Friday 22 April 2011

Penguin no. 2075: Casanova's Chinese Restaurant
by Anthony Powell

"The name Casanova's Chinese Restaurant offered one of those unequivocal blendings of disparate elements of the imagination which suggests a whole new state of mind or way of life. The idea of Casanova giving his name to a Chinese restaurant linked not only the East with the West, the present with the past, but also, more parochially, suggested by its own incongruity an immensely suitable place for all of us to have dinner that night."

This is the fifth volume from Anthony Powell's 12 volume work A Dance to the Music of Time. I came to the series completely uninitiated, knowing nothing of the characters nor of what to expect, not having read any of the other volumes or seen the television series. And so I decided to view the reading of this one as something of an experiment. Is it possible to dive into the middle of the series and keep afloat? My only other experience of a cycle of novels is C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers series. Those you can read in any order, for although they broadly concern the same set of characters, each book is self-contained. I wondered if this would prove the same.

Perhaps I found this a little heavy going at first. It is only a short book, slightly less than 200 pages, and with only 4 chapters, but it is crammed with characters, and with details. Presumably at least some of the characters and details are there to tether this book to the previous four, and to establish the context of time and place, but so much information is distracting. There is no way of sorting it: which details must be focused on in order to understand the plot, and which ones are there to fill out the background? And while concentrating on all this it is easy to miss the beauty of the prose, for it is simple and understated, and yet quietly evocative and wise. It seems to me a book to be read twice, and I suspect part of a series that is better read in order.

This is a book reflecting on relationships between men and women, focusing primarily on marriage, and it adopts a realistic, if slightly pessimistic, viewpoint. The restaurant itself, with its imperfect blending of disparate elements, may reflect something of how marriage is viewed, and the question is raised early in the book of whether the worst of marriages is better than none at all. The narrator is Nicholas Jenkins, remembering the past, and taking on the role of observer: it is not his own marriage he reflects on but those of his friend Moreland, and his acquaintance Maclintick. And so the view is necessarily narrow, the understanding incomplete, and many things can only be assumed or guessed. But the question raised seems to be answered in the affirmative.

The story unfolds against an intricately detailed background, seemingly a portrait of London society of the 1930s. The real and the fictional are interwoven; the characters reacting to the events of the time, such as the abdication of the King and the Spanish Civil War. This was one of the most interesting aspects of the novel: it gave a kind of survey of prevailing attitudes to unfolding events, but from a conservative viewpoint. There is some gentle mocking of those with left wing tendencies; they are painted as a little naive and ineffectual.

And so I came to the end of this book with a sense that it must be read again. The narrator is never introduced and it takes a while to come to know him, and I sense that understanding the story from the start would allow the reader to concentrate on the other aspects the novel has to offer: the beauty and wisdom of the prose; the historical and literary references. But when I re-read it, it will be as part of the sequence.

1 comment:

  1. Very astute review, thanks. It's well worth reading the whole series.



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