Yes, the end is in sight as I finally edge towards the completion of my year-long read of the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence. I’m still slightly behind but determined to finish the last two books before the end of December, and I’ve just finished the penultimate book, “Temporary Kings” – a very intriguing volume indeed!
The action has flashed forward to the late 1950s and in typical Powellesque style we are thrown into a new situation with new characters – namely a literary conference in Venice which Nick is attending, and spending time with Dr Emily Brightman. However, it is not long before the tentacles of the past start to insinuate themselves into the narrative of the present and we learn much about the death of X. Trapnel and the end of the days of “Fission”. Brightman introduces Nick to one of her fellow Americans, a strange young man called Russell Gwinnett, who wants to write a biography of Trapnel and is happy to meet someone who knew him and can perhaps introduce him to other Trappy contacts – particularly, of course, the infamous Pamela Widmerpool.
Yes, it doesn’t take long for the terrible twosome to rear their heads! Pamela has been linked to the death of a famous French author, Ferrand-Sénéschal, and in fairly dubious-sounding circumstances. And while the conference visits a local palace, the dreaded Lady Widmerpool turns up, in the company of an American film director, Louis Glober, known to Nick from a party many, many years ago. Kenneth soon turns up and the couple are rowing again!
The action continues in Venice, with Nick visiting an old colleague Tokenhouse, who has moved from publishing to painting. Also in Venice is Ada Leintwardine and initially Glober has designs on her, but soon turns his attentions to Pamela. Mysteriously, Widmerpool turns up at Tokenhouse’s, looking for a Dr. Belkin, who many people seem to be trying to track down. Our Kenneth is behaving even more strangely than usual, though that could be as a result of being married to Pamela! There are certainly complications brewing, with Gwinnett initially pursuing Pamela, and then the roles reversing; Glober also pursuing her; and the presence in Venice of one of her old lovers, Odo Stevens who is now married to Rosie Manasch.
The action shifts back to England, and the past is still informing the present. “Books” Bagshaw is now living in domestic ‘bliss’ in a very dysfunctional sounding household, which gets even more so when Gwinnett lodges with them for a while and Pamela is spotted naked there one night. Nick attends an army reunion and runs into old colleagues – he finds out more about Stringham’s death, and there is much discussion of the Widmerpool affair – it isn’t enough that Pamela has created a scandal by being present at Ferrand-Sénéschal’s death, but now Widmerpool is accused of spying and there are rumours of his arrest. What a couple!
There is then a remarkable chapter centred around a charity concert party given by Odo and Rosie Stevens, where the orchestra is conducted by Moreland. Poor Hugh is in declining health, and this is not helped by the shenanigans at the party. In attendance are a wide variety of character; Glober; Polly Duport, Jean’s daughter, who is now an actress; Mrs. Erdleigh (however old must she be now!); Jimmy Stripling, Audrey Maclintick and of course the Widmerpools. Matilda Donners, Moreland’s ex-wife is also present, and her (and Audrey’s) ex-lover Carolo appears as a stand-in violinist! But it is after the concert, as various attendees await for transport home, that the most dramatic scenes take place. Glober ends up punching Widmerpool, Mrs. Erdleigh gives Pamela various mystical warnings of impending disaster and high emotions are evident everywhere. The aftermath, in the final short chapter which covers Moreland’s last months, is oblique, to say the least…
TK was certainly some read! It’s packed with characters and events, and in some ways I felt that Powell’s style had reverted a little – from becoming clearer and a bit more transparent, he’s moved back into a denser and more elliptical way of telling his tale. Some things I’m still unsure about and some things I had to go back and read over again. However, on to specifics!
