Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Temporary Kings

Finding myself last night in one of those rare moods when I couldn't settle into any one book--I tried fiction, criticism, poetry, history--I finally remembered the best rule for a situation like that: turn to an old favorite. For me, that was Anthony Powell, and the moment I opened A Dance to the Music of Time my restlessness was cured.

I picked up at the penultimate volume, Temporary Kings (1973), where I'd last left off in my perpetual re-reading. The final volumes of Dance are unquestionably the weakest. Some critics, including Christopher Hitchens, deem them (or at least the final one, Hearing Secret Harmonies) a failure,
no longer informed by experience and curiosity, well-recollected and hard-won and wrought over in reflection. Rather, it resembles the plaintive tone of a beached colonial retiree, convinced that all around him is going to the dogs.
Though I think Hitchens certainly goes too far (a specialty of his), and I've defended the final volumes before, I'll concede that the final two books, at least, don't have quite the verve or appeal as the earlier ones: many of the most interesting characters of the earlier volumes are dead, and even Trapnel, the series' final brilliantly living invention, is no longer around, leaving the narrative to be carried by second stringers (Ada Leintwardine, Polly Duport, Books Bagshaw) and new characters, some compelling (Gwinnett, Brightman), others flat or one-note (Jacky Bragadin, Louis Glober).

This leads to a slight, but palpable sense of disengagement--but one that is, if frustrating at times, nonetheless suitable. The greatest achievement of Dance is its tracking of the way that age changes a cohort, from Nick Jenkins, the narrator, on down. By Temporary Kings, Nick and friends are in their mid-fifties, and while a true aficionado and observer of human behavior will always find new wrinkles to fascinate him, by the time of Temporary Kings, Nick evinces an awareness that the stories most important to his life, the threads that have truly been woven in with his own, have been spun out, tied off, and that when most of the new threads he sees around him, spun out by people in a younger generation, are resolved, he won't be around to see them. The novel's title, taken from a reference Nick makes to The Golden Bough, is an acknowledgment of that fact: the world is slowly passing him, and his generation, by, as it always has and always will.

Which is not to say, by any means, that a reader of Dance won't find pleasures in the characters in this volume, nor that they shouldn't look forward to some of its truly dramatic and revealing scenes featuring older favorites. The first time around, there will be plenty to engage and surprise in Temporary Kings. But on what must I think be my fifth time through, I found myself taking pleasure in and attending less to the specifics of character or plot than to the simple pleasure of being in company with Nick Jenkins and his approach to thought and observation, modeled, one feels comfortable assuming, on Powell's own.

Take the opening scene, which finds Nick, in Venice for an academic conference, watching an aged singer of Neapolitan songs perform. As usual with Nick, art occasions reflection, offering new ways of thinking of, classifying, and understanding friends, family, and experience, seeing how each holds up against or is refracted by similar or dissimilar portrayals in various art forms. In this case, a memory of a youthful visit to Venice (during which he saw a singer who looked remarkably similar to this one) leads to comparisons of the singer to an old acquaintance:
The stylized movements of the hands were reminiscent of Dicky Umfraville at one of his impersonations. He too should have harnessed his gift, in early life, to an ever renewing art from which there was no retiring age. 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. Professional commitment to his own representations might have kept at bay the melancholy--all but chronic Frederica and his stepchildren complained--now that Umfraville had retired from work as agent at Thrubworth.
Which eventually returns Nick to the singer himself:
The aged singer looked as if thoughts of death, melancholy in any form, were unknown to him. He could be conceived as suffering from rage, desire, misery, anguish, despair; not melancholy. That was clear; additionally so after the round of applause following his number. The clapping was reasonably hearty considering the heat, almost as oppressive as throughout the day just passed. Dr Emily Brightman and I joined in. Acknowledgment of his talent delighted the performer. He bowed again and again, repeatedly baring blackened sporadic stumps, while he mopped away streams of sweat that coursed down channels of dry loose skin ridging either side of his mouth. Longevity had brought not the smallest sense of repletion where public recognition was in question. That was on the whole sympathetic. One found oneself taking more interest than formerly in the habits and lineaments of old age.
What I appreciate about these passages is less the specifics of Nick's reflections, though I definitely enjoy those, than the fact of them: this, I realize as I read them, is how we experience art, one part of our brain engaging, sometimes deeply, with it, while another part meditates, zooms off on tangents, weaves it into the larger fabric of life and our attempts to understand it. Reading Dance reminds me of how frustratingly short shrift art (and especially books) gets within fiction; a reader's life, mental and emotional, is always wrapped up in the books he's reading, but how often do you encounter a fictional character who manifests that relationship to any kind of art?

I'll have more to say about Temporary Kings in Friday's post. For now, I'm just pleased to be back in Powell's world, one where art is as much a part of life as friends, gossip, love, and loss.

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