Temporary KingsAnthony Powell
A Dance to the Music of Time
HEINEMANN : LONDON
The smell of Venice suffused the night, lacustrine essences richly distilled. Late summer was hot here. A very old man took the floor. Hoarse, tottering, a few residual teeth, arbitrarily assembled and darkly stained, underpinning the buoyancy of his grin, he rendered the song in slower time than ordinary, clawing the air with his hands, stamping the floor with his feet, while he mimed the action of the cable, straining, creaking, climbing, as it hauled upward towards the volcanic crater the capsule encasing himself and his girl, a journey calculated to stir her ungrateful heart.
Iamme, iamme, via montiam su là.
Iamme, iamme, via montiam su là.
Funiculì funiculà, via montiam su là.
A first initiatory visit to Italy, travelling as a boy with my parents, had included a week at this same hotel. It overlooked the Grand Canal. Then small, rather poky even, its waterfront now extended on either side of the terrace, where, by tradition, the musicians’ gondola tied up. Near-tourist outfits replaced evening dress antique as the troupe itself, in other respects the pattern remained unaltered, notably this veteran and the ‘business’ of his song. Could he be the same man? A mere forty years – indeed three or four short of that – might well have passed without much perceptible transmutation in a façade already radically weathered by Time when first observed. The gestures were identical. With an operatic out-thrust of the body, he intimated the kingdoms of the earth ranged beneath funicular passengers for their delectation.
Si vede Francia, Procida, la Spagna,
E io veggo te, io veggo te.
The century all but within his grasp, the singer might actually recollect the occasion for which the song had been composed; on that great day, as the words postulated, himself ascended Vesuvius accompanied by his inamorata, snug together in the newly installed spaceship, auspicious with potentialities for seduction. Had a dominating personality, the suggestive rotations of the machinery, Procida’s isle laid out far below, like a girl spreadeagled on her back, all combined to do the trick? The answer was surely affirmative. Even if marriage remained in question – conceivably the librettist’s deference to convention – at least warmer contacts must have been attained.
The stylized movements of the hands were reminiscent of Dicky, Umfraville at one of his impersonations. He too should have harnessed his gift, in early life, to an ever renewing art from which there was no retiring age. To exhibit themselves, perform before a crowd, is the keenest pleasure many people know, yet self-presentation without a basis in art is liable to crumble into dust and ashes. Professional commitment to his own representations might have kept at bay the melancholy – all but chronic, Frederica and his stepchildren complained – now that Umfraville had retired from work as agent at Thrubworth. Sometimes, after a day’s racing, for example, he might return to the old accustomed form. Even then a few misplaced bets would bring the conviction that luck was gone for good, his life over.
‘Christ, what a shambles. Feeling my back too. Trumpeter, what are you sounding now? – Defaulters, old boy, if your name’s Jerry Hat-Trick. You know growing old’s like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven’t committed.’
‘Which ones haven’t you committed?’ said Frederica. ‘You’ve never grown up, darling. You can’t grow old till you’ve done that.’
Sufferance, as well as affection, was implied, though Frederica had never tired of Umfraville, in spite of being often cross with him.
‘I feel like the man in the ghost story, scrambling over the breakwaters with the Horrible Thing behind him getting closer and closer. There hasn’t been a good laugh since that horse-box backed over Buster Foxe at Lingfield.’
As a rule Umfraville disliked mention of death, but the legend of Buster Foxe’s immolation under the wheels of a kind of Houyhnhnm juggernaut, travelling in reverse gear, was the exception. It had resolutely passed into Umfraville myth. Captain Foxe’s end (he had been promoted during the war) was less dramatic, though certainly brought about by some fatal accident near the course, terminating for ever risk of seeing an old enemy at future race-meetings. It would be worth asking Umfraville if he had his own version of Funiculì-Funiculà, an accomplishment by no means out of the question.
