Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"The mystic holy essence incarnate of arguing, encumbering, delaying, hair-splitting," or, Anthony Powell reads William Gerhardie

As Michael Holroyd points out in his introduction to the new edition of William Gerhardie's The Polyglots in Melville House's Neversink Library series, Anthony Powell was an avowed fan. In a review for the Daily Telegraph in 1970, Powell called the book "immensely enjoyable," writing that in the decades since its 1925 publication it had "lost none of its freshness." He also makes the entertaining--and too-rarely noted--point that too much praise can easily put a dedicated reader off a new book:
The extraordinary burst of praise on the part of Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and a row of other pundits, that greeted The Polyglots when it appeared put me off as such pontifical recommendations do when you are young.
Powell didn't end up reading the book until 1928, when it came across his desk in a professional context through his work at Duckworth.

I think it's reasonable to say that Gerhardie's book was an influence on Powell's early novels. The most important models for those books are Evelyn Waugh and, to a lesser extent, Ronald Firbank, neither of which are much disguised--but now that I've read The Polyglots I see Gerhardie's influence, too: the air of indolence, of action detached from meaning, of uncertainty about the future and certainty--in a negative sense--about the institutions and honors of the past that are found in, say, Afternoon Men and From a View to a Death are fully present in the bizarre world of exiles, sharps, and failures Gerhardie creates.

The most obvious legacy of Gerhardie in Powell's work, however, comes later, in the figure of one of the most memorable minor characters in A Dance to the Music of Time: the military bureaucrat Blackhead. Major David Pennistone introduces Blackhead by saying that "Until you have dealings with Blackhead, the word 'bureaucrat' will have conveyed no meaning to you." And while Nick Jenkins is skeptical, given "Pennistone's taste for presenting individuals in dramatic form," he soon finds that "the picture was, if anything, toned down from reality." Blackhead's ability to "evolv[e] a really impregnable system of obstruction and preclusion" turns out to be so far above the field as to make him, in the philosopher Pennistone's words, "a man apart. . . . His minutes have the abstract quality of pure extension." In fact, reflecting on Blackhead's power and seemingly uncheckable bureaucratic immobility, Nick speculates,
It was as if Blackhead, relatively humble though his grading might be, had become an anonymous immanence of all their kind, a fetish, the Voodoo deity of the whole Civil Service to be venerated and placated, even if better--safer--hidden away out of sight: the mystic holy essence incarnate of arguing, encumbering, delaying, hair-splitting, all for the best of reasons.
The ever-inventive Pennistone--one of the few kindred souls Nick encounters in the relative intellectual wasteland of the Army command--does get a bit of his own back, however:
Blackhead pointed severely to what he had written. Then he turned the pages several times. It was a real Marathon of a minute, even for Blackhead. When it came to an end at last he tapped his finger sharply on a comment written below his own signature.

"Look at this," he said.

He spoke indignantly. I leant forward to examine the exhibit, which was in Pennistone's handwriting. Blackhead had written, in all, three and a half pages on the theory and practice of soap issues for military personnel, with especial reference to the Polish Women's Corps. Turning from his spidery scrawl to Pennistone's neat hand, two words only were inscribed. They stood out on the file:

Please amplify. D. Pennistone. Maj. GS.
This does not, you can imagine, sit well with Blackhead. Nor is it easy for Nick to keep from laughing, "which would have been fatal, an error from which no recovery would have been possible." Powell's spinning out of the angry, threatened intricacies of Blackhead's reaction is a brilliant piece of comedy.

