Chances are

Michael Wood

  • O, How the wheel becomes it! by Anthony Powell
    Heinemann, 143 pp, £6.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 434 59925 5
  • Brilliant Creatures by Clive James
    Cape, 303 pp, £7.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 224 02122 2
  • Pomeroy by Gordon Williams
    Joseph, 233 pp, £7.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 7181 2259 3

‘What a chapter of chances,’ Tristram Shandy’s father says, ‘what a long chapter of chances do the events of this world lay open to us!’ The thought is echoed in the closing pages of Clive James’s Brilliant Creatures, whose author-hero is said to be a ‘chapter of accidents’, and in the title and precarious plot of Anthony Powell’s O, How the wheel becomes it! The wheel is Ophelia’s, and suggests the incessant circlings of fortune, but quickly, in Powell’s hands, comes to hint at roulette and the dodgy hazards of English literary life. Comedy loves chance, particularly when it’s the messy, galloping kind which adds insult to ignominy. As when Uncle Toby whacks Walter Shandy on the shin with his crutch while making an irrelevant remark. Or when, to borrow an instance from James, you discover you owe a wallop of back tax on the day your car has been vandalised and peed in. Or when, as in Powell, an old flame, or flicker, turns up out of the blue to hog the television show you were already feeling nervous about. There is no sense of comeuppance on these occasions, only a view of scuttled dignity, and life getting out of hand. What is enjoyable about the tightrope is not the feat of someone’s walking it or the threat that they might fall, but the possibility of a comic wobble, flailing arms and the spectre, but only the spectre, of disaster.

Anthony Powell had already solved the problem of what to do for an encore to A Dance to the Music of Time. He wrote his memoirs. His next problem was the encore to the encore, and this he has solved with amazing simplicity by writing another novel. It is not an easy book to place, though. It doesn’t have the brittle quality of the early work, or the rambling freedom of the long sequence. It feels a little thin and belated. On the other hand, it is quietly and consistently funny, and so full of Powell’s characteristic note that it may help us to see what that note is.

Let’s start with what seems to be a difficulty. The book is written in a blurred prose which is the stylistic equivalent of talking with marbles in your mouth.

He early expressed the conviction, a tenable one, that he would be a liability in the armed forces, and by returning intermittently to schoolmastering, possibly undertaking a short spell of quasi-governmental employment in a rural area towards the close of hostilities, contrived on the whole to steer a course through war-time dangers and inconveniences without undue personal affliction, reducing to a minimum interference with a preferred manner of life.

Of course there have always been troughs in Powell’s writing, moments when the verve goes, and the awkward sentences seem to proceed without the benefit of their owner’s attention. But the above passage is not a trough. It is a careful thicket of platitudes, a civil servant mangling a story, a mime of minimal narrative competence which makes Thomas Mann’s bumbling Zeitblom look like Nabokov. ‘Insofar as the cliché can be used without irony,’ we read a little earlier, ‘he had become a respected literary voice.’ A cliché can’t be used without irony unless you forget it’s a cliché, and Powell’s trick is to pretend to forget. A feigned absence of irony is his mark, a form of deadpan. When he writes of ‘the whole unfortunate Course of subsequent events’, the tame formula swarms with modest promise – it’s as if Buster Keaton had just said, with equal solemnity, that he knows how to fly a kite.

What is funny in this novel, then, and indeed in Powell’s other work, is not the surface but the slow progression towards a calamity whose very insignificance is comic. G.F. Shadbold, the respected literary voice, is suspicious and mean of spirit, but also intelligent and successful, having moved on from slim verse and forgotten novels to the more satisfactory role of elder statesman. He is given the diary of an old friend to read, Cedric Winterwade, a figure on the fringes of Twenties literature whom Shadbold had patronised and faintly scorned. To his horror he discovers that Winterwade, now long dead, had been to bed with a woman who had steadfastly refused Shadbold her favours. This remembrance of things missed is more than Shadbold can take, and he emphatically opposes a suggestion that the diary be published. Winterwade’s name now begins to crop up everywhere, and the yielding/unyielding woman herself reappears to confound Shadbold still further. ‘You ought to write your memoirs,’ he says recklessly, fighting for time, wondering what to do with her.

