Gotham Diary:
Et in Arcadia
22 August 2014

It seems to have rained rather heavily in the night, but I didn’t hear it, because, for once, I was really asleep, not dozing. After four or five skittery nights of catatonic consciousness — no tossing and turning, but no real rest, either; feeling rather like Madeline Usher — I was desperately tired yesterday. On my way to a quick dinner in the town last night I almost turned around at the end of the lane, and then again about fifty feet on. These second thoughts were warnings that I probably ought to have heeded, for the walk home afterward was disturbed by the horror of falling down — dare I call this the signature anxiety of old age? Had there been a bench, I’d have been tempted to sit down, although I should probably have resisted. Once or twice I felt dangerously lightheaded — or thought I did. In the clear light of morning, I suppose that there was nothing more to it than having set out for home a little too soon after wolfing down a cheeseburger.

I’d still be in bed but for two things, a tedious dream that was almost as discouraging as my walk home last night, and the metronomic drip of rainwater from a neighboring roof. I can assume that it was dripping water, now that I see the soaked decking. In bed, I could only worry that something was wrong somewhere, possibly in our house. Going back to sleep seemed both unattractive and unlikely, so I got up.

Thanks to the timing of the rain, I can say that I’ve enjoyed almost perfect weather during my five days of solitude. Sunny, clear, and cool, the air has been a gentle tonic. The only question is whether I’ve had enough.


Last Sunday night, after the ferry carried everyone else away, I began re-reading A Dance to the Music of Time. The extravagantly low-key opening, a tableau of ditch-diggers moving about a trench in a dark and wintry London street, is so potentially off-putting as to constitute a secret doorway to hell, not the dire hell of Dante but the modern hell of hapless egotism. Anthony Powell’s literary conceit is that, notwithstanding our unconscious preoccupation with self-importance, we are all bound in a mystical roundelay, crossing hands over and over again with familiar faces, changed by time in a way that is somehow unchanging. This recurrence has never seemed very realistic to me, but I can well imagine that it captures quite well the much more concentrated nature of the British elite, even at its most variegated. As for the egotism — the word comes up with a frequency that is almost dating — it seems exaggerated by the shock waves generated by Freudian theories. What distinguishes Dance from Powell’s earlier fiction is the intrusion of authorial asides in which laws of human behavior are proposed. These don’t strike me as very realistic, either. They seem to strain to connect contemporary anxiety with classical fatality. But the gesture is charming, even beautiful at times. Almost everything about A Dance to the Music of Time is — how else to put it? — lovely.

Even the gruesome bits, like this passage describing Nick Jenkins’s response to the revelation that his lover, Jean Duport, had an affair with her ex-brother-in-law, the oafish Jimmy Stripling, after her sister’s divorce (and long before intimacies with Nick).

She went white, as if she might be about to faint. I was myself overcome with a horrible feeling of nausea, as if one had suddenly woken from sleep and found oneself chained to a corpse. A desire to separate myself physically from her and the place we were in was linked with an overwhelming sensation that, more than ever, I wanted her for myself. To think of her as wife of Bob Duport was bad enough, but that she should also have been mistress of Jimmy Stripling was barely endurable. Yet it was hard to know how to frame a complaint regarding that matter even to myself. She had not been ‘unfaithful’ to me. This odious thing had happened at a time when I myself had no claim whatsoever over her. I tried to tranquillise myself by considering whether a liaison with some man, otherwise possible to like or admire, would have been preferable. In the face of such an alternative, I decided Stripling was on the whole better as he was: with all the nightmarish fantasies implicit in the situation. The mystery remained why she should choose that particular moment to reveal this experience of hers, making of it a kind of defiance.

When you are in love with someone, their life, past and present and future, becomes in a curious way part of your life; and yet, at the same time, since two separate human entities in fact remain, you merely carry your own prejudices into another person’s imagined existence; not even into their ‘real’ existence, because only they themselves can estimate what their ‘real’ existence has been. Indeed, the situation might be compared with that to be experienced in due course in the army where an officer is responsible for the conduct of troops stationed at a post too distant from him for the exercise of any effective control.

Not only was it painful enough to think of Jean giving herself to another man; the pain was intensified by supposing — what was, of course, not possible — that Stripling must appear to her in the same terms that he appeared to me. Yet clearly she had, once, at least, looked at Stripling with quite different eyes, or such a situation could never have arisen. Therefore, seeing Stripling as a man for whom it was evidently possible to feel at the very least a passing tendresse — perhaps even love — this incident, unforgettably horrible as it seemed to me at the time, would more rationally be regarded as a mere error of judgment. In love, however, there is no rationality. Besides, that she had seen him with eyes other than mine made things worse. In such ways one is bound, inescapably, to the actions of others.

This passage appears toward the end of the third novel in the cycle, The Acceptance World. This was, I am told, the novel that broke through to broad literary réclame, attracting a notice that the first two entries had not garnered. It is the most “Proustian” of the twelve: Nick’s agonized musings about love and eros will prove to be transitory as regards his own character; he will meet and settle down with Isobel Tolland presently. But the conception of love as one of the more intense manifestations of selfishness colors every romantic entanglement, especially those involving Kenneth Widmerpool. Time and time again, Jenkins will try and fail to imagine the possibility of feeling tenderness or love for Widmerpool, confounded by the evidence that women repeatedly do feel these things for his odd, ichthyomorphic schoolmate. There is no rationality in love. This is a very old Greek idea.

It’s curious to note what I remember and what I don’t. I’d forgotten entirely about Mildred Blaides, even though I dimly remembered General and Mrs Conyers (the women are sisters). Almost everything in the first three novels was familiar, but I don’t think I’d noticed that Pamela Flitton, the femme fatale of later developments, first appears as a seven year-old attendant at the wedding of Peggy Stepney and Charles Stringham. The first-time reader will easily grasp that Stringham’s marriage is not going to last very long, but, once recognized by the returning reader, little Pamela is as baleful as the wickedest fairy’s curse.

To hear me talk, you’d never know what fun A Dance to the Music of Time can be. So far, my favorite sentence, which really almost might be the motto of the entire set, concerns a character whom, like Widmerpool, I didn’t enjoy reading about, the first time through: Uncle Giles. Now I do.

His mastery of the hard-luck story was of a kind never achieved by persons not wholly concentrated on themselves.