Temporary Kings, by Anthony Powell
Temporary Kings is book eleven of A Dance to the Music of Time, it’s exceptional. It’s now the 1950s, Nick and his friends are at the peak of their careers, the new establishment, they’ve made their money and reputations (to the extent they’ll ever make either) and they’re enjoying both, but in the knowledge that neither will last.
The title is a reference to the practice in the ancient world (according to some sources, anyway), of appointing kings for a brief period, at the end of which they would be executed. Nick and his friends are temporary kings, rulers of the world, but not for long.
The novel takes place largely in Venice, I didn’t know that when I started it and if I had I might have left it a bit longer, having just finished two books about the place. As it was though, it worked quite well, and the fading grandeur of the city works as an unobtrusive metaphor for the characters themselves – glittering but perhaps no longer at their prime. Many earlier characters recur, Mark Members for example – the “coming man” of Nick’s university days, as well as new ones such as the entertaining academic Dr. Emily Brightman. At its centre though is Pamela, who continues to behave with an utter disregard for propriety and convention, often acting from sheer malicious impulse. Pamela is a spiritual sister to Patrick Hamilton’s Netta, a monster of sorts, though she is far from the only one.
The difficulty with writing about this volume is avoiding spoilers for earlier ones, a remark about what somebody is doing or who is married to whom could give away a major development in an earlier book. I’m going to avoid then talking too much about the plot, save to say that as with each previous volume it focuses on a number of episodes in Nick’s life (a conference in Venice, a visit to a palazzo with a Tiepolo ceiling of unusual symbolic significance to the characters, a visit to an artist’s studio, a visit to Bashaw’s new home, a charity concert) and that as ever it’s not really what happens that’s important as what it tells us about the people it happens to.
Powell is still very funny, dryly so, and yet what seems a joke on first encounter often turns out to foreshadow darker developments later. This quote comes from page two:
To exhibit themselves, perform before a crowd, is the keenest pleasure many people know, yet self-presentation without a basis in art is liable to crumble into dust and ashes.
It works because it’s true, and when first encountered it’s just a throwaway line. As the novel continues though, it becomes obvious just how true it is (particularly for some of the characters) and it ceases then to be funny at all.
The experience of aging runs through this novel. Nick meets Polly Duport, daughter of his former lover Jean Duport. Polly is now a successful actress, her own career blossoming. It’s clear that Nick and his generation are being replaced. Earlier in the novel, while wandering Venice, Nick reflects on the Futurists and it’s hard not to see their hopes and fate as that of almost every generation:
At the beginning of the century, Marinetti and the Futurists had wanted to make a fresh start – whatever that might mean – advocating, among other projects, filling up the Venetian canals with the rubble of the Venetian palaces. Now, the Futurists, with their sentimentality about the future, primitive machinery, vintage motor-cars, seemed as antiquely picturesque as the Doge in the Bucentaur, wedding his bride the Sea, almost as distant in time; though true a desire to destroy, a hatred and fear of the past, remained a constant in human behaviour.
Vintage cars are a key running element in this volume, a metaphor for the passage of life, for the major characters themselves who are now antique and yet are still valuable, though not perhaps running for much longer. Like the Futurists, they too once wanted to make a fresh start, as every generation does, now they too increasingly are antiquely picturesque. Interestingly, Debray in Against Venice made much the same point of the Futurists, but then their fate is peculiarly ironic (and perhaps fitting given some of their more unpleasant views).
The characters in Books do Furnish a Room mostly continue here, Ada Leintwardine (who “arrogated to herself all the world’s gossip, sources other than her own a presumption”) is increasingly a figure of note, Baghaw is now successfully working on television, X Trapnel is the subject of a biography and so continues to be a sort of presence. As well, some much older characters return. Mrs Erdleigh for example, that seemingly ageless mystic and fortune-teller. She discusses the now deceased Dr Trelawney with Nick, referring to his passing not as something so vulgar as death but rather as when the soul “hearing secret harmonies” ascends. As the series draws to its close, more of the characters are starting to hear those secret harmonies, and given the title of the next and final volume it’s likely that more of them will yet. The reign of a temporary king is brief.
Generally, this is a volume which draws together the themes of the whole cycle. The importance of personal mythology recurs. I mentioned that Bagshaw is now a success, with that he has settled down and now has a wife, family and house of his own:
There was no reason why Bagshaw should not possess a house, nor in general be taken less seriously than other people. No doubt, for his own purposes, he had done a good deal to encourage a view of himself as a grotesque figure, moving through a world of farce. Come to rest in relatively prosperous circumstances, he had now modified the rôle for which he had formerly typecast himself. Dynamic styles of life required one ‘image’; static, another.
Like Trapnel, like so many others, Bagshaw creates a role for himself. He performs before a crowd, as we all do, and the performance changes with his circumstances. How he sees himself, what happens within his own thoughts, is unknown and unknowable.
And of course that’s another of the key themes, the impossibility of really knowing other people. We make friends, enemies, lovers, but at the end of the day our own motivations often escape us. The motivations of others, the secrets of their lives, really we have no idea. Dance doesn’t show characters changing so much as it shows their circumstances changing and with those new circumstances new aspects of them coming to the fore. Who we are depends on where and when we are, and who we are may anyway be nothing more than a fiction we present.
The most unknowable thing of all is other people’s relationships, the truths inside them. We can guess, we can swap gossip, but ultimately whatever happens within a relationship is known only to those inside it. By its nature, others can never really understand its nuances. As Moreland says (here more specifically about sex):
‘All other people’s sexual relations are hard to imagine. The more staid the people, the more inconceivable their sexual relations.’
Temporary Kings has a definite feel of the dance drawing to a close. The recurrence of older characters (I saw an online comment referring to them as making curtain calls, which is about right), the tying together of storylines and the reminders of long running character arcs and themes of the series, all of it is building towards the conclusion. Along the way, there’s a great deal of consideration of myth, antiquity, art and the creative process. This is a rich and complex novel (though still easy to follow), but it’s also very much the penultimate work of the series. It’s hardly original to compare Dance to a symphony, but I will anyway. Here the instruments are coming together in unity and purpose, earlier motifs (major and minor) are worked back in and the whole orchestra is coming together in a way that couldn’t have been foreseen and yet is absolutely right.
A Dance to the Music of Time is a masterpiece. This is a strong volume, hugely entertaining, filled with comedy and melancholy, and ultimately a fair degree of tragedy. Characters die, and with some of them it is only when they die we realise how much they mattered to Nick (as often, it’s only when people die in real life we realise how much they mattered to us).
Powell often references the classics (the first novel opens with a classical reference), and the plot of this novel turns on the classical scene depicted in a Tiepolo ceiling. It’s no coincidence that I find myself reaching for terms like comedy and tragedy, part after all of what Powell is saying is that the ancients may have died, but so will we, and in the end although the surroundings may change human experience really doesn’t all that much.