Her reply was deeply disturbing.
‘I have, Geoffrey.’
‘Indeed?’
‘That’s just what I wanted to talk about.’

The memoirs, of course, will also recall Winterwade’s amatory success.

The comic point, clearly, is that of a vanity wounded in long retrospect, and the way Shadbold’s interest in keeping the affair quiet appears magically to bring it out. By the end of the book a full-scale Cedric Winterwade revival is on, backed by an academic who happens to be a former husband of Shadbold’s present wife. This is a dance to the music of lost time, only more of a quickstep than the stately measure Nicholas Jenkins imagines for Poussin’s Seasons. The music goes round and round, like the wheel, and what Powell suggests, in this light, oblique novel, is not that the dancers are all gone under the hill or show up in strange configurations, but that the dance releases no one. This is not always a comic perception. King Lear is also mentioned in the book (‘One that gathers samphire, dreadful trade. The boy gets nicknamed Samphire by his more highbrow clients because he’s dreadful trade’), and the wheel in that play is a rack.

Clive James’s title comes from Yeats:

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.

Yeats was talking about swans, though, and James is describing a fantasticated jet set. This is not Shadbold’s world of the small house, the occasional lecture, the slashing review and the brief glory of a television panel. James’s creatures are Shadbold’s masters, a different galaxy, a pride of publishers, producers, stars and ancient European aristocrats – something like the David Frost Show done by Visconti. Everyone is beautiful except the gossip columnists, and they have all the appropriate faults, from kinky tastes in sex to bad spelling and worse usage: ‘But the daisy chain ... was only just gathering speed. It was still a long way from, in the Latin phrase, a fait accompli.’

James begins with a defensive introduction about how defensive he is, explaining that this book is his ‘second attempt to avoid writing a novel’ and invoking the quirky shades of Sterne, Peacock and Firbank. My first impression, lasting for more than a hundred pages, was that James had pulled it off again, had avoided writing a novel, either of what he calls the proper (tending towards ‘an autonomous naturalism’) or the improper (‘tending in the opposite direction’) sort. Wasn’t this just a set of memoirs in burlesque form? The glamorous world is conjured up in tottering hyperbole (‘Victor’s bed was like a raised tennis court covered in velvet the colour of a Raphael pope’s cassock. The whole Borgia family could have climbed into it and still left room for a last-minute reconciliation with the Orsini’) and pitted against various familiar realities given the same treatment (‘The platform was filling up again with a Gurkha regiment in mufti and the Harlem Globetrotters travelling incognito. All of them were better dressed and healthier-looking than the few whites, whose clothes seemed to have been bought at the GUM annual sale in Moscow’). There are running jokes about the cost of taxis, English weather, the hopelessness of secretaries and the boorishness of James’s countrymen: ‘the kind of Australians who carried a lot of food around with them just so they could talk with their mouths full’. A very tall man is writing a book about famous short people (‘Faulkner. William Faulkner. Tiny. Absolutely minuscule. Nearest thing to a homunculus. Made Truman Capote look like Steve Reeves’) and there is a splendid sequence concerning the after-effects of a vigorous game of squash on a well-preserved but stiffening older man (‘Lancelot moved to the ticket hall like a slow loris ...’ ‘Wheeling slowly like a rusty gun turret ...’ ‘ “Muscular dyslexia, is it?” the driver asked cheerfully’). The set-piece is an opera ball, full of costumes and allusions and games (‘The Millers couldn’t make it ... Glenn, Arthur, Henry and Ann.’ ‘The Coopers couldn’t make it. Gary, Gladys, Fenimore and Diana’). The writing is full of the glitter that Powell has so assiduously fended off, if indeed it assailed him. James himself is up on a tightrope of style, wobbling away, relentlessly funny. It gets mechanical at times, and no prizes are given for a picture book called Courage in Profiles or a feminist film called The Woman Lieutenant’s Frenchman. But there are no major tumbles, and I was still laughing at the end.

