Tag Archives: Anthony Powell

‘From a View to a Death’ by Anthony Powell

From a View to a Death, which was published in 1933, is another one of Anthony Powell’s pre-war, pre-Dance novels. I’m hoping to read more of his non-Dance novels as the ones I’ve read so far have been enjoyable. In From a View to a Death Powell takes us outside of London to an unnamed town in the country; the characters are typical Powellian characters—artists, misfits, lesser gentry, retired Majors, unmarried young women etc. The main character is a young artist called Arthur Zouch who has been invited to stay at the country house of the Passengers. He has been invited by Mary Passenger who is trying to decide whether she likes him or not and to see how well he fits in with her family. Zouch feels that he is above all this as he sees himself as a Nietzschian Übermensch who does not need to obey the rules that others have to. He also has a beard. This is a bit of a running joke throughout the book as everyone comments on his beard and everyone, except Zouch, thinks it looks silly or strange.

Zouch was a superman. A fair English equivalent of the Teutonic ideal of the Übermensch. No one knew this yet except himself. That was because he had not been one long enough for people to find out. They would learn all in good time; and to their cost.

As with Powell’s other novels we get to meet loads of characters and we eavesdrop on lots of witty dialogue. Powell flits between the characters with ease and we get to discover what they’re thinking as well as what they’re saying and doing. I like this way of dealing with characters where we get to feel that nothing is held back or hidden from us.

Zouch is immediately pressed into appearing in a pageant that is being organised—even a Superman can’t get out of that. To give him something to do during his stay he embarks on painting a portrait of Mary as well as her young, chatty niece, Bianca. Meanwhile Mary’s father, Vernon Passenger, is trying to resolve an ongoing dispute over some land with one of his tenants, Major Fosdick. Major Fosdick is a typical retired Major; he’s full of bluster, he’s used to getting his own way and he loves his guns.

Major Fosdick was cleaning his guns in the drawing-room because it was the most comfortable room in the house. While he did this he brooded. He enjoyed cleaning his guns and he enjoyed brooding so that the afternoon was passing pleasantly enough and its charm was disturbed only by the presence of his wife, who sat opposite him, mending a flannel undergarment and making disjointed conversation about subjects in which he was not interested.

And there is nothing that he finds more relaxing after lunch than slipping in to a black sequin evening dress and wearing a large picture-hat whilst smoking his pipe—hence the book cover.

One of the Major’s sons, Torquil, whom everyone thinks is odd, is besotted with Joanna Brandon. Joanna however does not particularly like Torquil. She lives with her mother, a woman who never leaves the house. When Zouch meets Joanna he decides to make a conquest of her. As always with Powell we get some wonderful dialogue. Here we have a delightfully vague conversation between Mary and Zouch about Torquil.

   “Torquil Fosdick is a funny boy, isn’t he?”
   “He certainly is.”
   “I should think he was—well, at least I mean, you know—at least I should think anyone would think so, wouldn’t you?”
   “Oh yes, I should think so. If they took the trouble to think about him, I mean.”

There are many more minor characters in the book such as the Orphans, three buskers that seem to be everywhere; Mrs Brandon’s housekeeper, Mrs Dadds, who likes to talk about her chilblains and a group of hikers headed by Fischbein who ‘had a grey face, full of folds and swellings of loose flesh, like a piece of bad realistic sculpture.’

For me the real fun comes from the characters, the witty descriptive writing and dialogue but Powell doesn’t completely forget the plot and he wraps the book up neatly within a few pages; this may annoy some readers but I quite liked it. I won’t reveal how the novel ends other than to say that Zouch turns out to be less of a Superman than he thought. Everything seems to work in Vernon Passenger’s favour by the end, partly from his own initiative but mostly from luck.

As this was such a fun read I shall continue to read more of Powell’s books; I am in luck as most of them are available from my library; Venusberg will probably be my next one.

