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#1951club – revisiting some previous reads?

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Normally, during one of our reading weeks, I can go back over books I’ve previously read from the year in question and point you to older reviews. However, strangely enough, there seems very little on the Ramblings from 1951 and a limited number of books I can direct you to!

One of the major works I’ve covered from 1951 is the first book in the sequence by Anthony Powell now known as “A Dance to the Music of Time” – “A Question of Upbringing”. Back in 2013 I read through the whole series of 12 books a month at a time, and a very rewarding experience it was too. If you ever have the time to undertake this I’d recommend it!

Another major book from the year is “The End of the Affair” by Graham Greene but I hesitate to send you to my review as it was one of the first I did on the Ramblings and it’s hardly in depth. I loved some parts of the book but struggled with the endless guilt and agonising – though my Middle Child tells me that’s the whole point! I don’t imagine I’ll get to a re-read this week, but maybe another time I should give it another chance.

And I began the Ramblings midway through a year of reading Elizabeth Taylor’s novels along with members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; and had read “A Game of Hide and Seek” before I started blogging. It ended up being one of my favourite Taylor books and I can highly recommend it too!

Of course there are other books I’ve read from 1951 – “The Daughter of Time” and “Forbidden Colours” are the other two I can be sure of – but it’s so long ago that I can’t really offer substantial opinions! I don’t think there will be much re-reading this week – the new titles are very appealing, particularly the crime ones, and I can feel they’ll be grabbing most of my attention! Looking forward to hearing what everyone else is reading! 🙂

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Recent Reads: Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell

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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!

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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-SĂ©nĂ©schal, 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-SĂ©nĂ©schal’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.

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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!

Recent Reads: The Soldier’s Art by Anthony Powell

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I confess I am very behind with August’s episode of Dance to the Music of Time – life and other books got in the way – but I’m going to try to read two of the books in one month. In the meantime, here are my thoughts (belatedly) about book 8 in the sequence.

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Actually, episodic is the right word to describe Powell’s novels, as it’s become clear by now that each chapter relates the story of an event, or series of events, that have made up an episode of Nick’s life. And how like real life this is, because very few of us remember our lives sequentially; instead, particular times, places and happenings stand out in our memories, and so Powell is adept at capturing what the real experience of remembering is.

“The Soldier’s Art” continues from “The Valley of Bones” with Nick now working for Widmerpool at Divisional HQ. It is 1941 and so the War is taking hold. Being employed by the wonderful Kenneth is not the most scintillating of jobs, and Nick obviously craves something more. A fluke conversation with General Liddament leads to a recommendation for a position with the Free French forces, and Nick is due for an interview during his forthcoming leave. Meanwhile, Widmerpool is heavily involved in army politics, jockeying for position with a colleague, Colonel Hogbourne-Johnson. And in the Mess, a shock is in store, as an unexpected Mess Waiter turns out to be an old friend of Nick’s, who unfortunately draws the wrath of Biggs, an unpleasant Captain.

There are only three long chapters in this book and the second covers Nick’s leave in London. The interview for the Free French does not go well, as Nick’s language is not up to the job. However, he manages to meet up with old friends, having a drink with Chips Lovell, and dinner with Moreland and, most unexpectedly, Audrey Maclintick. Emotions are running high as Priscilla Lovell, Nick’s sister-in-law, has been having an affair with Odo Stevens, and turns up at the same restaurant with him as he is off on a posting. Chips, meanwhile, wants a reconciliation and has gone off to a gathering where he thinks she will be. Nick goes home with Moreland and Audrey, where they encounter Max Pilgrim with some dramatic news….

The third chapter sees us and Nick back at HQ where there are all sorts of upheavals going on. The Mess Waiter has been transferred to the mobile laundry; Bithel, who is in charge of that unit, is caught drunk by Widmerpool (despite Nick and the waiter’s attempts to cover up) and our Kenneth has him dismissed from the army. Widmerpool’s behind the scenes manipulations go a little too far and despite his promotion, there is a hint things may not go well for him. And Nick, previously unsure of what would happen to him on Widmerpool’s promotion, is summoned to the War Office!

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This is one of the shorter books of the sequence, but my goodness! it delivers quite a punch! I’ve worded my comments as carefully as I can above because I don’t want to give out any spoilers, but there is plenty of drama in this book and I was really gripped from beginning to end.

The War starts to hit home in a particularly hard way, and what is surprising that much of the dramatic action happens when Nick is on leave in London. The first deaths that really affect us take place amongst civilians, in the blitz, and so are more powerful because we are not necessarily expecting them. One character seems to have some kind of premonition of what is happening and their leavetaking is touching and poignant. There is much Widmerpool in this book, and it’s fascinating to look back to the first volume, “A Question of Upbringing”, and recall his appearance at the start, his dogged running reflecting his stubborn, determined nature.

