Monthly Archives: July 2016

At Lady Molly’s

  

Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time reaches 1933/34 in this fourth volume. Hitherto the social milieu in which narrator Nick Jenkins moves, the English upper and upper-middle classes, has seemed to exist in a bubble. The financial crisis of 1928 and subsequent depression appear to have barely touched them. Or rather, while the economic consequences have, as now, been felt largely by the less well off, the subject has been referred to in passing, only obliquely and vaguely, as “the slump” in The Acceptance World even when that novel is, ostensibly at least, concerned with the world of finance. Certainly, up to this point in the cycle of novels, politics has been conspicuous by its absence. 

Now, however, as Fascism takes its hold on governments on the continent and the National Socialists achieve power through democratic means in Germany, Powell introduces politics through the differing perspectives of his characters. 

Widmerpool (pictured above from the cover illustration) is on the left and expresses views that, if one were to ignore their attitudes to Jews, then the National Socialists aren’t all that bad. He emphasises that as well as the Nationalism, there is also the Socialism which inspires major investment in infrastructure and large scale regeneration projects which create jobs for workers. He argues against diverting resources of production in the UK towards re-armament, proposing instead a conference to settle matters. 

This stance, a fair representation of the position taken by many in the UK at the times, reminds me, when he goes on to suggest that Goering might be won over by a visit to Buckingham Palace and the award of the Order of the Garter because he is at heart a snob, of the misguided attempts by Lord Darlington in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day to broker a deal between the UK prime minister and the German Ambassador. 

The communist Quiggin is shown to be focussed on internal political manoeuvring, more concerned with sniping about his rival Craggs, dismissing his current concern with German refugees in terms of a passing fad and Guggenbuhl, citing the oneupmanship of the Trotskyist German exile patronising later German refugees. However, Powell does attribute to the unlikeable Quiggin an appreciation that Hitler was a threat to communists in Germany and the view that Anti-Fascism is the most important stance. 

The reader also learns in passing through snippets of  overheard conversations, symbolically in untranslated French, in which a Balkan diplomat in the service of Prince Theoderic (whom we have met in an earlier novel but who makes no personal appearance in this volume) describes how he believes Hitler has given up plans to annex Austria by force and that in his view France was wrong to oppose the customs and immigration union in 1931.He then argues that Austrian Chancellor Dolfuss had acted decisively but undemocratically against the National Socialists in his country. 

However, the most direct, and to the modern reader benefitting from 20:20 hindsight, most effective response to Hitler’s rise, is voiced by the eponymous Lady Molly’s husband Jeavons, who had been presented up to that point as something of an old duffer who was decidedly past it. He baldly states that the UK should “Declare war on Germany right away…knock this blighter Hitler out before he gives further trouble…Wait and see…That was what Mr Asquith used to say. Didn’t do us much good in 1914.” 

It is characteristic of Powell that he should give such prescience to a minor, comic character rather than one of his central figures. 

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A Nose-picker of the Highest Order

I am indebted to Friedrich Waidacher of Judenburg in Austria who found the following sketch by Theodor Fontane in a volume entitled Earth is the only Home Man has Got.

“One evening I met Mr. Trollope, a relative of the famous authoress of the same name. He was a wonderful person, most interesting for me, a real comedy character à la Mengler in Finally He Did It Well. Furthermore he is so naturally human, that he appears not only ridiculous but also pleasant. The English usually sit stiff as dolls, they never relax readily in company – especially not in women’s company. Mr Trollope, however, seemed to have abandoned any such constraints, he scratched wherever he itched and occasionally scratched, with evident pleasure, parts of his body that are scarcely decent. He also poked around in his teeth and was a nose-picker of the highest order. I was delighted with all this because I thought that in England this art was completely unknown.”

I am also indebted to Christian Kirsch, who took time out from his holiday in the UK to correct the translation.


			

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The Acceptance World

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If Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, as the most recent translation would have it entitled, is a modernist classic, then Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is arguably at least at home in a post-modernist category as the modernist insofar as it includes moments of meta-narrative, when Powell steps out of the story and tells us about issues related to the writing of the story. In this, of course, he echoes Trollope who was notorious for his authorial asides reassuring his readership that however bleak the picture looked for the star-crossed young lovers in his novels, all would turn out well for them in the end.

In the third volume of Powell’s sequence, The Acceptance World, Powell diverts from a description of an exotic South American family in the foyer of the Ritz on Piccadilly to remark that although he has no personal experience of South America on which to draw, he is better able as a writer to make clear the distinction between them, about whom he knows nothing as to their background, culture and motivations, and his central character Nick Jenkins, than between Jenkins and another English man of the same age and superficially similar background in society, Mark Members. Yet, for a person steeped in the culture of English Society at that time, the distinctions between Jenkins (middle/upper-middle class) and Members (aspirational-rising middle class from a northern rather than southern English county) would be too numerous and too self-evident to require elucidation yet would remain elusive to those on the outside rendering them difficult if not impossible to pinpoint for a writer describing them to his readers.