Firstly, what a wonderful array of characters, old and new. Gwinnett is fascinating – apparently descended from one of American’s founding fathers, awkward and difficult to deal with, yet obviously driven by deep emotions – I wonder whether he will reappear in the final book or if this is all we will see of him? Dr. Brightman and Glober are also great fun, and it was lovely to see so many old favourites turning up – Audrey, Matilda, Moreland and especially the wonderful Mrs. Erdleigh. And how clever of Powell to do this – the past interspersing with the present and so many characters dancing back in to the story, which perhaps is a way of reflecting what happens as you age and the various elements of your life start to bleed into each other and connections not noticed before become clear.
TK is full of fascinating developments and there are several unanswered questions in the book: *who* is the mysterious and Godot-like Dr. Belkin, whom everybody is waiting for but no-one (including ourselves) ever meets? What exactly has Widmerpool been up to? *What* on earth motivates Pamela – is it just a lot of unspecified deviance? I suppose this reflects the fact that life is full of things that are never resolved.
It was lovely to see a little more of Isobel featuring in this book (albeit still fleetingly) and I wish that Powell had felt able to develop her character a little more. There are poignant echoes of the war, and hints of the horrors of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps from Cheeseman, when we learn a little more about the fate of Stringham:
“Cheeseman gave that answer perfectly composedly, but for a brief second, something scarcely measurable in time, there shot, like forked lightning, across his serious unornamental features that awful look, common to those who speak of that experience. I had seen it before.”
And then of course there are the Widmerpools, that ghastly but fascinating pair. We’ve watched Kenneth develop gradually from the first story, and it seems that in TK his bull-headedness and arrogance is finally catching up with him. He’s over-reached himself, dabbling in espionage and a trial is narrowly averted. His marriage to Pamela, based on goodness knows what, seems to be a sham, with both parties leading independent lives and Pamela leaving a trail of broken men behind her. Again, I wondered why they stayed together, but it is possible that Nick’s ruminations on his father may shed some light on the matter:
“People put up surprisingly well with irascibility, some even finding in it a spice to life otherwise humdrum. There is little evidence that the irascible, as a class, are friendless, and my father’s bursts of temper may, for certain acquaintances, have added to the excitement of knowing him.”
Perhaps Kenneth *likes* Pamela’s anger, or maybe their marriage thrives on something more deviant.Their relationship is bizarre, the events that surround them unbelievable, but as Nick comments:
“After passing the half-century, one unavoidable conclusion is that many things seeming incredible on starting out are, in fact, by no means to be located in an area beyond belief. The “Widmerpool Case” fell into that category.”
And here is a SPOILER ALERT – any discussion of Pamela inevitably leads on to her demise in the last chapter, which I shall have to try to read again to see what it is I missed! Pamela overdoses in circumstances that are hinted at so obscurely as to be almost indistinct. I *think* she may have died in bed with Gwinnett, but the motivation is clouded. If I had a criticism to make, it would be that I ended this book (and the sequence of books which featured her) not really understanding her character. The others in the book develop throughout, we get to grips with their peculiarities and idiosyncracies, and end up with a real sense of their personalities. But Pamela is a mystery, and remains so to the end. There is much hinting and discussion of perversity and voyeurism – a running theme through the book, from the ceiling in the palace to Magnus Donner’s old tendencies and possibly Widmerpool’s current ones – but not enough depth or motivation for my liking. I *wanted* to understand Pamela, to know what made her such an angry, bitter and damaged person, but I never felt I learned this. Powell is a writer of some subtlety, which means his work can sometimes be difficult and that he requires close reading, but I feel here that he is too oblique.
If this sounds a little negative, it shouldn’t – I was gripped by Powell’s narrative again, and the chapter where he gradually unfolds the post-party fall-out with its attendant revelations was masterly, like watching a train wreck about to happen which you couldn’t stop. I loved the clever way he intertwined past and present, reflecting the way real life is. And the Venice sequences where great fun – I know some people on the LT read-along weren’t so keen on Nick being away from England, but I thought it was a hoot the way that Nick couldn’t get away from his past or his acquaintances even when he was abroad! This was a great read, full of marvellous events and set pieces, and I can’t wait for the final volume!