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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

The litr'ary life: Volume 11 of A Dance to the Music of Time

Returned to Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time and started on volume 11 (of 12), Temporary Kings; it's clear that the last "movement" of this series is about the literary life in which Powell, or more precisely his narrator and alter ego, Nick Jenkins, engaged in after the 2nd World War. I have noted regarding previous volumes that there are amazing ellipses in the narrative: we are told that Nick is a published novelist but see and know almost nothing about his intellectual life or literary tastes, that is, he doesn't seem like a novelist in the way that Proust's Marcel or, more recently, Knausgaard's Karl Ove, consistently do. By the last three novels, however, though we still know little about his taste and sensibilities except perhaps by inference, we are absorbed in the London world of literary gossip and backbiting, an insular world, then (this volume set int he mid-1950s) and still, at least compared with the varieties of literary experience in America. In volume 10 Nick was working for a left-leaning publishing house and magazine, Fission, and working with the rising star literary phenom, a Wellesian (Orson) character, X. Trapnel (?) whom, at the end, steals from the loathsome and careerist Widmerpool his beautiful and cruel young wife, who in spite destroys the novel that X had nearly completed. Now, about 5 years later, Nick has risen in stature and is invited to various international literary conclaves, quite a life, where the same people gather to talk and gossip at the expense of others. At a conference in Venice - once more, his wife is almost entirely out of the picture - he meets an American professor who is hoping to write a bio of X: we learn that X never recovered from the loss of the manuscript, his talent waned, his bloviated waxed, and he died young. I think one of the running jokes is meant to be the ridiculous nature of Trapnel's title, his most famous work entitled Camel Ride to the Tomb. But I'm not exactly sure Powell means that to be funny, as his titles are equally absurd: Temporary Kings, btw, is a reference to a theme of The Golden Bough, regarding village folk given royal status for a day or so during a seasonal holiday (e.g., the May Queen) - the idea being that literary stars such as Nick et al. are enjoying only fleeting fame, on loan from and largely to amuse the truly powerful and influential (while lulling the masses into narcosis).

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