Anthony Powell, Dance, vol. 4

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time. Collected edition vol. 4 (Arrow Books)

Vol. 10: Books Do Furnish a Room (1971) The strange title derives from the nickname for the seedy left-wing jobbing journalist, Bagshaw (later involved in television; the final three volumes of Dance portray the rapid changes in British cultural and social life in the decades after the war). It became attached to him according to one of two variations on a sleazy sexual encounter he’s alleged to have been involved in.

Nick has returned to university to research a book on Burton (author of Anatomy of Melancholy – a strong literary influence on this final trio of novels). Various characters from the early Oxford novels in this sequence reappear. But the key developments in vols. 10-12 are to do with the curious denouement of the fiery relationship between Widmerpool, now a Labour MP, and his destructively volatile and promiscuous wife, Pamela.

In vol. 10 we learn that Nick’s wife Isobel has given birth to a boy, but we hear very little about their personal lives. There are passing mentions of their children as they grow up, but the narrative focus is on the dance of characters taking place around them.

Vol.11: Temporary Kings (1973) In the summer of 1958 Nick attends a cultural conference in Venice. A number of new characters emerge, many of whom become entangled with key dancers from previous novels – especially the late novelist X. Trapnel, and the Widmerpools. Pamela’s extra-marital affairs exacerbate her husband’s problems in his professional and political life.

Vol. 12: Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975) This novel takes place during the peak of the era of youthful counter-cultural rebellion in the late sixties and early seventies. I found it the least satisfying of the Dance sequence. Powell’s satirical depiction of the cult of hippies that features centrally seemed to me uncharacteristically crabby and heavy-handed. He portrays its charismatic but sinister young leader, with the unlikely name of Scorpio Murtlock, as wielding a corrosive and autocratic influence over his gullible, besotted followers. Because he and his cult members play a major role in this final volume of the novel sequence, my response was to feel slightly disappointed that it ended this way.

Widmerpool’s life and career has taken a new and unlikely turn: he also falls under Murtlock’s spell. A biography of X. Trapnel by one of the characters introduced in the Venice section also causes much of the drama here. Some of the other threads involving earlier characters in the narrative are more successfully tied up. A priceless Modigliani drawing neatly does this job as far as Pamela and some of those who became disastrously entangled with her are concerned. Art and artists (as well as music to set the tempo for the dancer-characters) play an important, deftly symbolic part in Dance.

One of Burton’s ‘torrential passages’ from Anatomy rounds of this superb sequence of novels with a pleasing flourish; it sums up (and reflects) many of the key themes of the twelve novels and highlights Powell’s method as a unique literary artist and master of language; here’s a short, edited extract from a long and brilliant quotation:

‘I hear news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions…daily musters and preparations…which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks…peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances, are daily brought to our ears…Today we hear of new Lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed…’

Wouldn’t ‘Ordinary Rumours’ make a great title for a Powell novel?! My thanks to Cornwall Libraries for supplying Vols 2-4 of this novel sequence.

Anthony Powell, A Dance…vol. 3

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time. Collected edition vol. 3

Vol. 7: The Valley of Bones (1964) The title arises from a reading in church from Ezekiel (the famous song ‘Dry Bones’ derives from the same Old Testament source). WWII has started and Nick is a lowly officer at a training unit. There’s a whole lot of new characters: fellow officers are variously pompous, officious or ineffective, or a combination of these. The other ranks are slightly less eccentric, but still full of quirks.

David Pennistone is one of the most interesting of the recurring characters; Nick had met him years earlier at the famous society party thrown by Mrs Andriadis (other characters from this event will pop up later). He’s an intellectual, reading Vigny on the military life when Nick encounters him on a train, and thinking of writing a piece on Descartes. He’ll feature fairly prominently in the next few volumes.

Nick learns more about his former lover Jean and her wayward attitude to the men in her life. More complications arise with his wife’s extended family and other former friends and acquaintances. The dance involving partners changing and dropping out continues, with several surprising developments.

Nick by this time early in the war had written, he says, ‘three or four’ novels (the imprecision is telling). But now, as war becomes ever more overwhelming, he feels too ‘inhibited’ to write. There’s an unsurprising darkness, as well as the usual dazzling satire, in this wartime trilogy.

Humour is wickedly threaded into the more serious aspects of the narrative – and the depiction of characters. One of Nick’s fellow officers remarks that he’s glad he’s married: it means he ‘[doesn’t] have to bother any more about women.’

8. The Soldier’s Art (1966) Widmerpool, as patronising, sinister and creepy as ever, is now Nick’s officious but ineffective superior at their unit in N. Ireland. He’s embroiled in childish, jealous rivalries with his peers, desperate to seem more efficient than everyone else, but succeeding only in appearing ludicrous. He’s a superb creation, probably the most interesting and complex character in the sequence: a comic monster, summed up in this withering comment from Nick –

There was something impressive in his total lack of interest in the fate of all persons except himself. Perhaps it was not the lack of interest in itself – but the fact that he was at no pains to conceal this within some more or less hypocritical integument.