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‘Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time’ by Hilary Spurling

I have always been rather ambivalent towards biographies as I find the minutiae of people’s lives rather dull reading, especially when we have to wade through the subject’s childhood and ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’; but certain people have generated enough interest in me to find out about their lives and quite a lot of those subjects have been authors. Typically those I have read biographies of have been authors that have led exciting or extraordinary lives, those I’ve read a large amount of their work and those whose work is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. Part of the interest of reading biographies of those authors whose work is at least partially autobiographical is comparing the work with their real life and this was, in part, the interest for me in reading this recent biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling. Writers, such as Powell and Proust, as well as their biographers warn us that we shouldn’t be looking for real life comparisons of characters in their books, but in the end it’s just too tempting to resist, especially when many of the novelists’ characters do have real-life counterparts and events are similar to those in the author’s life; I then think we are justified in looking for them and as long as we’re grown-up enough to realise that there isn’t necessarily a one-to-one connection, that not all the characters are taken from real life and that some may be a mixture of different people or just inventions of the author then I don’t see any harm in this pastime.

At first Anthony Powell’s life doesn’t seem to be a particularly interesting topic but as with his novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, it is the characters that he comes in contact with as well as his reflections on them and himself that ends up making this an interesting book to read. Spurling doesn’t attempt anything fancy, instead she cracks on from 1905, the year of Powell’s birth, giving a brief description of Powell’s mother and father and his childhood years before surging on. The opening sentences gives a picture of these early years.

Small, inquisitive and solitary, the only child of an only son, growing up in rented lodgings or hotel rooms, constantly on the move as a boy, Anthony Powell needed an energetic imagination to people a sadly under-populated world from a child’s point of view. His mother and his nurse were for long periods the only people he saw, in general the one unchanging element in a peripatetic existence.

His mother was very introverted, religious and had a liking for the occult, whereas his father was explosive and demanding and mostly absent from Anthony’s early life, especially once WWI began as he was an officer in the army. Spurling then covers Powell’s school years at New Beacon School in Sevenoaks, Kent followed by Eton, where he became friends with Henry Green, and then on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he befriended Evelyn Waugh.

Although the sections on Powell’s schooldays and university period are of interest as we get to see the young Anthony Powell and we can compare it with Nick Jenkin’s life in the first novel of ‘Dance’, the biography really became interesting for me after he left university and he began work at the publishers Gerald Duckworth and Co. in London. It’s here where we start to see several interesting characters filtering through Powell’s life. Duckworth’s was a strange publishers for young Powell to end up at as the owner seems rather uninterested in publishing books and tries to block any attempts to revitalise the firm. But it is at Duckworth’s that Powell begins to experience life more fully and on his own terms. During this period he has love affairs, meets artists, buys a car and starts writing his first novel, Afternoon Men. Spurling does an excellent job in portraying the rather seedy bohemian lifestyle that Powell was immersed in. His rather dilapidated lodgings in Shepherd Market appealed to him as a counterpoint to his life at Oxford. Reading the chapters on this period in Powell’s life has really made me want to read more of his pre-WWII (and pre-‘Dance’) novels, especially What’s Become of Waring?, which is set in a publishers much like Duckworth’s – see Karen’s review at Kaggsybookishramblings.

During a visit to Pakenham Hall, Ireland, he met and fell in love with Violet Pakenham, whom he married in 1934. Powell left Duckworth’s and tried, but failed, to make it in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. During the war he entered the army as a Second Lieutenant and, like Nick Jenkins, ended up in Intelligence. The post-war years were somewhat difficult for Powell, as they must have been for nearly everyone. Spurling describes Powell’s moments of depression during this period, convinced that he’d wasted the most productive years of his life and that he’d never write again. During the war years his sole work had been a biography of John Aubrey but it is during this period that he came across Nicolas Poussin’s painting, A Dance to the Music of Time in the Wallace Collection which was to inspire his own work.

Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time at the Wallace Collection, London.

Powell worked as a freelance writer, a book reviewer and wrote a regular column at the Daily Telegraph. Powell became friends with many famous people whom most of us have heard of, such as Malcolm Muggeridge, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Julian MacLaren-Ross, Ivy-Compton Burnett, Kingsley Amis, and many other interesting people that I hadn’t heard of before such as Gerald Reitlinger, Edward Burra, John Heygate etc. He seems to have formed deep and lasting friendships with many of these people and to have enjoyed socialising with them, possibly making up for his rather sombre childhood at home and young adulthood at university.

