If you’re interested in Anthony Powell or imaginary books written by imaginary persons, this is for you. I started the list below while reading Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time last year. I scribbled it onto a sheet of paper, stuffed it in a drawer, and forgot about it. I offer it now as an oddity for the odd. Something like this ought to exist somewhere online and it might as well be here.
This is an incomplete list of Powell’s biblia abiblia. I’m sure I missed some. Let me know (by email or in the comments) if there’s anything you feel I should add or change. The rules: 1) Only include books referred to in Anthony Powell’s Music of Time series; 2) Every book must have a title and author; 3) Every author must be a substantial enough character to have a speaking part in one of Powell’s twelve volumes.
(formerly: The Pistons of our Locomotives Sing the Songs of Our Workers)
St John Clarke:
Dust Thou Art
E’en the Longest River
Fields of Amaranth
The Heart is Highland
Match Me Such Marvel
Never to the Philistines
Vernon Gainsborough (Werner Guggenbuhl):
Bronstein: Marxist or Mystagogue?
Death’s Head Swordsman: The Life and Works of X. Trapnel
The Gothic Symbolism of Mortality in the Texture of Jacobean Stagecraft
Borage and Hellebore: A Study
Knowing the Right People
Mornings in Wiltshire
Paying the Rent
The Silent Summer
The Bitch Pack Meets on Wednesday
I Stopped at a Chemist
Descartes, Gassendi and the Atomic Theory of Epicurus
City State and State of City
Garnered at Sunset
Camel Ride to the Tomb
Dogs Have No Uncles
Profiles in String
I can see the hair on your head turning grey already. Your beard looks to me like a map of the world with its mixture of greys and whites, of reds and blacks. Look here. See, this is Asia; here are the Tigris and Euphrates. Here are the mountains of the Moon. Do you see the Nile marshes?
~ Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book III
Today I cross the thirty-seventh parallel and time’s geography lessons feel a little tedious. Somewhere in Anthony Powell’s Music of Time Nick Jenkins says that a man never feels so old as he does in his middle thirties. I hope that’s true. It’s a pleasant thought to someday find myself contented in child-like antiquity, white-haired and bent, standing ankle-deep in the Nile marshes.
I wonder if astrologers down the years have mistaken the influence of the seasons for that of the stars, or if rather than identifying ourselves by place of birth we ought to call ourselves natives of spring, summer, fall or winter. Perhaps it’s because I was born at the equinox that I feel a sort of homecoming at the entrance of autumn, that melancholy season in the first three months of life having tempered my infant soul to its character.
This past week, during a bit of late summer vacation, we flushed a pheasant from the grass while bicycling in the Bay wetlands. At the Sierra gold-rush town of Columbia we bowled several frames down a crooked antique lane. We tried, and failed, to visit Jack London’s former ranch while en route to my parents’ home in Sonoma County, then kept the children up late to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus. Next day we enjoyed a successful afternoon at the natural history museum in San Francisco, where I stared hard into the eyes of the basilisk and managed not to die.
It seems on the surface unreasonable but I never read as much on vacation as I manage during the regular course of work and home life. This past week I continued my tour of post-war British fiction with Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington and am mid-way now through Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings. To aid the digestion with some more American fare – and in the interest of philosophical good health – I also consulted Will Cuppy’s Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. Otherwise, two weeks since finishing Anthony Powell’s Music of Time, my shelf of unread recent acquisitions remains untouched.
A common critique of Powell’s books suggests that he relies too heavily on coincidence in the lives of his characters. Asked about this in a 1978 interview for the Paris Review, Powell offered the familiar observation that real life, in fact, abounds in coincidence even while fiction rejects it. I recall a morning this past July when I was surprised by reading in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants a description of a scene from Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser which I had just seen for the first time the night before.