The ‘dance’ of characters brings more of Nick’s former acquaintance into play, still relentlessly changing partners with each other. Former school friend Stringham pops up as a lowly mess waiter, revealing the class system operating as pervasively as it does in the outside world.

There’s a fair amount of rueful reflection on the vagaries of military life in time of war. There are also some shocking revelations; some characters die in the Blitz.

9. The Military Philosophers (1968) Time has moved on; this volume covers a period roughly 1942-45. First a captain, then a major, Nick is at a war office post, working at first in liaison with Polish allies, then with others. The massacre of Polish officers at Katyn forest casts a dark shadow over this final novel in the wartime sequence.

Widmerpool is again his superior officer, as arrogant and selfish as ever. There are more reappearances of usual suspects, but the most striking new arrival is Pamela Flitton (played by Miranda Richardson in the 90s TV version, depicted on the front cover of this volume).

She’s a glamorous ATS driver for Nick’s unit. She emerges as an egregious flirt with a destructive surliness in her treatment of her various conquests. Nick learns that she’s Stringham’s niece (by various complex marital connections).

There are more fatalities among Nick’s circle as the Nazis, losing the war after D-Day, deploy their final lethal onslaught on London: V1 and then V2 rockets. Pamela is revealed to have been involved in a sinister, clandestine plot in Cairo that included others of Nick’s acquaintance.

The tone becomes increasingly Proustian – not just in terms of the meandering prose style, but also in the settings (Nick finds himself on a mission to a northern French resort that turns out to be Proust’s Balbec), and there’s a long quotation from this parallel roman fleuve.

In his military role, Nick learns more painful lessons: after witnessing bad behaviour by a senior commander, he recalls another of philosopher Pennistone’s more cynical insights: that such officers need mollycoddling; they’re like ‘ballerinas’ in another world – Borneo, for example. The fawning obsequiousness Nick had formerly deprecated in some junior soldiers in their dealings with top brass he now realises is essential for survival in this army.

Between the Potsdam conference and the first atom bomb, Nick hears that Pamela has become engaged to the last person he’d have expected. At a social event she displays her usual venomous contempt for her new beau: this does not bode well for the embarrassed fiancé.

After attending the victory service at St Paul’s, Nick meets another key figure from his past. This is going to complicate his life in fascinating ways. I’m looking forward to the final three volumes in this brilliantly realised sequence. How will he fare in post-war civilian life? How will he manage to step his way through the next stage of the dance?

 

Powell, A Dance…vol.2

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time vol 2 (Arrow Books, 2000)

I posted in January about the first in this sequence of 4 bulky 3-volume editions of the 12 novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. My response then was less than enthusiastic. Now I’ve finished the second volume, which contains these three novels:

At Lady Molly’s (1957)

Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960)

The Kindly Ones (1962) – the title refers to the Eumenides or The Furies, the Greek deities of divine vengeance and retribution.

I’m now firmly hooked: A Dance to the Music of Time is brilliant – witty, and written with a purring elegance beneath which there’s a wickedly sharp critical portrayal of the (mostly upper-middle-class) large cast of characters.

The narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is now (it’s the mid-30s for most of these 3 novels, and ends with the start of WWII) a novelist of moderately successful standing. He’s got over his love affair with Jean, who’d married a former school acquaintance of his, Bob Duport, and settled into married life with Isobel Tolland – one of a large number of siblings (their aunt is the ‘Lady Molly’ of the first novel here). He makes some alarming discoveries, however, about the true nature of Jean (and, for that matter, many of the other characters) – he’s not usually the most discerning or omniscient of narrators, despite his capacity for turning an epigrammatic phrase, and his shortcomings in reading people, especially women, are starkly exposed again.

It’s difficult to do justice to the subtlety of Powell’s achievement in these novels in a short space here; the slowly accreting narrative and lack of notable incident are central to his purpose. He takes his time in demonstrating the relative skill or ineptitude of his creations, as they join partners and then change them. Widmerpool, the eccentric figure of fun from school days, pops up regularly, and is becoming an ever more complex player in the drama: at times seemingly the solipsistic fool, but always vaguely menacing.

As in Max Ophuls’ excellent 1950 film (based on an Arthur Schnitzler play from 1897) ‘La Ronde’, it’s the inevitably cyclical turn of events, the rhythmical change of partners in that looping dance through time, that underlies and governs things. The participants have far less agency than they tend to realise. Nick relates what he sees of this with varying degrees of understanding; as a bemused participant himself, his view is as partial as the rest of his acquaintance.

I’ll try to give some examples of the exquisite style and tone of this deceptively languid sequence of novels.

Early on (p. 32) there’s Nick’s friend Barnby’s Wildean insight into the nature of the minor aristocracy invoked in describing the ‘lonely, derelict character’ of uncle Alfred Tolland (ie uncle to the siblings including Lady Isobel), who’d sat morosely next to Nick at one of their former school’s old boys’ dinners – these references to scenes in earlier novels in the sequence regularly appear, all part of the meticulously constructed architecture of the novels. Barnby had quipped that ‘melancholy is the curse of the upper classes’ (32).