The present vocalist to some extent controverted Frederica’s argument, supporting more St John Clarke’s observation that ‘growing old consists abundantly of growing young’. The aged singer looked as if thoughts of death, melancholy in any form, were unknown to him. He could be conceived as suffering from rage, desire, misery, anguish, despair; not melancholy. That was clear; additionally so after the round of applause following his number. The clapping was reasonably hearty considering the heat, almost as oppressive as throughout the day just passed. Dr Emily Brightman and I joined in. Acknowledgment of his talent delighted the performer. He bowed again and again, repeatedly baring blackened sporadic stumps, while he mopped away streams of sweat that coursed down channels of dry loose skin ridging either side of his mouth. Longevity had brought not the smallest sense of repletion where public recognition was in question. That was on the whole sympathetic. One found oneself taking more interest than formerly in the habits and lineaments of old age.
In spite of the singer’s own nonchalance, the susceptive tunes of the musicians, the gorgeous dropscene, the second carafe of wine, infected the mind not disagreeably with thoughts of the evanescence of things. At the beginning of the century, Marinetti and the Futurists had wanted to make a fresh start – whatever that might mean – advocating, among other projects, filling up the Venetian canals with the rubble of the Venetian palaces. Now, the Futurists, with their sentimentality about the future, primitive machinery, vintage motor-cars, seemed as antiquely picturesque as the Doge in the Bucentaur, wedding his bride the Sea, almost as distant in time; though true that a desire to destroy, a hatred and fear of the past, remained a constant in human behaviour.
‘Do you think the soubrette is his mistress, or his great-granddaughter?’ asked Dr Brightman. ‘They seem on very close terms. Perhaps both.’
From our first meeting, at the opening session of the Conference (when friendly contacts had been achieved by mutual familiarity with Borage and Hellebore, my book about Burton, and her own more famous work on The Triads), Dr Brightman had made clear a determination to repudiate the faintest suspicion of spinsterish prudery that might, very mistakenly, be supposed to attach to her circumstances. Discreetly fashionable clothes emphasized this total severance from anything to be thought of as academic stuffiness, a manner of dress quietly but insistently smart. One of her pupils at the university (our niece Caroline Lovell’s best friend) alleged a reputation of severity as a tutor, effortless ability to reduce to tears, if necessary, the most bumptious female student. Dr Brightman, it was true, was undoubtedly a little formidable at first impact. We touched on the Dark Ages. She spoke of her present engagement on Boethius, in a form likely to prove controversial. The male don of her name, known to me when myself an undergraduate, appeared to be only a distant relation.
‘You mean Harold Brightman, who played some part in organizing a dinner to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of that old rascal Sillery? He’s a cousin of some sort. There are scores of them engaged in the learned professions. We all stem from the Revd Salathiel Brightman, named in The Dunciad in connexion with some long forgotten squabble about a piece of Augustan pedantry. He composed Attick and Roman Reckonings of Capacity for Things Liquid and Things Dry reduced to the Common English Mensuration for Wine and Corn. I believe the great Lemprière acknowledges indebtedness in preparation
of his own tables of proportion at the end of the Bibliotheca Classica. Salathiel is said to have revolutionized the view held in his own day of the cochlearion and oxybaphon, though for myself I haven’t the smallest notion of how many of either went to an amphora. Speaking of things liquid and things dry, shall we have a drink? Tell me, Mr Jenkins, did Mark Members persuade you to come to this Conference?’
‘Not without resistance on my own part I had planned a lot of work this long vac. Mark positively nagged me into it. He can be very tyrannical.’
‘I resisted too, but was in difficulties about a book. It seemed a way out.’