Powell also addresses not once but three times, the source of the title for the novel. The Acceptance World is first described to Jenkins by his friend Templer in chapter two when he encounters him at the Ritz, as the business world of the City of London where brokers “accept” bills of exchange – liabilities for future debts and are paid to do so by those who face those potential debts. It is then explained at greater length again twice more in chapter five, in an opening reflection by Jenkins and later in a speech by Widmerpool describing the working of the city at a dinner given in the Ritz (returning to the site of the original explanation, please note) in honour of Le Bas.

Then in the concluding paragraphs of the novel, Powell reflects on a staged photograph of two lovers to describe a chain of loves – part of which sequence we have seen unfold during the course of the novel, wherein each person accepts the cast off lover of a predecessor so that the world of society and the constant dance, changing lovers as easily as changing dance partners, is explicitly likened to the business transactions in the city by which successive traders accept debts and risks from previous owners who sell them on to manage their own positions.

Everyone, it transpires is intimately linked with everyone else. It is perhaps a house of cards. This allusion is of itself, self-referential since Mrs Erdleigh (pictured above – taken from the book’s cover) is a practising clairvoyant who both reads Jenkins’s fortune in the cards (she uses normal playing cards not tarot cards), and is one of the chain of hand-me-down lovers which links the central characters together.

This third novel in the sequence does mark a notable shift in the treatment of the women characters. Having been peripheral distractions to the main concerns of the young men hitherto, they now become more significant and central players in their own right, though still very much secondary to the key characters. Jean Duport (nee Templer) becomes Jenkins’s lover and we see her in control of the relationship – reflecting perhaps Nick’s still relative immaturity in relationship matters. This comes through in some peevish generalisations which his character makes about women and their willingness and ability to manipulate the men with whom they are in a relationship. This is carried over into Nick’s observations of the former model Mona playing cat and mouse with her husband Templer before leaving him for Quiggin and how Peggy Stepney ditches his other great friend from schooldays, Stringham, even though both Templer and Stringham are, in Nick’s mind at least, attractive to, and successful with, women – or at least more so than Nick is. So, as an author, Powell is allowing his narrator character to mature and show growing insight commensurate with his age – approaching thirty in this novel.

There is also the ongoing, post-modernist conceit that the central character/narrator is himself a published author with both art books and a novel under his belt.  The parallels with Powell’s own writing career are obvious and intentional.  This is part of the joke. Readers, in the know, would be expected to decipher which character was a thinly veiled representation of whom in the literary and artistic circles which feature in the novel and are a reflection of the actual lives of those around Powell. Of course, this leads to some one-up-manship as individuals claim to “be” the originals on which Powell has based his characters – some, bizarrely, even claiming to see themselves in more than one of the novel’s characters – surely an exercise in self-aggrandisement and delusion.

However, the novel as a whole, shares more in common with the modernist writing of say James Joyce or Virginia Woolf – with a free-flowing stream of thoughts which the narrator transcribes, featuring shifts of location and time, as well as featured characters, in mid-paragraph – than with more knowing, post-modernist writing. There is a sense of immersion in the world described from an insider’s perspective which draws the reader into the shifting kaleidoscope of scenes and characters. And the central characters are becoming more distinct, notwithstanding the difficulty described of making that differentiation between superficially similar people, which relies so much on nuances, and the accumulating list of secondary characters who flit in and out of view from one novel to the next.

 

 

 

 

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Nina Balatka on stage in Los Angeles

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The Interact Theatre Company, based in Los Angeles, is presenting a staged reading of Nina Balatka, an adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel, by playwright Henry Ong.

The reading will take place at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Saturday, 16th July at 8pm and again on Sunday, 17th July at 3pm.

Tickets cost $12 and are available on the theatre company’s website www.interactla.org. For more information, call (+1) 818 765 8732.

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The Three Clerks Big Read

The Anthony Trollope Society Facebook Group is currently reading The Three Clerks. This delightfully wry, semi-autobiographical look back on Trollope’s own hobbledehoydom as a junior clerk in the Post Office is proving a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening read. The debate is on as to whether this or Trollope’s Autobiography is the truer representation of this stage of his life.

Just yesterday, we learned from one of the group about Trollope’s use of Biblical allusions in the chapter we had just completed together and an explanation of the references to payments in cumin – for the record, Jewish taxes in those days could be paid in spices – which begs the question – what is the cumin:saffron exchange rate and is it affected by Brexit?

The group has just reached chapter seven so there is still time to join and take part in the Big Read – enjoying a mix of erudite comments and just plain silliness – it’s that kind of book. To take part go to: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2204719953/

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A Buyer’s Market

As you walk along Horseferry Road in London’s Victoria, you will observe a large collection of oddly shaped blocks assembled, apparently at random, on the steps of a modern office block. At a single precise point in your perambulation, if you look at them, the blocks align themselves perfectly to form the three dimensional representation of the number 4 in the style of the logo of Channel 4, the UK broadcaster in front of whose offices the installation is located. This miracle of perspective is designed to appeal to the innate facility within the human brain to construct order out of chaos. It is this facility which causes us to look up at the night sky and discern constellations, picturing bears, both great and little, hunters, twins and all manner of line-drawings, created in our imaginations, like some cosmic join-the-dots book for our childlike wonder and  entertainment. Intellectually we know that these patterns we see are of our own making. The stars we link together are separated from each other by incredible distances – frequently far greater than the closest of them are to us on our rocky little vantage point.

