The Goblin Emperor is a 2014 fantasy novel by Sarah Monette writing under the name of Katherine Addison. We find ourselves in an early industrial society of goblins and elves. The emperor and most of his immediate family have been killed in an airship crash. Destiny travels a long way down the line of succession, arriving at the door of young Maia. This unfavoured son has been living in an internal exile with a cruel guardian, after the former emperor cast his mother aside in favour of a new wife.
While the story’s setting is firmly in the fantasy realm, there are many parallels with the real world. Historically, I was reminded of the White Ship disaster of 1120 when a voyage across the Channel went horribly wrong, wiping out most of England’s royal family. Henry I was not aboard the doomed vessel, but the heir and most of his royal siblings all drowned. Mathilda, one the King’s daughters, was left to inherit the throne. Henry tried to get Mathilda recognised as heir, but the nobles weren’t having any of it. England had never had a queen and was not ready to accept one. A period known as the Anarchy followed.
The scenario in The Goblin Emperor is similar, but more positive. Maia, of mixed goblin and elf parentage, is young, inexperienced and lacks training, which all puts him in a rather Mathilda-like position. Inevitably there is a threat of anarchy, which does come close. But as I say, Maia’s story is generally a positive one. Much reading pleasure is derived watching the young man growing into his role, under the guidance and protection of advisors and bodyguards. Maia is no revolutionary, but in just being who he is, a decent and friendly person who has seen the problems of ordinary life, there is real hope for positive change, despite aggressive attempts by the powers-that-be to maintain the status quo. This sense of potential is centred on a project to build a bridge across a large river dividing east from west. In scenes reminiscent of the controversies of Brexit, wealthy and powerful figures want to maintain their monopolies. It is the many ordinary merchants who stand to gain by bridging divides. And it is these people who are given renewed hope by their young emperor.
The Goblin Emperor is a warm story, with a highly sympathetic central character, which has much to say about politics and leadership generally. I admit I did find the names confusing – characters can be referred to by first or last names, or by their titles, all of which might involve many syllables, umlauts and accents. This did leave me feeling a bit lost on occasion. But then Tolstoy had a habit of doing a similar thing and it didn’t do him any harm.
A heartening read with interesting relevance to real events.
The Bridge Of San Luis Rey is Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel about a group of people who, in the summer of 1714, happen to be crossing a Peruvian rope bridge when it collapses. A scientifically inclined friar witnessing the disaster, is so traumatised that he sets out to research the victims’ biographies for reasons explaining their seemingly random fate.
Novels have a contradictory history when it comes to morality. There is a tradition where fictional characters are rewarded or punished according to their choices. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded of 1740 is an early example. But authors are not always fussy school teachers giving marks for good behaviour. In 1748 John Cleland published Fanny Hill, an exact reversal of novels which emphasise virtue – describing the life of a prostitute, who learns to enjoy her work, and use it to find freedom and financial independence.
So, is the God of Thornton Wilder’s book more of a Samuel Richardson or a John Cleland? The Bridge Of San Luis Rey suggests the Almighty could be both or neither. For a start, the vices or virtues of an individual often depend on who you talk to, or what particular aspects of an individual you are considering. And the ‘reward’ or ‘punishment’ is equally ambivalent. Are the victims of disaster good people called to heaven early, or bad people cast into the abyss? Judgement of people is never as straightforward as it seems. The image of the bridge in Thornton Wilder’s novel is an apt one, since instead of easy categories we get a sense of opposites existing together, with a fragile link spanning the gap between them. In a figurative kind of way, maybe the bridge collapses when people stop trying to make a leap of understanding. The Catholic Inquisition looms behind the action in this book, an illustration of human behaviour at its most cruelly judgemental.
This all makes for an intelligent and moving novel, relevant for our own times when there is still a temptation to judge behaviour rather than seek to understand it.
The Penguin Book of Dragons is a fascinating collection of writing referencing this famous mythic beast, with examples dating from about 1500BC, to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
When I was at university in the 1980s, one of my courses covered what was called ‘agitprop’, a kind of aggressive, black and white theatrical style used to push a political agenda. Dragons started out in life with a starring role in what you might call religiously inspired agitprop. Heroes of all religious shades, wishing to acquire an impressive reputation, required a formidable enemy to defeat. The scarier the enemy, the more impressive the chosen one’s triumph. Drawing perhaps on an instinctive fear of snakes, a ferocious, fire-breathing serpent evolved to take on the task of symbolic enemy. For millennia this super snake was a tool, actually more a blunt instrument, used to build up heroes, run down opponents, or maintain discipline – in the ‘go to bed or the monster will get you’ sense. The Loch Ness Monster derived from accounts of this kind. In a more general context the dragon became a symbol of temptation or greed. While Genesis had a serpent persuading Eve to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, later more secular incarnations were characteristically portrayed as guardians of cursed treasure hoards.
So pervasive was dragon imagery, so tied into primeval desires and fears, that early scientists bent themselves out of shape trying to make a mythic animal into a real one. In the case of the Loch Ness Monster, scientific investigations continued until quite recently – a 2019 DNA study of the loch showing a large eel population.
Slowly as the centuries went by, with people became at least a little more rational, these ferocious creatures began to lose their power. Though one scurrilous eighteenth century journalist suggested there were dragons living near Horsham, Sussex, their habitats were generally located in conveniently distant, inaccessible locations, the kind of places that were progressively squeezed away by the advance of knowledge and technology. By the early twentieth century, dragons had been tamed into cute characters in children’s stories, by writers such as Kenneth Grahame and Edith Nesbit.
And yet, all the human characteristics which gave birth to dragons still survive. People remain greedy, vulnerable to temptation, and are still prone to an irrational simplification of complicated situations into an easily digested agitprop. We might be more scientific these days, but irrationality in many ways is still a potent force, as seen in modern conspiracy theories and misinformation. Perhaps The Penguin Book of Dragons presents the trajectory of its narrative a little too neatly. There remain, after all, echoes of former dragon powers in Tolkien’s Smaug, and in the hatchlings of Westeros, which, in the Game of Thrones books, mark the return of a long-lost species of a fire breathing reptile to the world. Perhaps that return in George R.R. Martin’s hugely successful book series is instructive. Maybe dragons continue to lurk, not now in dark corners of the world, but in dark corners of the human mind from whence they originally emerged.
