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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