Character description is another rewarding feature of Powell’s approach. These generally appear in the big set pieces that punctuate the narrative, such as parties at Lady Molly’s, drinks in seedy London pubs, or meals at the Chinese (formerly Italian) restaurant named in the second novel here.

Miss Weedon is the former secretary to Mrs Foxe; she takes over supervision of her employer’s drunken grown-up son, Charles Stringham. Nick remembered her looking at Charles when he and Nick were boys with ‘adoration’; she’d been his sister’s governess as well. Charles, she declared, had never grown up. She only tolerates conversation with Nick at one of the many parties he attends because he’d said he and Charles had been friends since school. She looks at Nick ‘with a kind of chilly amiability’. As a boy, Nick had thought her ‘formidable’:

I still found her a trifle alarming. She gave an impression of complete singleness of purpose: the impression of a person who could make herself very disagreeable if thwarted.

Later, when she’s revealed as engaged to an elderly general (a friend of Nick’s family), he concludes that this is consistent with her ‘taste…for power’ – she enjoyed her ability to control wayward Charles, and now sees the general as another such project (p. 163).

Nick meets Jean’s ex, Bob Duport, in a seedy hotel – he’d gone there to arrange the funeral of his bad penny uncle Giles, another recurring character, who’d been staying there when he died. Nick had never liked Bob, and was even more inclined to antipathy when Bob reveals that Jean had been unfaithful not only to her husband, but to her other lovers (including, unknown to Bob, Nick himself). She had orchestrated the end of the affair with Nick with a lie about having to move abroad. Nick realises he’s joined a long list of men she’d treated badly. He concludes, with bitterness and resignation:

For the moment, angry, yet at the same time half inclined to laugh, I could not make up my mind what I thought. This was yet another example of the tricks that Time can play within its own folds, tricks that emphasise the insecurity of those who trust themselves over much to that treacherous concept. I suddenly found that what I had regarded as immutable – the not entirely unsublime past – roughly reshaped by the rude hands of Duport. That was justice, I thought, if you like. (p. 655)

Powell is perhaps overfond of that unusual double negative structure that Orwell advised against in English usage (‘not un- something’).

Nick muses further on Miss Weedon’s ability to capture the heart of the worldly old general:

One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.

‘Valéry asks why one has been summoned to this carnival,’ [Nick’s friend] Moreland once said, ‘but it’s more like blind man’s buff. One reels through the carnival in question, blundering into persons one can’t see, and, without success, trying to keep hold of a few of them.’ (691)

‘Carnival’ here is a variation on the recurring metaphor at the heart of these novels: the revolving performance in which the performer-dancers are not entirely aware of the rhythms, the formal pattern, that influence their movement.

Which returns me to a quotation I included in my first post on A Dance to the Music of Time, from p.2 of the first volume of three novels: ‘they [AP’s characters] can be unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.’

In the cage: Elizabeth Bowen, First Stories

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), First Stories

My Everyman hardback copy of Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories (2019) runs to 860 pages of fairly small print. This post will therefore focus on the first section – a collection of 14 stories first published as Encounters in 1923, when she was only 24 years old.

The usual approach to consideration of a collection of stories like this is to identify common threads or themes. But each of these stories is a finely crafted entity in its own right. If there are such themes, they’re probably to do with people using plenty of fine-sounding language but failing to communicate – or to articulate what they really mean (if they even know themselves). There’s very little action or plot in the stories; instead we see people gossiping, assessing each other (often not very favourably), scoring points, deflecting, struggling with social expectations.

The first story, ‘Breakfast’, published when Bowen was only 21, is a good example. A man steels himself to join the breakfast group in the house where he’s a paying guest. ‘Behold, I die daily’, are his unspoken thoughts as he descends from his room to join the unsympathetic group already eating. His landlady, the owner of the house, passive-aggressively chides him for being late to the meal, then proceeds to accuse him of profligacy in losing collar-studs – his excuse for his lateness.

The story sets the tone for most of what follows. There’s wit and psychological perception in the portrayal of these sparring characters. Bowen’s modernist approach means there’s a lot of free indirect thought, disconnected or inconclusive musings and dreams, epiphanies and obliquely observed scenes which reveal depths and complexities in the characters that the reader has to work at figuring out. It’s worth the effort. Atmosphere prevails over exposition.

Bowen was born to a wealthy Protestant Irish family. Her mother’s ancestors included a Viscount Powerscourt (a fine estate in Co. Wicklow; I attended a wedding there with Mrs TD some years ago when a relative of hers had his reception in the big house – now an upmarket hotel. Her father as a lad had climbed the rockface behind the waterfall in the grounds).

The author spent her childhood summers at her father’s family home, Bowen Court in Co. Cork, but she lived mostly in England, moving there with her mother permanently in 1907 when her father had a mental breakdown. When her mother died in 1912, when Elizabeth was only 13, she went to live with great-aunts in England. This peripatetic early start to life, and the traumatic events she experienced, seem to have influenced her writing. Another aspect of these stories includes characters who are dislocated, disengaged, unfulfilled. Maybe as a person who was perceived by many in Ireland as not a true Irishwoman, and by the English as a colonial, she felt inclined to write about outsiders, people estranged from those around her.