There are unexpected reappearances, as there usually are, and some losses referred to almost casually – which makes the event even more shocking. Powell is always adept at delivering these, but never so much as here – I came out of this book feeling quite emotionally wrung out!

The portrait of army life is of course excellent – the petty everyday brutalities, the boredom, the relentless procedures, the caste system of the ranks – but it is the despair caused by the war that is shown so well here. The norms go out of the window and people taken unexpected actions: a suicide by a solid army man thrown into sudden anguish; the union of Moreland and Audrey, who previously very much disliked each other; and the breakdown of marriages and normal relationships as a kind of recklessness takes over.

It’s become clear that one of the most important elements in these books is friendship and Nick/Powell reflects on this complex relationship:

“Friendship, popularly represented as something simple and straightforward – in contrast with love – is perhaps no less complicated, requiring equally mysterious nourishment; like love, too, bearing also within its embryo inherent seeds of dissolution, something more fundamentally destructive, perhaps, than the mere passing of time, the all-obliterating march of events which had, for example, come between X and myself.”

It’s going to be hard to pick a favourite of these books when I’ve finally read the whole sequence – if, indeed, that turns out to be something relevant to do – but I have to say that this has been one of the most gripping I’ve read so far. There’s a poignancy to it, a combination of ageing and changing and loss. One character quotes Browning from “Childe Roland” (the title comes from this poem):

“I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.
As a man calls for wine before he fights,
I asked one draught of earlier, happier sights
Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
Think first, fight afterwards – the soldier’s art;
One taste of the old time sets all to rights.”

There is a sense that more losses are to come before the world is set to rights – I can’t wait to get into the next book, but in many ways I don’t want to! Excellent writing as always by Powell; a remarkably good book!

Recent Reads: The Valley of Bones by Anthony Powell

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And so to July’s Anthony Powell – “The Valley of Bones”, book 7 in the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, and the first volume in my collection titled “Autumn”. It’s perhaps a little scary to realise that Nick is being considered in the autumn of his life while still so young, but I suppose we need to remind ourselves that life expectation has changed somewhat! Or maybe it is just the autumn section of the stories – whatever!

First edition

First edition

I’ve now begun to expect that the start of any new Powell will throw me straight in at the deep end, into an unfamiliar situation with a set of new characters. However, the beginning of VOB does this with a vengeance, as Nick is in the army and posted to a regiment who it quickly becomes clear are Welsh!  The first two chapters are darkly humourous as we meet Nick’s CO, Gwatkin, prone to quite dramatic mood swings, plus a number of other officers and ordinary soldiers. There is also Blithel, whose (false) reputation precedes him and who turns out to be a bit of a strange alcoholic. The regiment get shipped off to Ireland and there is much fumbling about with orders and military exercises going wrong. Gwatkin proves to be very erratic, and prone to take out his failures on others.

“Romantic ideas about the way life is lived are often to be found in persons themselves fairly coarse-grained. This was to some extent true of Gwatkin. His coarseness of texture took the form of having to find a scapegoat after he himself had been in trouble.”

Before long, Nick becomes the scapegoat on one the troop’s first military exercises, although Gwatkin tries to make it up later.

Nick is then shipped off from Wales to Aldershot to some kind of pointless-sounding training course where he befriends David Pennistone (whom he had run into a long time ago at a party). And then, after the  two excellent chapters of Nick in the army, Powell hits us with a cracker of a chapter with the weekend gathering from hell as our hero visits his sister-in-law’s, where Isobel his wife is staying. He’s met with old faces, new faces, characters we’ve only heard mentioned before, sworn enemies, sexual undertones – it really has it all and ends with Nick having to go back to camp while Isobel faces labour!

Back in Ireland, Gwatkin is going to pieces, having fallen in love with a local barmaid, and drifting off into dreams at inappropriate moments. Things continue to crumble in the regiment until Gwatkin is replaced and Nick is hauled off to HQ to meet the DAAG (Deputy Assistant Adjutant General apparently!) who turns out to be an old friend….

This is quite a switch in style and material for Powell, as we are dealing with war which is obviously a serious matter. However, this doesn’t stop him taking his usual humourous look at things and I did find myself laughing out loud at several points. He is particularly good on pointing out the boringness and futility of much of army life, and this evident from the beginning when it is revealed that many of the men in charge in the regiment were once bankers – obviously a profession that well prepared them for fighting! (ahem!). He also captures brilliantly the gulf between the remote, somewhat dippy officers and the lower ranks of the soldiers, particularly in the sequence where the General makes a spot inspection and seems more concerned about the troops’ breakfast habits than anything else:

“… the General stood in silence, as if in great distress of mind, holding his long staff at arm’s length from him, while he ground it deep into the earthy surface of the barnhouse floor. He appeared to be trying to contemplate as objectively as possible the concept of being so totally excluded from the human family as to dislike porridge.”

