Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant

I was always taught to structure anything I wrote giving it a Beginning, a Middle and an End. If we ignore the spellchecker which just transformed that into a Beginning, a Muddle and an End this might be restated as: say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said – the classic introduction, subject, conclusion structure. Powell messes with this formula throughout his A Dance to the Music of Time, but nowhere more clearly than in the fifth volume, Casanova’s Chines Restaurant. He abandons linear narrative so thoroughly that within the first two pages the reader is taken from a memory of a post-war incident to the pre-war incident which took place at the same location during which the narrator Jenkins recalled a prior event at the same location with Moreland (pictured above in the cover illustration), whom he has introduced as his companion at the time of the intervening event as well, saying he is one of his most long-standing friends despite this being the first occasion he is mentioned in the sequence of novels. One is tempted to wonder if this is a deliberate, long-planned introduction of this character or if this is merely a convenience for the writer who found he needed a new character at this point in the cycle to address ideas he only now had come up with and wished to expand upon.

Whichever side of the planned/unplanned divide you fall, as a reader Owell now uses this device of multiple parallel developments to present a series of perspectives on relationships and in particular marriages through highlighted contrasts in the relationships of the narrator Nick’s in laws. Being a large family, this offers scope for both successful and unsuccessful marriages to be scrutinised closely.

He does this by focussing on different aspects in each relationship. Rather than creating a single coherent, orderly whole this gives a multi-angled, conflicting but ultimately deeper and broader rendering of his subject, resembling more the disturbing, fragmentary, cubist imagery of Picasso which somehow says more about a violin as a music-making instrument than any realist representation ever could.

Indeed Powell here introduces a group of musicians and music-critics, having previously focused on literary figures and painters and sculptors whose art is necessarily static. Attempting to capture one art form, music, that exists in time in another art form, literature, which is similarly temporal creates its own challenges. Both music and literature may be captured on the page but are not  pinned down by this process. A musical score can be realised in radically different ways by different performers. A novel requires the active engagement of the reader to produce a sequence of mental images based on the words taken from the page. No two readers will produce identical internal images (even if both have, for example, seen the same illustrations of key scenes – indeed the extent to which such visual cues may be ignored by the reader if they conflict with a prior mental image conceived by the reader can be huge). Thus each reader’s construction is unique and personal. Indeed it may be changeable as the reader progresses through a novel. Just as the musician can only read a single page of a score at a time and the reader can only be reading a single page of a novel at a given time, each reading of that fragment of the whole is coloured by knowledge of the whole (whether this is a first teading or a re-reading). Indeed this may be one of the great joys of re-reading a familiar text: that details which hitherto had escaped the reader are suddenly and delightfully brought into sharp focus.

Which may serve as my excuse for returning periodically to familiar novels to re-read them and enjoy fresh insights into the author’s vision.


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