She conveys the passion and anger felt by a small girl when her mother isn’t home to lavish praise on her for the essay her teacher had read out to her class at school. Her immature instinct is to lash out when the mother finally appears.

There are wives who feel they live in an ‘intolerable cage’, like the woman in ‘The Evil that Men Do -‘. She receives a florid love-letter from a man she’d met at a poetry reading, and with whom she’d shared a bus-ride afterwards. This leaves her in a romantic flutter; she feels she’s lived her life ‘on the defensive’. She doesn’t like her solicitor husband any more, she concludes. He doesn’t even glance at the poetry books she leaves lying around. When she sat gazing at the fire for hours, or out of the window, he never asked her what she was thinking about (T.S. Eliot used a similar trope about the same time). He often left her alone with the children and servants for days on end (the characters in these stories usually have servants and grand houses). She bemoans this solitude, but also embraces it: ‘of course solitude was her only escape and solace.’ She adds this self-consciously poetic thought to the postscript of the letter she’s writing to her effusive admirer.

The story’s conclusion provides an example of Bowen’s capacity for sly humour: the unsentimental, neglectful husband buys his wife a pretty gift, and she’s instantly won over. Her romantic fantasies vanish, and she’ll never know that for fateful reasons her correspondent will never read her letter.

This is not the only story in which a married woman (or one with a selfish, possessive brother) has a third, shadowy man in the background. In ‘The Shadowy Third’ this third person is the late wife of a man whose second wife, as in Rebecca, is uncomfortably aware of this ghostly, possibly better-loved predecessor.

Loneliness is also apparent in the schoolmistress’s life in ‘Daffodils’. She tries to engage with a trio of her girl pupils, inviting them as they pass her house to take tea with her. But she puts them off by berating them for their lack of perception of life or fully ‘seen’ things, symbolised by those Wordsworthian flowers that she’d just bought. ‘Nothing ever comes new to them…or impresses them…Their sentimentality embarrasses me.’ It’s no surprise when they up and leave, grateful to escape this sad woman; they for their part cattily agree the teacher ‘has never lived.’

It’s difficult to convey the range and variety of these exquisite stories. I’ve possibly over-emphasised the connections between them, and their poignancy; there are also many differences, and each story is a vignette in its own right. I particularly liked ‘All Saints’, a story about an eccentric, ‘theatrical’, rather vampish middle-aged woman who leaves a vicar ‘nonplussed’ when she asks if she can donate a stained-glass window to his church: ‘I think coloured windows are so beautiful. They make me feel so religious and good.’ She wants it to be an All Saints window, but her idea of what constitutes a saint is highly unconventional and definitely not Christian. No wonder the vicar is shocked and wrong-footed.

Two novels by Elizabeth Bowen that I’ve posted about left me less than impressed, although I thoroughly enjoyed pre-blog readings of The Heat of the Day (1929) and The Last September (1948). Those two are:

Friends and Relations (1931) HERE

Eva Trout (1968) HERE

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, 1-3

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (Arrow, 2000)

 I took this one-volume paperback edition of the first three novels in Anthony Powell’s acclaimed 12-novel sequence with me on our Christmas-NY visit in Spain. The three titles are:

A Question of Upbringing (1951)

A Buyer’s Market (1952)

The Acceptance World (1955)

There’s a huge cast of characters, but the central group consists of a few young men who met at their prestigious boarding school (said to be based on Eton, where Powell was a pupil). We then follow their progress into the privileged world associated with their class and background: Oxford University, then what follows for men of this social class.

Some of them become associated with successful businessmen, and they either thrive or flounder in this environment, depending on their prowess in the dance orchestrated by time (the title of this novel sequence comes from a symbolic painting by Poussin): sometimes they rise then fall. As the narrator puts it on p.2, they can be ‘unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.’

The narrator and central figure is Nicholas Jenkins, who becomes a novelist while working for a publisher of art books. As a consequence, the worlds of aesthetes and artists, writers and various bohemians come into not always harmonious contact with the politicians, high-powered entrepreneurs and fashionable socialites who populate the narrative.

I might have abandoned this book if this hadn’t been the only one I took with me on my travels. I found the fruity prose style and languorous narrative pace irksome at first. The characters were largely unappealing, sometimes cruel and heartless. But gradually I became attuned to the narrator’s presentation of this not very attractive scenario. The bland acceptance by these brash young men in the 1920s and 30s is placed against the turbulent political events of the time, such as the hunger marches of impoverished workers, and the first stirrings of fascism.

The shameless elitism, amorality and cloying sense of privilege in most of the characters, I began to appreciate, is portrayed with an element of subtle irony. There’s no overt criticism of their manners or behaviour, but the perspective of Nicholas, who views them all with a novelist’s appraising eye, ensures that they’re seen for what they are – though his judgements aren’t always reliable.

