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They say you lose your head for nostalgia, as you get older The words of Hugh Moreland echo the drift towards introspection and regrets that started in the previous volume, as Nick Jenkins embarks on a comprehensive study of melancholy in the last part of his twelve step Dance. Venice, with its beautiful vistas and sunny climate might look like an improbable venue for such downbeat storytelling, but the author is quick with the literary references about the transience of beauty and the inevitable ending: ... one of the temporary kings in ‘The Golden Bough’, everything at their disposal for a year or a month or a day – then execution? Death in Venice? Nick Jenkins is at the pinnacle of his literary career, and one of the perks an established author enjoys is an invitation to an elite conference where intellectuals from all over the world meet to discuss the current cultural landscape. Jenkins brings to the banquet table his keen observations powers, his subversive sense of humour and a more recently developed cynical streak, a deeply seated disenchantment with most of his peers ( ... fellow nomads of the intellect, Bedouins of the cultural waste, for ever folding and unfolding their tents in its oases. ) and with the world in general. Each recriminative decade poses new riddles, how best to live, how best to write. One’s fifties, in principle less acceptable than one’s forties, at least confirm most worst suspicions about life, thereby disposing of an appreciable tract of vain expectations, standardized fantasy, obstructive to writing, as to living. [...] After passing the half-century, one unavoidable conclusion is that many things seeming incredible on starting out, are, in fact, by no means to be located in an area beyond belief. As we meet old friends and enemies, and as we are offered new characters to study, the major tonality is no longer the usual enchantment with the miriad way the human spirit manifest itself in unexpected directions, but the presence of rot and darkness that is constantly revealed under the glitter of gold an crystal. Widmerpool is back ( ... now who the devil can that be? with his signature surprise entrances), slimier than ever despite his newly acquired peerage, engaged in secret deals with an Eastern nation and in a clash of wills with his volatile consort, Pamela. Mrs. Erdleigh, the famous clairvoyante, is still waiting in the background for her chance to utter some obscure warnings of doom. The survivors of the pre-war London jet-set are still making waves in the palatial mansions on the Grand Canal. Yet the Dance is drifting across the Atlantic, passing the cultural flame into the hands of two new characters: Louis Glober - American magnate, publisher, movie producer, playboy, globe trotter, closet melancholic man – and Russell Gwinnett – earnest young poet and biographer from the Midwest. Both men are linked to the star of the previous novel, X Trapnel, the unconventional and self-destructive novelist that befriended Nick and fell under the spell of Pamela Widmerpool. Glober wants to finance a movie based on the last Trapnel novel. Gwinnett wants to write a detailed biography of his life. Both men also fall into the spider web woven by the still dangerous Pamela.This is not a new observation pertaining to the Dance, but in this episode, more than in any of the previous ones, I was struck by the author’s insistence on giving the contemporary text a universal dimension by linking the personal dramas of his characters to classical literary myths. The key scene in Venice is a visit to an old palace, there to have everybody inspect a fresco by Tieopolo depicting the story of Candaules and Gyges: Oh, yes – the picture on the ceiling? You mean that? You want more explanations? Well, the wife there, whose husband arranged for his chum to have a peep at her in that charming manner, handled things by getting the chum who’d enjoyed the eyeful to do the husband in. It’s the same tragedy with comic overtones that was used by Michael Ondaatje in his “English Patient” to illustrate the doomed love affair of one man for his friend’s wife, a tale originating in Herodotus that Powell still finds fascinating in the context of Widmerpool and his wife’s indiscretions.The mythical angle is not restricted to the affairs of the heart. Powell spends a good portion of the novel exploring the undercurrents shaping the state of the novel (and art in general) in the new world order. Classicism and Romanticism are illustrated by the personalities of the new characters introduced, Glober and Gwinnett taking over from Jenkins himself and from Trapnel. With the addition of Tokenhouse, an expat painter living in Venice, Ferrand-Senechal, a French opportunist and Dr Brightman, a pragmatist, the discussion is expanded to embrace the Decadents, Naturalism, Socialist Militant Realism, translations from Dostoyevsky and the subversive nature of Dr Zhivago. Here again it was hard to apportion epithets. In one sense, Glober, the practical man, was also the ‘romantic’ – as often happens – Gwinnett, working on his own interior lines, the ‘classical’. Gwinnett wanted to see things without the illusory trimmings; Glober forced things into his own picturesque mould. [...] Was the analogy to be found in quite other terms of reference: Don Juan for Glober, Gwinnett in Faust? The intellectual stimulation of the text is undeniable, although the plotless nature of the series and the accumulation of past events and references to former part-time players did slow down the lecture for me. I liked the younger Jenkins a bit more than his more cynical quintagenarian self, but I am still in awe of the occasional gems and of the dark flashes of humour (as in Kenneth getting hit in the face with a fruit, again!) , even if I had to dive for a dictionary to get his halcyon references. I am grateful to Powell for the chance to improve my reading skills, echoing X Trapnel’s claim that Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them . A mist of heat hung over the dome and white campanile, beyond the glittering greenish stretch of water, across the surface of which needles of light perpetually flashed. It was so calm the halcyon’s fabled nest seemed just to have floated by, subduing the faintest tremor of wind and wave. The ending of the episode takes place in London, with a Mozart extravaganza that brings together many of the surviving characters, conflict and farce walking hand in hand. Hugh Moreland, on his way out, captures again the spirit of the Dance flawlessly: ‘I always enjoy this title - Cambyses, King of Percia: a Lamentable Tragedy mixed full of Pleasant Mirth.’‘What’s it like?’‘Not particularly exciting, but does summarize life.’ The bittersweet farewells, (view spoiler)[ surprisingly the most painful being Pamela Flytton’s suicide, for ever keeping under lock the secrets of her fiery heart (hide spoiler)]



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