This desire to impose order on the world as it unfolds as a sequence of random events is never more apparent than in the fictional worlds constructed by authors. Here the selection process of a single governing mind imposes an order on the whole by drawing attention to those things within the pattern and ignoring those that are without. Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time imposes such an order through the memoirs of the central character Nick Jenkins. His is the guiding intelligence which assigns significance to some events in his life and ignores others. It is his personal perspective and the reader is sometimes reminded that others have different perspectives when Nick’s character discovers that other characters have placed little significance on the events he has chosen to highlight in his memory.

It is therefore misguided for the reader or critic to suggest that Powell’s complex narrative depends too much on coincidence and accidental meetings. This is to miss the point. The events described are those which fit the pattern the author, through his central character, wishes to see. Events outside the pattern are not recorded. But the pattern is made up of meetings with a circle of people in which the central character moves and so, over the course of his lifetime, it is the many coincidences – comings together of certain groups of friends at different times – which make the cut. Other encounters are left on the writer’s metaphorical cutting room floor.

Already in the second volume the reader is frequently referred back to events and people described, even if only briefly and on the periphery of the previous volume’s vision, for insight into the current events as they unfold. We meet some, but not by any means all, of the boys who have now grown up, left public school and university and are starting to make their way in the world. At this early stage in their careers they are forming alliances which, as the Dance progresses, may turn out to be long-standing partnerships or brief encounters before moving on. This requires the reader, I think, to have read the first volume before the second in order to make full sense of the nuances described. And, this being English Society, nuance and shades of meaning and intent are everything.

Within the episodes, events are elided in mid-paragraph as Nick’s thoughts are drawn from one place and time to another by the similarities and connections his mind retrospectively applies. Thus we slide from an encounter with the artist Deacon in the Louvre just after the conclusion of the first world war, through a dinner attended by Nick several years later at which he observes that Deacon would not have much regard for the people or their house to a chance encounter that same evening with Deacon while making his way home on foot. Distances in space and time are glided over without fuss or remark, relying on the reader to follow the pattern of the Dance.

Nick has matured a little from his student days and has an undemanding job in a publishing house but remains naive when compared with his peers both in respect of “getting on” in his career and in his relations with women. There is a greater preoccupation with sex than in the first volume reflecting this growing maturity but Nick is still unformed. The women in this volume do, however, feature more than in the first volume, notably Gypsy Jones, a free-spirit who apparently sleeps with Deacon (and Craggs a publisher) on a casual basis and when she falls pregnant, manages to persuade Widmerpool that he is responsible and to pay for the abortion. Subsequently she sleeps with Nick on the day of Deacon’s funeral.

However, the women, it is also true, are seen more as adjuncts to or appendages of the men who take the prominent roles. The business tycoon Sir Magnus Donners forms a focal point around which Widmerpool, Stingham and Pardoe circle in search of preferment and is party to a sinister sado-masochistic prank played in a tour of the dungeons of his country castle home with Rosie Manasch as the victim. That the victim is both female and specifically Jewish provides a disquieting moment of insight into the accepted social mores of English Upper-Middle Class of the twenties for a 21st century reader. A similar uncomfortable feeling, though vaguely defined since it relates to an underlying assumption of the narrative rather than a specific incident, is the understanding that “nice girls” don’t and that girls like Gypsy Jones, who do, are not nice and are decidedly not middle class – or are in fact prostitutes. Frequently the female characters will be described in terms of their attractiveness, figure and legs – though in fairness to Powell, this is perhaps an accurate reflection of the perspective of his twenty-something young male central character – but it does make a modern reader pause.

During the course of one conversation, a young, up-and-coming literary critic describes an older writer, St John Clarke, as being a “bad writer” though he is quite content to hypocritically take his money to assist him. It is generally understood that St John Clarke is a thinly veiled portrait of John Galsworthy, so this is a low blow from one writer to another. I would suggest that Powell is in fact weaker, on the evidence of this volume at least, in his portrayal of female characters than either Galsworthy or Trollope, whose portrayals of strong female characters acting within the impossibly tight constraints of the earlier Victorian era for me set the Gold Standard in the creation of truly rounded and insightful portraits of women by a male author of fiction.

Which leads me to my final question, having read this second novel in the sequence. The apostrophe in the title indicates a single Buyer. Now various people in the novel are selling different things – young men are selling their intellect and energy for advancement, women are selling themselves – literally tapping on Nick’s groundfloor windows to drum up custom on slow nights, artists and writers are selling out and compromising their principles; but who is the person that is buying? Is it the person with the most influence? Around whom should society fawn?

 

 

 

 

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