I doubt that we are subject to occult manipulation in any of this. But as my native season comes round again and I see my children discovering some of the same places and enthusiasms I shared at their age, I want to agree that admitting the action of serendipity is simply being realistic. The cosmos, as we learn, is not really infinite but its expansion and folding back onto itself again is something like a working definition of time. It is a part of the comfortable poverty of the universe in which we live that forms and ideas are bound to recur if only we keep a look out.
First this, from the well-fed man of action:
It doesn’t do to read too much…You get to look at life with a false perspective. By all means have some familiarity with the standard authors. I should never raise any objection to that. But it is no good clogging your mind with a lot of trash from modern novels.
Then this response from the languid aesthete:
But I must say, modern books are very consolatory and congenial to my feelings. There is, as it were, a delightful northeast wind, an intellectual blight breathing through them; a delicious misanthropy and discontent that demonstrates the nullity of virtue and energy, and puts me in good humor with myself and my sofa.
Literature is sometimes described as a conversation that takes place without regard to time or place among authors not necessarily contemporary with one another or conversant with each other’s works. Macchiavelli in a nice passage somewhere talks about the reader’s participation in that conversation too. But perhaps we can describe another level of talk that exists alongside or below this one, carried on between even more ephemeral interlocutors - fictional characters themselves.
It would make a tedious but possibly amusing pastime to arrange quotes like these (respectively from Anthony Powell’s Kenneth Widmerpool and Thomas Love Peacock’s Mr Listless) into the form of long symposia. The discussion above is specially poignant because the speakers are commenting on the means of their own incarnation: Widmerpool, though it’s tempting to doubt it, only lives by the fact of other people reading him into being; Mr Listless himself is only a gust of the delightful northeast wind that blows through Nightmare Abbey.
Yesterday I finished the third movement of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The trilogy of novels contained in this penultimate volume deals with the war years. Nick Jenkins’ war, however, is not a clash of armies in the field but a war of familial dislocations, obscure provincial postings, and byzantine military bureaucracies. It reminds me, in that respect, of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy. It’s interesting that so much of the best writing about the war was done by this in-between generation, by persons like Waugh and Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge (in his Chronicles of Wasted Time) who were too young for the trenches in ‘14 but too old for most of the real fighting in WWII.
My own favorite passages from the third movement include the chapter in which Jenkins and Colonel Finn take their liaison charges on a tour of liberated Normandy and Belgium, and the long scene near the end of The Military Philosophers when Jenkins attends the victory service at St Paul’s. Jules Renard once observed that it is when facing the prospect of death that men become most bookish. This is perhaps borne out in the case of Jenkins who, faced with the mortal toll and the awful knowledge of what was only scarcely avoided by the survivors, can think of nothing but poetry, bits of Elizabethan Biblical phraseology, and snatches of rhyme from half-forgotten children’s books.
How readily you can relate to Jenkins’ instinctual retreat into words must say something about the sort of reader – and the sort of person – you are. What exactly it says, I don’t know. But I have myself felt the painful need, in horrible moments, for a few favorite books. When worldly circumstances threaten universal barbarism, words have a power to remind us that there is still some consolation in being human, that civilization and culture can still be personal possessions even when collectively renounced. The sense of the term has shifted a little over the years, but I can’t help think that Dr Johnson’s definition of ‘Humanist’ holds up nicely: ‘A philologer; a grammarian.’
I do not recommend reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time while trying to edit and improve a draft of your own novel. Or maybe I do recommend it. There’s something valuable, I suppose, in boldly confronting the depths of one’s own literary inadequacy and comparative lack of talent. Halfway through the Dance, I am in love. I see that I have been a very promiscuous reader up till now, content to thoughtlessly set even my favorite authors aside after a book or two and roam about hungrily looking for fresh meat. At risk of repeating the common but misleading comparison, Proust couldn’t cure me of this; Powell has. The sixth novel in the series, The Kindly Ones, is among the very finest, funniest, most melancholy books I’ve ever had the pleasure to open.