, and ends up being sick in a rare vase back at the house – which leads to a comic scene of Nick and co trying to clean the vase without breaking it.
I think one of the reasons I liked this book so much was because of the appearance of a new character, the wonderfully-named novelist X. Trapnel (apparently based on writer Julian MacLaren-Ross). If I recall correctly, Trapnel has been mentioned before, though this is his debut proper. Trappy, as he is known, is a fabulous, larger-than-life figure whose antics dominate much of the book, and he has a rather dramatic effect on the lives of several characters! He’s got strong opinions and is happy to have a go at anyone, in particular hapless book reviewers:
“How everyone envies the rich quality of a reviewer’s life. All the things to which those Fleet Street Jesuses feel superior. Their universal knowledge, exquisite taste, idyllic loves, happy married life, optimism, scholarship, knowledge of the true meaning of life, freedom from sexual temptation, simplicity of heart, sympathy with the masses, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity – particularly the last, in welcoming with open arms every phoney who appears on the horizon. It’s not surprising that in the eyes of most reviewers a mere writer’s experiences seem so often trivial, sordid, lacking in meaning.”
The biggest effect he has is on that unlikely couple, Kenneth and Pamela Widmerpool. To be honest, you have to ask yourself what motivated either of them to marry the other in the first place; however, putting that aside for a moment, Pamela the predatory female is once again on the hunt, and this time not only does she captivate Trappy but she also leaves Widmerpool for him! This is mildly surprising, as she hasn’t left him yet despite having a succession of relationships, and swapping comfort for the squalor he lives in doesn’t seem quite her line. However, she doesn’t stay with him for that long before stomping back to Kenneth – but not before taking out her anger on poor Trappy’s work….
Unsurprisingly, the “Fission” journal collapses, and there is fall-out amongst the personnel. The book ends with Nick returning to his old school, scene of his first encounter with Widmerpool all those years (and books!) ago, to enrol his son. Here he runs into Le Bas, his old housemaster, now old and acting as librarian. Despite the passage of time and the loss of many of Nick’s friends and contacts during the war, some things are unchanging.
And the title? Not as you might expect a hostess describing a lovely residence, or indeed Trappy talking about some grubby lodgings! This is actually the nickname given to Bagshaw, an old acquaintance of Nick’s who is to be editor of “Fission”; the nickname being given in one of two rather scurrilous scenarios!
“Bagshaw was for ever fascinated by revolutionary techniques, always prepared to explain everybody’s standpoint, who was a party-member, fellow-traveller, crypto, trotskyist, anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, every refinement of marxist theory, every subtle distinction within groups. The ebb and flow of subversive forces wafted the breath of life to him, even if he no longer believed in the beneficial qualities of that tide.”
I’m actually starting to find it hard to review these books, because I’m running out of superlatives! Certainly, this is one of my favourites in the sequence so far (if not *the* favourite – I can’t say till I’ve read them all). I found the portrait of literary life in the late 1940s fascinating and entertaining, and the escapades of Pamela and Trappy were a hoot. The book captures brilliantly the post-war atmosphere of insecurity and austerity. The humour is lovely – Pamela’s behaviour shocking and funny at the same time.
X. Trapnel is wonderfully portrayed, a person always acting a part, driven by conflicting forces and desires:
“Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, an opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age.”
I did wonder whether Powell was putting his own thoughts about writing into Trapnel’s mouth, as he goes on to express doubts about realism vs artistry in novels:
“There are certain forms of human behaviour no actor can really play, no matter how good he is. It’s the same in life. Human beings aren’t subtle enough to play their part. That’s where art comes in.”
On the subject of the dreaded Pamela comes my one reservation about the book. I haven’t really had an issue with Powell’s portrayal of women up to this point in the sequence, accepting that he is perhaps a little old-fashioned but not finding anything too objectionable. However, Pamela is portrayed as a real Praying Mantis – an angry man-eater who plays with the opposite sex; they fall at her feet left, right and centre and yet she is mostly indifferent. But at the end of the story, after she has ditched Trappy, he reveals the root of her problem, in quite crude terms – she is frigid, and the constant partner-changing is presumably being portrayed as a search for satisfaction (though I would be more likely to suspect the cause as being insensitivity on the part of some of the men she associates with). I confess I found this somewhat clichéd, even allowing for the stereotypes about women and sexuality which might have circulated in the past. And frankly, I think the deep psychological issues she has (displayed in her violence towards Odo Stevens when she descends to physical aggression) can’t just be explained away by the fact that sex is failing her. She’s a lively and fascinating character and I found this attitude let me down a little.
However, putting this one item aside, “Books…” was a fabulous read. The mysterious and often dramatic marriage of the Widmerpools; the vicissitudes of “Fission”; the eccentricities of Trappy; all this and much, much more made the book a real unputdownable. Roll on the next Powell!