Howard’s End is E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel about three families: the wealthy, materialistic Wilcox clan, the somewhat less wealthy but much more cultured Schlegel siblings, and a working class couple, Leonard and Jacky Bast.
They are all brought together by circumstances, a chance meeting on holiday, or at a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The story of their goings on together raises a number of topics, such as the nature of art, or the need to see life with an open mind. But overall, the subject of change seems to be the most important theme. In some ways we get a picture of a world that really needs a shake up. Leonard Bast is a promising young man with artistic ambitions. But limited means make it very unlikely he will achieve his potential. Helen Schlegel tries to help him, with less than ideal results. Talking of Helen, women have yet to get the vote. However, despite this portrayal of a world in need of development, the book is also about the sadness of change. Old, well-established places represent a steadying distillation of human experience, which cannot be recovered once lost. The book is a constant struggle between a desire for stability and a need to move into the future – all focused on a rambling and attractive former farmhouse on the outskirts of London, called Howard’s End.
Howard’s End is Mrs Wilcox’s special place, where she was born and has lived all her life. Now facing her death, she decides to give the house to Margaret Schlegel, whose London home is soon to be demolished to make way for modern flats. However, when the time comes for Mr Wilcox to honour his wife’s wish, he ignores it.
As the ramifications of this decision unfold, I eventually got the feeling that a rather impossible compromise is required to keep people happy – their lives have to change but also stay the same. This tricky demand is behind Margaret’s house-hunting request, which would challenge even the most creative estate agent:
“We merely want a small house with large rooms, and plenty of them.”
Margaret wants the cosiness of a small home along with space to expand and develop.
This is an interesting book, quite funny in places, usually at the points where artistic or wealthy pretensions get punctured. The school-masterly author voice can be a bit pompous, but its own pretensions sometimes find themselves cut done to size.
Howard’s End still deserves its classic status. After all, people continue to want small houses with big rooms and plenty of them.
The Fear Index is a 2011 novel by Robert Harris describing the fictional background to a stock market crash of 2010. The book describes a scenario where a brilliant American physicist, Alex Hoffman, sacked from his job developing artificial intelligence for CERN starts a new career, stock market trading in Geneva. Building on experience at CERN, he creates a computer system, called VIXAL, which looks for signs of global anxiety, via gloomy news reports, or any other internet source. The system then uses this data to make predictions about what will happen to stock markets, buying and selling in them accordingly.
Hoffman’s computer system is designed to take the scary uncertainty out of trading. VIXAL decides what to buy and sell without fear, or any other emotion. It simply uses measures of anxiety to make logical judgements on what the stock market might do. But this lack of feeling actually creates a frightening situation when the system achieves independent control of itself. First VIXAL starts using the internet to try to engineer situations to provoke fear in Alex Hoffman – since it has been programmed to seek out this emotion. The machine is a bit like a ruthless writer working to provoke scary thrills in a reader, since this is a good way to sell books. Then the system sets up a stock market crash to generate massive profits from betting on a downturn.
It is precisely because the system cannot experience emotion that its evolution to self awareness is so potentially threatening. VIXAL does not know pity or empathy, and will simply act to protect its own interests. The parallels with Frankenstein are interesting, another Monster created on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley’s story is concerned with lost innocence. Similarly, VIXAL, in a sense, is innocent. It doesn’t mean any harm. However, the lack of malice is part of an unfeeling nature which makes the machine all the more dangerous.
In many ways this is a cerebral book, with its Frankenstein parallels, and quotes from Darwin and other thinkers introducing each chapter. But the thoughtful elements are combined effectively with a sense of emotion. Perhaps this is what novels at their best contribute – a view of the world which combines thought, and that other vital component in any understanding of human behaviour, emotion.
Go Tell It On The Mountain is James Baldwin’s 1953 novel about a critical time in the life of a 1930s Harlem teenager. John is a bright boy, trying to come to terms with turbulent family life, and the expectations of future leadership placed upon him by the local African-American Pentecostal church. We also hear much about the background of John’s father and mother and other close relations.
So what will John do? Will he become a preacher as his family expect, or will he embrace secular life? Whatever decision John might make, a biblical quotation hangs over him. One night, John goes to his church, to help out with an evening service. Only a few people turn up, which causes one of the devout congregation to complain about the lack of commitment shown by youngsters these days:
‘The Lord ain’t going to bless no church what lets its young people get so lax, no sir. He said, because you ain’t neither hot or cold I’m going to spit you outen my mouth. That’s the Word.’
The Word seems to require that you settle on one thing or the other, but not wobble in the middle. Ironically, I’ve always thought the sign of a good novel is the way it wobbles in the middle. If you want hot or cold on their own, then you should maybe go for political or religious writing of the more fundamentalist kind.
Go Tell It On The Mountain prevaricates, in all kinds of novel-like ways. Just a few examples – preachers, who are supposed to be examples for their flock, are deeply flawed, hypocritical individuals, while ordinary people who lack outward respectability, running dodgy bars perhaps, have great qualities. There are graphic descriptions of injustice perpetrated by racists, set alongside the seemingly inconsistent theme that there is no black and white where justice is concerned. Fittingly, given the importance of that quote about God spitting fence-sitters out of his mouth, the word ‘mouth’ appears repeatedly, 47 times I discovered – excluding all the many additional mentions of lips and tongues. The mouth is an image of temptation, argument, communication, deception, peace – overall an image of contradiction, which runs throughout Go Tell It On The Mountain.
Go Tell It On The Mountain was an interesting, sometimes harrowing read, which demonstrates what good novels might give us – an appreciation of subtlety in the face of everything that wants to paint the world in black and white. Novels are really the antithesis of sermons, showing rather than telling it on the mountain.
