Wednesday’s Child: Letter from London (Free)
Persons unfamiliar with Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume cycle of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time, ought to bear in mind that, socially, cocaine may well be a less problematic alternative. Certainly the book is more addictive, but the real trouble is that it makes one eschew all human contact for the duration. I remember sinking into it some ten years ago. For three weeks I did not open the shutters or answer the telephone, waking up every morning with the same terrifying thought that one day it would end.
Spanning roughly half of the twentieth century, Powell’s novel revolves on the Dickensian premise that the people one meets in life, even if they should disappear from view for many years, are bound to pop up again when one least expects it. This is the kind of déjà-vu that world history is famous for, an eternal return that is never something repeated verbatim. On the contrary, Powell’s characters change, sometimes dramatically, as they recede and emerge, yet they change without evolving; they change because the circumstances of their reappearance are different each time they drop into the narrator’s life, and they are made by those circumstances to appear different.
Powell was on my mind last week, when I went to attend a memorial service for my late friend and erstwhile literary agent, Gillon Aitken, whose passing I lamented in my last “Letter from London” back in November. This was held in St. Mary The Boltons, not fifty yards from where Gillon used to live. I had got up at four in the morning to catch the first flight from Palermo, but still I was late for the service that started at 11 AM, missing a reading by Pat Barker and a tribute by Sebastian Faulks, both clients of Gillon’s.
There was a lunch afterwards, a buffet affair at a nearby Indian restaurant – Gillon was born in Calcutta under the Raj – for some of the three hundred attendees. It was there that Powell enveloped me like a ghost. I had not seen any of these people for fifteen years, some for twenty or twenty-five, but I recognized them at once despite the change in their circumstances which veneered and in some cases veiled them with newness. So I remembered Sebastian Faulks as the literary editor of a newspaper I used to write for; in the interim he found worldwide fame with several novels set in France, The Girl at the Lion D’Or, Birdsong, Charlotte Gray, and married Veronica, the girl who answered the phone when I rang to haggle over commas or plead for payment.
Faulks reminded me of a dinner we once had in a delightfully unhygienic restaurant in Chinatown, off Shaftesbury Avenue, where I had invited him on the assumption that a man of varied gifts would be gratified to try chicken feet in aspic, though all he recalled was my talking about Soviet evil. He shuddered at the sight of my chicken feet, and I remember musing to myself that an Englishman so afeared of the exotic should not be setting his novel in a foreign land, as he had said he was doing.
“No Russian writer,” I said, “has ever set a novel or even a short story abroad, because that would mean trying to pass his characters for foreigners. No, not even in France, even though, as you know, all things French were historically second nature to us. How is one to insinuate oneself into the soul of another language?”
Faulks did not heed my advice. Now I learn he has written a “James Bond continuation novel” entitled Devil May Care.