Anthony Powell has a delicate and delightful touch when it comes to physical love. He is better than any writer I have read at mapping the space between our interest in gossip and the love lives of our friends-only iron-clad egos like Widmerpool's are immune — and our own experience. Nick is a late starter. His early and inept handling of Suzette (the mix-up at La Grenadière in A Question of Upbringing is both touching and funny), and of the debutante Barbara Goring, is briskly corrected when he has been seduced by the sluttish left-wing militant, Gypsy Jones. When I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1960s, a charming and talented neighbour, mother of a close friend, told me she was the model for this incident at the back of Mr Deacon's shop. She had also been a girlfriend of Samuel Beckett. Beckett's first book was a study of Proust. These are the kinds of life connections that give so much pleasure in Dance. The Beckett cosmology, I find, is much closer to Powell's wintry classicism. But the young are in thrall also to spring. When Nick takes Jean Duport in his arms in the back of Templer's car as it passes the Jantzen factory on the old Great West Road, or when she receives him naked at the door of her ground-floor flat in Rutland Gate, we enter the true acceptance world. The ideal and the real are one, however transitory this may prove to be.
"This style suits you."
"Not too outré?"
"On the contrary."
"Is this how you like me?"
"Just like this."
Dialogue is the way to do it. AP should have been given a lifetime Good Sex Award.
When it comes to their sense of an ending, the two novelists differ markedly. You would expect this, given Powell's sympathy for Proust but his quite different vision of human life. Proust is the last and possibly the greatest of the Romantic writers. Modernists claim him and there are indeed relativities, shifting perspectives. These seem trivial when set against a narrative of such acute self-consciousness, a self-consciousness he exports to consideration of others. I take Romanticism as the significant shift which occurred towards the end of the 18th century, when artists and thinkers started to examine individual sensibility as a way of asking questions about nature or society as a whole. Pinnacle of posh, the Faubourg St Germain is compelling less in its own right than for the fact that weedy, half-Jewish doctor's son Marcel both conquers it and puts it under the eye of his own feelings at any given point rather in the way a photographer can alter the same scene by choosing a different lens. By all accounts, Proust was an inordinately charming man; more charming, I suspect, than the Narrator who can, over the lifetime we are required to spend with him, frequently become a pain in the backside. This is lifelike. We frequently become a pain in the backside to ourselves. (Powell's friend and admirer, Kingsley Amis, in The Green Man, wrote a terrific novel about this very phenomenon.)
Nick Jenkins's touch on the tiller of his own identity, by contrast, is much lighter, though the self-portrait is no less dimensioned. Typical of Romantic literature is the idea of becoming as distinct from being. In the New Testament, the story of the Resurrection is a romantic story; the Crucifixion a classical one. "Nothing to be done", as the first line of Waiting for Godot has it. Proust's coda reverses the opening chord of T.S. Eliot's quartet East Coker. In my end is my beginning is the Proust idea. (Incidentally, Eliot was a friendly acquaintance of Powell and much admired by him; The Waste Land supplies many a tune for Dance. The novelist would have been well aware that contemporary artists and intellectuals who were also conservatives were thin on the ground.)
Of course classical themes like change, decay, madness and old age, observed against the awful social and political failure that was the First World War, are present in Le Temps Retrouvé. The old social order has dissolved. The gratin, the nouveau riche and the demi-monde are now interchangeable. Madame Verdurin is now the Princesse de Guermantes and Odette is her cousin-in-law the Duc de Guermantes's mistress. The world of Françoise the cook remains the same. "Inversion" is still a great social leveller. Jupien's niece is adopted by Charlus and married into the Cambremer family. Our own sub-Proustian soap, Downton Abbey, showed promise in this regard when Thomas the valet made a pass at a visiting duke. The theme was not developed. But in Proust temporal erosion is but dust compared to the lilt of art, the Narrator's recognition of his destiny as a novelist. The Romantics substitute art for religion. In his synopsis, using an image that anticipates Giacometti, Proust writes: "I imagine men as perched on stilts, representing the length of time they have lived." Proust was no more religious than Anthony Powell. His faith was architectural-aesthetic; it had to do with the great French cathedrals. But Le Temps Retrouvé is, psychologically and artistically, suffused by resurrection even though, even perhaps because, the story is a double-take on the romantic idea of becoming. The novel about becoming a novelist has, after all, been written. Its author is about to die.
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