To Say Nothing Of The Dog is an award-winning science fiction novel from 1997 by Connie Willis. It’s a time travel story where people from 2057 end up in a late Victorian world, highly reminiscent of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat. Jerome’s novel is one of my favourites, about three young men enjoying the early days of tourism, taking a rowing jaunt on the Thames.
The journey described in To Say Nothing Of The Dog seems rather different to a boating holiday. Oxford University historians travel through time using ‘The Net’. They run into the fiendish complications of time travel, where changing any detail of events causes an ever-widening ripple effect. The plot revolves around efforts to stop unintended changes to the past causing a disastrous unravelling of history.
Now the plot is complicated – concerned with restoring Coventry Cathedral and saving cats. I won’t go into it. Suffice to say there’s a sense of desperate chasing about, trying to get details lined up, when all such effort is repeatedly thwarted. A better approach seems to involve allowing history to fix itself. This is reminiscent of the holiday taken by Jerome’s three Victorian gentlemen, who attempt to sort out various tangles involving tin openers, or aggressive steam launches, while in the background, the peaceful river runs on regardless. This allows for laughs, as well as philosophical reflections on fate and free will.
Connie Willis’s book has some very enjoyable and amusing sections, particularly once it finds itself on the Thames in the 1880s. That said, I did get the feeling that the writers who acted as influences – Jerome, and also P.G. Wodehouse, would have condensed the 490 pages down to an elegant 200 or so. Nevertheless it doesn’t really matter what I say. To Say Nothing Of The Dog has been very successful, winning multiple prizes and readers. It is now simply part of sci-fi history. Comments that it could do with tightening up, are a bit like saying the Wars of the Roses might benefit from some editing. You can’t change history. It’s best to go with it. Do that and there’s a good chance you will enjoy To Say Nothing Of The Dog.
The Heart Of The Matter is Graham Greene’s 1948 novel about a senior colonial police officer working in a west African country during World War Two. Henry Scobie prides himself on his honesty. However, his unhappy wife, Louise, wants to escape from their stultifying colonial community and take a solo break in South Africa. To pay for Louise’s passage, Scobie compromises himself by accepting a loan from a dodgy business man, when the bank refuses him credit. While his wife is away, Henry falls in love with another woman. This results in much self loathing and inner turmoil, made worse by his Catholic faith which condemns adultery as a mortal sin.
In some ways The Heart Of The Matter reminded me of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a book about a nineteenth century Nigerian chief living his life according to local social expectations, running into the values of European colonial missionaries. Scobie is constantly beating himself up about adultery, when the people he lives amongst don’t seem to know what adultery is. When a local person refers to their sister or brother, Scobie asks the standard question, “same father or mother?” He has got so used to the prevalence of half brothers and sisters, that he doesn’t give a second thought to the possibility of eternal damnation for their adulterous parents. And in his own culture, adultery is actually much more accepted than might be expected for a mortal sin. Scobie encourages his wife’s relationship with a sympathetic man friend because it lightens his emotional load. One part of his mind sees adultery as beyond forgiveness: another part doesn’t really mind if Louise has an affair as long as she’s happy and stops stressing late at night when he’s trying to sleep. And when Louise disappears off to South Africa, she hears about Scobie’s affair from a friend and decides she’d better stop being an absent wife and go back to sort things out. Louise is a devout Catholic, but the theory of adultery as a terrible crime fails to match her level-headed approach to the reality of her relationship problems.
The whole book revolves around this conundrum of the relative nature of vice and virtue, and Henry’s increasingly desperate attempts to balance one against the other, when it isn’t always clear which is which.
There is some interesting use of point of view in The Heart Of The Matter. The book actually opens not from Scobie’s perspective, but from that of a socially awkward undercover officer called Wilson, who has been sent out to check on the work of the police. In a traditional detective story, Wilson would have been the central character uncovering Scobie’s wrong doing. A rather peripheral character would have been the heart of the matter. But in this story there is no such centre. There is no authority to which all questions can be referred. Instead there is a pervading confusion, which in an arbitrary way, can condemn, or confer forgiveness on anyone.
This is an intense read, about an intense, kind hearted, highly self-involved person. But there are a few lighter moments. I enjoyed Scobie’s struggles to entertain a young boy in hospital, when the only books available in the library are heavy, worthy religious tomes – there is nothing so low-brow as a novel on the shelves. He does an admirable job of improvisation, turning a missionary’s dull autobiography into an adventure story about pirates.
The Heart Of The Matter does a similar job, turning a heavy tome about spiritual and moral crisis into a novel that might help its readers step back and see things in a lighter and more forgiving way. For the missionary types in this African town, novels are a vice. The Heart Of The Matter turns them into a virtue.
A Swim In The Pond In The Rain is a book version of George Saunders’ Syracuse University course on fiction writing, taught via a selection of short stories by nineteenth century Russian authors who serve as models for how it might be done.
I’ve read a number of ‘how to write’ books, and many of them warn against things like inconsistent point of view, or the liberal use of adverbs. A Swim In The Pond In The Rain is not so literal. It does have guidance on what makes a good story – give mind to escalation, try to make one thing cause another. But all this is sometimes contradicted by the Russian stories used as illustration. Both causation and escalation are, shall we say, enigmatic in The Nose by Gogol, where a man’s nose takes on a life if it’s own.
Even though it might seem that this book has no straightforward prescription, there is one piece of advice it gives consistently. A writer of fiction is often told to show not tell. This old chestnut is mentioned in passing, referring to Turgenev getting carried away with long physical descriptions in his story The Singers. But showing might not just be about descriptions. The Russian authors we read here are very good at showing complicated situations or characters from all angles, rather than telling a reader what to think about them. Chekhov’s Gooseberries, a story about the nature of happiness, has George commenting:
“The story is not there to tell us what to think about happiness. It is there to help us think about it. It is, we might say, a structure to help us think.”
