Monday, May 12, 2008

book review - Casanova's Chinese Restaurant


Anthony Powell uses the fifth volume in Dance to the Music of Time to cover the topic of marriage. There are discussions about the merits of getting married and the way that you seem to inevitably move towards that state as well as some graphic illustrations of what happens when marriages go wrong.

At the heart of the book are the three examples of Jenkins, the narrator, Hugh Moreland the musician that Jenkins meets in the opening scene and the critics Maclintick who is also in the pub in the opening few pages. The group move from the pub, where Deacon the artist and antique seller had also been propping up the bar, to Casanova’s Chinese restaurant to discuss women and marriage.

Jenkins has married Isobel Tolland and they suffer a miscarriage and then have to watch on in different degrees of embarrassment as Isobel’s sister has an affair with Moreland and threatens to break up his marriage.

If Jenkins is largely wedded bliss then Moreland is the middle way with plenty of ups and downs. He also suffers the pain of losing a child but seems to throw his energies into himself – his symphony - and his love affairs. In the end he goes back to his wife Matilda but only after he has carried out an affair over several months.

In that middle path there is also Stringham’s mother Mrs Foxe who has fallen in love with an actor Norman Chandler and relies on him to keep her life going. Buster, her husband seems to realise that the young man is essential to their happiness and allows him to play a prominent role.

The other extreme in marriage is the critic Maclintick who has open warfare with his wife with them verbally abusing each other and doing so in front of anyone who is present. In the end the marriage breaks down and she leaves him to run off with another musician and even after a visit from Moreland and Jenkins to try and cheer him up the critics decides to take his own life.

Death is a sub theme with Deacon’s death, already played out in an earlier volume, getting retold from a slightly different angle. Maclintick kills himself and is reasonably few people feel demise. Sir John Clarke the novelist dies and his death sends out ripples, which are there at the close of the book. The other hint of death, if not literal then at least in terms of talent and youth, is Stringham who makes an appearance that is both painful and hilarious. Fuelled by drink he manages to play the role of the outgoing confident Stringham of old. But when he is forced to head for home his true vulnerability and tragic situation is clear to all.

Of all of the five books so far this one not only feels more recognisably rhythmic but it is also a point at which because of his marriage Jenkins is finally more than just an observer. He is now in the orbit of a large and grand family and as a result he gets access to more interesting meetings – Sir John Clarke for example – but for the reader is adds a dimension to the narrative character that has been lacking up to now.

Version read – Flamingo paperback

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