It's one of my favorite moments in the whole of Dance, and I think of it every time I come up against entrenched bureaucracy. So imagine how I perked up when I read the following passage from The Polyglots, which I'm quoting at length both because the whole paragraph is good and because the joke requires the context:
My chief was a lover of "staff work," and besides the many ordinary files he had some special files--a file called "The Religious File," in which he kept documents supplied by metropolitans and archimandrites and other holy fathers, and another file in which he kept correspondence relative to some gramophone records which had been taken from the Mess by a Canadian officer. And much of our work consisted of sending these files backwards and forwards. And sometimes the gramophone file would be lost, and sometimes the religious file, and then Sir Hugo would be very upset. Or he would write a report, and the report--so intricate was our organization--would also be lost. Once he wrote a very exhaustive report on the local situation. He had it corrected very carefully, had, after much thought, inserted a number of additional commas, had erased some of the commas on secondary consideration, had had the report typed, and had corrected it again when it was typed, inserting long sub-paragraphs in the margins which he enclosed in large circles, and so attached them to wherever they belonged by means of long pointed arrows trespassing on each other's ground, thus giving the script the appearance of a spider's web. Then he had read it through once again, now solely from the point of view of punctuation. He inserted seven more commas and a full stop which he had previously omitted. Sir Hugo was most particular about full stops, commas and semicolons, and he was very fond of colons, which he preferred to semicolons, by way of being more pointed and incisive, by way of proving that the universe was one chain of causes and effects. In order to avoid any possible mistakes in the typing of his manuscript, Sir Hugo surrounded his full stops with little circles, and in producing commas he would turn his pen so as almost to cause a hole in the paper and then slash it down like a sabre. The colons were two dots, each surrounded by a circle, and a semicolon was a combination of an encircled full stop and a sabre slash of a comma. There could be no possible mistake about Sir Hugo's punctuation. And would you believe it? After he had dispatched the report, marking the inner envelope in red ink "Very Secret and Personal," and placing the inner envelope in an outer envelope and sealing carefully both envelopes--the report was lost.

Sir Hugo had, of course, made enquiries. he established a chain of responsibility, and it seemed that each link had done its duty: yet the chain had failed. But Sir Hugo would not give in. He had accumulated a pile of unshapely correspondence on the subject of the prodigal report and had collected the papers in a file named "The Lost Report of Sir Hugo Culpit," and when he collected a scrap of evidence on the subject he would scribble it down on a buff slip and then send it in to me (whom he had now entrusted to keep the file), with the words: "Please attach this slip, by a pin, to confidential file, entitled "The Lost Report of Sir Hugo Culpit." And in a humorous vein I had written on the slip in imitation of Sir Hugo's manner:
Please state what pin:

1 (a) An ordinary pin; (b) a safety-pin; (c) a drawing-pin; (d) a hair-pin; (e) a linch-pin.
2. What make and size
and sent the slip back to Sir Hugo.
Gerhardie's narrator's victory isn't nearly so satisfying as Pennistone's, however. Rather, he is reprimanded, which reminds him that
Sir Hugo hated people like himself, because they acted as a sort of caricature of himself: served to remind him of a fact of which in his more open moments with himself he was dimly conscious--that he was to a large degree absurd.
Surely Powell recalled this scene, even if subconsciously, as he wrote of Pennistone's defeat of Blackhead?

I've quoted enough now to make my small point, and god knows this post is long enough already . . . but I can't resist quoting the denouement of The Lost Report of Sir Hugo Culpit:
And yesterday--two months later!--the prodigal report had returned to the office. To the unspeakable horror of Sir Hugo it was found in an empty oat sack at the distant wharf of Egersheldt, and Sir Hugo now broke his head as to how it could have possibly got there. He was determined to trace back its journey to the office, even if that should cost him his health.

He had convened a special conference comprising all the heads of departments and told us of the mysterious circumstances. "We must begin," he said, "right at the beginning. There is, in fact, many a worse point to begin at. I am not entirely pessimistic. We've got the sack. That is all right. Beyond the sack we know nothing. Now here is the sack." He stretched out the sack. "I suggest, gentlemen," he said, "that you work backwards. The first thing to do is to trace the manufacturers of the sack."
Pennistone aside, it's a sad truth of life that the martinets and bureaucrats usually have the last word. Duly notarized in triplicate.

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