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Wednesday, 4 July 2018

A Dance to the Music of Time (5 of 12)

The first four volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time are reviewed in earlier blogs.

Anthony Powell’s 1960 novel Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant begins in the late 1920s and is again narrated by Nick Jenkins, and reveals in flashback his first meetings with Mr Deacon (deceased in the previous book), Maclintick, Gossage, Carolo and Moreland. As before, there is little emotion in the narrative: ‘I listened to what was being said without feeling…’ (p29) – which could apply to the story so far, really. 

His friends Maclintick, Moreland and Barnby are intent on going to Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant. Apparently, ‘there used to the New Casanova, where the cooking was Italian and the decoration French eighteenth century. Further up the street was the Amoy, called by some Sam’s Chinese Restaurant. The New Casanova went into liquidation. Sam’s bought it up and moved over their pots and pans and chopsticks, so now you can eat treasure rice, or bamboo shoots fried with pork ribbons, under panels depicting scenes from the career of the Great Lover.’ (p32)

Powell’s narrator doesn’t involve the reader greatly in the scenes: ‘Maclintick and Barnby ordered something unadventurous from the dishes available; under Moreland’s guidance, I embarked upon one of the specialities of the house.’ (p34) You have to wonder if Powell could actually name any Chinese dishes; and the phrase ‘from the dishes available’ seems superfluous, as would ‘from the menu’.

Following from these reminiscences, we move to the 1930s and Nick reveals he has been married to Isobel, ‘perhaps a year’. (p58) The scandal about Mrs Simpson and, ultimately, The Abdication, is the talk of the town.

Lady Warminster is quite a character. She was ‘prone to fortune-tellers and those connected with divination. She was fond of retailing their startling predictions.’ (p74) Echoes of Nick’s Uncle Giles’s friend Mrs Erdleigh! One of her statements about the novelist St John Clarke: 'I always think one ought to be grateful to an author if one has liked even a small bit of a book’ (p75) is damning with faint praise indeed! By now, Clarke was ‘forgotten by the critics but remembered fairly faithfully by the circulating libraries…’ (p80)

Nick had lost touch with Widmerpool, primarily because his wife Isobel didn’t care for the man. ‘In any case I should never have gone out of my way to seek him, knowing, as one does with certain people, that the rhythm of life would sooner or later be bound to bring us together again.’ (p101)

When we do meet Widmerpool, he is more pompous than ever: ‘I regret to say that few, if any, of my school contemporaries struck me sufficiently favourably for me to go out of my way to employ their services… It is one of my principles in life to surround myself with persons whose conduct has satisfied me.’ (p122) And clearly he is not prescient: ‘Setting aside a European war, which I do not consider a strong probability in spite of certain disturbing features, I favour a reasoned optimism.’ (p123)

Maclintick is a sad figure, with a marriage that doesn’t work, he and his wife constantly arguing: ‘… for a moment I thought he was going to strike her; just as I had thought she might stick a dinner knife into him when I had been to their house…’ (p148)

There is a rare stab of emotion, however: ‘I suddenly felt horribly uncomfortable, as if ice-cold waer were dripping very gently, very slowly down my spine…’ (p151) when reminded of his old love Priscilla.

The narrator excuses his lack of emotional commitment in part: ‘... it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality… if one has cast objectivity aside, the difficulties of presenting marriage are inordinate… I thought of some of these things on the way to the nursing home.’ (p96)

At the nursing home he meets Moreland and, of all people, Widmerpool. Here, Nick reveals to Moreland, an expectant father, that Isobel has just had a miscarriage. Moreland is not particularly sympathetic, bemoaning the fact that his wife Matilda’s constant false alarms were likely to make him bankrupt. (p98) These were the days before the National Health Service.

There’s a preponderance of names beginning with the letter ‘M’ – Moreland, Maclintick, Mona, Members, Milly, Magnus, Mildred (dumped girlfriend of Widmerpool), Mortimer, Matilda ( wife of Moreland)… Reminds me of the story ‘The Empty House’ in The Return of Sherlock Holmes: ‘My collection of M’s is a fine one…’ (p20) Though perhaps in this book’s case there’s an overabundance of names beginning with that letter.

Next: 6 – The Kindly Ones.

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