Like his former classmates, he has problems with his love life. The women that Powell has them become involved with are less successfully realised, but perhaps that’s part of Powell’s plan. They’re viewed through the eyes of the men who desire or seduce them. That’s possibly another aspect of the flawed world view that they fail to discern in themselves – Nicholas included – although he comes closest to assessing with any kind of perspicuity how useless he is in the sexual dance.

So I shall persevere and try volume 4. It could go either way for me.

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (Fig Tree, 2018)

Mrs TD heard this non-fiction book being discussed enthusiastically on the BBC Radio 4 programme A Good Read. Our excellent Cornwall Libraries provided this hardback copy within days of my reserving it.

We recently travelled through the Netherlands, which brought back memories of visiting Amsterdam over the years: the Anne Frank House, the Jewish Museum and quarter. I thought I knew a fair bit about the murderous treatment of Jewish people under the German occupation, and the ways some Dutch residents risked their lives to harbour some of them in their own homes. This book changed this perception.

Bart van Es was born in the Netherlands and is a professor of English literature at Oxford University. The Cut Out Girl is his account of tracing the role played by his Dutch grandparents (and many others) in hiding a young Jewish girl during WWII. She’s only eight years old when her parents make the agonising decision to send her to live with a family of strangers before they are sent to the death camps. Van Es tracks her down – she’s now a woman in her eighties, living in Amsterdam – and gets to know and interview her during several visits to her home.

At first Lien (short for Hesseline) is a little reluctant to divulge the emotional side of her story to her ‘nephew’ (as he’s pleased to be called when she introduces him to a visitor: after all, she isn’t a blood relative, even though she came to call the van Es adults – Bart’s grandparents who sheltered — her as mother and father). He uses his academic research skills to fill out the details in the basic narrative she gives him.

Much of this factual part is reasonably familiar and predictable to those of us brought up on stories like Anne Frank’s. After staying in Dordrecht (which we visited on our recent trip) with the van Es family, Lien was moved several times as her hiding places were compromised. She had to stay for weeks and months on end confined to the house, often in a secret concealed room, not even able to look out of a window for fear of being discovered or betrayed. No school, no friends.

Not surprisingly, deprived of almost all contact with other people, she became anxious, emotionally volatile and vulnerable. And now we come to the part of the book that I hadn’t expected, and this is its most powerful and shocking element. Some of those who risked everything to shelter her did not treat her kindly. In one house she was made to fill the role of a housemaid, and shown little or no affection. She experienced even worse treatment in other houses.

We hear about Lien’s life after the war, until the time the author got to know her and elicit her story. She was clearly psychologically damaged by the terrible times she’d lived through. All of her family were murdered by the Nazis. It was only in the previous few years, just before Bart van Es tracked her down, that she’d managed to achieve some kind of peace.

The other key feature of Lien’s sad life was that she had become estranged from the van Es ‘parents’ who had harboured her – hence one sense of the ambiguous title of the book. Lien was ‘cut out’ from her foster family, as well as from her own. The reason for this rift is only revealed towards the end of the book, and it’s another indication of how much more complicated the situation was in the relations between the persecuted Jewish population in wartime Holland and the rest of the Dutch people – and it’s a poignant indication of how deeply flawed we human beings are – even when we seem to be acting nobly.

This is a deeply moving, often disturbing account of what happened in Holland during the war. I hadn’t realised that the Dutch Jewish population suffered so terribly: their wartime death rate of 80% was more than double that in any other western country, including France, Belgium, Italy, or even Austria and Germany. Of 18,000 Jews who lived in Lien’s home town of the Hague in 1940, only 2,000 survived. I shared van Es’s response to these facts: ‘For me, brought up on the myth of Dutch resistance, this comes as a shock,’ he writes. There were various demographic and social reasons for this, but it was also a result of the ‘active participation of Dutch citizens – who did the work of informing on neighbours, arrest, imprisonment and deportation.’ The Dutch authorities delivered 107,000 ‘full Jews’ to their German masters. These people were then sent to the death camps in the east.

Another important feature emerges. When he first arrives to interview Lien, he’s aware that a group of youngsters of ‘north African appearance’ are eyeing him with suspicion. He’s aware that his presence, and the nature of what he’s investigating, are not received with as positive a response as that of the white European Dutch. He points out that since the seventies the Netherlands has been a ‘country of immigration’. One fifth of its population were born outside its borders, or are descendants of these immigrants. Integration has been only ‘moderately successful’.

These are sobering insights. Van Es refers to the far-right politician Geert Wilders’ party getting 15% of the vote in local elections at the time of this book’s publication in 2018. Just last month his anti-Islam PVV party, with its extreme policies on immigration, and advocacy of banning the Qu’ran and mosques, became the largest party in the national elections. Wilders looks likely to lead the next Dutch government. This in a country often seen as an exemplar of liberal views and tolerance of diversity.