Powell began writing A Question of Upbringing, the first novel of ‘Dance’, in March 1948 and which was published in 1951. When the first volume was published Powell had envisaged the whole work as ‘at least a trilogy’ but he was to continue over the next twenty-five years to publish a new novel in the series roughly every two years. It was only when he was writing the volumes relating to WWII that he knew that it was going to consist of twelve volumes. Curiously, Spurling seems to race along with the narrative once Powell begins work on ‘Dance’ and even stranger is that the biography more or less ends with the publication of the last novel of the series. There’s a Postscript which covers this period from 1975 up to Powell’s death in 2000 but it appears rather rushed especially as Powell still produced a couple of novels and a four-volume set of memoirs during this period. This is my only criticism of this excellent biography and is recommended to anyone who has read the novels of Anthony Powell.

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‘Afternoon Men’ by Anthony Powell

Afternoon Men was Anthony Powell’s first novel and was published in 1931 when Powell was only 26 years old. I found this copy in a secondhand bookshop when I was reading his twelve-volume series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s a fun book and will certainly be of interest to anyone that has read Dance as the style and structure of the book is so similar to his later work. The book has little plot and instead concentrates on characters and the dialogue between the many characters, who are all from the same jaded semi-aristocratic, intellectual milieu as in Dance.

The main character is William Atwater who has an unsatisfying job at a museum. The book opens with Atwater in a bar discussing with his friend, Pringle, Pringle’s current medication regime. We are then introduced to several other characters who enter the bar and are known to Atwater. As is typical with Powell we get to know the characters from dialogue and short little character descriptions. Here, for example, is his description of Atwater early on in the book.

He was a weedy-looking young man with straw-coloured hair and rather long legs, who had failed twice for the Foreign Office. He sometimes wore tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles to correct a slight squint, and through influence he had recently got a job in a museum. His father was a retired civil servant who lived in Essex, where he and his wife kept a chicken farm.

The group from the bar decide to go to a party where we are introduced to even more characters. Powell does a great job of showing a party in full swing with random conversations with random people, the constant flux of partygoers and the general chaos involved with people getting drunk, some passing out in the bathroom, drinks getting spilt and so on. Atwater meets a girl, called Lola (‘She had the look of a gnome or prematurely vicious child.’) whom he unsuccessfully tries to get to go home with him, that is until he is obviously entranced with the appearance of the beautiful Susan Nunnery, then Lola is eager to get Atwater away from the party.

Although most of the humour is in the dialogue and the character descriptions Powell occasionally gives us a bit of slapstick. Mr. Scheigan is an American publisher who was with Atwater at the party; he was drunk at the bar and then fell asleep on the floor at the party. When they decide to leave they try to get Scheigan home in a taxi.

   They all went downstairs and lent a hand in getting Mr. Scheigan into his taxi. He got out once, but they put him back in again, and as the taxi drove off they saw him leaning through the window talking to the driver. The taxi door came open as it turned the corner at the end of the street, but as long as the vehicle remained in sight Mr. Scheigan had still not fallen out. Barlow said:
   “He seemed quite unused to getting into taxis.”

The first section also contains a chapter where we see Atwater at work in the museum. He’s visited by an annoying member of the public called Dr. Crutch who tries to get private access to some of the exhibits, presumably exhibits of a sexual nature. There’s also an amusing paragraph where Atwater lists all the things he could, and should, do but instead he ‘sat and thought about existence and its difficulties.’

We get to eavesdrop on more lunches, parties and chance meetings; the characters develop more as we find out more background information and gossip. As Atwater pursues Susan, Lola pursues Atwater. Powell describes Atwater’s seduction of Lola as ‘mechanical’ and can only lead to an anti-climax but he appears to be making progress with Susan.

   Susan poured herself out some more wine. She said:
   “You’re nice. You must come and see me some time. I live miles away from anywhere with my father. You’ll like him.”
   “Tell me about him.”
   “He’s a curious little man with a walrus moustache.”
   “What does he do?”
   “He’s a failure.”
   “Where does he fail?”
   “Oh, he doesn’t any longer,” she said. “He’s a retired failure, you see. You must meet him.”
   “I’d like to.”