Our Russian mentors show that good writing, in accepting contradiction, does not push readers to focus on one side of an argument to the exclusion of the other. To me, showing rather than telling, is a straight-forward way of describing the light touch, naturally tolerant nature of good fiction, providing for thought and reflection rather than a set of conclusions.
I really enjoyed this book. I valued the description of writing as a process of many decisions about a sentence, giving the best chance of arriving at a good sentence. This certainly chimed with me. Early in my writing efforts I thought the need for endless fettling meant that I was a hopeless incompetent – but the encouragement here to revise, revise, revise reminded me of the relief I felt coming across a remark of Somerset Maugham. He was talking to M.M. Kaye, at that point a struggling writer, who admitted to spending entire days bogged down on single sentences. Maugham replied: “My dear young woman, that’s the only thing you’ve said to make me think you may be a novelist one day.”
The tone of this book is friendly. The author is someone leading a collaborative thinking effort, rather than telling us what to think. I had a similar tutor at university. She told us that Shakespeare, for all his fame as a great writer, is not actually saying anything. As with Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol, Shakespeare shows us complications but does not tell us what to think about them. All we can do is “maintain the paradoxes” as my tutor said. I didn’t think of that tutor as professor so-and-so, because for all her knowledge, she was more in the business of showing us things to think about, rather than professing – which is the fanciest form of telling. Her classes came to mind as I read A Swim In The Pond In The Rain.
I recently finished A Dance To The Music Of Time by Anthony Powell. Having reviewed each volume, I thought it might be nice to have all the reviews together. So here they are – the Powell Files as my daughter calls them.
A Question Of Upbringing
A Question Of Upbringing is the first novel in Anthony Powell’s twelve novel A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence.
Nick Jenkins is a 1920s public schoolboy, coming to the end of his time at school, before spending a summer in France to improve his language skills. Then he goes to university. And that’s about it. While this does not sound like a compelling outline for a story, A Question Of Upbringing manages to take a seemingly aimless sequence of events and reveal within them a cryptic shape. Perhaps I should use an analogy from music, given the novel’s title, but that title is actually taken from a painting by Poussin. It was a painting which came to my mind as I read the book – the Mona Lisa, no less. Da Vinci used various optical tricks to make his subject’s smile only appear when you are viewing it askance, out of the corner of your eye. Look at the face directly and the smile tends to disappear. A Question Of Upbringing is like that. There is a beautiful pattern to it, but only in the peripheral vision. Also there’s a quiet humour which once again reminded me of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.
I loved A Question Of Upbringing. I reached the end, feeling very glad there were eleven volumes left.
A Buyer’s Market
A Buyer’s Market is the second volume in Anthony Powell’s twelve book A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence. In this instalment, narrator Nick Jenkins is a young man working, in a small way, for a fine art publisher in London. He is living through that time in life when people attempt to establish a career and find a husband or wife, trying to sell themselves, or buy into something. Amongst all the parties, the networking, the dating disasters, the wondering about where to go in life and who to go there with, it’s very difficult to tell who is a buyer or seller. Everyone is both. This blurring of seemingly separate roles is a major theme in the book.
“I used to imagine life divided into separate compartments, consisting, for example, of such dual abstractions as pleasure and pain, love and hate, friendship and enmity…As time goes on, of course, these supposedly different worlds, in fact, draw closer, if not to each other, then to some pattern common to all.”
Nick tries to think about his interactions with people, who ebb and flow through the rooms of house parties. As he studies all this, the strict demarcations of experience seem to dissolve. The buyer becomes the seller, the friend at school who was predicted to be a failure does very well in the City, the frivolous moment – involving, say, a girl tipping sugar over a boy’s head – becomes a poignant sign post, marking an important juncture.
A Buyer’s Market is an account of a specific, wealthy 1920s social milieu, which somehow sees much that lies beyond its confines. This feeling is summed up by lovely lines on the final page, as Nick wanders through the night-time streets of Westminster reflecting on the linked topics of Russian billiards and eternity. These two things might not seem to have much to say about each other, but by the last page I was quite willing to accept that they did.
The Acceptance World
The Acceptance World is the third in Anthony Powell’s twelve volume A Dance To The Music Of Time novel sequence. Nick Jenkins continues narrating the progress of his life amongst London’s wealthy set during the 1930s. While the first two books dealt with school days and young adulthood, Nick and his friends are now in their late twenties, old enough to have moved on from their first jobs, or even their first wives and husbands. Nick, left behind a little, is still on his first job and his first girlfriend. He drifts along, hoping in a vague sort of way to be a writer.
With this in mind, Nick reflects on The Acceptance World, a type of speculative insurance business in which his old school friend, Kenneth Widermerpool, has taken a job.
“If you have goods you want to sell to a firm in Bolivia, you probably do not touch your money in the ordinary way until the stuff arrives there. Certain houses, therefore, are prepared to ‘accept’ the debt. They will advance you the money on the strength of your reputation. It is all right when the going is good, but sooner or later you are tempted to plunge. Then there is an alteration in the value of the Bolivian exchange, or a revolution, or perhaps the firm just goes bust—and you find yourself stung.”
The Acceptance World describes a situation where life is lived at one remove, receiving money you haven’t really got yet, in exchange for stuff you haven’t really delivered. If you think about it, this is reminiscent of the way a reader experiences life at one remove through a book. At a school reunion organised at the Ritz, Widermerpool, gives a speech about 1931’s abandonment of the gold standard – the official break between a bank note and its ability to draw upon gold held at a bank. Today a vault of bullion, ready to pay out on the promise of a note, no longer exists. After the abandonment of the gold standard, we were obliged to just accept a £10 note as worth £10. The paper representation had become valuable for itself. Similarly, you could say that a book is a pile of paper representing some other value. And yet with a a bit of belief from author and reader alike, the paper representation of the world takes on real value and meaning. You can imagine the pages as a pile of cash if you want. Maybe you will find an Anthony Powell fan working in a book shop somewhere, who will accept those pages as legal tender.
