Friday, 28 April 2000

Anthony Powell: Temporary Kings (1973)

Edition: Heinemann, 1973
Review number: 484

The penultimate novel in The Dance to the Music of Time has the more significant part of its plot set in Venice, where events are set in motion which later come to a head in London. Most of the Venetian action revolves around a little known Tiepolo fresco on the subject of Candaules and Gyges. There are various versions of this Greek legend, but basically Candaules was a king of Lydia who hid his general Gyges in the royal apartments so that he could see for himself the beauty of his queen. Either Gyges then becomes infatuated by the queen, or she discovers what her husband has done and seduces Gyges in a fit of pique, but whatever happens, Candaules was eventually deposed from his throne and his marriage bed by his general. (This is part of the point of the title.)

This legend bears a particular importance to the novel, but its ironic intent is also clear: like Gyges, the readers are voyeurs of the lives of the people that the author has chosen to exhibit to us.

The main interest of the novel is, as in the last few books preceding it in the series, the marriage of Kenneth (now a life peer) and Pamela Widmerpool. One of their arguments provides the climactic scene of the novel, which is a brilliant piece of writing. Powell abandons his usual first person narrative to give us the scene as pieced together by Nick Jenkins from accounts told to him by actual witnesses. This gives it both a feeling of unreality (the reader is alienated from the action, which itself is interrupted by discussions about which witness is likely to be most reliable in remembering particular aspects of the scene) and portentousness (by recalling a legal trial). It is perhaps the best writing in the whole series.

As a novel, Temporary Kings suffers from similar problems to the earlier parts of A Dance to the Music of Time. There are far too many coincidental meetings; and Pamela Widmerpool in particular is not a very believable character (interesting though she may be). The Venetian scenes are not terribly impressive, though necessary to set up the brilliant climax which makes the book.

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