Atwater takes Susan to see some boxing but she warns him that she won’t fall in love with him, and she doesn’t, instead she plans to go away from London for an unspecified period of time.

In the final third of the book Atwater visits his friend, Pringle, in the country with some of his other friends. Just when we think the novel is not going to go anywhere Powell threatens to give us a bit of drama, only to pull back at the final moment—it works really well and is quite amusing. And there’s some more great dialogue, such as this:

   The barman came to the other side of the counter.
   “Time please,” he said.
   Harriet said: “You mustn’t hurry a lady drinking a pint of beer. The effects might be fatal.”

As a side note I was watching the BBC documentary on John Betjeman, which was originally broadcast in 2014, called Return to Betjemanland when the presenter, A.N. Wilson, quoted an Anthony ‘Pole’ making a comment about Betjeman. From the context I guess he meant Powell and just assumed that it sounded a bit odd because of the plum in Wilson’s mouth. But it turns out that that is how Powell’s name should be pronounced: ‘Pole’, not ‘Pow-all’ – see this article by Anthony Powell’s granddaughter on the family name. Was everyone else aware of the correct pronunciation of his name?

A new biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling, who wrote the Handbook to A Dance to the Music of Time, is coming out in October—see here.

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Filed under Fiction, Powell, Anthony

Bits & Pieces (Dec 2016)

Well first I would like to wish a Happy New Year to everyone! I hope that everyone is looking forward to some fun reading in 2017. I don’t feel like writing a retrospective of the books I read in 2016 but I thought that I would have a bit of a roundup of those I read in December. Since finishing German Literature Month (GLM) in November I haven’t posted too often but I have been reading, honest.

My Big Reading Task of 2016 was Anthony Powell’s twelve volume Dance to the Music of Time which I sort of ‘fell into’ really at the last minute as I read along with a GoodReads group; even when I started I wasn’t too sure if I’d stay to the end as I had intended in being free of any ‘Big Read Challenges’ for the year but I was soon hooked. I didn’t blog too much on the series as I found it a bit awkward to write Powell_Dance-04posts for separate books in the series where a knowledge of the characters’ antics in the previous volumes was really necessary. Each review would only have been of interest, I felt, to someone who was reading the same volumes at the same time as me. So, at one volume a month I got to the last volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, in December; I was a little wary of this volume as I’d read quite a few negative comments on it but I found it to be one of my favourites of the series. It jumped forward to the early 1970s and almost brought events up to date as it was written in 1975. One of the joys of reading ‘Dance’ was that there were a whole host of characters, some of which appeared throughout the series, whilst others appeared and faded away. In later volumes we had X Trapnel who was based on the novelist Julian MacLaren-Ross and in this last volume we get the Manson-like hippy leader, Scorpio Murtlock, and the bizarre scenario of Widmerpool trying to join and take over the cult. It did seem a bit of an odd direction to take but I felt that Powell handled it brilliantly. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read ‘Dance’ to consider reading it, although it’s twelve volumes it’s not as daunting as that sounds and each volume was a breeze to read.

After my reading for GLM I felt like reading something a bit ‘lighter’ and turned to an old favourite author of mine from the late ’80s, Martin Millar. He had a new book out called Kink Me Honey and where his previous book called The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies which was set in Ancient millar_kink-me-honey_amazonGreece hadn’t really appealed to me that much, this one did. Most of Millar’s books that I’d read had an urban setting and usually revolved around some kind of subculture, such as punks, travellers, etc. Kink Me Honey centres around an S&M club in London and whilst it is funny it is pretty raunchy as well. The book contains what are supposed to be posts and comments to the club’s website and through these we get a lot of subplots and diversions from the main plot; initially I thought that this part of the novel was a bit of a gimmick but I soon realised that Millar was using it to good effect by enabling him to poke fun at the way our online lives play out. Part of the humour is in the way that the cast of characters act just as they would in any other organisation or club and so there are feuds, bitching, funding problems, organisational problems, character clashes etc. Even though I finished it a month ago I still hope to write a longer review on it so I’ll not comment any further for now.

