Six Scotches More

Michael Wood

  • A Writer's Notebook by Anthony Powell
    Heinemann, 169 pp, £14.99, February 2001, ISBN 0 434 00915 6

Reviewers are always sternly instructed to check page proofs against finished copies of books, and I do, I will. But the proofs of Anthony Powell’s A Writer’s Notebook provide, along with numerous unimportant oddities of phrase and spelling which seem to be errors of transcription from script to voice to type to print (‘I would like to thank my wife, who read the manuscript book onto tape, and also Helen Gould, who typed it’), one lovely new alignment which ought not to be allowed simply to vanish into its own correction. It’s good to get things right, but we don’t have to rush it. Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time has 12 volumes, of which the tenth is called Books Do Furnish a Room; he wrote two further, later novels, not in the sequence, called O How the Wheel Becomes It and The Fisher King. The Powell offered to us here, in the pre-title list of his books, is the author of a nine-volume sequence of novels called A Dance to the Music of Time, and a further four-volume sequence called Books to Furnish a Room.

The attraction of the slip is manifold. It is just the kind of thing that would happen within a Powell novel. It would be followed by various comic complications, intricate embarrassments, sundry opportunities for adultery or switches of sexual allegiance, and might involve a politician or two. It would go ‘rackety’, to use a favourite Powell word. In his Journals he mentions ‘rackety parties’, ‘the rackety side of life’ (this in connection with Scott Fitzgerald), a ‘somewhat rackety woman’, and a character at the Oxford of Philip Larkin’s novel Jill is said to be ‘an aggressively rackety minor-public-school undergraduate’. ‘Rackety types have a link with people of the intellect,’ Powell writes in his notebook, and his novels are full of quite unintellectual types, usually women, who have this link. They fall for, or hang out with, composers, writers, singers, painters, get involved in little magazines or dubious publishing houses. The link, presumably, is a certain freedom from what’s expected; but the rackety types are a lot freer than the intellectuals, and they notch up love affairs of a kind the intellectuals can only dream of.

The slip also points us directly to the title of the tenth volume in the sequence of novels, and to Powell’s continuing preoccupation with reading or the lack of it. The phrase is the nickname of one Lindsay Bagshaw, a shabby but not disagreeable literary operator, who brings out some of Powell’s best comic writing. Bagshaw has been taken as a representation of Malcolm Muggeridge, a connection which Powell, in his Journals, first denies then half accepts. Well, perhaps he just denies intending it. ‘This too never intended,’ he notes – the other connection he is refusing is that of the fictional don Sillery with the historical Maurice Bowra. But then Powell adds that rereading his own novels ‘brought Malcolm to mind more than once in case of Bagshaw, quite involuntary on my part’. Bagshaw is ‘not in the front rank of literary critics’, indeed we are told ‘there might have been difficulty in squeezing him into an already overcrowded and grimacing back row,’ but he is a survivor, possessed of a ‘wheedling, self-deprecatory manner’, which has ‘procured him a wide variety of jobs, extracted him from equally extensive misadventures’. ‘His movements,’ we learn, when the narrator, after many years of not seeing him, catches sight of Bagshaw on a railway platform, ‘suggested hope to avoid recognition, while a not absolutely respectable undertaking was accomplished.’ There are two stories about how he came by his nickname. In one, Bagshaw is drunk, and, seeking to verify a quotation from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, pulls over a vast bookcase on himself. As the many volumes fall on him, he is said to have commented: ‘Books do furnish a room.’ In the other story, he is about to sleep with the wife of a well-known drama critic – the chap himself is away at the first night of The Apple Cart – and glancing around the critic’s booklined study, and demonstrating what the erring lady took to be an extreme lack of sensibility, he is supposed to have remarked: ‘Books do furnish a room.’ The narrator thinks neither story is likely to be true, but that makes the nickname all the more irresistible. Drink, sex and scholarship point to one end. Bagshaw knows that books are not furniture, but his jokes and his career suggest an easy understanding of all the people who can’t imagine what else books would be.

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