Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is the fifth volume of Anthony Powell’s epic twelve volume masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time. I’ve previously blogged about Dance, http://pechorinjournal.blogspot.com/2008/07/dance-to-music-of-time-summer.html, and it’s worth reading that entry before this one or what I write today will make relatively little sense.
Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant opens with a leap forward in time from the close of the previous volume, opening shortly (it seems, the date is not specified) after World War 2 with Nick Jenkins (the narrator) visiting a bombed out public house which he used to attend with Moreland, a friend we have not previously encountered in the series. Nick refers on page 2 of the novel to “Moreland’s memory”, implying that Moreland has died at some point prior to this opening passage. From there, we swiftly segue into a recollection of an occasion at the pub in the 1920s, and find ourselves again in that period (an earlier period now from the closing of volume 4, we have gone backwards in time within the overall narrative). Within a few pages we have met many of Nick’s old friends, several of whom however have not previously been mentioned leading to a slight suspicion that we are moving into backstory in order to retrospectively introduce new characters. There are other possible explanations for this, for me at least, slightly jarring temporal shift and the discovery that Nick has old friends who (after four previous volumes) I was unaware of.
Nick’s new old friends are part of London’s musical scene, Moreland is a promising young composer, another friend Maclintick is a rather morose music critic, we meet a violinist named simply Carolo and we re-encounter some more familiar figures who serve to root the new characters more firmly as part of Nick’s world. Previous volumes have explored, to varying degrees, London’s literary and artistic scenes and one possible explanation for the rather sudden introduction of these new figures is that Powell now wishes to turn his attention to the world of music and that an introduction of these characters at an earlier and arguably more logical point in the narrative might have distracted from his desired focus. I have to admit, this approach did detract from the early parts of this volume for me, but by the midpoint of the novel I had accepted them as part of Dance’s cast and by the end I thought this volume still powerful and effective.
As is customary in each volume, we experience a handful of distinct scenes, each described in careful detail. An evening out with Moreland, Maclintock and others starting at the pub and going on to dinner at Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, where the assembled men talk about women and there are many references to time and space and how they interact (the characters’ conversation perhaps reflecting the structure of the novel they are part of). We then move suddenly, in the space of a sentence, to five or six years later and the early 1930s as Nick goes to the theatre with Moreland to meet Moreland’s intended future wife, and where Nick encounters again some familiar figures from his past.
We then leap forward again, now to 1936 or so and to a day in Nick’s life. We open with a Tolland family lunch (Nick by this point having married a woman named Isobel Tolland), we are introduced to various members of the extended Tolland family (reintroduced in some cases) and we meet again a guest in the form of the once celebrated but now unfashionable writer St John Clarke. Isobel is absent, being in a nursing home. Nick moves from lunch to visiting Isobel at the home and while there he runs once more into Moreland and coincidentally into Widmerpool. Moreland persuades Nick to spend the evening with him, and they call on Maclintock who lives trapped in a miserable marriage with Carolo now having become an unwelcome lodger.
The novel continues in this manner, we move forward a year or two later, and over a number of expertly depicted social occasions we see these characters meet and hear how each of their individual stories are progressing.
Powell paints his characters in miniatures, and in some ways this makes his work difficult to adequately describe. Characters are captured in throwaway remarks or chance encounters, the small detail is critical. We see people through the banalities of an uncomfortable evening as long standing marital disputes simmer, through conversation at a lunch, through truths awkwardly revealed in a moment of drunkenness. We see St John Clarke who through the series has been reduced from a major literary figure to an afterthought, a man whose work has become an anachronism and who has had the tragedy to outlive his own relevance. We see the sniping between Maclintock and his wife, perfectly captured, in all its ugliness (including the joy an unhappy spouse can take at belittling their partner) and we see another marriage threatened by an affair and the way in which some marriages survive and some do not. We see how people discuss matters of terrible consequence, the Spanish civil war, over lunch and we see how a distant war can be of less import than gossip about the abdication of Edward VIII.
