Villain’s Talk

John Bayley

  • The Fisher King by Anthony Powell
    Heinemann, 256 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 434 59926 3

How and why do some writers’ characters live from the word go? It may not be necessary that they should; it may not even be to the writer’s purpose and advantage. Shakespeare’s minor characters often have a life which the drama as such has no real use for and no way to deal with. And yet Hamlet would never have become the universally significant figure that he has if he were not immediately and locally real to the audience as he stands in black in the king’s presence chamber. After that moment he can be or become anything the reader or viewer fancies. Timon of Athens, on the other hand, seems to have been present only as an idea to Shakespeare from the very beginning, with the result that he never achieves more than a sort of powerful anonymity.

Novelists can usually count themselves fortunate if they possess the mysterious gift of instant realisation. But they may do better without it. Dickens often does, merely hanging some badge of eccentricity round the neck of his newly introduced characters, while he rushes on with the tale. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, so different in other ways, both have instantly real characters, the former expressing them in objectively physical terms, the latter in terms of an acoustic dialogue. The first draft of Anna Karenina pinpoints Anna on the spot as small, plump, dusky and vivacious, with a faint incipient moustache, a bit like the Little Princess in War and Peace. That would never do for Tolstoy’s purpose, and he had to take great pains to de-realise her, so to speak, in order that she should be a continuous animating presence, borne helpless on the invisible gale of passion. Her physical presence remains, especially in the form of her small capable hand, but it does not come between us and her feelings.

There is a subtle connection between characters immediately alive and the novelist’s power to create a world of his own. The instant life of Firbank man, or woman, must be owed to the fact that the novelist puts us at once into his own world. Such art solves a paradox: to make your own character, and at the same time to make him instantly recognisable to others. If he is not recognised he may have no appeal, for the reader can only respond to what he doesn’t know that he knows. Presumably the most embarrassing situation for a novelist is a character he didn’t invent walking about among those that he did. Barbara Pym’s novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, the one that was rejected by her traitorous publishers, sentencing her to fifteen years of non-appearance, has a man in it with whom she can do nothing at all, except let him marry the heroine at the end. This actually increases by contrast the charm of the work and its humour, because we can see the Pym world working away beside another nebulous and unrealised one.

Anthony Powell has always been marvellously adroit at making his own world and characters and suggesting our absolute recognition of them at the same time. In The Fisher King the artifice of its own world is impregnable, and yet the ghostly presence of the real world of power and fashion – too variegated and equivocal to be called a beau monde – glimmers down the formal glade of the narrative. We know, more or less, what sort of people these are, but we find them in a delightfully unusual situation. The formula is not unfamiliar, but a new one for Powell, though it carries echoes of his earlier novels, chiefly of my own favourite among them, What’s become of Waring? Where The Music of Time combined the art of a dance with the unbuttoned leisure of a chronicle, The Fisher King operates in the discipline of Racine and Lermontov. The strict co-ordinates are not visible, but they are certainly present; and they move in a parameter which the Russian may have got from the classic French dramatists, with events foreshadowed, taken out of time, related indirectly by the equivalent of messengers and confidantes, who work out their own artless or over-elaborate interpretation.

In The Fisher King there is no narrator as such. The atmosphere is ruminative and mythological, instead of deadpan satirical as it was in Powell’s last offering, O, How the wheel becomes it! The novelist advances his pseudo-narrators – Beals, a novelist, Middle-cote, an advertising man, their respective wives – gently across the board, giving, in the early stages, a great deal of quiet pleasure by the way in which their natures reveal themselves in relation to the apparently potent figure whom Beals has designated as the Fisher King. This is Henchman, a world-famous photographer, who has come on the round-Britain cruise on which all the characters of the story are embarked, together with his beautiful companion of the moment, Barberina Rookwood.

It is not possible to take wholly seriously a character called Barberina Rookwood, and that is probably Powell’s intention, for it later turns out that the name was either self-invented or perhaps bestowed by an ambitious grandmother, who is determined the girl shall be a success in life, preferably as a ballet dancer, for which she shows remarkable aptitude. Henchman is a monster, an unusual specimen of a genre by which Powell has always been fascinated, and of which he has produced some memorable examples. An intelligence officer in the war, Henchman was blown up by a mine in his scout car and all but incapacitated, sexually as well as mechanically. His fame as a photographer has continued to rise, however, and he has never lacked for a band of devoted young ladies to be nurses, assistants, quasi-mistresses. Barberina Rookwood, who has abandoned a dazzling career in ballet for Henchman, is the latest of these; and the cruise brings their relationship to a head, Barberina also becoming involved with a newspaper tycoon called Lamont, who has long pursued her, and with a helpless young man, the son of a tedious and lively widow who would like to be a photographer. Both these other clients also suffer from poor health, of a radical but ill-defined kind.

As with the Gyges and Candaules parallel in Temporary Kings, Powell has always delighted in rich suggestive art or legend, which can be woven incongruously into a modern setting without any insistence on exact correspondences. Perceval and the Fisher King and their story are adumbrated by the tale, rather than worked out. Henchman observes: ‘I am superstitious in the sense that I believe the curious synchronisms and juxtapositions, physical and moral, in which we all from time to time find ourselves involved, have meaning.’ A very good way of being superstitious, especially for a novelist. Much of the felicity, as well as the unusualness, of Powell’s method comes from its lightness of touch – a rare attribute among contemporary novelists – which in a given context can often masquerade as awkwardness or overemphasis. It would be absurd to say that the novel is any sense ‘about’ these synchronisms and juxtapositions, but they have their ways of absorbing the reader and leading him on hand in hand with other multiple modes of entertainment: the slow-motion encounter, the rambling tales, never completed, by Mr Jack, the elderly drunk who is not too unlike Bithell in The Music of Time – above all, the marvellous funny and prolonged dinner-time conversations in the saloon of the cruise ship Alecto, in which everyone is trying to escape from someone else, and at the same time overhear or take part in a discussion just out of reach. The more fluently and persuasively Henchman and the others hold forth, the more glad we are that we don’t have to listen to them in the flesh. And this fact itself contains a profound truth about the nature of good art: that our delight in participation is in inverse ratio to how things would be in reality. It is the best argument on behalf of mimesis, and at the same time shows exactly what happens when mimesis is achieved.

