Saturday, May 03, 2008
book review - What's Become of Waring?
One of the benefits of having a writers major work come towards the middle or the end of their career’s is that you get the chance to read their earlier works and see how they got to the point where they had the confidence and vision to tackle something more ambitious.
Anthony Powell will forever be connected to the 12 volume Dance to the Music of Time but with What’s Become of Waring? he gets the chance to have a dry run at developing a story that shares many of the same stylistic features.
In this story you never are told the narrator’s name and it reminds you that you only discover Jenkins is called Nicholas fairly well after the rest of the characters have been established at the start of the Dance sequence.
But what really stands out is the way this narrative is weaved together around a reasonably small number of people. The characters are all introduced individually and placed in context and then shaken up and mixed with some amusing and interesting results. The same technique is used in Dance when people mix in different worlds. For instance the straight-laced Widmerpool meets and then has an affair with the independent and flirtatious Gypsy Jones.
One of the main characters in the book is a mystery with T.T Waring, a travel writer that writes books that prop up his publishing company, being pronounced dead at a séance. The narrator has been taken to the séance by his boss, and co-owner of the publishing company, Hugh. The sense that the hidden world of the medium and the dead pervades the book and provokes unease and humour.
This is also a story about secrets with Waring turning out not only to be a plagiarist but also a school friend of the man given the responsibility of doing his biography. As the story reaches its climax, with Waring being unmasked and then dying for real the narrator seems to drift out of publishing into advertising.
What holds it together is the family and social networks that are key to Powell’s world. Everyone either knows each other or finds some mutual connection that brings them together. As a result there is a farce like quality to the way as one character walks into a room it sets off reactions in others. It would be much more difficult to write in quite the same way now because the pre-war social world that is described here has almost vanished forever.
The book ends with a question about what it was that drove everyone on. The answer Powell decides is the lust for power. But the narrator, just as with Jenkins in Dance to the Music… does not seem to be motivated by power. He seems to be content to observe and remain involved but detached at the same time.
This book is enjoyable and gentle. It suffers from being slightly predictable but is no less enjoyable for that. The only slight miscalculation that Powell might have made is instilling in the narrator an increasing disinterest in the publishing industry that dominates the setting for the book. As he leaves the firm and ponders what it was all about the tone turns slightly more serious.
Powell was clearly interested in what drove people on and of course Dance to the Music… provided him with the opportunity to follow those stories through from start to finish.
Version read – Penguin paperback