Thursday, October 30, 2008

book review - Books do Furnish a Room

No doubt reflecting the urge of the time having spent three books on the war Anthony Powell is keen to take the reader on to a post-war world. In the case of the main character Nicholas Jenkins that means back into the literary world writing and reviewing books.

As a result some of the livelier characters emerge with the establishment of a literary and political magazine Fission. Most of the characters that have been connected with reviewing and political writing are involved with Quiggin and Members both having a connection with the magazine.

But it is the arrival on the scene of the writer Trapnel and the editor of Fission Bagshaw, who is responsible for the quote about books furnishing a room. What gives Fission its life is ironically the sudden death of Erridge who was planning to launch a left-wing magazine. His trust allows for the magazine to go ahead with Widmerpool, now an MP, helping steer the magazine through its tricky first few months.

Lurking in the background throughout the story is Pamela whop has married Widmerpool but is still odd. She turns up late at the funeral and then is sick in a vase in Erridge’s house before walking out and leaving her embarrassed husband to maker her excuses.

She becomes intertwined with other characters throughout the story and emerges as Trapnel’s lover and for a period leaves Widmerpool to set up home with the writer. Trapnel becomes some sort of focus of the novel as he expounds his theories of writing and what it takes to produce a masterpiece. He has one popular work of fiction to his name but still feels that he has more in him. He shares his views with Bagshaw and Jenkins in various pubs and while not writing, drinking or lecturing he is on the look out for the chance to tap up anyone for money.

So it is ironical that Pamela, who likes the fines things in life runs off with him, but it is through Trapnel that her character starts to unravel. She is effectively frigid; motivated by attention that derides from her behaviour and in the end destroys not just Trapnel’s unfinished novel but also his spark.

With his real life experience as a literary editor Jenkins is able to paint a very realistic picture of the publishing world with a fair degree of pretension running round a fairly limited and clearly defined social circle. Into this mix several critics are introduced, Sillery’s secretary Ada, who has plans to become a writer herself.

But the main axis is between the writer X. Trapnel, Bagshaw the editor and Widmerpool the financial string puller. In the end the magazine bites the dust because Trapnel writes and Bagshaw publishes a parody of Widmerpool’s left-wing economic ravings. Plus of course Trapnel has run of with Pamela.

As a bridge to a post-war world, Fission serves Jenkins well giving him the chance to re-establish himself in the literary world. Unlike some of his contemporaries, notably Quiggin, he remains a reviewer and novelist and doesn’t become a publisher.

But the storm is brewing with Widmerpool and Pamela and that is clearly going to be carried over to the next book.

I have to confess Pamela, as a character and woman, does nothing for me. Part of it I suspect is because I have a suspicion that she is some sort of classical reference to some Goddess or other that captivates then destroys men. Failing to grasp that reference, but being slightly aware of it, makes you dislike her even more. Through the references to art and classical mythology Powell is trying to draw your attention to other places but I am failing to get those and the result is a slight feeling of frustration.

Still the story is now entering its final phase and there is a real determination to see how things turn out.

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