But is there a novel in all this? There are no characters, and no plot, no sudden reappearances of Widmerpool or horribly inappropriate reminders of Winterwade. But there is a situation which is almost realised, and this is what pulls Brilliant Creatures into the realm of imaginative fiction, whether we want to call it a novel or not. It is not the situation of the central-character, Lancelot Windhover – the obligatory joke about Hopkins features a black American immigration officer who looks like a football player still wearing his shoulderpads. ‘ “Windhover,” said the immigration officer. “I caught this morning morning’s minion ...” ’ It is the situation of three other people, equally the figments of James’s mind, he insists, but real enough to worry about.

They are Victor Ludlow, a ludicrously rich South African Australian Jewish publisher and internment camp alumnus; Elena, an Italian beauty who manages to make comparative want seem like imperial luxury; and Sally, a television interviewer who looks like an orchid and has her own brains as well. These brilliant creatures just hover for a while, fantasies out for a training flight. Then they get entangled, and the fantasies are tested. Victor and Elena are lovers, Sally is half their age and Victor’s last chance. Sally herself is attracted, looking for a man burdened with a bit of history (or more than a bit – ‘I want to be in love with the twentieth century,’ she says). Victor and Sally have a fling. Elena is in despair. The whole thing is done with a decorum more fantastic than anything else James has come up with. Then Victor returns to Elena, not out of fear or conformity, but out of a form of fidelity, a sense that their relation is more valuable than anything he could ruin it for. James’s achievement, beyond the fizz and the jokes, is to have created characters who begin to be likeable, and who make and live with a decision worth pondering.

Shadbold’s roulette and James’s chapter of accidents become poker in Gordon Williams’s lively novel Pomeroy.

Up there in Dawson City, One-Eye Riley the mad gambler was asked: ‘Is it true you regard poker as a matter of life or death?’

He replied: ‘Hell, no, cards is serious.’

John Stockley Pomeroy is a West Point graduate who has left the Army and put in some time in the Yukon. The period is the turn of the century. The new books are The Four Feathers and The Ambassadors. The first oilfield in Texas has just gushed, Orville and Wilbur Wright are being held up by the weather. After a brief chat and an energetic walk with Teddy Roosevelt, Pomeroy is recruited for the American Secret Service, and sent to London to thwart whatever wily foreign plans he comes across. There is no American secret service of course, and ‘The United States does not use spies’ is a refrain in the book. Nevertheless, the United States needs information, and Pomeroy is getting it. He gambles, fights, gets into bed with lovely women – does all the things a secret agent ought to. There is a submarine, a suave German master spy who plays Liszt on the piano. The imagined date adds a bright transatlantic twist. Hollywood’s Flint was the CIA’s answer to James Bond, but Bond is now made to look like a descendant of Pomeroy. Like Bond and One-Eye Riley, Pomeroy thrives on the sort of risk that would reduce Shadbold or Lancelot Windover to mere tangles of shredded nerves. ‘From the first time his fingers caressed a deck and found the perfect shape, the real life so-called became stuff that interrupted the Game.’ This is hocus pocus, but the whole thing is deftly done, and thoroughly enjoyable in its own right. Its interest in this context is the way the thriller, even when it is half a spoof, stands the conventions of comedy on their head. Comedy in Powell and James is a perpetual fumbling, things getting terminally out of hand, a figure for the way life feels on particular days – dire, as they say, but not serious. In a book like Pomeroy, there is no fumbling, all losses of control are temporary. The wheel spins, but the chapter of chances is a triumphantly foiled conspiracy, a world without accident, amen.