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Book Title: Books Do Furnish a Room|
The author of the book: Anthony Powell
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 947 KB
Edition: William Heinemann Ltd
Date of issue: February 15th 1971
ISBN 13: 9780434599196
Read full description of the books Books Do Furnish a Room:Nick Jenkins has the postwar blues. He finds himself after demobilisation adrift in a city dominated by ruined, abandoned houses, reflecting an inner emptiness that somehow has to be filled with something. The title suggests books as a solution, art in general. The actual source of the quote in the text is slightly different, with more of a sexual connotation, a subtle reminder that we also need a sense of humour, especially in troubled times. Borage ("an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapour of dusky melancholie." - Francis Bacon) and hellebore (what doesn't kills you makes you stronger) might also come in handy, at least according to one of Nick's favorite authors, Robert Burton. "Borage and Hellebore" is also the title of the academic study Nick Jenkins is currently (1946?) writing about Robert Burton and his "Anatomy of Melancholy" magnum opus.
The title page showed not only Burton's own portrait in ruff and skull cap, but also figures illustrative of his theme; love-madness; hypochondriasis; religious melancholy. The emblems of Jealousy and Solitude were there too, together with those sovereign cures for melancholy and madness, borage and hellebore.
Melancholy in all its forms seemes to be the major theme of the last 'season' in the Dance. In the opening scene, Nick returns to his alma mater for research, an occasion to think of all the social ties that were severely cut down by the six years of war.
As the forlorn purlieus of the railway-station end of town gave place to colleges, reverie, banal if you like, though eminently Burtonesque, turned towards the relatively high proportion of persons known pretty well at an earlier stage of life, both here and elsewhere, now dead, gone off their rocker, withdrawn into states of existence they - or I - had no wish to share. The probability was that even without cosmic upheaval some kind of reshuffle has to take place halfway through life ...
Nicholas has more than financial reasons for going back to university, to what Burton himself called 'a silent, sedentary, solitary private life' . Coy as ever about his own family life, the narrator hints at the need for a quiet interval of introspection and life assessment, at the need to 'furnish' his inner landscape with something of true value and significance, something that transcends the numerous worries about food stamps, shortages of every basic necessity, career direction and social upheaval, troubles that have left deep scars on the British society in the aftermath of the war. It was a bleak time, and the author is quick with his Victorian analogy:
In the new year, without further compromise, Dickensian winter set in. Snow fell, east winds blew, pipes froze, the water main (located next door in a house bombed out and long deserted) passed beyond insulation and control. The public supply of electricity broke down. Baths became a fabled luxury of the past. Humps and cavities of frozen snow, superimposed on the pavement, formed an almost impassable barrier of sooty heaps at the gutters of every crossing, in the network of arctic trails.
Meanwhile, traditional textures of existence were laboriously patched together in an attempt to reaffirm some sort of personal identity, however blurred.
The difficulties of picking up your social life after six years of war was best illustrated for me in the meeting with one of Nick's former friends, once a raconteur and a partygoer, now distant, distracted, introspective, morose (view spoiler)[ Moreland (hide spoiler)] , a fine case study for Nick in relation to his paper on Melancholy in all its forms:
Life becomes more and more like an examination where you have to guess the questions as well as the answers. I'd long decided there were no answers. I'm beginning to suspect there aren't really any questions either, none at least of any consequence, even the old perennial, whether or not to stay alive.
The disconnect is also present in Nick's reunion with the lady who was the passionate love of his youth, now a smooth socialite that keeps her true feelings tightly under lock and key (view spoiler)[ Jean Templer, now Lady Flores (hide spoiler)]
In line with the bookish title, the structure of the present novel is built around the formation, the daily management and, ultimately, the demise of a private publishing house in London. Familiar faces : Bagshaw, Quiggin, Sillery, Gypsy Jones, Rosie Manash, Widmerpool (of course) are all involved in the new business. Nick is hired to manage reviews and reviewers, to handle public relations with fickle authors and investors, eventually to contribute to the literary magazine the house publishes, named "Fission" (a reference to modernism in the atomic age). The setting offers ample opportunity for Nick Jenkins to engage in his favorite pastime : observing other people's folly while keeping himself on the sidelines as much as possible. The overarching bleakness of post-war existence is tempered as usual by Anthony Powell's keen sense of humour, although I must say my laughs were often tinged with the awareness of the sadness and loneliness hidden under the sometimes grotesque, sometimes satirical pranks and plot twists.
Sadness and loneliness are the first words I associate with Pamela Widmerpool, formerly Flytton, and X Trapnel, a newly introduced writer character. They are arguably the stars of the show in this tenth installment of the Dance, the couple that leads the other dancers in the quadrille, the catalyst for events both comical and tragic.
