Sunday, 6 May 2012

Penguin no. 1706: What's Become of Waring

Making a literary reputation - as Hugh was fond of saying - had never been so easy as in the dozen years after the War; nor keeping one - he was accustomed to add - so difficult. For this reason people have forgotten about T.T. Waring because most of his readers were of the kind who find authors' names hard to remember; while the critics who praised him so highly cannot devote space to an old favourite with so many fresh works of genius waiting for their due. His collected works were 'remaindered' almost as soon as they appeared. Ships' libraries and the Calendonian Market are the last resting-places of the original copies which have not fallen out of their bindings. All the same, T.T. Waring sold well when the going was good.

Powell's title is a reference to a poem by Robert Browning in which he tells of his longing for the company of Waring (in reality, the poet and Colonial Statesman Alfred Domett) who has gone from London forsaking his friends for a life of travelling. His present location is a mystery, though the speaker likes to imagine that he will soon resurface, the author of some great masterpiece.

The Waring of Powell's novel writes travel books, and his whereabouts is also unknown. His books are lowbrow, easy to read, and popular, 'a perfect exemplar of a form of woolly writing that appeals to uncritical palates.' They describe his wanderings in exotic destinations that most of his readers will never visit, such as Ceylon and Egypt, mixing the tales of adventure with a little philosophy and some reflections on life, and their success has made him the most profitable author on his publisher's list. But he is also something of an enigma, for no one at the publishing firm Judkins & Judkins has ever met him. His books arrive from overseas and via the office of his literary agent, each accompanied by detailed notes explaining how they are to be promoted. And it is this flair for promotion which seems to be the basis of his growing success. His upcoming book is eagerly awaited.

To Hugh Judkins then, the news of Waring's sudden death abroad comes as something of a blow. His thoughts turn to the only opportunity such news presents: a biography must be published as soon as possible to take advantage of the public's interest in Waring before it wanes, and hopefully to encourage the continuing sales of his books and give a little publicity to the writer selected as biographer. It is assumed that the task will be a simple one, with most of the information already there in the travel books; all that will be required is a little sketching in of his background. But when Waring's first book is inadvertently discovered to be little more than a rehashed version of an earlier forgotten work, it becomes clear that he is not quite what he seems. How much more of his story will turn out to be faked?

Much of the novel seems concerned with the discrepancy between appearance and reality, and Waring's story is slowly revealed against a background in which the truth is often difficult to determine. The unreliability of appearance is a recurring theme: a friend announces his presence with a fake death threat, Hugh Judkins regularly attends seances while declaring himself sceptical of all he observes, and the unnamed narrator's friends seem to live on the boundary between fact and fantasy. He notes of Eustace Bromwich that it is impossible to know if his mannerisms are impersonations, and that the stories his friend Roberta Payne tells of her childhood are unlikely to be reliable. And as it is Roberta's intention to write up her enhanced stories as memoirs, her proposed book would seem to echo those of Waring's travels.

One of the myths Powell seems keen on dispelling is any idea that writing and publishing may be inherently more worthy than other commercial ventures. He gives a rather bleak portrayal of publishing as a profession, with one of his Judkins brothers loathing books, and the other looking on publishing as a process of churning them out;  the brothers are motivated more by a desire to thwart each other than by any determination to succeed. And the aspiring writers and their publishers are just as uninteresting, conceited, stubborn, self-interested, and prone to irrational decision making as any one else. A number of characters end up looking elsewhere for their employment.

It is an interesting book, but also a melancholy one. The tone is set by the narrator who seems bored with his situation, but also realistic, pragmatic and generally tolerant of others' flaws, including those of Waring. He seems to drift along, without feeling any real passion, and this impacts on the story he relates, a story mostly concerned with things that don't work out.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1728: A Question of Upbringing
Penguin no. 2075. Casanova's Chinese Restaurant


  1. It does sound interesting. I usually enjoy novels where there is an issue between fantasy and reality, or appearance and reality, and I'm always attracted by anything that revolves around writing and publishing.

    1. I see that Anthony Powell began his working life in a London publishing firm, and I would guess from this book that it was something of an illusion-shattering experience, and that is the aspect that makes this novel interesting.

  2. This sounds intriguing, and easier to take on than A Dance to the Music of Time. I've read very little Powell but will definitely be looking out for this (preferably in the lovely Penguin edition)

    1. I'm only two books into his A Dance to the Music of Time series, but this has a similar feel despite being written much earlier. The similarity is in the way it is told, with a narrator who tells you very little of his own story concentrating more on the stories of those he knows, and analysing their motives.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This puts me in mind of Hugh Walpole. He was an incredibly popular author in the years between the wars, saw a brief revival following the publication of his biography (after his death, of course) and then drifted into obscurity. It always makes me wonder who are the best-sellers of today who will suffer the same fate. Most of them, if history is anything to go by.

    BTW, I'm including this link (although you may already know of it):

    1. I own a few of Hugh Walpole's novels, but even before I read them I wonder if I'll be biased by Somerset Maugham's rather scathing portrayal of him in Cakes and Ale. I read it while sitting in Terminal 5 at Heathrow waiting for the plane to Amsterdam, and so it is integrated with memories of the holiday, and something I am unlikely to ever forget.

      And thanks for the link. I do know about the flickr group, and very occasionally post covers as well, although I think they must have an image of every cover by now.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...