Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Anthony Powell has a visitor

As longtime readers (or Twitter friends) will know, I turn frequently to Anthony Powell's A Writer's Notebook. Who could resist, when opening it to a random page yields such pleasures as--well, let's try it:
A man who looked as if he had been pressed for a long time between the pages of a book.
And once more for luck: this one was clearly banked by Powell as a possible future line of dialogue:
"Visiting her was like calling on Penelope when the suitors were about the house."
In contrast, Powell's journals are a disappointment. Oh, they're definitely books that the serious Powell fan should own and consult--and, thank Heinemann!, they do have indexes--but their very nature as the journals of an older man more or less retired in the country means we get far too much about wines vintages and chicken curries, and also a bit of the aging Tory grumpiness that the generosity of the novels almost entirely obscures.

That said, they're far from wholly unrewarding to the late evening, heading-for-bed browser. Here, for example, is a bit I just turned up on Evelyn Waugh, a writer and contemporary who can't help but serve, for readers as well as, one assumes, to some extent for Powell himself, as a dark shadow of Powell himself, more successful yet far less satisfied. On March 10, 1991, Powell writes about rereading a volume of Waugh's letters:
Interesting how little people know themselves. Evelyn, speaking of Swift (whom he had been reading about), says he has a sense of possessing much in common with Swift, but without Swift's "bossiness," something that did not trouble him at all. The best letters from the point of view of being amusing are those to Nancy Mitford, who, in general feebly deferential, had moments of rebellion. In point of fact Evelyn got more from Nancy about upper-class life than he would probably have cared to admit.
Three sentences, three solid observations about literary figures we care about.

The passage that's amused me most tonight, however, comes from June 10, 1992:
The baroque French clock in the library stopped; the grandfather has not struck for several years, so in a reckless moment I wrote to Mr Jackman (who presented me with the clock he made himself some years ago) to ask if he knew anyone who could mend these. Before he replied the clock in the library recovered. By that time it was too late to stop Mr Jackman. He is seventy, extremely tall, with a fairly large neatly cut grey beard, and a great talker, a characteristic to which he himself referred. He possesses thirty-five clocks, but has a friend (who mends clocks professionally) who has thirty-seven in his sitting room alone. I explained the situation. Mr Jackman examined the grandfather, said that if I wanted he would take the essential part to his friend, but he himself advised leaving it as it was, unless I thought the strike very important. I agreed, gave Mr Jackman a paperback set of Dance. He left the house, rather like a brief violent visit from the God of Clocks.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

One of the essential qualities of Nick Jenkins's narration in Dance--and, for that matter, of the conversation of the friends he's closest to--is the way that his mind ranges so easily from the quotidian to the symbolic or mythological: scenes present themselves to him and call up echoes of literature or mythology, or, as in the opening paragraph of the whole sequence, images of
the ancient world. . . . A fabulous past, infinitely removed, from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined.
Such associations almost always feel natural, and they invest the ordinary with a light, pleasant drama and potency that, in its more staid, even fussy way, nonetheless somehow calls to mind the headlong rush of love-blind eros depicted by Iris Murdoch. Life is the dull daily detail, after all, yet the numinous somehow also exists; those places where it peeks through, or where, in thinking of a goofy handyman neighbor as the God of Clocks, we deliberately, if jokingly, invite it in, are moments we remember.

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