To say that was to make the best of things, let oneself down gently. Writing may not be enjoyable, its discontinuance can be worse, though Members himself must by then have been safely beyond any such gnawings of guilt. By now he was a hardened frequenter of international gatherings for ‘intellectuals’ of every sort. He had been at the game for years. The activity suited him. It brought out hitherto dormant capabilities for organization and oratory, neither given a fair chance in the course of an author’s routine dealings with publishers and editors; nor for that matter – Members having tried reversing the roles – trafficking with authors as editor or publisher. The then ever-widening field of cultural congresses pleased and stimulated his temperament. At one of them he had even found a wife, an American lady, author and journalist, a few years older than himself, excellently preserved, not without name and useful connexions in her own country. She was also, as Members himself boasted, ‘inured to writers and their inconsequent ways’. That was probably true, as Members was her fourth husband. The marriage still remained in a reasonably flourishing condition, in spite of hints (from the critic; Bernard Shernmaker, chiefly) that Members had dropped out of the Venetian rendezvous because another, smaller conference was to include a female novelist in whom he was interested. A reason for supposing that particular imputation unjust was that several other literary figures had thought the rival conference more tempting. These differed in this from Members only insomuch as he had played some part in organization of the Venetian gathering at the London end. That was why, to avoid becoming vulnerable in his own apostasy, he had to find, at short notice, one or two substitutes like Dr Brightman and myself. He brushed aside pretexts that I never took part in such activities.
‘All the more reason to go, Nicholas, see what such meetings of true minds have to offer. I should not be at all surprised if you did not succumb to the drug. It’s quite a potent one, as I’ve found to my cost. Besides, even at our age, there’s a certain sense of adventure at such jamborees. You meet interesting people – if writers and suchlike can be called interesting, something you and I must often have doubted in the course of our via dolorosa towards literary crucifixion. At worst it makes a change, provides a virtually free holiday, or something not far removed. Come along, Nicholas, bestir yourself. Say yes. Don’t be apathetic.
Leave we the unlettered plain its herd and crop;
Seek we sepulture
On a tall mountain, citied to the top,
Crowded with culture!
It’s not sepulture, and a tall mountain, this time, but the Piazza San Marco – my patron saint, please remember – and a lot of parties, not only crowded with culture, but excellent food and drink thrown in. There’s the Biennale, and the Film Festival the following week, if you feel like staying for it. Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn? Take a chance on it. You’ll live like a king once you get there.’
‘One of those temporary kings in The Golden Bough, everything at their disposal for a year or a month or a day – then execution? Death in Venice?’
‘Only ritual execution in more enlightened times – the image of a declining virility. A Mann’s a man for a’ that. Being the temporary king is what matters. The retribution of congress kings only takes the form, severe enough in its way, I admit, of having to return to everyday life. Even that, my dear Nicholas, you’ll do with renewed energy. Like the new king, in fact.
Here upon earth, we’re kings, and none but we
Can be such kings, nor of such subjects be.
That’s what the Venice Conference will amount to. I shall put your name down.’
‘Who else is going?’
‘Quentin Shuckerly, Ada Leintwardine. They’re certain. Not Alaric Kydd, which is just as well. The new Shuckerly, Athlete’s Footman, is the best queer novel since Sea Urchins. You ought to have a look at it, if you’ve got time. You won’t regret the decision to go to Venice. I’m désolé at not being able to attend myself. Unfortunately one can’t be in two places at once, and I have a duty to make myself available elsewhere. There will be a lot of international figures there, some of them quite distinguished. Ferrand-Sénéschal, Kotecke, Santos, Pritak. With any luck you’ll find a very talented crowd. I’d hoped to hear Ferrand-Sénéschal on the subject of Pasternak and the Nobel Prize. His objections – he will certainly demur at the possibility – will be worth listening to.’
