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 themes of finding retrospective patterns. 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 this series, 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.
That’s my review. I could write a different one next week, but this is my best effort for now.
Writing has long been speculative, concerning itself with what might happen, imagining future possibilities, weighing up decisions and consequences. 5th century BC playwright, Euripides, wrote a kind of alternative history in his play Medea. Shakespeare’s Hamlet describes a young man agonising over different options and how they might play out.
In some ways it is clear that life only gives us one chance to make a decision, hence Hamlet’s paralysing desire to make the right one. This is an important topic, because potentially if you make the wrong call, you might end up with something like, oh I don’t know, World War Two. In the 1930s, the British government decided against taking military action to suppress Hitler’s growing power. Condemning this decision became an accepted part of history. Anthony Eden, who was foreign secretary in the 1930s, became prime minister in 1955. An overwhelming desire to rewrite the past drove him into the Suez Crisis of 1956, where he tried to take what he saw as preemptive action against a budding dictator – in this case, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. The military operation against Nasser was a disaster, which made Britain look like a bully of smaller nations. Tony Blair made the same mistake for the same reasons when he agreed to support the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Heraclitus said – you can never step into the same river twice. There is only one chance to make a choice. Suez in the 1950s and Iraq in the 2000s were different rivers to Germany in the 1930s.
So given these high stakes, perhaps a story serves to help us imagine what might happen in the future, given a certain set of present circumstances – so that when the time comes we have a better chance of doing the right thing. Margaret Attwood defines speculative fiction as writing that deals with possibilities in a society that have not been enacted but are latent. Perhaps a story like TheHandmaid’s Tale – and others like Nineteen Eighty Four, or Fahrenheit 451 – help us avoid dark possibilities by imagining them ahead of time. In this sense, stories can sometimes serve as a kind of early warning system. People ask where writers get their ideas. One source would be a pile of rubbish somewhere, which might catch fire in the future. A story about this potential fire, could persuade us to do some house-keeping, averting disaster before it happens. Indeed it appears that there is a system known as SciFutures, used by NATO amongst others, where fiction writers try to imagine the future and allow better planning for it.
On the other hand it is difficult to really view stories as imaginative briefing scenarios for politicians, military planners, civil servants, or fire chiefs. After all, Hamlet is not a morality tale about making the right decision. It’s more about the paralysis that comes when we fret too much about making the right decision. Many stories show that different outcomes, better in some ways, worse in others, are no more correct overall. Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is a recent story of this type. Going back to history, who knows what might have happened if the British government had actually decided to take action against Hitler in the 1930s. Britain’s armed forces were under strength at that time and public opinion was firmly against war. Any attempted military operation could have turned into a kind of Suez disaster, serving only to hand Hitler a propaganda advantage. In that scenario, pre-war prime minister Neville Chamberlain would now be known for his reckless use of force rather than for his support for appeasement.
With this in mind it is undeniable that while stories can serve as early warning systems, the quiet, meditative business of reading often shows us that decisions are not as decisive as they seem. I mentioned Heraclitus earlier, that 5th century BC Greek philosopher who said you can never step into the same river twice. There was another philosopher around at about the same time, who felt differently. His name was Parmenides. Rather than seeing the world in terms of constant change, Parmenides saw it as timeless and uniform. He thought it didn’t really matter what decision you made, because nothing really ever changed. Much storytelling reflects this view – The Midnight Library, we have already mentioned. Honourable mention could also go to Groundhog Day, about weatherman Phil Connors, who is condemned to live the same day over and over again. He can only escape by accepting his situation, learning to make changes to his routine, which eventually make his day a good one. Phil has endless chances to try again because essentially his day is always the same.
So stories are often about vital decisions – about what might happen if we make the wrong ones – but other stories show us that choice is more mysterious. Stories help us ask questions about the future, but also help us relax and accept whatever happens – as Parmenides said, whatever is is and what is not cannot be.
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 amongst London’s smart set 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. Everything in the book hangs together like this kaleidoscope of family, friends, and acquaintances. 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 that 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 important 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
For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing is a thriller set in an expensive American private school, hot-housing the children of wealthy parents for admission to top universities.
Many of its characters follow the philosophy of the title, acting towards others in a way that might seem harsh in the short term, only because there is promise of long term gain. This could be as straightforward as a teacher pushing a student to work hard at school to improve their job prospects in adult life. But much more bizarre scenarios then develop, where the present pain increases and long term gain is harder to fathom. It’s like the religious idea that you suffer here on Earth to prepare you for a better life in the hereafter, when it is often difficult to see how the suffering is actually helping. This parallel is clear in the character of Teddy Crutcher, a quietly insane English teacher. Crutcher deals out arbitrary retribution to students – and fellow teachers – who he feels would benefit from a few life lessons. One of his gentler bits of educational suffering involves giving his class the job of reading Danté’s The Divine Comedy, a decision which student Zach Ward reflects bitterly upon…
The Divine Comedy? A punishment – Zach knows that. Or maybe a judgment, given how much he hates everyone. ‘I have allotted four weeks in total for The Divine Comedy,’ Crutcher says. ‘Which means you should finish the first book, Inferno, by next week. Pay particular attention to who ends up in each ring of hell and why. Hypocrites, for example. Or thieves.’ Maybe that’s it, Zach realizes. Maybe Crutcher thinks of himself as a god, and it’s his job to punish people.
The story is told through the eyes of many characters, both amongst teaching staff and students. Each person is trying to see the complete picture. Some are even trying to control the complete picture. But nobody has this omniscience, not Teddy Crutcher, not his persecuted student Zach Ward, or the evangelical maths teacher Frank Maxwell; not even the reader, who sees bits and pieces as the story unfolds. What is the big plan? If we are suffering, what is the reason behind it?A thriller is a good place to deal with such questions, since thrillers rely on doubt as much as revelation to keep you reading. They show that not knowing the plan can be as compelling as finding answers.
I thought this was an excellent novel. There’s a light and humorous tone, despite the murderous subject matter. The many points of view were well handled. And it has this interesting theme about people going through trials for some greater good, which is both a delusion and a kind of bizarre reality.