Pamela serves a similar "Jack-in-the-Box" plot function as her husband Widmerpool, apt to suddenly materialize in the most unexpected place, with or without her husband : "His appearance at this moment was wholly unexpected." . I love how Powell can capture her essence with a single word, a reference to her "gladiatorial" sex life. Pamela takes no prisoners in her crusade against the whole world, discarding former lovers like broken toys, expert at finding the weakest spot in her partner's armour and plunging her sharp claws right in. Spiteful, fickle, so merciless in her attacks that the reader by now knows to expect 'a bumpy ride' whenever she shows up, Pamela is nevertheless a fascinating character study, like watching a natural disaster unfold, a volcanic personality so unlike the usual phlegmatic and undemonstrative, stiff-upper-lip British stereotype. I am also a little in awe at how Powell managed to integrate Pamela in his own Anatomy of Melancholy, hinting (view spoiler)[ at an extreme case of frigidity in bed, despite her almost unreal sex-appeal (hide spoiler)]
Similar to Pamela Widmerpool, X Trapnel serves as a spanner in the works of polite society, a flashy personality that rubs many of his acquaintances the wrong way. He is as inconstant as Pamela in his love life, going through a posy of girlfriends in the short interval covered by the novel (about two years), but unlike the 'gladiator', his attachments are less destructive, more amiable in style.
Trapnel for me is interesting in both of the roles Powell asigns to him: as a social misfit struggling to make a splash and as an author, sharing with Nick and with Powell concerns about the art of the novel. In my early reviews I commented upon the core conflict in the Dance between the world of Will and the world of Art. Later, in the war years, the events were mostly compared with the world of Theatre. Trapnel combines all three aspects of life in a spectacular shell.
Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, an opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age. The General (Conyers), speaking one felt with autorithy, always insisted that, if you bring off adequate preservation of your personal myth, nothing much else in life matters. It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them.
What General Conyers calls personal myth is, in Trapnel's case, the public image he builts for himself, the numerous and contradictory masks he assumes in his effort to impress. He is not the only Dancer to wear a mask (Widmerpool comes to mind). Powell justly remarks that all social intercourse is a sort of masquerade. Trapnel excells in the sheer number of disguises he adopts.
Habitual role-sustainers, artificial personalities : when the choice of part has been extravagantly incongruous, there are no limits to the craziness of the performance staged
The first meeting of two extremes of will, Trapnel and Widmerpool, results in one of the funniest examples of Brit humour (I think I first came across it in a Benny Hill Show). At a publisher party, Trapnel introduces himself to the self-important, newly minted Parliamentarian Widmerpool, and promptly proceeds to ask him for a handout, for reasons of being completely broke. When the Big Man sourly produces the required pound, Trapnel immediately hails for a taxi to take him home. The infamous pound will make a second show in the novel, as a plot device (view spoiler)[ for stealing Widmerpool wife Pamela. Nick is the one who jokes about the method of getting access to the Widmerpool apartment, but tellingly for the overall neutral stance of the narrator, refrains from warning his new friend about the toxic nature of the woman he woos (hide spoiler)]
The second aspect of Trapnel, and probably the only authentic 'mask' he wears, is the one of novelist who has written a succesful existentialist first novel "Camel Ride to the Tomb". Powell uses the occasion both for satire (see the hilarious pair of pompous London critics Sheldon and Shernamker. One has 'probably never read a novel for pleasure' , the other has a goal to 'establish finally that the Critic, not the author, was paramount'), for commentary on censorship (sexual in the case of "Sweetskin" and political in the case of "Sad Majors"), for economical stress (" He borrowed literally to keep alive, a good example of something often unrecognized outside the world of books, that a writer can have his name spread all over the papers, at the same time net perhaps only a hundred pounds to keep him going until he next writes a book. ) and for an earnest essay on the role of the novelist.
"'Tis not my study or intent to compose neatly ... but to express myself readily & plainly as it happens. So that as a River runs sometimes precipitate and swift, then dull and slow; now direct, then winding; now deep, then shallow, now muddy, then clear; now broad, then narrow; doth my style flow; now serious, then light; now comical, then satirical; now more elaborate, then remiss, as the present subject required, or as at the time I was affected." (passage borrowed by Nick from Burton)
- - - - -
A novelist is like a fortune-teller, who can impart certain information, but not necessarily what the reader wants to hear. It may be disagreeable or extraneous. The novelist just has to dispense it. He can't choose.
- - - - -
X is always very keen on spying, says there's a resemblance between what a spy does and what a novelist does, the point being you don't suddenly steal an indispensable secret that gives complete mastery of the situation, but accumulate a lot of relatively humdrum facts, which when collated provide the picture.
I left out of my comments the usual remarks about the flawless prose of Powell and connection between Trapnel and Melancholy, the key to the whole novel and so not to be spoiled by incautious comments. I must though include the punchline, a surprisingly personal and poignant confession of disillusionment 'halfway through life':
["King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid" - a painting referenced in the novel]
In these sunless marshlands of existence, a dwindling reserve of pep-pills, a certain innate inventiveness, capacity for survival, above all the mystique of panache - in short, the Trapnel method - just about made it possible to hang on. That was the best you could say.
Read information about the authorAnthony Dymoke Powel CH, CBE was an English novelist best known for his twelve-volume work A Dance to the Music of Time, published between 1951 and 1975.
Powell's major work has remained in print continuously and has been the subject of TV and radio dramatisations. In 2008, The Times newspaper named Powell among their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
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