And if you read an ebook edition, then the value in its pages even leaves physical paper behind, just like card or phone payments, have left paper bank notes behind. The message about the indefinable nature of value becomes even more relevant.
At Lady Molly’s
At Lady Molly’s is the fourth volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time. Nick Jenkins’ account of his life has reached the mid-1930s. By now even the most unlikely candidates for marriage – Nick himself, and his awkward friend Kenneth Widermerpool – are contemplating settling down.
Mildred Haycock, Widermerpool’s intended, is the sister of Bertha Conyers, wife of General Aylmer Conyers, old friends of Nick’s family. This family is a tangled, extended thing, a sprawling mass of relations, friends, and friends who are distant relations. For the sake of argument, the title of this book puts Lady Molly at the centre – former mistress of Dogdene House during her first marriage. There is a pattern which is difficult to hold onto. This is also true of the psychology of the many characters.
Take General Conyers for example. He spends his retirement breeding poodles to work as gun dogs and pursuing an amateur interest in psychology. Often his insights into personality types seem perceptive. On the other hand, his psychological categories don’t seem to do justice to quirky individuals – tellingly. Conyers’ interest in breeding poodle gun dogs is an exercise in mixing up categories.
You could say that At Lady Molly’s tends to be superficial in its approach, like General Conyer’s retirement psychology. But somehow, the unassuming reflections of Nick, our narrator, catch perfectly that element of subjectivity in human behaviour, the way people shape experience according to their own superficial whims, likes and dislikes. Nick’s laid-back reflections do gain a kind of depth, which a more objective psychological text book, or personality study, would lack. This is a perfect example of what a novel has to offer in looking at life.
As with the previous books in the series, I loved At Lady Molly’s. It’s an easy-going account of other people’s lives, which amidst its entertaining soap opera fun and sly humour, has something insightful to say about how people view the world.
Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant
When you come to review a book, it’s always a matter of choosing some aspect to focus on – themes, writing style, historical context, number of laughs, or whatever it might be. Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant reminds me of writing a review. Author, Anthony Powell looks at his life experience, trying to sum it up in a few hundred pages, which is a bit like a reviewer trying to sum up a novel in a few paragraphs.
In this book, there is an overlap in time with earlier volumes of Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence. We start in the aftermath of World War Two, a bombed-out pub evoking memories of people our narrator, Nick Jenkins, had once met there. Using the pub as a stepping off point, we go back to the 1930s and see aspects of Nick’s life which had been invisible in earlier accounts of this period. He picks up on a different set of details, a different life almost, amongst musical friends we weren’t aware of before.
By looking at a period in his life again, Nick explores familiar, retrospective themes. But this account of different events in a story we thought we already knew, suggests the indefinable nature of life’s patterns. The patterns found today might be different to those discovered tomorrow.
“The name Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant offered one of those unequivocal blendings of disparate elements of the imagination which suggest a whole new state of mind or way of life. The idea of Casanova giving his name to a Chinese restaurant linked not only the East with the West, the present with the past, but also, more parochially, suggested by its own incongruity an immensely suitable place for all of us to have dinner that night.”
As usual with these novels, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is very funny in an understated way. This instalment also had rather more drama and tragedy than usual, all of which we missed the last time.
And that is my review. I could write a different one next week, but this is my best effort for now.
The Kindly Ones
The Kindly Ones – book six in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence – begins around 1914, with an extended description of Nick’s boyhood in an isolated hilltop bungalow near Aldershot. His home-tutor tries to teach Nick a few facts about Greek mythology.
“At lessons that morning – the subject classical mythology – Miss Orchard had spoken of the manner in which the Greeks, because they so greatly feared the Furies, had named them the Eumenides – the Kindly Ones – flattery intended to appease their terrible wrath.”
While young Nick Jenkins has lessons with Miss Orchard, his family have minor crises. Mr Jenkins endures hassles related to his army career. He has to prepare the house for a visit from his friend, General Conyers. The maid is in love with the cook, but the cook doesn’t love her back. There are embarrassments related to a neighbour who, having set himself up as a guru, takes his followers on runs through the hills near the Jenkins’ house. All of these problems are generally blown out of proportion by Mr Jenkins, the sense of over-reaction strengthened by the approach of a problem called World War One. Then we jump forward to Nick’s life in the late 1930s, when he has established a desultory career as a book reviewer and not very famous author. This time of personal trials – awkward parties, the death of a difficult uncle whose paltry affairs it falls to Nick to put in order – is all once again overshadowed by the threat of war, World War Two this time.
As always, the charm of Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time books lies in the easy-going nature of Nick’s narrative – the way he deflates pretensions, whether displayed by pompous school friends, international business tycoons with odd relationship tastes, womanising stockbrokers, or gurus leading his people to enlightenment in the hills above Aldershot. Even war has its pomposity punctured when, through the eyes of young Nick, a possible German invasion is viewed as something like “a visit to the dentist or ultimately going to school.”
And yet it is quite clear that war is not really like going to school or the dentist. Young Nick is to learn that many of the fathers of children he plays with will become casualties. It’s also the case that the minor problems which Nick contrasts with the looming threat of war, are themselves not as minor as they seem. There is undoubted pain in some of the small, household dramas described in the first part of The Kindly Ones. The maid, Billson loves the cook, Alfred. When Alfred decides to marry a woman from Bristol, Billson has a breakdown. She appears naked in the living room, and has to be shepherded away by General Conyers. The story of Billson is a kind of family joke, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t a story of real pain. Especially so in the strait-laced social context of the time, a person appearing naked in a drawing room on a formal occasion when guests are being entertained, would represent a most terrible sort of collapse. In both the big and small events of life, Furies appear disguised as Kindly Ones.
In the early months of World War Two, nothing much seems to happen. Nick finds it hard to concentrate on writing. He does his best to pull strings to get into the Army, because it is the done thing. There is nothing as dramatic and painful as Billson’s collapse. Conversation typically combines such diverse topics as marriage problems, the welfare of displaced cats and the threat of air raids. Big and small things are balanced together with skill and sensitivity. The book has a kindly voice, which hints at darker depths, and also lifts a reader out of them. If you are living through ordinary times and want to read about Earth-shattering events, The Kindly Ones has something for you. If you are living through significant events and want some light-hearted relief, The Kindly Ones has something for you. And finally, if you are enduring apparently ordinary times which have their own hidden stress and drama, which no one acknowledges, then The Kindly Ones has something for you.
The Valley Of Bones
The Valley of Bones is the seventh instalment in Anthony Powell’s twelve volume account of life amongst the twentieth century London smart set – though now with the Second World War underway, life is not so smart anymore. Our narrator, Nick Jenkins, is a junior army officer, looking after a platoon of men training for combat. In these circumstances champagne is a cup of tea after getting hungry and wet conducting mock reconnaissance in the Northern Ireland countryside.
For me, The Valley of Bones was reminiscent of other great novels of military life – From Here To Eternity, The Naked And The Dead, or War And Peace. In all of these books the military becomes a kind of magnifying glass through which we can view the relationship of order and disorder in society. For all these novels the order part of things isn’t about legendary commanders making world-shaking decisions; while the disorder aspect isn’t just about spectacular battles. In fact, these famous military novels tend to focus on small details, mundane routine, or petty political struggles. Battles might take place, but they are depicted in terms of ordinary people rather than ‘heroes’. It is the same with The Valley Of Bones. The Valley Of Bones has no battles as such. The closest we get is a military exercise where an overzealous commander, trying to do everything by the book, dithers around and gets in a hopeless muddle. That is the kind of combination of order and chaos explored by The Valley Of Bones – it’s all about regulation-folded blankets, getting drunk, falling in love with inappropriate local girls, forgetting helmets on parade and investigating stolen cheese.
So if you’re looking for an actioner this might not be the book for you. However, as Nick says at one point:
“Action might have confused the issue by proving too exciting. Action is, after all, exciting rather than interesting.”
This is definitely a book offering interest rather than action,
The title of The Valley Of Bones comes from a biblical passage, about piles of bones in a valley coming to life as an army, once God breathes life into them. This miraculous transformation is a bit like expecting people made of printed words on the pages of a book to suddenly take on a life of their own. But Powell’s characters do come to life – not because they are military supermen, but because they are people. Once again the interest of The Valley Of Bones derives from its depiction of recognisable daily life rather than spectacular action. If you accept this, then The Valley Of Bones will be up there with the great military novels. I really enjoyed it.
The Soldier’s Art
I’ll start this review of The Soldier’s Art by referring you to the 1982 action film, Rambo. A soldier, recently returned from Vietnam, struggles to adjust to civilian life. His frustrations lead him to take fiery retribution against vindictive small-town police. The authorities call in a former commanding officer to pass on a stern warning about shooting ‘friendly civilians’.
“There are no friendly civilians,” comes John Rambo’s world-weary reply.
Strange as it may sound, The Soldier’s Art reminded me of this film. Yes, they seem very different – one an action movie, and the other a volume of Anthony Powell’s twelve-part novel about life amongst London’s twentieth century smart set. Rambo shoots up police stations, while Powell’s narrator Nick Jenkins ponders on Robert Browning poems, and deals with mundane army business – trying to help the drunken commanding officer of the army laundry, for example. But I don’t think Powell would have minded the comparison with a Hollywood action movie, since his book characteristically shows opposites as two sides of the same coin. Rambo is neither a solider nor a civilian. He is stuck in the middle. Nick, similarly, does his best to live up to military duties, whilst remaining a civilian at heart, continuing to love the literature and culture of his peacetime life. Nick’s in-between situation is also reflected in his army rank. He is a middling officer, who finds himself dealing with two school friends, one who has achieved seniority above him, while the other works as a mess waiter, serving him food and drink. These varied fates for his friends seem neither expected nor deserved, the result of a capricious fate that can send people any which way for no good reason. From his ambivalent half-way viewpoint, Nick does his best to deal with many other apparent clashes of opposites, whether that’s between countries in wartime, men and women who don’t get on in their marriage, bombed-out houses which look perfectly normal from the outside, a time of war which is also largely a time of boredom, or deadly air raids going unnoticed because of the noise of conversation in a restaurant. There’s also the sense that ordinary people are more heroic than fictional military heroes – since Powell’s everyday folk have to deal with great challenges without having any special abilities to do so.
The motto of the army laundry, with which Nick has dealings, is Quis Separabit, meaning ‘who shall separate us’ a motto shared with the Irish Guards apparently. Laundries and fighting units adopt the same motto. Quis Separabit is a sentiment that neatly summarises The Soldier’s Art, a book which takes a time of war and shows how all the oppositions of life are not as black and white as they seem. There’s always a kind of peace treaty going on between them.
The Military Philosophers
The ninth book of Anthony Powell’s twelve volume A Dance To The Music Of Time series, The Military Philosophers sees Nick Jenkins, former writer and critic, settled in his World War Two army career. After serving as a junior infantry officer, he transfers to military liaison, helping smooth relations between Britain and its various allies.
A Dance To The Music Of Time has generally been about the peculiar patterns that emerge as time makes its apparently aimless, sometimes chaotic, progress. In this wartime period, life is both more rigid – dominated by uniforms, military regulation, limitation of movements and freedom – and yet more uncertain. From this basic irony arises all the complexity of this remarkable novel. With an apparently humble role in Whitehall, Nick’s quiet observations now reach through to the heart of government – a good place to look at the relationship of order and disorder. There are civil servants who spend their lives fettling tiny details, while other more flamboyant figures take reckless risks. Nick follows a middle path as usual, his military rank a middling one, his approach to risk and caution, discipline and rebelliousness, a lesson in compromise. Sometimes this half-way house seems a place where personal power is at its most limited. The previous volume had described Nick’s efforts to look after those below him in rank. In The Military Philosophers, it’s the generals who require attention to their every whim. Nick reminded me of someone at that time of life when you are still looking after children, while also finding it increasingly necessary to care for ageing parents.