Theodor Storm is an author I only discovered from being a part of GLM and I had hoped to read another volume of his short stories/novellas for this year’s GLM but I ran out of time. Paul the Puppeteer and other Short Fiction consists of the three novellas all translated by Denis Jackson: The Village on the Moor, Paul the storm_paul-puppeteer-fcx-700pxPuppeteer and Renate. The title story is the best of the three as it is more immediate than the others; the main story is told to the narrator by the elderly Paul Paulsen and is basically a love story, even though it’s not really apparent until late on in the story. Paul is destined to become a master craftsman but he is fascinated with the puppetry of a travelling puppeteer and his daughter, Lisei. The puppeteers have to move on and Paul loses contact with them only to be reacquainted with them when he is older at a time when the elderly puppeteer has been falsely imprisoned for theft. The puppeteers are hounded by the authorities as if they’re vagrants and their form of entertainment is now falling out of fashion. It’s a sad, beautiful and uplifting story told in Storm’s unsentimental way. Renate takes place in the early eighteenth century and centres around the love of a Lutheran pastor for a girl who is subsequently accused of being a witch. As is usual with Storm the story is revealed from several incomplete sources. I feel that this one would benefit from another read.

I felt that overall my reading went quite well in 2016. Along with Powell’s ‘Dance’ I tackled Orlando Figes’s book on the Russian revolution, A People’s Tragedy. My GoodReads summary of the year (which can be viewed here if you’re interested in the details) shows that I read 45 books or 14,949 pages, which is paltry compared to some people but I’m quite happy with it. If I worried about such things I may mention that the Powell books only counted as four, rather than twelve, as I read them in the omnibus editions.

And so on to 2017! I have few plans for this year other than to read as many books as I can that I already own as the number of physical books that I now own is starting to be unmanageable. I’m not going to try to quantify what I intend to get through as I will undoubtedly be diverted from this task throughout the year but I shall chip away at the pile. Here is a photo of what I have to get through…and there are quite a few on my kindle as well…

Physical TBR pile as of January 2017

Physical TBR pile as of January 2017

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Filed under Fiction, Millar, Martin, Powell, Anthony, Storm, Theodor

Bits and Pieces from July & August

Apart from the Clochemerle book & TV Series I haven’t posted much lately, but I have been reading, believe me. I had a couple of weeks off from work and decided to read the Pushkin Press Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. I’d been meaning to read some stories by Zweig for ages, Zweig-Collected-Storieshaving only previously read A Chess Story and his book on Casanova, and I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed them. I was surprised with the range of the story settings as I was expecting them to be mostly set in contemporary Austria; instead a couple are set during the Middle Ages, one is in suburban England, others in South America etc. But I shouldn’t have been too surprised as I was well aware that Zweig had travelled around the world, especially when he fled Nazi Germany. After reading each story I had intended to post a review but instead I felt compelled to read the next story until I’d finished and I realised that I hadn’t posted on any, and now as time slips away it’s increasingly unlikely I will; although I may have a re-read of one or two stories.

At times Zweig was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, Amok for example, started well but by the end of it I was a little bored; it felt too forced and a bit like a 1940s B-movie script. Did He Do It? was a bit too much like a whodunnit for me, but it was perfectly readable; the others were great. Some, like Mendel the Bibliophile were basically just character studies and others, such as In the Snow and Incident on Lake Geneva are short, compelling, tales of extreme incidents. Although the stories span four decades and the subject matter varies widely, Zweig’s style remained consistent across the stories; it’s clean, modern, no-nonsense and Zweig wastes no time before getting on with telling the story. There are so many brilliant stories in this collection that I shall now look forward to reading the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig and others.

I have continued my reading of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time; I have just finished the eighth volume, The Soldier’s Art which is the second volume set during WWII. It’s difficult to blog on this series as the books follow the same set of main characters as we progress through the Powell_Dance-03twentieth century. Any comments on the characters would potentially spoil the book for anyone intending to read it and would require a lot of background explanation to comprehend. Apart from a slight dip here and there, I have found Powell’s stories of the characters compelling. There’s very little plot, as such, instead we get a lot of dinner parties, chats in the street or work, where we find out more about the characters. We discover the events in the characters’ lives as they are revealed to Nick Jenkins and as such we only get to find out bits and pieces of what’s happened since we last met them. I can’t wait for the next volume, The Military Philosophers.