My own government seems intent on going down a similar route of ‘taking back control’ of its borders (as they mendaciously boasted during the Brexit campaign), as it redoubles its inhumane (and probably illegal) efforts to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, which it disingenuously insists is a safe and reasonable place for desperate people, many of them persecuted and endangered in their home countries, to be dumped so that we don’t have to see them in our towns and villages. I’m in despair at the ways in which democratic institutions are being rejected, and the world seems to be headed towards the kind of environment that enabled the Nazis to perpetrate the horrors of WWII on people like Lien.

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within. Jonathan Cape, 2023

Mrs TD and I have been keenly following the hit podcast The Rest is Politics, fronted by Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell, since it started 18 months ago. Campbell is the man who was Tony Blair’s media and comms guru, depicted in a grossly exaggerated way as the foul-mouthed bullying Malcolm Tucker (the name rhymes with a swear word he’s overfond of using) in the BBC political satire ‘The Thick of It’. Stewart is an alumnus of Eton and Balliol, Oxford. He is a former soldier, diplomat, author, academic and Tory MP.

This is Stewart’s account of his colourful career up to the point when he quit the Conservative Party in 2019, having been effectively sacked for opposing the hard-line no-deal Brexit bill that was being passed acrimoniously through Parliament. This was the final development in what he describes as the party’s transformation into a ‘populist party of the right’. This was a scarily predictable shift; his book traces this growing movement across the world, which led in the UK to the disastrous premierships of Johnson, Truss and, a less extremely inept example, Sunak:

On four continents provocative, anarchic, charismatic leaders were gaining, spitting out half-invented facts, presenting themselves as the people in revolt against an unrepresentative elite. The age of populism had begun.

This memoir begins with a brief account of the early part of Stewart’s career. He took leave from his diplomatic post in 2000 to walk across a large part of Asia – walking plays an important part in his life and working practice. It’s his way of meeting the people he serves, and reflects his principled approach (rarely shared by his colleagues) to representing them in his professional posts. For a man with a patrician heritage, he’s always determined to find out what people are really thinking and wanting from him, and then trying to bring about change for the better for them.

He served as a provincial governor in Iraq after the ill-fated 2003 war. His experience as a diplomat during these early years exposed him to what was to become familiar to him in political life: an over-fondness among his colleagues for ‘abstract jargon and optimistic platitudes…Most striking was not the failure, but the failure to acknowledge our failure.’

After a spell running an NGO in Afghanistan and as an academic at Harvard, and disillusioned by his chances of improving people’s lives as a diplomat, he decided to try entering what seemed the source of political power, and applied under David Cameron’s 2009 initiative to encourage a more diverse group of people in parliament to become a Conservative MP.

It’s always seemed to me (and Alastair C often teases him about this on the podcast) that he’s far too liberal in his political views to be a Tory. But his riposte there, and in this memoir, is that he dislikes what he sees as the Labour party’s ‘technocratic fantasies’ and predilection for ‘big government’. He’s an advocate, in general terms, of the military, the monarchy, tradition (whatever that means) and love of one’s country. More specifically, he favours limited government, individual rights, ‘prudence at home and strength abroad’. But he’s the old-fashioned, one nation kind of Tory that’s now pretty much been supplanted by the opportunist, xenophobic ultras of the hard right.

Elected in 2010 as the MP for Penrith and the Border, a rural constituency in the far NW of England, he went on to become first a junior minister, held various other posts of increasing responsibility, and peaked as minister at the department for international development from 2017.

His account of his career as a politician is vivid, highly readable and entertaining, but also deeply depressing. His colleagues were often rude to the point of viciousness; most of them, and all of his bosses, were hardly representative of selfless integrity, decency and honesty.

As a new MP he was dismayed to be told by the chief whip – the parliamentary enforcer for his party – that

We should not regard debates [in parliament] as opportunities for open discussion; we might be called legislators but we were not intended to overly scrutinise legislation; we might become members of independent committees, but we were expected to be loyal to the party; and votes would rarely entail a free exercise of judgement. To vote too often on your conscience was to be a fool, and ensure you were never promoted to become a minister. In short, politics was a ‘team sport’.

When first summoned by his new boss Liz Truss at the department for rural affairs, he was horrified by her loftily dismissive attitude to their area of concern. She was to become typical of politicians being appointed to positions for which they showed little enthusiasm or in which they had no experience. Anyone like Stewart, who had vast knowledge of areas like Afghanistan, would be overlooked for posts that cried out for such expertise, and instead injected into positions for which they were unsuited. This reflects the atrophied and ineffective nature of our parliamentary political system with which he gradually fell out of love.Her cavalier attitude to their roles caused him to question whether

these ministerial roles were anything more than symbolic gifts in exchange for loyalty.

At times his account makes him sound priggish and pious, but he’s disarmingly honest about his shortcomings and self-doubt, his tendency to be ‘over-earnest’ and obsessed with details. He admits committing several gaffes, like the one when he was minister in charge of dealing with floods: after one particularly serious flood had happened, and many houses and streets were inundated, he told the BBC that his department had spent millions on flood defences, but this fifteen-foot rise in river levels was unprecedented: “The flood defences are working”, he asserted, “the problem is that the water came over the top”. This admission of one of his ‘screw-ups’ he concedes was a fine example of ‘political idiocy’.

But he also had some successes, like introducing charges for the plastic carrier bags that used to be given out free in supermarkets and shops; this reduced plastic waste by 85%. When prisons minister he managed to improve the previously appalling conditions. There were other small gains. It was the madness of the divisive Brexit campaign and its aftermath that finally did for him, and he realised that the selfishness of his party’s leaders, their disregard for the public good and habit of prioritising their own careers and grip on power, had become too egregious for him to stomach any longer.

We need more people in parliament and politics in general with his kind of integrity, decency and probity – all qualities that our current PM has bragged about restoring, but shown zero capacity for deploying.

Whatever your politics, I’d recommend this book for its insight into the dysfunctional nature of Britain’s political (and electoral) system.

Isabel Colegate, Orlando King

Isabel Colegate, Orlando King. Bloomsbury, 2020. (First published in three volumes, 1968, 1971, 1973.

June reading part 2.

Isabel Colegate’s trilogy published as Orlando King is an odd one. I liked it, with some reservations.

A boy with disfigured feet, raised in near isolation on a remote island in Britanny by a reclusive scholar, accidentally kills his biological father (not knowing his identity) and goes on to marry that man’s wife – technically his mother. Later, bereaved and half blinded in a WWII blitz bombing in London, he goes to Tuscany in lonely exile, joined by his daughter Agatha.

It’s the Oedipus story, of course, as dramatized in Sophocles’ Theban plays. Agatha is Antigone.

In vol. 2 Orlando and Agatha become very close in Italy. She persuades him to return to the UK. The business he’d built up there in vol.1 – and become rich, as well as a celebrated MP – is to be taken over by one of the arriviste post-war tycoons. This is the sociopolitical element in the trilogy: the decadence and decline of Britain and its former empire, and its transition into a second-string power.

The third volume shows the aftermath of Orlando’s death (surely not a spoiler, given the clearly stated parallels in the first pages of vol. 1 to the source material). There are numerous swanky parties, and serial adulteries continue (Orlando and his late wife were both culprits). Agatha-Antigone’s story involves her criminal act in trying to help her brother Paul out of a serious scrape with the law (let’s face it, he was a traitor). As a consequence she herself is arrested, and Paul doesn’t come out well from his attempted escape.

That very sketchy outline of some of the basic plot details, updated cleverly from the Greek source, doesn’t do justice to what’s more than just an interesting experiment in adapting a classical, seminal story. It’s very well written, and keeps the interest in what is after all a familiar story from flagging through stylistic innovation and nuanced characterisation.

There are numerous abrupt shifts in time and place, similar to cinematic jump-cuts. There are lyrical and evocative descriptions of settings, with socially insightful accounts of the upper echelons of society pre- and post-war. Some of the scenes involving the Evelyn Waugh-type ‘smart set’ get a little tiresome – most of these people are loathsome drones, or self-consciously, superficially clever.

Isabel Colegate was writing about a social class with which she was familiar. Her father was a Tory MP, she was brought up in a lavish country estate, and was a cousin of the Duchess of Kent. It’s no surprise that Julian Fellowes has acknowledged a debt to her work in his scripts for the film Gosford Park and the popular TV series Downton Abbey  – both of which portray the privileged life of the landed gentry (and the less privileged fates of those who serve them).

Many of Anthony Trollope’s novels also deal with this world half a century or so earlier. He too exposes the strengths (such as they are) and weaknesses of the upper classes in Britain, their hypocrisy, snobbishness and sense of entitlement, as well as corruption and self-interest in the related worlds of politics and high commerce.

I daresay these three novels won’t appeal to everyone, but they’re well worth a look, if you can stomach some of the awful people you’ll meet in them. Even physically beautiful Orlando is a deeply flawed protagonist: selfish, vain and unethical. He’s a sort of innocent Candide figure, as a result of his unusual upbringing in his island retreat, but he rapidly learns to become as effortlessly amoral and lacking in conscience as his fellow businessmen and politicians once he’s returned to Britain.

Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Finch

Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Finch. Vintage, 2023 (20221)

I didn’t get on with this, Julian Barnes’ latest novel, at all well. Mrs TD tried it first, and gave up after about 40 pages; I persevered, thinking it might get better. It didn’t.

Elizabeth Finch, the rather smug narrator tells us (I can’t even remember his name), is an electrifying, inspirational lecturer, but I have no idea what her academic speciality is. We’re given long, tedious examples of her supposedly brilliant, off-piste, epigrammatic discourse on ancient (religious) history, and in particular that of Julian the Apostate.

For some reason this narrator and his fellow students are in their thirties. Their motives for studying this nebulous ‘subject’ – whatever it is – are unclear. When our adoring narrator feels the need to commemorate his teacher, we’re given in full his essay on Julian, the opponent of Christian theology. I suppose this section of the novel is about 20 pages long, but it seemed longer.

