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?
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 is a meditation on the idea of 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 a modern situation where many people believe that after peeking into rarified worlds of knowledge via a few videos, they can be rulers of those worlds, seeing what the king sees. This book presents a more traditional sense that some views are privileged and should stay that way. In the typical moderate Nick Jenkins manner, you would need to be careful how far you took that point, which the book’s complexities allow for, but given present circumstances there is much we could take from Temporary Kings.