Anthony Powell: a Neighbour Speaks

The better half and I were coming back from the shops when we fell in with our neighbour Ijaz. He was coming back from prayers. It was Friday and he was dressed, not in the Lands End fleece that he tends to sport, but, as were others of our neighbours – the men, of course – in the white cotton outfits that they have for prayers. Very nice they look in them too. Some of the younger ones spoil the effect a little by completing the ensemble at ground level with exposed shins, grubby socks and trainers. I cannot believe that there is any religious injunction as regards trainers, the invention of which after all post-dated the death of the Prophet by some time. Anyway, Ijaz doesn’t wear trainers.

He indicated that the better half should go ahead. He wanted to speak to me man to man.

“Your blog. I speak for the Street, you understand. Some concern…”

“My goodness,” I said. “I never would have thought that I had Followers so close to home.”

“Very much so. The pirates, Amy, very good.”

“Thank you. Amy is currently helping her mother with the New Year,” I said. “In China. Or Kettering.”

“The Street likes Amy very much. Very good.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “And Uncle Edgerton..”

“No, the Street doesn’t like Uncle Edgerton…”

“Very few people do…”

“But that’s not the point,” said Ijaz. “Last month. Two posts only. Both smutty.”

“No, no.”

“Smutty,” Ijaz said in a tone that did not admit of contradiction. “Normally I encourage my unmarried daughters to read alablague, and the staff too on their one day a week off, but how can I do so if there is to be a relentless tide of smut?”

“I’m sorry. As you’ve seen from across the road I have been confined to the house with flu and then Ukrainian carpenters. I suppose that they must have that effect. No accounting. What would you prefer?”

“The Street likes it when, inshallah, you write about Anthony Powell, the novelist.”

Again, I was most surprised.

“Mm, Powell. He could be smutty, of course, in an oblique way. One thinks of Glober’s cushion, stuffed with the pubic hair of the women he sleeps with. And his little pair of scissors.”

“Couldn’t do that these days,” said Ijaz. “Brazilians. My goodness! We speak man to man, you understand.”

“Curiously,” I said, “I have been thinking about Powell particularly over the last few days. One of the things that has always bothered me is that Nick, the narrator and the author’s alter ego, is the ultimate cool operator. Nothing fazes him. He’s funny. He copes with monsters and they don’t realise that they’re being coped with. He flirts with Pamela Flitton and is, uniquely, unscathed. I always dreamt of meeting Powell. I thought he’d be great company.

“Then I read the Journals, which he wrote towards the end of his life. They’re not very Nick-like at all. Powell is frequently querulous – which Nick never is – even to the point of harrumphing. I realised that it was lucky that no meeting had never taken place, because he would probably not have liked me. Moreover – and this is a terrible indictment for a novelist – he would have disliked me because I fell into some large category that he had come to condemn without further thought, like having long hair or not voting Conservative. Nick never did that.”

“Mm,” said Ijaz. “Ng.”

“But recently I have been reading the Memoirs – To Keep the Ball Rolling. You’ll remember that he wrote them after the last volume of Dance was published but before the Journals and the two final novels.

“And here’s what’s strange.”

“Vrm…,” said Ijaz.

“The first three volumes are funny, digressive: cool like Nick. Then in the fourth volume he starts going on about his holidays. I don’t think they’re Saga Tours, but that sort of thing, and he starts harrumphing. He calls long hair among men ‘Absolomism’, which is not funny, it’s not clever and it’s only to show off. You can see exactly the point where he starts harrumphing.”

“Mmmn,” said Ijaz. “Your wife…”

“Is it just old age? What is it, old neighbour, old fellow-ratepayer? Give me counsel.”

“No,” said Ijaz. “Pay no rates. Disability. Leg. Pain. Uurgh! Chest. No rates.”

“I am sorry,” I said, “to broach unwittingly a sensitive subject. Of course no rates. But à nos moutons! Is it anno domini? Do you feel, as you count your life out in weekly prayer meetings, an increasing impulse to harrumph? I know I do.”

“No, yes,” said Ijaz. “The Prophet …”

“Another thing. Still Powell. People talk about the unreliable narrator. People say, ‘Yes but imagine what Widmerpool would have said. Imagine his take on the same facts. Very different. Not stupid. Not by any means. An alternative approach to the same circumstances. Less imaginative but not entirely unacceptable. Trying to get a mountain of work done and Nick, who was supposed – paid – to help, is mooning on about the boyhood of some Persian notability. Right to be irritated. Imagine Dance written by Widmerpool.’”

“There,” said Ijaz, more firmly, “I can help you. This book, it exists. This is another novel in a series: Strangers & Brothers by one C Snow. Narrator Lewis Eliot. He is Widmerpool! He is fat and lives to work. He is humourless and pompous. He deals with charming people but he only tells us that they are charming because he can’t make charm in his book any more than he can make humour. You can see the characters like Nick, the cool, allusive ones. You can see that Mr Lewis Eliot, although it’s his book, has no idea what’s going on, for all his relentless analysing. There you are my friend, Strangers & Brothers, by C Snow: Widmerpool’s Dance!”

I stared at Ijaz in disbelief.

“You cunning old bibliophile,” I said. “You took the words out of my mouth.

“Anyway,” I said. “Cut to the chase. I thought of doing a post along just those lines. What do you say?”

“The Street likes it very much when you write about Anthony Powell, the novelist. Not smut. Your wife, I believe has reached your front door and is shouting.”

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