I have to say that I did find myself having recourse to Wikipedia at times, though, to sort out some of the more complex military ranks!

The writing is superb as always, and Powell’s normally labyrinthine sentences are often reduced to shorter, almost staccato phrases in places, reflecting the change in the world around him and the necessity for often quick-fire decisions and actions. In particular, he shows a genius for reproducing dialect, and the lilting, sing-song intonations of the Welsh language are beautifully reflected in the speech of the soldiers.

“Now, see it you must, Gareth… In time of peace, in the mine, you are above me, Gareth, and above Sergeant Pendry. Here, that is not. No longer is it the mine.”

Having visited Wales almost annually for many years, I can testify to the accuracy!

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An interesting underlying theme in VOB was the effect of the war and army life on relationships between men and women, and also the changing attitudes of women. From early on, it seems that it is ok for soldiers, even married ones, to lust after, and liaise with, any women they come across; but when Sgt Pendry’s wife is reported to be having an affair he falls to pieces, and has to go home to try to sort things out. So should she wait faithfully at home while the soldiers take their chances with local girls where they can? Powell’s (and his characters’) attitude to women are ambivalent – some of the soldiers seem happy with a quick shag under a hedge, others envisage much more noble affairs and Nick in places seems to defend the fact that women are being just as promiscuous as men – he is slightly more open-minded than many of his colleagues. The War caused a large shift in attitudes to women, and indeed of women’s expectations and this is reflected a little here, though is to be found much more in women’s writing of the period (many of the reprinted Persephone books come to mind).

But always in the background is the knowledge that War *is* a matter of life and death. There are casualties here – Sgt. Pendry is one of them, although not through seeing action, and Nick loses a family member, albeit a remote one. We are aware that there are likely to be more.

“The potential biographies of those who die young possess the mystical dignity of a headless statue, the poetry of enigmatic passages in an unfinished or mutilated manuscript, unburdened with contrived or banal ending.”

Once again, this is a marvellous piece of writing by Powell. Although much of the book takes place in camps around the country, we are not completely cut off from Nick’s former life and contacts; and in fact, Isobel does have her baby although remotely, at a distance, which is how Powell deals with Nick’s marriage! He brilliantly captures the boredom and banality of the army and as Nick says:

“A French writer who’d been a regular office said the whole point of soldiering was its bloody boring side. The glamour, such as it was, was just a bit of exceptional luck if it came your way.”

I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading the next book, as I’m not sure what the DAAG has in store for Nick, and I am afraid that there will be more casualties…

(NB – Yes, the appalling Widmerpool does make a fleeting appearance – but I’m not saying where….!)

Recent Reads: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant by Anthony Powell

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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!

Penguin Edition

Penguin Edition

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.

First Edition

First Edition

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.”

Recent Reads: At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell

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After the stress of trying to read a modern book(!) and not liking the prose at all, it was a great relief to return to Anthony Powell and his beautiful writing, strong characterisations and wonderful plot! “At Lady Molly’s” is the fourth in the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence and therefore my April read, which I approached with delight!

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As I’ve now come to expect with Powell, the start of a new book means a whole new raft of characters and a setting that has moved on from the end of the previous novel. We are now into that difficult decade, the 1930s, and our narrator Nick Jenkins is 28 or 29 and working in the film industry knocking up scripts to meet the Quota (by which there had to be the same amount of films made in the UK shown in cinemas as were US produced ones). His affair with Jean Templar is over, and as we meet him again he is being taken to the eponymous residence by Chips Lovell, a co-worker at the studio.

Lady Molly’s house is a gathering place for a number of disparate characters, including the ubiquitous Widmerpool (who is now engaged to a rather formidable older woman, Mildred Haycock), Alfred Tolland, General and Mrs. Conyers who are old friends of Nick’s (plus Mildred is the General’s sister-in-law), and later on Mark Members. There are references to many past alumni in the books, like Sillery and Bob Duport, and in many ways although Nick will continue to meet new people, they all somehow seem to be connected to the old acquaintances who recur in his life.

The wonderful Quiggin also reappears, rather delightfully and randomly in a cinema queue, and invites Nick for the weekend to his cottage in the country. Quiggin and Mona are still together (just) and during the visit Lord Warminster, head of the Tolland family and known variously as just Warminster, Erridge, Erry or Alf(!), appears and invites them to dinner at his crumbling stately home Thrubworth. The dinner is disrupted by the arrival of two Tolland sisters, and Nick decides instantly that he is going to marry one of them, Isobel! There are cracks appearing in the Quiggin/Mona relationship and it is somehow not a surprise to learn later on that Erry and Mona have run off to China to ‘observe conditions’ out there.