Then the novel meanders to an inconclusive ending. Was he in love with Elizabeth Finch? It seems that way, but I couldn’t summon enough interest to speculate on the nature of this love. Did she have a secret lover? This is a question that intrigues only our narrator; this reader couldn’t have cared less.

I’ve posted about two of Julian Barnes’ recent novels. The Only Story : the not very gripping story of a young man’s passion for an older woman.

The Noise of Time : a more successful account of the composer Shostakovich and his travails as an artist under Soviet dictatorship.

I enjoyed the early novels of Julian Barnes, but the quality of his fiction hasn’t reached the same standard again, in my view. It’s good that he’s always trying something different with each new novel, but that’s about the most I can say on a more positive note.

Trollope, Lessard, Keegan, O’Farrell, Mandel

Feb-Mar reading

Another busy month, so here’s a brief look at what I’ve read.

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now Penguin Classics, 1994. First serialised 1874-75; first book form 1875

I can’t do justice to AT’s longest novel in a brief note, but let’s give a go. The last few years of politics here in the UK, let alone in the USA and beyond, have been pretty unedifying; post-truth, fake news, sleaze. But AT had it all taped in the high Victorian age. Dodgy businessmen speculating and spinning non-existent railways in order to profit on the share flotation – not even having to pretend to build anything. Antics in Parliament. He nails it all brilliantly. The usual Trollopian love interest storylines weave in and out of all these shenanigans: as always, they tend to involve young people looking to marry money and avoid having to actually work. There’s one of the most caddish of his villains, the odious Sir Felix – a morally incontinent philanderer, drone, nightmare son and scary marriage prospect. The political and commercial part is the most satisfying, but AT is a master at manipulating a complex, multi-character plot.

PS Shortly after I finished this novel, the news broke of the appointment, at the recommendation of ex-PM Johnson, of a new chair of the BBC – R. Sharp (apt name). No coincidence that he’d been involved in securing a loan for Johnson. No scandal or sleaze, they insisted. A satirical piece in the Guardian by John Crace has this: [Sharp had been challenged about how corrupt this all looked] ‘Sharp shook his head furiously. The whole point of the establishment was that it covered things up. Look, he said. This is The Way We Live Now. [He and BJ deserved what they got: all on merit.] Society – his society – would demand no less.’

Ariane Lessard, School for Girls QC Fiction, 2022. Translated from the French by Frances Pope. This short novella can be enjoyed in one sustained read. It’s divided into four sections, one for each season, and each short sub-section is named after (and narrated from the pov of) one of the girls at a Canadian convent boarding school that’s nothing like the Chalet School novels.

We hear in free indirect form the experiences of about a dozen of these girls. They’ve developed factions, but the alliances shift, often causing deep cuts (sometimes literally). Adolescence kicks in and their sexuality stirs. Prose is often unpunctuated, febrile and associative, poetic – rather like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, but spikier. The novella put me in mind of the film Picnic at Hanging Rock: the same sense of impending disaster, the hallucinatory, hormonally charged atmosphere. The nuns are as unhinged as their pupils. The wild forest beyond the school walls is always looming, encroaching – bears, moose. It’s a heady, intoxicating mix.

Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These Faber, 2022; 20211. Another short novella, but intense and powerfully moving. It’s so widely praised I don’t need to say much about it. Bill, an Irish fuel supply man in a small town near Waterford, Ireland, does business with a convent that supposedly cares for illegitimate girls. He’s perturbed to come across a young girl who seems to have been cruelly punished. What should he do? These are tough times (it’s the lean 1980s): local employers are laying workers off, there’s desperate poverty everywhere. Should he speak up, intervene, report abuse? An illegitimate child himself, he feels compelled not to turn a blind eye.

Stories about the  sinister Magdalene laundries, the hypocrisy of the nuns who ran them (and the communities in which they flourished, largely unchallenged), are well known, but Claire Keegan manages to tell her shocking story in a way that makes it disturbingly new. Despite the grim theme, it’s a profoundly humane novella that reminds us that even when society seems irredeemably corrupt (shades of Trollope again), some people refuse to look the other way, whatever the cost.

Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait Tinder Press, 2022. Another shocking story about abusive treatment of very young women. In this case she’s the famous ‘last duchess’ of Browning’s poem. O’Farrell’s imagining of this murky story of a 17C tyrannical aristocrat’s abusive, potentially murderous behaviour towards a new young wife who’s too spirited for his liking is lively and entertaining, but I found it over-long. The structure, with its multiple flashbacks and jumps forward in time, is fussy and breaks the narrative flow. But as historical fiction goes, it’s not bad.

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven Picador, 2014. This would make an exciting action movie. As a novel it didn’t quite work for me. Surprising, because its story is timely and quite well handled: a post-pandemic dystopian world where order has broken down and life for the feral survivors is dangerous and precarious. But as with The Marriage Portrait, the fractured structure and leaps back and forth in time fatigued me. It should have been compelling, but for me it lacked originality and many of the characters were flat. Unlike Claire Keegan, this Canadian novelist doesn’t succeed in making a well-worn theme come to life.