Friday, 20 August 1999

Anthony Powell: Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960)

Edition: Penguin, 1964
Review number: 316

With the fifth volume of Dance to the Music of Time, Powell reaches the mid-thirties, when conversation in England was dominated by the abdication crisis and the Spanish Civil War. These events form the background to the novel, and yet these hardly concern the narrator Nick Jenkins. Casanova's Chinese Restaurant is about marriage.

Powell makes a change to the way that his characters interact for this novel. In the earlier volumes in the series, the reader's attention is focused on Nick's continuing relationship with his schoolfriends, and their periodic encounters in London society form the basis for the books' plots. Here, though, Templer does not appear at all, and Stringham and Widmerpool only have cameo roles. Instead, two completely new characters are introduced, the composer Moreland and the music critic Maclintock. It is their marriages, as well as Nick's own, that Powell uses to illustrate some of the ways in which this institution can develop.

Each relationship is seen mainly from the masculine point of view; after all, the narrator is a man and, in London society in the thirties, more likely to have close relationships with other men rather than their wives. Nick himself says little about his own marriage, Isobel being a fairly minor character, but from what we see it seems placidly happy in a low key kind of way, despite Isobel's miscarriage near the beginning of the novel. The Morelands have a more complex relationship, in which they remain together even though he ends up committing adultery. The Maclintock's marriage has almost completely broken down before Nick becomes acquainted with them. They live in a state of perpetual warfare which is unpleasant for everyone, themselves and their friends.

The main difference between Dance to the Music of Time and Remembrance of Things Past, to which it has often been compared, is that Powell's aims seem to be much simpler than Proust's. (The comparison is often made, I suspect, by English-speaking critics who feel that Remembrance of Things Past should have an English equivalent.) Proust's work has a philosophical side; he is trying to give the reader an insight into the true underlying nature of his themes, particularly the main one of memory. Powell, on the other hand, is more concerned to paint an effective picture of life in English society in the twenties, thirties and forties.

The name of the novel comes from the bizarre (fictional) restaurant in Soho in which Nick first met Maclintock. Originally an Italian restaurant decorated with pictures commemorating the famous lover, it was taken over by a Chinese restaurant further up the street, and the name and d├ęcor retained. Powell introduces a rare note of foreboding into the novel at its beginning, where Nick revisits Soho after the restaurant has been destroyed by wartime bombing, which causes him to remember the events of this time.

No comments: