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

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Monday, November 3, 2014

The most gossipy literary novels ever written?

No doubt Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time is the most gossipy literary novel (or series of novels) ever written, about 50 years worth of "dish" - the various loves, hates, lives, deaths, achievements, despair, malevolence and benevolence among a set of about 20 people whose lives continue to cross over decades and continents, through war and peacetime, as all of England consisted of about 20 people (which for those who've lived there and been part of a "set," literary or theatrical or journalistic of whatever, will make a lot of sense - England feels like a many little clubs inhabiting the sceptered isle) or maybe the 20 are representative of greater social forces - a Chaucer's pilgrims represent in their way all of medieval England. But no these characters aren't really types - they're distinct and peculiar (right down to their crazy names, e.g., Dicky Umfravillle, Forrand-Senechal, X Trapnel, to name 3) - as as I read through, now in volume 11 so about time I asked myself this, is there any greater meaning and significance, or is it all just gossip (a friend of M's once said that all literature is basically just gossip, and there's some truth to that: all fiction emanates from the same well as gossip: Let me tell you a story ... )? Well for one thing I suspect much of Dance to the Music is a roman a clef, to which I don't have the clef - but I'm sure people have written about this and decoded the characters, many of whom, of course, are composites. There's much incidental talk about art and culture, but it generally feels like small talk; comparing it with the long discourses in, say, Knausgaard, comes out not in Powell's favor - again, the literary talk often descends to publishing-world gossip. There is very little description - of anything actually - very much unlike Proust in that regard. Mainly, the novels are character-driven - we see characters unfold over a long period of time, living through not just one but literally a dozen different phases - phases not only in their lives but in modern English history - and I'll go with the majority of critics and agree that the wartime (and the immediate postwar) novels are the strongest, as they chronicle the time when English culture was under its greatest duress. But when I come right down to it I do like these novels as high-end gossip, and I believe they particularly come to life primarily when Widmerpool is on the scene: he appears in numerous guises throughout all volumes, and by now, in volume 11, in a tempestuous relationship with his abusive wife, Pamela, herself a serial cheater, that we almost, but not quite, feel sorry for the man: superficially so successful but, as everyone knows, a completely obsequious and insufferable man: Victor Kartheimer (aka Pete Campbell, of Mad Men) could and should play him, if they ever remake a TV series of these novels.

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