In suggesting that the international fame of several foreign writers liable to attend the Conference was not to be entirely disregarded in assessing its attractions, Members was speaking reasonably enough. To meet some of these, merely to set eyes on them, would be to connect together a few additional pieces in the complex jigsaw making up the world’s literary scene; a game never completed, though sometimes garishly illuminated, when two or three unexpected fragments were all at once coherently aligned in place. To addicts of this pastime, the physical appearance of a given writer can add to his work an incisive postscript, physical traits being only inadequately assessable from photographs. Ferrand-Sénéschal, one of the minor celebrities invoked by Members, was a case in point. His thick lips, closely set eyes, ruminatively brutal expression, were familiar enough from newspaper pictures or publishers’ catalogues, the man himself never quite defined by them. I had no great desire to meet Ferrand-Sénéschal – on balance would almost prefer to be absolved from the effort of having to talk with him – but I was none the less curious to see what he looked like in person, know how he carried himself among his fellow nomads of the intellect, Bedouin of the cultural waste, for ever folding and unfolding their tents in its oases.
There was another reason, when Members picked Ferrand-Sénéschal’s name out of the hat as a potential prize for attending the Conference, why a different, a stronger reaction was summoned up than by such names as Santos, Pritak, Kotecke. During the war, staff-officers, whose work required rough-and-ready familiarity with conditions of morale relating to certain bodies of troops or operational areas – the whole world being, in one sense, at that moment an operational area – were from time to time given opportunity to glance through excerpts, collected together from a wide range of correspondence, inspected by the Censorship Department. This symposium, of no very high security grading, was put together for practical purposes, of course, though not with complete disregard for light relief. The anonymous anthologist would sometimes show appreciation of a letter’s comic or ironic bearing. Ferrand-Sénéschal was a case in point. Scrutinizing the file, my eye twice caught his name, familiar to anyone whose dealings with contemporary literature took them even a short way beyond the Channel. Ferrand-Sénéschal’s letters were dispatched from the United States, where, lecturing at the outbreak of war, he had remained throughout hostilities. Always a Man of the Left (much in evidence as such at the time of the Spanish Civil War, when his name had sometimes appeared in company with St John Clarke’s), he had shown rather exceptional agility in sitting on the fence that divided conflicting attitudes of the Vichy Administration from French elements, in France and elsewhere, engaged in active opposition to Germany.
Cited merely to illustrate the current view of a relatively well-known French author domiciled abroad through the exigencies of war, Ferrand-Sénéschal’s couple of contributions to the Censor’s digest deftly indicated the deviousness of their writer’s allegiance. No doubt, in one sense, the ph
rases were intended precisely to achieve that, naturally implying nothing to be construed as even covertly antagonistic to the Allied cause. Whatever else he might be, Ferrand-Sénéschal was no fool. Indeed, it was his own appreciation of the fact that his letters might be of interest to the Censor – any censor – which provoked a smile at the skill shown in excerpting so neatly the carefully chosen sentences. In addition, personal letters, even when deliberately composed with an eye to examination, official or unofficial, by someone other than their final recipient, give a unique sense of the writer’s personality, often lacking in books by the same hand. They are possibly the most revealing of all, like physical touchings-up of personal appearance to make some exceptional effect. In the case of Ferrand-Sénéschal, as with his portraits in the press, the personality conveyed, not to be underrated as a force, was equally not a specially attractive one.
Avoidance, during this expatriate period, of all outward participation, even parti pris, in relation to the issues about which people were fighting so fiercely, turned out no handicap to Ferrand-Sénéschal’s subsequent career. Not only did he physically survive those years, something he might easily have failed to do had he remained in Europe, but he returned to France unembarrassed by any of the inevitable typifications attached to active combatants of one sort or another. Some of these had, of course, acquired distinction, military or otherwise, which Ferrand-Sénéschal could not claim, but, in this process, few had escaped comparatively damaging sectarian labels. In fact, Ferrand-Sénéschal, who had worked hard during his exile in literary and academic spheres in both American continents, found himself in an improved position, with a wider public, in a greatly changed world. He now abandoned a policy of non-intervention, publicly announcing his adherence to the more extreme end of his former political standpoint, one from which he never subsequently deviated. From this vantage point he played a fairly prominent rô1e in the immediately post-war period of re-adjustment in France; then, when a few years later cultural congresses settled down into their swing, became – as emphasized by Members – a conspicuous figure in their lively polemics.