However, towards the end of the book, Nick has a moment of unexpected power. With the war almost over, volatile young men in the Belgian resistance, until this point fighting their common German enemy, show signs of falling out amongst themselves. It is thought vital to evacuate these men to Britain where they can receive army training. Getting this to happen quickly seems a hopeless task. But Nick’s intermediate position means he knows lots of people. Not isolated by exalted or humble rank, he links everything up – a liaison officer in more ways than one. It’s just a matter of talking to a few friends who can make a difference; and within days, against all the laws of bureaucratic inertia, those twitchy young Belgians are shipped off for their training. Now the middle, buffeted by demands from all sides, becomes the most powerful place to be. Nick single-handedly prevents civil war in Belgium. But it’s best not to bring any attention to these actions, which certainly failed to follow the usual stodgy chains of command. Rather than making a big thing of his success, Nick just quietly gets on with arrangements for looking after representatives of allied nations at a thanksgiving service to mark the war’s end.
This service, in St Paul’s Cathedral, brings together people from many nations and stations of life. It’s an event that really gives focus to the sense that whether you are a great leader, humble follower, or someone in-between, there is always a chance to play your part in events that often seem to have a life of their own. This coincides with a feeling in The Military Philosophers that a person’s eminence, or lack of it, is as much down to luck as anything else. Some people win awards for bravery, some are given awards for political reasons, while the bravery of others happens unacknowledged and out of sight. Everyone, in one way or another, has a place at the service of thanksgiving, celebrating the achievement of getting through the war. This scene serves as a fitting end to a fascinating and humane book.
Books Do Furnish A Room
Books Do Furnish A Room, is the tenth instalment of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time.
In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, narrator Nick Jenkins attempts to gather the threads of his old life as a writer. He joins a small publishing firm called Quiggin and Craggs. The mild-mannered, middle-of-the-road Nick is rather out of place at a company that specialises in radical, left wing political material. But a job’s a job, especially in these dark, austere, post-war years when publishing is at its lowest ebb, “owing to a shortage of paper, and governmental restrictions of one kind or another”. Nick does his best, producing book reviews, and in an echo of his wartime military liaison role, looking after relations between the company and its star writer, X. Trapnel. In his spare time he works on a study of Robert Burton’s An Anatomy of Melancholy.
The post-war setting of Books Do Furnish A Room is undeniably bleak. Friends have been lost in tragic circumstances, bomb damage is everywhere, there are food shortages, power cuts and freezing weather. It is little wonder that Nick has turned his attention to Robert Burton’s famous work about sadness. Nevertheless, Books Do Furnish A Room retains the familiar humour of the Dance series. I often found myself chuckling. How to find happiness in a time of misery? That’s the question Nick seems to be trying to answer.
War has produced the dark world in which Nick now scrapes a living and looks for his secret of contentment. As during the war, he finds himself surrounded by people holding divergent and sometimes extreme views. The possibility of conflict is as real as ever. Nick, in his usual middling place, is trying to keep the peace. At least he is not alone there. He is joined in many ways by the manager of his publishing company, a man known as ‘Books Do Furnish A Room Bagshaw’. Books Bagshaw takes an approach to management favoured by some politicians – studiously never really giving away what he believes in, if indeed he believes in anything. As people argue about their strongly-held views, you begin to wonder if the best books, the ones most conducive to increasing the store of human happiness, might be those that don’t express very much. After all, Books Bagshaw keeps his volatile staff together by bantering his way along in a superficial manner. His nickname – which incidentally is perhaps derived from words uttered when drunken attempts to retrieve an inaccessible volume brought a massive bookcase down on his head – is not a phrase suggesting significant and meaningful relations with books. They serve as pleasant wallpaper. Given the troublesome passions stirred by significance and meaning, ‘books do furnish a room’ could be the mantra for those of a moderate disposition at a time when the world has been wrecked by conflict.
Fittingly, Books Do Furnish A Room shows writers not as great artists creating deathless, meaningful prose, but as chaotic, variously flawed individuals leading less then ethereal lives. The portrayal of writer X. Trapnel, for example, is a masterpiece in hilarious characterisation. An eccentric young man who loves the romantic idea of being a writer, he hams it up for all he is worth, acting out different, contradictory versions of the creative life, while living in squalor. The superficial charm of Trapnel’s author glamour persuades a sequence of young women to live with him. They all leave, once they experience the reality of not having enough money for the electricity meter, and sitting in pubs listening to the exposition of endless, boring literary theories. It is Trapnel’s misfortune to finally fall in love with the dreadful Pamela Widermerpool, a sociopath who spreads disaster wherever she goes. Between the effect of Pamela’s baleful influence and his own chaotic lifestyle, Trapnel fails to produce great work. Nevertheless his sad story coincides with reassurance that greatness is probably not the way to happiness. Books will end up looking decorative on a shelf, no matter how mediocre or great they are. There is something in that very lack of significance which, in the end, is the best promise of peace and happiness following a time of war.
So if Nick finds happiness, he does not do so via any esoteric wisdom, but in the day to day events of life, which are available for anyone to enjoy. In that sense Books Do Furnish A Room is reassuring, a deceptively light novel with a message that light novels have something important to impart. This book, as part of a massive twelve volume sequence, is hugely ambitious, and yet humble and self effacing. As usual, the awful, self-congratulatory, recurring character of Kenneth Widdmerpool, continuing ever upwards in his ambitious trajectory, shows what happens when humility is missing from aspiration. It all makes for a beguiling combination which I very much enjoyed. I’ve loved all the Dance books, but if pushed I have to say this might be my favourite so far.
