The Resolution Project Season Two: A Dance to the Music of Time Book Five – Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960)

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Musical Accompaniment: The Clash, “Spanish Bombs”

The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I’ve already read, leaving eighty-six or so left to go. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.

“To hold a friend in the background at a certain stage of a love affair is a technique some men like to employ; a method which spreads, as it were, the emotional load, ameliorating risks of dual conflict between the lovers themselves, although at the same time posing a certain hazard in the undue proximity of a third party unencumbered with emotional responsibilty – and therefore almost always seen to better advantage than the lover himself. (p. 41)

The Elevator Pitch: Here we go again. When we last left our “hero” Nick Jenkins, he’d wondered about potentially getting married, found a girl, and then got married within the span of two hundred words or so of the last novel, At Lady Molly’s. In this volume, Nick tells us the tale of another group of his friends, this time a feuding bunch of composers, music critics and actors who spend their nights drinking at Mortimer’s, and eating and lusting after waitresses at the improbably named Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant. The plot is similar to the four novels that proceeded it in the Dance series; people fall in love with each other, get married, get divorced, and the incomparable Widmerpool puts in an obligatory appearance.

What I knew about this book, its subject and its author going in: See my last post on the subject.

Thoughts: For the most part, this fifth volume in the Dance series was pretty similar to the rest. I do feel, however, that this one introduced a bit more darkness into the world of 1930s London, as the spectre of the Spanish Civil War begins to loom large over the proceedings. I chose The Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” as the musical accompaniment, not only because it’s one of my favorite songs of all time, but also because the lyrics blend a sort of intellectual, writerly group of allusions with the horrible conflict, in much the same way as Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant does. When Joe Strummer mentions that he’s “hearing music from another time”, it’s hard for me not to reconcile that feeling with this volume, which is all about musicians attempting to interact with their surroundings, blithely unaware for the most part of the mechanized horrors that are to come for the entire world.

Powell kicks this one off with a move right out of the Brideshead Revisited playbook: at an indeterminate time in the future (sometime either during or after the London Blitz), Jenkins is exploring the ruins of one of his old haunts, the Mortimer, where he and yet another group of his cronies used to while away the hours. Right from the get go we realize that this set of friends are only going to exist as they are for a brief period of time. The state of play at the end of the book, which includes an illicit affair, a suicide, and the breaking of a few friendships, shouldn’t be too much for the reader to comprehend considering all is literally in ashes in the book’s opening pages.

As per usual, the big picture events of the period are backgrounded in favour of checking in on Jenkins’ old friends and new ones, in this case Charles Stringham, the alcoholic aristocrat fallen from grace, and, for a brief moment, Widmerpool, who literally runs onset and off again. The Spanish Civil War is related to us through Erridge, Lord Warminster, a progressive thinker who is continually busying himself with left-wing politics and projects. He is of course treated with a little bit of derision by his more traditional family, who see his action (which to be fair is somewhat ridiculous considering his being a pacifist and all) as just another phase:

“‘Like big-game hunting in Edwardian days’ said Robert, ‘or going to the Crusades a few years earlier … I hope he doesn’t go and get killed. I shouldn’t think he would, would you?” (p. 66)

I’m hoping that more and more the people in Jenkins’ world are going to realize that history is coming for them, in a big damn way. I’m sure they will, but for now the darkness is still pretty far off.

I’m starting to realize that Jenkins’ non-protagonist status is just how things are going to go in these books. It’s almost a running joke at this point. This time we find out that his wife is very sick, and staying at a nursing home. We find out a little later it’s because she’s had a miscarriage, but for the most part this scene serves instead to characterize his friend Moreland, whose wife is coincidentally also having a tough pregnancy too! And Widmerpool is here as well (because he is contractually obligated to perhaps), getting treated for boils!

So for what could have been a situation rife with drama for the Jenkins household, it really isn’t. His wife Isobel makes a brief appearance, then is relegated to convalescence and get ready for whatever she gets up to in the background of the next book. While I’m normally not really in favour of those sorts of “expand the world of a book by elaborating on what a secondary character was up to” sort of books, but I do feel as if a compelling story could be told about the life of Dance’s essentially invisible narrator and his wife. As ridiculous as it sounds, you probably could just tell his story, which so far involves multiple love affairs, a marriage, and a miscarriage, and have a decent story come out of it. The main character of this book series could maybe serve to have a book about him and his life specifically. Or maybe you could write a book about Isobel, and how her husband is always out watching important events happen to other people, and she’s got a string of adulterous relationships or she’s depressed or something, I don’t know.

Powell kind of lets us in on his approach to writing about marriages in this volume though, and why it’s so hands-off:

“A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing about one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects.” (p. 97)

Seeing as how I’ve never been married I can’t really say, but this seems legit. He also gives us a brief glimpse into what goes on in Jenkins’ head while he hears everyone else’s sordid details, giving us perhaps some of the only characterization we’re going to get for this guy, and why he does what he does.

“That odd feeling of excitement began to stir within me always provoked by news of other peoples’ adventures in love; accompanied as ever by a sense of sadness, of regret, almost jealousy, inward emotions that express, like nothing else in life, life’s irrational dissatisfactions.” (p. 155)

Similar books on the Time 100 list: Again the previous Dance books (1-3, and 4) would be likely suspects, and as I mentioned before Brideshead Revisited deals with the sort of wartime reminiscence thing pretty well too.

Total pages read since January 1st 2011: 16710 pp. (2251 this year)

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 59/113, or 52% complete.

Next up on the Resolution Project: A House for Mr. Biswas, (1961) by V.S. Naipaul. Maybe for real this time.

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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