Much of the novel remains very funny, often combining comedy with the uncomfortably tragic. We learn at the nursing home that Isobel is resident recovering from a miscarriage, Moreland is there because his wife is recovering from giving birth, but their baby died a few days after being born. As they talk, a boorish doctor that Nick knows from school lectures them about the miscarriage rate in England utterly oblivious to how inappropriate his remarks must be. When Nick first encounters the doctor he seeks to remind him of their time at school together:
“but he brushed the words aside with a severe ‘Yes, yes, yes…’ at the same time taking my hand in a firm, smooth, interrogatory, medical grip, no doubt intended to give confidence to a patient, but in fact striking at once a disturbing interior dread at the possibilities of swift and devastating diagnosis.”
The episode with the doctor is in microcosm a demonstration of Powell’s skill. The doctor is a bore, he is wholly insensitive to the fact both men before him are friends who have just met after some sizeable gap of time and that both have just lost children, and yet some power of social convention allows him to pin both of them without hope of escape and to impose his will upon them (another common theme of Dance, men who live by the exercise of the will, able to dominate others even though there is often no good reason why they should be able to do so beyond their own certainty that they can). Powell excels at the depiction of social dilemmas, awkward situations, the tiny challenges and triumphs of the everyday.
This is a book filled with failure, with people dealing with the consequences of not achieving that which they desire. Nick and Isobel lose their baby, Moreland and Matilda (his wife) see theirs die, Moreland launches a new composition but while it is good it is not great, Carolo spends his time sitting Banquo-esque at the Maclintock’s dinner table writing his own composition which nobody seems interested in, the Maclintock’s marriage is a toxic wasteland, Nick’s old school friend Stringham reappears but he is drunk and has become a tragic figure increasingly cut off from life by his alcoholism (again, brilliantly portrayed), Erridge goes to fight for the Left in Spain but returns having fallen mildly ill and unable to return due to his incurral of the loathing of every group he encountered there.
Disappointment, failure both private and public, the gap between private ambition and public assessment, all these run through this volume making it in places a gloomy affair despite the humour. Nick is in his 30s by now presumably, his life is less carefree than once was the case, maturity is not an unmixed blessing.
As well as examining failure, we also examine three marriages (which may or may not also be failures): Nick and Isobel, the Maclintocks, Moreland and Matilda. Nick ruminates at one point in a passage which seems almost a manifesto direct from Powell himself:
“A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects. To think at all objectively about one’s own marriage is impossible, while a balanced view of other people’s marriage is almost equally hard to achieve with so much information available, so little to be believed. Objectivity is not, of course, everything in writing; but, even after one has cast objectivity aside, the difficulties of presenting marriage are inordinate. Its forms are so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of a friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such – and a thousand more – dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.”
It seems to me here, Powell not only describes his view of marriage itself as ultimately unknowable, of other people as essentially beyond comprehension, but he also describes his own achievement and the impossibility of his own goals within this very work – “Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects.” Given that Nick is himself a minor writer at this point in the story, there is thankfully no incongruity involved in him thinking these kinds of thoughts, it is not one of those occasions where you balk at the evident insertion of the writer’s thoughts into an inappropriate character’s head.
Although this is not a plot driven work (arguably there is no plot as such, merely incidents in lives as they are lived), one of the great pleasures of it is to see lives unfolding and the surprises and ironies they bring with them. There is much I cannot describe without spoiling that pleasure for those who may read this and then go on to read Powell, often there is clear and intentional irony between what we learn of a character’s past and how their life develops. Promise is not always fulfilled, past conduct is no great predictor of future behaviour, characters act very credibly out of character. These ironies are sometimes very funny, sometimes not at all so. There is a sense in which the pleasures of Dance are the pleasures of a highbrow soap opera, though I think to approach it purely in that regard is to miss a great deal of what is being discussed within the novels. This is ambitious work, and that in itself is something I always find refreshing.
To conclude, the title of this blog entry is taken from a question which occurs at the beginning of the novel and is reprised at the end, Moreland has a fondness for ghost trains, asking Nick early on “Do you remember when we went on the ghost railway – when you dash toward closed doors and tear down hill towards a body across the line?” This image of the ghost train runs through the novel, though only referenced twice. Characters hurtle along, without control of their journey, they encounter things only part seen and there is much to enjoy along the way. But there is also a body across the line at the end. In this volume we see lives starting to take a perhaps irrevocable shape, maturity being in part a commitment to one life over others whether that commitment was chosen or not, we see the long shadow of mortality and the limits of time beginning to be felt. The characters are on the train, but for some of them the destination will not be a happy one, and in the end for all of them it will be a final one.