Temporary Kings is the penultimate novel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence. We have followed Nick Jenkins through school days and young adulthood, into his early career as a writer. Temporary Kings opens with Nick having become a rather successful author, eminent enough to make up the numbers at a fancy writers’ conference in Venice. Success, however, has not gone to his head, the schedule of talks on such topics as the role of the writer in world government, holding little interest for him. Instead he prefers wandering about in the pleasant company of Dr Brightman, a very knowledgeable historian. She takes Nick to a Venetian mansion, to see a ceiling painting – Candaules and Gyges by Tiepolo. They both stare up at Greek king Candaules, secretly showing off his beautiful wife at bedtime to his friend Gyges, hiding behind a curtain. This painting sets the tone for the book, where voyeurism is a central theme.
Voyeurism is about having a special and unusual view into other people’s lives – a bit like reading a book really. Certainly, for Gyges, chief officer and friend of King Candaules, the opportunity of seeing a naked queen does not come along everyday. But Gyges also realises that the chance to see what is usually hidden, comes with danger attached, only reluctantly agreeing to the plan at the king’s insistence. As it turns out, Gyges was right to be worried. The queen spots the voyeur when he tries to slip away. Furious at her husband’s self-satisfied act of betrayal, she confronts Gyges and offers him two choices: he can either be executed, or he can marry her and murder Candaules, reigning in his place. There isn’t much choice but to accept the latter option, which makes the servant into a king he never wanted to be.
As I read on through the book, the issues in the painting did not seem to be confined to the musings of intellectuals in Venice. Recent history is a process where once rarefied experience becomes accessible generally. Royals wear something, which people adopt as popular fashion. Stately homes are opened to everyone to enjoy, which can only be a good thing. Increasingly, a world confined to a few, particular people becomes available to many. But what happens at the extremes of this process? There are all kinds of monarchs of many different worlds – political, scientific, medical. Can we peek into these worlds, via YouTube videos perhaps, and think we can rule those territories ourselves? Is that peek, that little bit of knowledge, a dangerous thing? When there are no monarchs left, could that be a risky situation? In the previous Dance volume, we met the publisher, Books Do Furnish A Room Bagshaw. Time has moved on, Bagshaw moving with it. He is is now a TV producer. I think Temporary Kings sees television as a voyeuristic medium, more so perhaps than books which require a greater measure of involvement from the reader. As Tiepolo’s painting makes clear, voyeurism has been with us for a long time. Books themselves can act in this way. Even so, it might be said that Temporary Kings is a meditation on the consequences of cultural changes that emphasise voyeurism.
Meanwhile, mild-mannered Nick Jenkins, as usual, does not claim profound insight. Typically his writing is humble in its approach, dealing with day to day events. Even as a well-known writer, he ignores those conference talks on the writer’s supposed role in world government. Temporary Kings quietly suggests accepting our limited view of the world, and using it to better appreciate how things really are. Nick ends his book walking through London watching an antique car rally go by. This might not seem like a dramatic denouement, but after witnessing the fate of characters such as Kenneth Widermerpool, and his scary wife Pamela, who were both voyeurs, perhaps we come to further appreciate the value of Nick’s more polite outlook.
Temporary Kings is funny, dramatic in a restrained kind of way, and intriguingly relevant to our modern situation.
Hearing Secret Harmonies
Hearing Secret Harmonies is the last of twelve volumes in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence.
I really enjoyed these books. They provided company during a tough year, even came with me into hospital at one point. I felt compelled to write something that did them justice. But after a lot of flailing around I eventually took my cue from Hearing Secret Harmonies itself, a book which would advise against beating yourself up in trying to bring a series of reviews to an impressive conclusion. Endings, at least as far as fiction is concerned, are usually presented in terms of tying up loose threads, solving mysteries, romantic protagonists getting together. But Nick Jenkins, our narrator, suggests that real endings in life are not like that. Real endings are occasionally triumphs, but more often they involve collapse, petering out, disaster, anticlimax. And even triumphs only last for a little while before you have to try again.
At one point, Nick Jenkins recounts a sad story, told to him by one of his friends
“It seemed to start so well, and end so badly. Perhaps that’s how well constructed stories ought to terminate.”
Since endings in life rarely tie up anything, maybe the best story endings have the same ambivalence. After following Nick from his childhood in the 1910s, through university, a period of youthful parties, an early career as a writer, interrupted by the war and then taken up again with increasing success through the post war years, Hearing Secret Harmonies ends in Nick’s old age. We are in the late 1960s and early 70s, a revolutionary time, which aspires to close a door on the past. And yet things have not really changed. Nick attends an art event where some of the guests wear white ties and black tail coats, while a more rebellious “artistic” constituency goes in for knock-about-the-studio garb, teamed with beards and long hair.
“… the rebels themselves seem as much survivors from an early nineteenth-century romantic bohemianism, as swallow-tailed coats and medals recalled the glittering receptions of the same era.”
The dancers in the Poussin painting A Dance To The Music Of Time – which inspired the title for this sequence of novels – move in all kinds of wild ways, but they do so going in a circle.
This of course makes the book sound deep and meaningful, which whilst true is nevertheless misleading. As always with Nick, we are in the company of someone who is moderate and easygoing, We wander into art galleries, attend wedding receptions, gossip with old acquaintances. There’s a characteristic irony about A Dance To The Music Of Time as a whole, which sees various mystically inclined characters – eccentric gurus, abstruse astrologers and the like – sounding ridiculous as they say things about the circle of life, only for Nick’s chit-chat to often suggest sentiments of a very similar nature. With Nick you get deep and meaningful in a relaxed, reassuringly superficial kind of way. He can make the point that life goes in circles, without, for example, having any inclination to join in with naked dancing around Stone Age monuments at midnight. Nick is too humble and self effacing to make a definite final point about life or happiness or anything else. There are no definite, final points with Nick. That’s why a sense of continuity is more persuasive coming from him than from say, someone who goes in for rituals around standing stones.
If you want deep and meaningful, it is here. If you want relief from deep and meaningful than that is here too. A good novel shows rather than tells. In the end, I would suggest that Anthony Powell, like all good authors, shows you something with an invitation to take what you need. He does not need to tell you what to take.