Books Do Furnish A Room, By Anthony Powell – The Power Of Decorative Bookshelves

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 job, 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.

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