In this, the tenth volume in Powell’s sequence of novels, we now reach the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. He is naturally drawn to parallels with the equivalent period after the end of the First World War. In the opening chapter, Jenkins returns to his old university to carry out research for a book he is writing and has tea with Sillery, the professor whose afternoon teas featured in chapter four of the very first novel in the sequence, A Question of Upbringing, when Jenkins was an undergraduate at the beginning of the nineteen-twenties. In the closing chapter, Jenkins goes back to his old school to make arrangements for his own son to attend and encounters his former house master, the subject of a schoolboy prank related in the first book, who is still working there, now an octogenarian librarian at the school.
The book also features in chapter five one of those slippery, unannounced shifts in time that were such a feature of the earlier books in the sequence but which had been abandoned as a technique in the last novels set during the war and in the first four chapters of this volume, which had remained strictly chronological in their narrative. This instance is prefaced by a brief interjection from the narrator, attributing it to one of this volume’s new characters, himself an author, on the problems of framing a narrative – in short, where to begin. This meta-narrative is a welcome return to the earlier, distinctive, form which most accurately reflects the way the human mind works, retrospectively creating patterns and through selection of events to piece together, repaints the picture of life as art. In modern parlance, the events, treated as images, are Photoshopped to create a new, more sharply focused reality which is more real than the mundane reality it replaces.
The title for this volume is taken from the nickname given to one of the principal characters. Typically there is some uncertainty about how this nickname was acquired and Powell recites two conflicting accounts of how Bagshaw, to whom the name is given and who is usually referred to by its shortened form as plain “Books”, was led to use the phrase originally, without any indication of which might be the true version. Indeed, there is an essential truth in this phrase. Two of the most impressive rooms I can recall visiting are the library of Trinity College, Dublin and the former British Library reading room which stood in the central court of The British Museum, the walls of its circular form filled with galleries of books rising precipitously from floor to ceiling.
I would go further and say that the libraries of houses are a unique and unerring window on the characters of the occupants. A perusal of the contents of their library shelves will reveal the tastes of the owners. It will also reveal any snobbish instincts or desire to impress others through the ostentatious display of works that are highly praised but little read. Whenever I visit a stately home, I invariably check the bookshelves and see whether in amongst the worthy tomes of “improving” character there are salacious volumes such as Richardson’s Clarissa. Such finds are akin to the discovery of a dog-eared paperback copy of Fifty Shades of Grey on a modern bookshelf alongside editions of Austen, Dickens and Trollope.
Powell himself observes this trait in this volume with the posthumous revalation that Erridge’s personal library contains not only the obligatory left wing political tracts that are to be expected given his support for such causes but also bound editions of Boy’s Own type comics betraying his tenacious, lifelong clinging to the heroic, otherworldly chivalry of his boyhood. Such acute observations are the flashes of brilliance which set the great novelists apart.