One of my intentions this year was to read more non-fiction and with summer upon us I decided to read another book on the Black Death, called The Great Mortality by John Kelly—why should summer reading be light? Last year I read The Black Death by Philip Ziegler and wondered whether this book would add much to my knowledge of this event. Kelly took a Kelly Great Mortalitymore European-wide view than Ziegler, who concentrated mostly on Britain, and Kelly went into more detail at the beginning on the ways that the plague bacillus, Y. pestis, is spread and the differences between bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic plague. What seems apparent from reading these books is that it is still unknown why the Black Death of the 1340s was as virulent as it was and how it spread so quickly. Mortality rates during the Black Death were between 30 and 60 per cent, whereas during the Third Pandemic of the 1890s there was only a mortality rate of 3 per cent. Some researchers believe that the Black Death was not due to Y.pestis but a different disease; Kelly tries to refute that claim in the last chapter.

The Russian Revolution is another topic I have been meaning to read up on for quite a while, having read nothing on the topic since my schooldays. I was looking for something a bit substantial, but readable, and came across Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. It’s a huge book and as the title suggests Figes goesFiges A People's Tragedy back to 1891 to begin the story. I am only part way through the second part (of four) so far but I’m finding it a fascinating read. Tsarist Russia was an astonishingly brutal place for the vast majority of the population. The peasants were at times brutalised by the gentry as well as by each other and other times their lives were romanticised by city dwellers. As Nicholas II’s reign progressed an increasing number of people moved to the cities as rural life became more unbearable; but there was still this sense of ‘Two Russias’ as explained by Figes:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

I’m currently reading about the period following the 1905 revolution and we really get the feeling that positions are hardening on both sides and that another revolution is inevitable. It does make one wonder how different the world may have been if Nicholas had made sensible reforms at the beginning of his reign. I’ll read on…

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Filed under Fiction, Figes, Orlando, Kelly, John, Non-fiction, Powell, Anthony, Zweig, Stefan

An Update of Sorts

Well, the weekend is usually the only time that I get to post any reviews—but another one has passed where I’ve been unable to post anything. What with work commitments, the European Championships and the EU Referendum (and its aftermath) it’s been nigh impossible to find the time. But, I have been reading, and reading some good books as well. I’ve currently started Volume 7 of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, The Valley of Bones, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. This series of twelve novels has really impressed me and made me wonder how it was that I hadn’t even heard of it until relatively recently. It was only when I was reading Proust that I first became aware of this novel.

I had initially hoped that 2016 was going to be a year in which I read a lot of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages; one such book is Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle which I have read recently; I don’t know where I first heard of it but I just loved the sound of it—a political feud in a French village over the installation of a public urinal. I still hope to post on it soon but as time passes the likelihood of this diminishes. It wasn’t quite as good as I though it would be but it was still an enjoyable read. A T.V. series was produced in the 1970s which was scripted by Galton & Simpson; I now have a copy on DVD and can’t wait to watch it. There were also another couple of Clochemerle sequels that I plan to read soon.

I had intended to post a review of the Penguin collection of two of Thomas Ligotti’s short story collections, which combined Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe: His Life and Works. I read this as part of a GoodReads group for Gothic Literature, but very few people were interested enough to read along, which was a shame because the stories were generally good. Ligotti’s style was influenced by Lovecraft and Poe but he introduced his own take on these themes of cosmic horror. Some of them were just damn weird. Take, for instance, the story called The Glamour, a Lynchian story, where the narrator describes his nighttime wanderings where he ends up in a seedy, derelict movie theatre where everything seems to be covered in a net of writhing hair.

I continued to stare at the empty seat because my sensation of a vibrant presence there was unrelieved. And in my staring I perceived that the fabric of the seat, the inner webbing of swirling fibers, had composed a pattern in the image of a face—an old woman’s face with an expression of avid malignance—floating amidst wild shocks of twisting hair.

And the film they show at this cinema is some weird abstract impressionist film vaguely resembling a microscopic close-up of some fleshy substance—the film guides the viewer ‘through a catacomb of putrid chambers and cloisters’. All the while hairs from the chairs are seething and tugging at the narrator. Some of the stories are stranger still. The quality varies but Ligotti is worth checking out.

