All my sad captains

Books do Furnish a Room is volume ten of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The war is over, Britain is poor and London is filled with empty and ruined buildings. The main characters are now middle aged, and the new characters introduced are noticeably younger, creating an impression of time passing and one generation replacing another.

One of the more interesting elements with Dance is its mixture of comedy and sadness, Powell can write exceptionally funny scenes and yet in the same novel show crushed hopes, failed relationships, lost friends. Books is not an exception. There is a sense in it of the cost of the war, many characters I’d come to rather like are now dead and some of those who remain are not what they once were. Equally though there are new characters, and some of those are very good indeed. Best among them is the hugely entertaining X Trapnel, apparently closely based on Powell’s friend and fellow novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross (author of Of Love and Hunger, which I can’t recommend to highly, particularly if you like Patrick Hamilton at all). Trapnel is an up and coming young novelist, highly praised, popular with women but perpetually broke and borrowing money (except from fellow writers, unless absolutely necessary).

Books chiefly follows the fortunes of a new post-war literary magazine, Fission. Nick Jenkins comes to write for Fission, and so sees its editors, backers, reviewers and writers (among them X Trapnel). Nick himself is taking a break from novels and instead writing a biography and supplementing his income with reviews, but as ever Dance is not really Nick’s story, he is narrator but not protagonist. Many existing characters become part of Fission’s life, J.G. Quiggin who has finally abandoned trying to write his great novel, Widmerpool of course who is one of the backers, Gypsy Jones and Rosie Manasch, former intelligence officer Odo Stevens and others.

Fission is a left-leaning magazine, though quite how left-leaning is a source of internal dissension. Some behind the magazine are communists who wish to use the magazine to promote the party line, others are most soft-left and unwilling to have the magazine seen as a mere mouthpiece. The real problems it faces though are more about how to cover a bad book by a writer previously promoted by the magazine and how to keep rival critics apart at a party, to the backers the politics matters but to the writers and reviewers the literary credentials are all that is important.

Books speaks also though to the change of generations, there’s a real sense of a passing of the flame. Nick returns to Oxford (“the University”) as part of his researches for his biography, where he once more attends the salon of the aging yet ageless don, Sillery. Later in the novel Nick returns to his old school, looking to place his own son there, where he encounters the long retired Le Bas, pressed briefly and unhappily back into service. Sillery and Le Bas are among the few characters who were old at the start of the sequence who are still alive, Nick now is attending school and university as an adult with adult concerns, not as a student, but too as Nick’s generation matures and the generation behind his declines, the younger generation is pushing through in the form of X Trapnel and the increasingly vile Pamela Flitton (as was).

There are, as ever, some quite wonderful lines. This is the opening sentence of the novel:

Reverting to the university at forty, one immediately recaptured all the crushing melancholy of the undergraduate condition.

Books follows the pattern of other Dance novels in exploring a few scenes in depth: Sillery’s salon, a funeral, Fission’s launch party, trips to the pub, a visit to parliament and a trip to Widmerpool’s apartment, visits to X Trapnel’s apartment, Nick’s return to his school to place his own son there. Each incident is part of a chain of consequences, tracing Fission’s development and the intertwining lives of the various characters, particularly Widmerpool who continues to be the nearest Dance has to a protagonist and who here has risen to become an MP, and of course an up and coming one at that.

Books also spends a fair amount of time, through X Trapnel, discussing naturalism and the nature of the novel. Much of this is fascinating, and Trapnel’s comments are often quite blatantly applicable to Dance itself. I’ll go into that more shortly, for now though here’s one remark which I think has much to recommend it:

A novelist writes what he is. That’s equally true of mediaeval romances or journeys to the moon.

Powell’s portrait of the postwar London literary scene is wholly convincing, unsurprisingly so given that he was after all part of precisely that scene. Equally, there is a wry feel for parliament and the way in which politicians feel more comfortable dealing with each other (even their opponents) than they do the public, but above all this is the continuing theme of the series – the importance of crafting a personal mythology to live by, the refusal by some to live by mere reality, the ability of the individual to live by the will and so craft their own narrative within the world. Nick is an observer, not an actor, Widmerpool is oblivious to the reality of how others see him or the consequences of his a ctions and so shapes the world rather than being shaped by it. In a way, that makes Widmerpool a monster, but a morbidly fascinating one.

On the subject of Widmerpool, I thought this passage quite marvellous, Books was written nearly 40 years ago but politicians clearly haven’t changed much since then:

“… I fear pomposity is not one of my failings. I can’t put up with pompous people, and have often been in trouble on that very account.”
Roddy was determined not to be outdone in detestation of pomposity and superfluous formality. For a moment the two MPs were in sharp competition as to whose passion for directness and simplicity was the more hearfelt, at least could be the more forcibly expressed. At the end of this contest, Widmerpool carried his point.

Was there ever any doubt he would?

For me, the most enjoyable part of this novel was the character of X Trapnel, another man who lives by personal myth, Trapnel has a role for every occasion and lives according to his concept of who he should be. A man constantly in debt, he travels everywhere by taxi and is capable of borrowing money from a man only to then hail a cab to depart with or offer to buy his creditor a drink with the proceeds of the loan just advanced. Serious about his writing, crafting his life itself as a form of art, Trapnel is a wonderful creation (though, based on Maclaren-Ross as he apparently is there may not have been much creation at all).

