Despite this site giving the appearance, the past few weeks, of my having fallen into a jar of Massic wine myself, I've merely been too busy and preoccupied by the disaster unfolding around us to think up thoughts about the art I've not been viewing. I have some hope that the situation will change, so keep an eye out. In the meantime, I've been reading. January and early February found me happily gliding through all of A Dance to the Music of Time, about which I really should have had more to say at the time but found it too difficult to write of such a large work in the way it deserved.
So a few odd notes now, on the novels and some other things:
First, before his rise in the world reveals (and his downfall exacerbates) the more depraved aspects of his character, Kenneth Widmerpool reminded me of no one so much as the young Lyndon Baines Johnson, as depicted by Robert Caro. I thought of this while reading Dance, but it was uncanny to pick up the volume in the last link this past week, refreshing my memory of it after recommending it to a colleague, and see Johnson's character described in almost the same exact words as Powell used on Widmerpool. By no means does this comparison extend to any similarity to Johnson's efforts on behalf of his constituents, but the will to power, determination overcoming more apparent deficiencies, political skill mixed with a certain oblivious pomposity--Powell and Caro pretty well define a type. If anything, Powell doesn't quite go far enough, at least in showing Widmerpool's skills (his weaknesses are amply displayed); the one episode I can recall that shows the understanding of others that he must, at some level, have had to succeed in his political career concerns his successful effort to reconcile the two feuding Scandinavians at La Grenadière when he and Nick Jenkins both stay there. In those scenes, Widmerpool operates with a dexterity we aren't really shown ever again, and shows a good deal more sense than Jenkins possessed at the moment, a fact of which the latter's narration shows him to have been aware.
Looking around while reading the novels, I noticed that the the last few novels, especially the final one but not it alone, were held in slightly less regard by many critics than the earlier installments. In part, this judgment feels inevitable, a mirroring of the arc of life that the work traces (I don't think anyone would argue that A Question of Upbringing, the first novel, hold the greatest interest of the cycle, either.) One also can't ignore that the novels covering the postwar years stand at a disadvantage when compared to the tumult of the era immediately past. To yet another degree the cooler reception seems a reaction against the note of grotesquerie that creeps in to the last two novels especially, including Powell's treatment of the counterculture. While I share some of these reservations in part, I also think that the last element, unpleasant though it may be at times, rings true as a sort of expression of the characters' bewilderment at success and failure, age and the change of the world: temporary kings they are indeed. Moreover, if the final novel, Hearing Secret Harmonies, doesn't offer the grim comedy of The Military Philosophers or the literary intrigue of The Acceptance World, it succeeds beautifully in its primary task of bringing the whole thing to satisfying conclusion. The fate of Widmerpool aside, the visit to Jenkins to the art gallery and the people and art he finds there provide a resonance worthy of the book's title.
Having finished Powell's work, however, I found myself casting about for something else to read and took a suggestion on another blog to try The Quincunx. While erudite, it's not a book at the same level of ambition as Powell, but worse for me, it's really the opposite sort of novel. One of the great attractions for me of A Dance to the Music of Time was that it, or its various parts, barely held a plot as such--it was, to borrow a phrase, just one damn thing after another. And I liked that, to be carried along not so by rush of events (or events generally connected to each other in a causal way) but by the author's endless fascination with character and what may be learned by examining people in society. Now I find myself in a narrative of quite a different sort, one urgently driven by ongoing revelations and dramatic actions--it's bringing back all of my resistance to undergoing the manipulations demanded by narrative art, even though I'm enjoying it so far. We shall see how it goes.
In other news, at least one big-time blog has linked to this, so many people have probably seen it, but I can't resist The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism: "With web 2.0, we’ve embarced the idea that people are going to share pictures of their cats, and now we build sophisticated tools to make that easier to do." Oh, and someone got all antsy about nasty bloggers (via.) A brief dialogue ensued. And that's it for now, I think.