Meanwhile, Nick bumps into Ted Jeavons, Molly’s husband, in a pub and ends up visiting a nightclub run by Umfraville. Mildred, Widmerpool and Templer materialise and there is drinking and merriment, particularly when Mildred realises that she had a brief liaison with Ted during the war.

Back at Lady Molly’s once more, to celebrate his engagement to Isobel, Nick finds out that Widmerpool’s forthcoming marriage has been called off. There are differing stories as to why, although the version told by General Conyers in a long, man-to-man session implies that poor Kenneth had fallen down somewhat in the bedroom department! (This is after a very funny section where Widmerpool asks Nick’s advice, in an almost aggressive way, about whether he should be sleeping with Mildred before they are married, etc.) However, Widmerpool appears briefly at the end, bouncing back as always, and seems rather unconcerned by the whole thing, actually feeling that he is able to give Nick advice on getting married!

Once again, there are so many joys in this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. Powell’s style continues to be slightly looser than initially, and is very readable and lovely: there are brilliant pen portraits of lively characters; atmospheric descriptions of place and setting; sharp, crackling dialogue and Powell’s trademark dry wit:

“It was impossible to tell from Smith’s vacant, irascible stare whether he had never before been asked for sherry since his first employment at Thrubworth, or whether he had himself, quite simply, drunk all the sherry that remained.”

The stitching together of the various plot elements leaves the reader gasping slightly with admiration, and AP loves to pop in unexpected appearances by his cast!

And the book is full of such wonderful scenes and vignettes that it’s hard to pick the standouts. One wonderful moment is when Nick is faced with Mildred’s intended for the first time, without any warning – his response is priceless:

“Life is full of internal dramas, instantaneous and sensational, played to an audience of one. This was just such a performance. The fiance was Widmerpool.”

And the first appearance of the wonderfully eccentric decaying nobleman, Erridge, is brilliantly handled as he shuffles into Quiggin’s cottage looking more like a tramp! His description of this character, whom he had been aware of at school, sums up amazingly well the effects of age:

“Now that his name was revealed, the features of the preoccupied, sallow, bony schoolboy, with books tumbling from under his arm, could be traced like a footpath lost in the brambles and weeds of an unattended garden: an overgrown crazy pavement.”

It was a joy to have the re-emergence of those two constants, Widmerpool and Quiggin. I’m particularly fond of the latter as he has such an irritant effect on the story, being such an opposite to some of the more upper-class characters, and demonstrating so much how the world of the early books has changed. As for the former, it’s obvious he’s going to be with us in the stories for some time:

“Widmerpool was a recurring milestone on the road; perhaps it would be more apt to say that his course, as one jogged round the track, was run from time to time, however different the pace, in common with my own. As an aspect of my past he was an element to be treated with interest, if not affection, like some unattractive building or natural feature of the landscape which brought back the irrational nostalgia of childhood.”

But there is so much packed into what is a relatively short novel. Despite once again taking place over a limited number of gatherings or events, as the story continues the connections Powell is so fond of drawing out of life are revealed. The revelation of Widmerpool’s part in getting Duport and Jean back together and therefore ending her affair with Nick is quite stunning, and revealed in an almost off-hand way during conversation. There is the usual focus on people, not events, though the political background of the decade, with its rumblings from Hitler and hints of war, is discreetly mentioned and colours the behaviour of the cast of this tale. Powell is often very subtle, and I wondered whether having his characters discuss Orlando by Virginia Woolf was trying to hint of the type of relationship between Norah and Eleanor? And the conversation between Nick and General Conyers about Widmerpool’s failings, scattered with psychoanalysis and discussion of complexes etc is screamingly funny, and very unexpected!

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My one disappointment with the book is the fact that Nick gives away absolutely *nothing* about his courtship of Isobel. Literally, they meet, he decides they will marry and then they are engaged! We learn little about her, only seeing her directly very briefly and I found this a little frustrating, particularly as Nick had begun to open up a little bit in the last volume. But I suppose we have become used to mostly seeing him against a background of social gatherings, very rarely at work and never in a domestic setting.

I always find Nick’s/Powell’s meditations on the dance of life, and the small, everyday coincidences we experience, very thought-provoking. He has the gift of putting into words emotions we all feel but cannot articulate.

“Everyone knows the manner in which some specific name will recur several times in quick succession from different quarters; part of that inexplicable magic throughout life that makes us suddenly think of someone before turning a street corner and meeting him, or her, face to face. In the same way, you may be struck, reading a book, by some obscure passage or line of verse, quoted again, quite unexpectedly, twenty four hours later.”

This is an excellent novel, and I’m once more looking forward to next month!

Recent Reads: The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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