Almost as good was the increased focus on Pamela Flitton, we learn more of her and her consistently appalling and wholly self-centred behaviour, the consequences of which are sometimes very funny (at the funeral and afterwards for instance) but more often needlessly vicious. We also see more of her devastating effect on men and it becomes increasingly apparent that there is something fundamentally wrong with her, that she is essentially a monster herself, damaged and damaging. A character that would fit quite happily into a Patrick Hamilton novel, Pamela too is a superb creation, attractive in part because of her intrinsic lack of any form of virtue. In my last Powell writeup, Kevin of Kevinfromcanada commented that Pamela is “without guile and morality”, an excellent point which helps capture her allure.

Near the end of the novel comes a three page discussion of the nature of Naturalism as a literary form, really a drunken monologue by X Trapnel while he seeks to avoid going home. I’ve no idea whether the views expressed are Powell’s, Maclaren-Ross’s or indeed just X Trapnel’s, but whoever’s they are I thought them interesting and persuasive, here are some excerpts from that section:

“People can’t get it right about Naturalism. They think if a writer like me writes the sorts of books I do, it’s because that’s easier, or necessary nowadays. You just look round at what’s happening and shove it all down. They can’t understand that’s not in the least the case. It’s just as selective, just as artificial, as if the characters were kings and queens speaking in blank verse.”

“There are certain forms of human behaviour no actor can really play, no matter how good he is. It’s the same in life. Human beings aren’t subtle enough to play their part. That’s where art comes in.”

“I’m in favour of Naturalism. I write that way myself. All I want to make clear is that it’s just a way of writing a novel like any other, just as contrived, just as selective.

I’m fond of Naturalism myself, however I absolutely agree that it’s as artificial as any other literary form, and these arguments hold good for Realism too. By way of example, Haruki Murakami has written both surrealist fiction and Naturalist fiction, but the artifice in both cases is the same. I think this is an important argument, Realism and Naturalism have become the default modes for literary fiction, indeed Michael Chabon described literary fiction as being the genre of “late-Century naturalism” (a view I don’t wholly agree with but think is at least worth considering). It’s important to recall that these forms are not necessarily superior or truer than the many alternatives that exist.

All that though makes Books sound like a dry read, it’s not at all. I can’t discuss the ending for fear of massively spoiling several developments, but it contains drama and pathos and a degree of simple cruelty that make it very powerful. There is a vicious irony to this novel, and a clash of wills between Gypsy Jones, X Trapnel, Odo Stevens, Pamela and Widmerpool (all of whom of course are among the characters who live by the will) that is terrible and tragic. This wasn’t my favourite of the sequence, though it was hardly helped by my going down with yet another Winter bug myself while reading it (though having a slight fever did make Arthur Scnitzler’s Dying ,which I just recently finished, a little more dramatic. Unfortunately I have it still as I write this), but it is a powerful novel that clearly marks the start of winter and the decline of what has gone before.

Books do Furnish a Room


Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell, Anthony

5 responses to “All my sad captains

  1. Damn. This excellent review serves mainly to remind me that my memory overlooks much from this volume (particularly X Trapnel) and that a reread is also in order. Also, experience tells me that this is where the excellent television series and Powell begin to diverge, to the detriment of the television series. All of which suggests that a reread of all 12 volumes is probably in order — one of the things that I have learned from your Odyssey, Max, is that the project needs to be planned, not just happenstance. I for one am delighted with your pursuit of this project. I promise to take up the torch once you are done.

  2. Again, I know I will have to begin this series sometime in the near future. And the review also pricked my attention (once more) re: Of Love and Hunger.

  3. Hi,

    It is simply brilliant.

    I’m not on best form today though, I missed the symbolism of the Shakespeare quote used in the book and which forms the title of my blog entry.

    A slightly fuller quote is as follows:

    “Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me
    All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
    Let’s mock the midnight bell.”

    In the context of the sequence, the characters are advancing towards the midnight bell, death, these are their last chances for gaudy nights, the end draws near. Gloomy stuff.

    It does make me want to catch Anthony and Cleopatra though, such wonderful language.

    Of Love and Hunger I think is a tremendous novel, fundamentally English capturing a world I just remember the end of and that thankfully is now I think past (past in London anyway, and I hope elsewhere). A world of dingy boarding houses, suspicious landladies, genteel poverty and just making do. A world where propriety mattered all the more because one had so little else. It’s bleak stuff, I think perhaps better than Hamilton but sadly Maclaren-Ross’s only novel.

  4. Being such a major project makes me leery of starting this project. But, your reviews have shown me both that it can be done and the beauty contained in these works. I am reluctant to start it, but, in some ways, it sounds similar to the U.S.A. trilogy, only longer and maybe a little less experimental.

  5. It’s certainly not experimental Kerry, it’s skilfully but traditionally written.

    That said, I’d say not to treat it as a big project, just throw one of these into your reading once every month or two and it’ll be done before you know it.

    I’d also say that there have been times I’ve been daunted and have had to force myself on to the next one, every time within a handful of pages Powell’s reminded me quite how good he is, why he’s worth sticking with. There’s a lot here, but it’s very rewarding material.

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