I finished Tomás González’s In the Beginning Was the Sea last week, and although I enjoyed the book, I doubt I’ll end up posting a review. It’s worth checking out Guy’s review, which is where I first heard of the book. Basically, set in Columbia, a couple decide to leave the city and live in the country but neither are particularly suitable people for such a challenge.

I’ve tried reading more of Céline’s Trifles for a Massacre but it’s too depressing a read, so I may have to abandon it. I have read about 40% of the book which is probably enough.

I had made some half-arsed plans to read a whole load of social history books on Great Britain. I had hoped to concentrate on late 18th Century and post WWII but my interest in this project hit the buffers when I started to read Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars 1793-1815, a book that had greatly appealed to me, but which actually just bored me stiff. I had hoped to understand what Britons thought of events that were going on in France, and Europe, but it was just a dull collection of articles on aspects of life in Britain with each chapter concentrating in detail on a particular subject with no real attempt at synthesis. There was so much emphasis on first-hand records that it just seemed like a collection of quotes and descriptions of a random collection of people’s lives. Other reviewers on GoodReads seem to love it but I just found it incredibly dull. Oh well. I now have little interest to read more, despite having many books earmarked for future reads.

As mentioned earlier, I’m still hoping to concentrate more on books that have been on my TBR for a while and to read more non-fiction, especially on topics that I’ve been meaning to read about for ages; I feel that I have been too easily distracted in the past and hope to change that in the future, but before that there’s another Euro match to watch….more distractions…

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‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Anthony Powell

Powell_Dance-01bIt was only in 2014, a.k.a. ‘My Year of Proust’, that I first heard about Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume story, A Dance to the Music of Time. After a quick glance at the book I didn’t seriously consider reading it at the time, thinking it was just a Proust imitation. But, I started to pay more attention to it and then one of the members of the GoodReads Proust group (Travelling Sunny) decided to set-up a group for a year-long read of Powell’s Dance and I got sucked in….and I’m glad that I did. I’m now half-way through volume 5, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant and I’m enjoying the literary ride through the lives of the characters. I haven’t posted anything about these novels so far, so here goes.

A Dance to the Music of Time (hereon known as Dance) is named after a painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). The novels were published between 1951 and 1975 and concern the lives of a multitude of characters, mostly English upper-class and artists, from the main characters’ schooldays in 1921 to about 1971. Comparisons with Proust abound and are not to be entirely ignored, so let’s look at them; both are large multi-volume books covering the lives of a large number of characters; the books are essentially plotless and instead follow the lives of these characters as they interact with each other; much of what we find out about the characters is from the conversations of other characters at parties, over lunch etc.; the main Powell_Dance-02bcharacters’ backgrounds and lives are similar to the authors’ and it is possible to identify real people who can be identified with the fictionalised versions in the books – even if the authors deny this; most of the characters are upper-class or artists. And the differences? Well, the main difference is their style — Powell does not write in the style of Proust and is definitely not trying to imitate Proust in that respect. Powell’s novels are very tightly written and are a lot more humourous than Proust; we don’t get Proust’s long, tortuous, sentences, nor do we get the claustrophobic feeling associated with Proust. At times, when reading Proust, I felt as if I was trapped inside the narrator’s skull, doomed never to escape; with Powell we tend to drift around amongst the characters more and in fact we tend to learn very little of the narrator’s (Nick Jenkin’s) life.

The edition that I’m reading consists of four volumes, thus grouping three of the original books in each volume. The book begins by introducing some of the main characters whilst they are at a boarding school (presumably Eton as Powell went there as a boy); Nick Jenkins the narrator, Charles Stringham, Peter Templer and the rather curious Widmerpool. Although Nick is not friends with Widmerpool at school their paths keep crossing throughout the novel. Widmerpool is introduced as a rather odd, but enigmatic figure and we first encounter him going for a run in the rain:

Anecdotes relating to his acknowledged oddness were also familiar; but before that moment such stories had not made him live. It was on the bleak December tarmac of that Saturday afternoon in, I suppose, the year 1921 that Widmerpool, fairly heavily built, thick lips and metal-rimmed spectacles giving his face as usual an aggrieved expression, first took coherent form in my mind.