As in the cases of Widmerpool, of the American tycoon Louis Glober in Temporary Kings, of young Scorp Murtlock, the wizard of adversary culture in Hearing secret harmonies, Saul Henchman is a man of the Will. It is a category which has always exercised attraction for Powell, and offers his art possibilities of exploiting whatever is at once impressive, comic and sinister in human psychology. It can also be handled by different techniques and in the vein of a number of different genres – the Stendhalian analytic, the man who makes us laugh and the man we love to hate, and even the villain of the time-honoured attributes found in Buchan or Sapper or Ian Fleming. These last are by no means despised by Powell’s art, and in Henchman they take the well-known form of extreme loquacity. The main tactic and enjoyment of such a villain is to expound his plans for world conquest or whatever to a captive audience – literally captive in the thriller’s case, where the villain’s delight in language and distaste for brutally simple action may be his undoing. That does not happen with Powell, of course. Henchman continues to fascinate and dominate his audience by the exercise of the Will, and by his power of evoking curiosity. In this sense he is fiction’s mainspring made into human form, though he also possesses a tenacious individuality. The Bealses and Middlecotes discuss him early and late, and the novel artfully adopts the tactic of proleptic information, or disinformation: ‘That was before it was generally known ... ’ ‘Beals used to explain later that ... ’ ‘As Louise Beals afterwards maintained ... ’ In endeavouring to satisfy her curiosity from conversation with Henchman on certain points, Fay Middlecote actually finds herself blushing, and she afterwards tells her friends that she almost feels she has been to bed with him.

Indeed that, in a quiet way, is a central point. Henchman’s impotence is not only a source of power but of a variety of sexual attractions. Sex, as Powell has always been inclined to demonstrate, is very much more an affair of power than of sex. The apparently potent figure, Lamont the newspaperman, is also the most nebulous, the least mysterious, and the least successful. Sex, like curiosity, is in the business of fiction rather than of fact. In this direction there is some engaging comedy about Beals and his employments. Once in the whisky marketing business, Beals has found success, though not fame – at least not with the critics, who ignore him – as a writer of historical romances, with titles like The Wizard on the Heath, Lancelot’s Love Feast (research for which gave him the lowdown on the Fisher King story) and Nell o’ the Chartists (‘a bid, some thought not altogether convincing, to establish the author’s social conscience’). Titles have always been a pleasure of Powell’s humour – one remembers Ada Leintwardine’s early feminist realist novel I stopped at a chemist, later made into a film as Sally goes shopping. But Beals’s wish to identify figures in the present with more fabulous archetypes in the past, like Henchman’s instinct for meaning in ‘the curious synchronisms and juxtapositions, physical and moral, in which we all from time to time find ourselves involved’, is not only like his author’s own but is close to the nerve of imagination played on by all novelists. The incongruity between Powell’s The Fisher King and Beals’s Nell o’ the Chartists is not so great as might be supposed. Novelists interpret real people in the guise of earlier archetypes and previous fictions – it is the only way to make them live and breathe.

The Fisher King is a rare work of art for a number of reasons, not least because of the skill and economy with which it makes an absorbing narrative out of the simplest daily materials – gossip, vanity, curiosity, the routine ways in which consciousness works on the situations that intrigue it. These things acquire a harmony and a measure of their own, resident in sentences like these, descriptive of the Bealses’ mode of life during the cruise: ‘He lay thinking in a disordered manner about the happenings of the previous evening. On return to the cabin, he had found his wife asleep, so that events had not been partially rationalised in the mind by recounting them to her.’ Scheherazade is a tutelary spirit, inhabiting the form of either sex, the interminable Mr Jack, the unstoppable Mrs Jilson. Henchman, the man of power, takes a fancy to Mr Jack, the man of narrative. ‘You must never leave me. Become my male Scheherazade, eternally relating a chronicle of aimless amatory encounters, unspeakably wearisome to everyone but yourself, while I photograph, stage by stage, your rapid descent on the escalator of senile degradation. You shall be Falstaff to my Prince Hal.’

The novel’s pattern of converse, while wholly and inimitably that of vintage Powell, is not in some ways so very different, in terms of architecture and dynamics, from Compton-Burnett, Peacock in Crotchet Castle, Goethe in Die Wahlverwandshaften – work in which discussion is related to a world of drama and idea but is also a narrational end in itself. But that is worth saying only to emphasise that the difference, in terms of fiction, is actually the biggest one of all. Powell is above all funny, and makes humour out of both the gravity and perceptiveness to which narrative aspires, as witness the scene between Henchman and Sir Dixon Tiptoft at the breakfast table. But there is another big difference, which shows how unpredictable are a fiction’s relations with its own friends and neighbours in the business. In the end, it is not the way it is done which matters but the personality who controls it. I myself find both Peacock and Compton-Burnett fairly unreadable, and Goethe’s novel almost totally so. But I could read whatever Powell writes from here to eternity, or at least until the Sultan decided that execution could no longer be stayed.