Tuesday, September 01, 2009

"Some suggestion . . . that things could have been even better."

As I mentioned last week, I came to my current re-reading of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time straight from Proust, so I was particularly open to narrator Nick Jenkins's many references to In Search of Lost Time as he's reading it during The Military Philosophers, the last of the war volumes. The following one, which comes at the end of a trip through Cauberg--Proust's Balbec--with a group of foreign military attaches, is worth particular attention:
At the same time, a faint sense of disappointment superimposed on an otherwise absorbing inner experience was in its way suitably Proustian too: a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent; to rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.
Jenkins's--and thus Powell's--take on that disappointment hews closer to my experience than does Proust's, however much I might enjoy it. Being not, by nature, an idealist or a dreamer--I'm essentially a pragmatist, and (were it not for the unavoidable hint of self-congratulation contained in the description) might even call myself a realist--I find neither the ideal so high nor the actual so low as does Proust. Nick's more middling, muddling route--and the melancholy pleasure to be found therein--is closer to my style.

That relative calm also comes through in Jenkins's tendency to meditation, or reverie, a characteristic of the novel that is really standing out in this, my fourth or fifth time through Dance: a scene or a person or an exchange will remind Nick of a book or a painting, perhaps an old memory, and he will pause for a moment to suss out the similarities and differences, and what those might teach him about the current moment. What's struck me this time through is the inherent calm required for that approach, a fundamental wholeness of or confidence in himself that allows him to simultaneously operate on two timescales, that of the moment and the much longer, more lasting one of literature, friendship, and personal history.

It's a deeply appealing characteristic, one that allows Powell to perpetually remind us of the reason we read books, the insight that only they can offer. Acknowledgment of the fact that such insight is unavailable to large swaths of our fellow humans is something else that sets Powell apart from most novelists; I've quoted this passage from The Valley of Bones before, but it remains the most succinct statement of that fact that I know, and thus bears repeating:
I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.
That thought arises from the fact that, in the Army, Jenkins encounters a situation that will be familiar to anyone who has worked a job that mixes classes: being identified, usually skeptically, as a reader. Jenkins eventually surrenders to being pegged as such:
I no longer attempted to conceal the habit, with all its undesirable implications. At least admitting to it put one into a recognisably odd category of persons from whom less need be expected than the normal run.
I'll close out my Powellian musings for the week by noting another aspect of Nick's character--and thus Powell's understanding--that I appreciate: the simple fact that anecdotes that will stun some friends will fall entirely flat with others, and that one of the greatest--if simplest--joys of friendship is the eager anticipation of a chance to tell certain friends certain stories that you know will leave them gobsmacked. Those of you who haven't read Dance but might should skip this next passage, which reveals more than you ought to know in advance, but which illustrates my point:
I had not set eyes on Widmerpool myself since the day Farebrother had recoiled from saluting him in Whitehall. Although, as an archetypal figure, one of those fabulous monsters that haunt the recesses of the individual imagination, he held an immutable place in my own private mythology, with the passing of Stringham and Templer I no longer knew anyone to whom he might present quite the same absorbing spectacle, accordingly with whom the present conjuncture could be at all adequately discussed.
E-mail, cell phones, and other electronic communication aids have brought those crucial friends closer to us, made the stories that are the stuff of friendship easier than ever to share, but of course nothing will ever bridge that final gap, which puts me in mind of two passages I first discovered in D. J. Enright's marvelous anthology The Oxford Book of Death (1983). The first, from "Tam Cari Capitas," by Powell's contemporary Louis MacNeice, reminds us that "When a friend dies out on us and is not there," we miss him most "not at floodlit moments," but
. . . in killing
Time where he could have livened it, such as the drop-by-drop
Of games like darts or chess, turning the faucet
On full at a threat to the queen or double top.
Then there's this from the ever-helpful Samuel Johnson, as recounted by Hester Lynch:
The truth is, nobody suffered more from pungent sorrow at a friend's death than Johnson, though he would suffer no one else to complain of their losses in the same way; "for (says he) we must either outlive our friends you know, or our friends must outlive us; and I see no man that would hesitate about the choice."
A sentiment which I believe neither Nick Jenkins nor the long-lived Anthony Powell would dispute.

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