We are also introduced to Nick’s uncle, Giles, and the house-master, Le Bas, who periodically appear at later dates. In fact the third novel, The Acceptance World ends with an annual dinner hosted by Le Bas for the ‘Old Boys’ (c. 1933) in which Widmerpool bores everyone with a dry speech, Le Bas has a stroke and collapses and Stringham gets so drunk that Nick and Widmerpool have to help him home. In between these two points we get to see Nick’s visit to France as a student, his time at University, his life after University working for a publisher’s, many parties, some of the characters getting married…and then divorced, we encounter writers and artists and as we venture into the 1930s there’s the changing political landscape to contend with. Every now and then political events intrude on the characters’ lives.

One of the best things about these novels is the characters and the way that we get to know them. As with Proust, we often hear about a character before we meet them or we meet a character periodically and have to catch up with what’s happened to them in the intervening period. Powell expertly gives us a sketch of a character with a few words. I especially liked the episode at the beginning of The Acceptance World in which Nick has tea with his Uncle Giles who has a room at the hotel, called the Ufford:

On most of the occasions when I visited the Ufford, halls and reception rooms were so utterly deserted that the interior might almost have been Uncle Giles’s private residence. Had he been a rich bachelor, instead of a poor one, he would probably have lived in a house of just that sort: bare: anonymous: old-fashioned: draughty: with heavy mahogany cabinets and sideboards spaced out at intervals in passages and on landings; nothing that could possibly commit him to any specific opinion, beyond general disapproval of the way the world was run.

Uncle Giles is only a minor character but he sticks in one’s mind, as do many of the other characters. In the fourth book, At Lady Molly’s Widmerpool reveals his own impending, strangely matched, marriage to a Mildred Haycock. We’re introduced to the huge Tolland family which includes Isobel, whom Nick decides he will marry at first sight. The family includes another brilliant character, the eldest son, Erridge or the Earl of Warminster; although he lives in the ancestral country home, Thrubworth Park, he lives more like a hermit and likes to dabble in left-wing politics. When Nick is visiting him and some of Erridge’s sisters turn up, including Isobel, he has to ask his servant, Smith, to get a bottle of champagne from the cellar to celebrate Susan Tolland’s impending marriage. There’s a delightful exchange between Erridge and the moody alcoholic butler who has no doubt ear-marked the contents of the cellar for his own use:

   ‘Champagne, m’lord?’
   ‘Have we got any? One bottle would do. Even a half-bottle.’
   Smith’s face puckered, as if manfully attempting to force his mind to grapple with a mathematical or philosophical problem of extraordinary complexity. His bearing suggested that he had certainly before heard the word ‘champagne’ used, if only in some distant, outlandish context; that devotion to his master alone gave him some apprehension of what this question—these ravings, almost—might mean. Nothing good could come of it. This was a disastrous way to talk. That was his unspoken message so far as champagne was concerned. After a long pause, he at last shook his head.
   ‘I doubt if there is any champagne left, m’lord.’

In the current volume I’m reading, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, we’re introduced to a delightfully argumentative couple called the Maclinticks. Mr. Maclintick (I’m not sure if we get to know his first name) is a composer, has a love of Irish whiskey, and is described thus:

Maclintick’s calculatedly humdrum appearance, although shabby, seemed aimed at concealing bohemian affiliations. The minute circular lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles, set across the nose of a pug dog, made one think of caricatures of Thackeray or President Thiers, imposing upon him the air of a bad-tempered doctor.

Maclintick hates just about everyone, but especially his wife, with whom he rows incessantly. She nags him, he goads her. Together, they seem to Nick, to be at the end of their tether. Mrs. Maclintick is described thus:

Mrs Maclintick’s dissatisfaction with life had probably reached so advanced a stage that she was unable to approach any new event amiably, even when proffered temporary alleviation of her own chronic spleen.

Even later, when they attend a party their bickering doesn’t cease. They’re great characters for a book but they’d be hell to live with in real life.

So, after about a thousand pages I’m still fascinated with this book and I eagerly look forward to the next volume — I hope my enthusiasm will continue.

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