Saturday, December 11, 2010

Caviar, champagne, beards

Miscellaneous light reading: N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (loved it and have downloaded the next installment), Gail Godwin's Unfinished Desires, a recommendation from Jo Walton (it did indeed make me want to read more novels about nuns), Liza Marklund's Studio Sex (the 'twist' involved in the journal entries is perhaps a bit too obvious from the start, but nonetheless very much the kind of book I like).

Also, the first two books in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time sequence. These are so much beloved by a couple of my blogging friends (Levi Stahl, Ed Park) that I resolved to give 'em a chance (I have always meant to read them since I first heard about them in Anthony Burgess's 99 Novels - by the way, a previously unknown [and on the whole undistinguished] work of AB's has been unearthed - but never quite took to them when I tried); the University of Chicago Press has released the whole sequence in electronic editions, and the first installment is currently available for free.

I dislike many things about the voice and the milieu, but I realized as I reviewed my year in reading that some of my best experiences in reading this year involved immersive long novels of a sort that do not grow on trees (Dorothy Dunnett, War and Peace), and that Powell's would be worth a pop. I do not find it intellectually and stylistically engaging in the way of Proust, and it also seems to me much less interesting than Henry James in terms of these questions about what one understands at the time versus later on, but there's definitely something addictive: I've downloaded the next four onto the Kindle and certainly plan to read the rest of the sequence in coming weeks.

Something about the style definitely continues to irk me: I marked passages as I read that seemed to me both remarkable and annoying. Here's a good example from the first installment:
On the whole it could not be said that one felt better for Uncle Giles's visit. He brought with him some fleeting suggestion, always welcome at school, of an outside world; though against this had to be weighed the disturbing impact of home-life in school surroundings: even home-life in its diminished and undomestic embodiment represented by my uncle. He was a relation: a being who had in him perhaps some of the same essence that went towards forming oneself as a separate entity. Would one's adult days be spent in worrying about the Trust? What was he going to do at Reading? Did he manage to have quite a lot of fun, or did he live in perpetual hell? These were things to be considered. Some apology for his sudden appearance seemed owed to Stringham: after that, I might try to do some work to be dealt with over the weekend.
I suppose part of the slight embarrassment of reading a passage like this is that the naive narrator is never really fully cast off - the novel's ongoing playfulness about youthful versus slightly older misapprehensions makes the reader (a reader like me?) uncomfortable. The work I am most reminded of, though superficially nothing like it, is Pope's Essay on Man, a poem I particularly dislike because of the trouble it takes to develop an elaborate and fluent idiom that seems to me overequipped given the relative banality and commonplace nature of the thoughts therein expressed!

These passages from the second installment will give a clearer sense of the quality I'm both struck and troubled by:
I must have been about twenty-one or twenty-two at the time, and held then many rather wild ideas on the subject of women: conceptions largely the result of having read a good deal without simultaneous opportunity to modify by personal experience the recorded judgment of others upon that matter: estimates often excellent in their conclusions if correctly interpreted, though requiring practical knowledge to be appreciated at their full value.
In business, at least in a small way, he had begun to 'make a bit' on his own, and there seemed no reason to disbelieve his account of himself as looked upon in his firm as a promising young man. In fact, it appeared that Peter, so far from becoming the outcast from society prophesied by our housemaster, Le Bas, now showed every sign of being about to prove himself a notable success in life: an outcome that seemed to demand another of those revisions of opinion, made every day more necessary, in relation to such an enormous amount of material, accepted as incontrovertible at an earlier period of practical experience.

All the same, although still far from appreciating many of the finer points of Mrs. Andriadis's party--for there were, of course, finer points to be appreciated in retrospect--and, on the whole, no less ignorant of what the elements there present had consisted, I was at the same time more than half aware that such latitudes are entered by a door through which there is, in a sense, no return. The lack of ceremony that had attended our arrival, and the fact of being so much in the dark as to the terms upon which the party was being given, had been both, in themselves, a trifle embarrassing; but, looking back on the occasion, armed with later knowledge of individual affiliations among the guests, there is no reason to suppose that mere awareness of everyone's identity would have been calculated to promote any greater feeling of ease: if anything, rather the reverse. The impact of entertainments given by people like Mrs. Andriadis, as I learnt in due course, depends upon rapidly-changing personal relationships; so that to be apprised suddenly of the almost infinite complication of such associations--if any such omniscience could, by some magical means, have been imparted--without being oneself, even at a distance, at all involved, might have been a positive handicap, perhaps a humiliating one, to enjoyment.
The periphrasis is so noncommittal, ultimately! But there are some good moments, and I am slightly tempted to adopt the artist Barnby's excuse as a catchphrase: "The dust must have confused my powers of differentiation. . . ."


  1. Most thoughts are banal and commonplace until expressed in a unique idiom. At least to me, that's the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of writing.

  2. What's funny here is that you've identified one of the very qualities that makes Powell my favorite author. I love the reticent, diffident, circumspect quality of his narration. I appreciate that Powell's narrator is perpetually trying to refine his observations, like he's ever-honing his perceptions.

    I think of it as being sort of like the approach of an extroverted Henry James: the preference not to make straightforward, declarative pronouncements here is rooted, not in uncertainty about the self and its many layers but in uncertainty about how that self relates to the world; not in the realization that there are endless shades of emotion that can be described, but that there are nearly endless minute variations in social relationships that are worth attending to.

    It results in a finicky, self-conscious narration at times, and I can certainly understand why that's not to every taste, but oh, I find it completely appealing, as if this narrator is playing completely straight with me, never trying to pretend that he knows more than he actually does. In a lot of ways, it's that tone more than anything else that keeps me coming back to Dance, and that makes me feel at home the moment I open a volume.

    {As for the more technical problem of the temporal location of the voice: I think it's reasonably safe to always think of it as a voice from later, working through the thoughts and feelings remembered from that time. In the case of the Uncle Giles passage you quoted, to me the disjunction between the thoughts of a child and adult perspective is intentional, designed for humor--and, to my mind, it works: I read that and laugh even as I do recognize some qualities of thought remembered from childhood.)

    I hope you are able to keep going with it--the first book, because it's simultaneously introducing Powell's style and all these relationships that, by the later books, will be layered with memory and meaning, is definitely the toughest to immediately sink into.