Books Do Furnish a RoomAnthony Powell
BOOKS DO FURNISH A ROOM
A Dance to the Music of Time
HEINEMANN : LONDON
Reverting to the university at forty, one immediately recaptured all the crushing melancholy of the undergraduate condition. As the train drew up at the platform, before the local climate had time to impair health, academic contacts disturb the spirit, a more imminent gloom was re-established, its sinewy grip in a flash making one young again. Depressive symptoms, menacing in all haunts of youth, were in any case easily aroused at this period, to be accepted as delayed action of the last six years. The odd thing was how distant the recent past had also become, the army now as stylized in the mind – to compare another triumphal frieze – as the legionaries of Trajan’s Column, exercising, sacrificing, sweating at their antique fatigue, silent files on eternal parade to soundless military music. Nevertheless, shades from those days still walked abroad. Only a week before, the peak of a French general’s khaki kepi, breaking rather too abruptly through the winter haze of Piccadilly, had by conditioned reflex jerked my right hand from its overcoat pocket in preparation for a no longer consonant salute, counterfeiting the gesture of a deserter who has all but given himself away. A residuum of the experience was inevitable.
Meanwhile, traditional textures of existence were laboriously patched together in an attempt to reaffirm some sort of personal identity, however blurred. Even if – as some thought – the let-up were merely temporary, it was no less welcome, though the mood after the earlier conflict – summarized by a snatch Ted Jeavons liked to hum when in poor form – was altogether absent:
‘Après la guerre,
There’ll be a good time everywhere.’
That did not hinder looking forward to engrossment during the next few weeks amongst certain letters and papers deposited in the libraries here. Solitude would be a luxury after the congestions of wartime, archaic folios a soothing drug. War left, on the one hand, a passionate desire to tackle a lot of work: on the other, never to do any work again. It was a state of mind Robert Burton – about whom I was writing a book – would have well understood. Irresolution appealed to him as one of the myriad forms of Melancholy, although he was, of course, concerned in the main with no mere temporary depression or fidgetiness, but a ‘chronic or continued disease, a settled humour’. Still, post-war melancholy might have rated a short sub-section in the great work:
THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY
What it is, with all the Kindes, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and severall cures of it. Three Maine Partitions with their severall Sections, Members and Sub-sections, Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and cut up by Democritus Junior. With a Satyricall Preface, conducing to the following Discourse. Anno Dom. 1621.
The title page showed not only Burton’s own portrait in ruff and skull cap, but also figures illustrative of his theme; love-madness; hypochondriasis; religious melancholy. The emblems of jealousy and solitude were there too, together with those sovereign cures for melancholy and madness, borage and hellebore. Burton had long been a favourite of mine. A study of him would be a change from writing novels. The book was to be called Borage and Hellebore.
As the forlorn purlieus of the railway-station end of the town gave place to colleges, reverie, banal if you like, though eminently Burtonesque, turned towards the relatively high proportion of persons known pretty well at an earlier stage of life, both here and elsewhere, now dead, gone off their rocker, withdrawn into states of existence they – or I – had no wish to share. The probability was that even without cosmic upheaval some kind of reshuffle has to take place halfway through life, a proposition borne out by the autobiographies arriving thick and fast – three or four at a time at regular intervals – for review in one of the weeklies. At this very moment my bag was weighed down by several of these volumes, to be dealt with in time off from the seventeenth century: Purged Not in Lethe … A Stockbroker in Sandals … Slow on the Feather … Moss off a Rolling Stone … chronicles of somebody or other’s individual fate, on the whole unenthralling enough, except insomuch as every individual’s story has its enthralling aspect, though the essential pivot was usually omitted or obscured by most autobiographers.
However, nearly all revealed, if not explicitly in every case, a similar reorientation towards the sixth climacteric, their narrative supporting, on the whole, evidence already noticeably piling up, that friends, if required at all in the manner of the past, must largely be reassembled at about this milestone. The changeover might improve consistency, even quality, but certainly lost in intimacy; anyway that peculiar kind of intimacy that is consoling when you are young, though probably too vulnerable to withstand the ever increasing self-regard of later years.
Accommodation was in college. The place looked much the same as ever. Only one porter, his face unfamiliar, was on duty at the lodge. After studying a list for a long time, he signified a distant staircase for the rooms allotted. The traditional atmosphere, tenuously poised between a laxly run boarding-school and seedy residential club, now leant more emphatically towards the former type of institution. The rooms, arctic as of old, evidently belonged to a fairly austere young man, whose only picture was an unframed photograph of a hockey team. It stood curling on the mantelpiece. In the bookcase, a lot of works on economics terminated with St John Clarke’s Dust Thou Art, rather a recondite one about the French Revolution, which might be pleasurable to reassess critically. I pushed on into the bedroom. Here a crisis declared itself. The bed was unmade. Only a sombrely stained blue-grey mattress, folded in three, lay on the rusty wires of the frame. Back at the porter’s lodge, the inconceivable difficulties of remedying lack of bedclothes at this hour were radically discussed. Later, in hall, a few zombie-like figures collected together to consume a suitably zombie-sustaining repast.
This was the opening of a routine of days in the library, nights collating notes, the monotony anodyne. One became immediately assimilated with other dim, disembodied, unapproachable entities, each intent on his own enigmatic preoption, who flit through the cobbled lanes and gothic archways of a university in vacation. It was what Burton himself called ‘a silent, sedentary, solitary private life’, and it well suited me during the middle of the week. For weekends, I returned to London. Once Killick, a hearty rugby-playing philosophy don of my college, now grunting and purple, came bustling up the street, a pile of books under his arm, and I accosted him. There were explanations. Killick issued an abstracted invitation to dinner. The following week, when I turned up, it was to be told Professor Killick had gone to Manchester to give two lectures. This oversight hardly came as a surprise. In a city of shadows, appointments were bound to be kept in a shadowy fashion.
At the same time something very different, something perfectly substantial, not shadowy at all, lay ahead as not to be too long postponed, even if a latent unwillingness to face that fact might delay taking the plunge. A moral reckoning had to be discharged. As the days passed, the hypnotic pull to pay a call on Sillery grew increasingly strong, disinclination – that was, of course, far too strong a word, indeed not the right word at all – scarcely lessening, so much as the Sillery magnetism itself gathering force. Pretendedly heedless enquiries revealed that, although retired for some time from all administrative duties in his own college, Sillery still retained his old rooms, receiving visitors willingly, even avidly, it was reported, with so far as possible the traditional elements of welcome.
To enter Sillery’s sitting-room after twenty years was to drive a relatively deep fissure through variegated seams of Time. The faintly laundry-cupboard odour, as one came through the door, generated in turn the
taste of the rock-buns dispensed at those tea-parties, their gritty indeterminate flavour once more dehydrating the palate. The props round about designed for Sillery’s nightly performance remained almost entirely unaltered. Eroded loose-covers of immemorially springless armchairs still precariously endured; wide perforations frayed long since in the stretch of carpet before the door, only a trifle more hazardous to the unwary walker. As might be expected, the framed photographs of jaunty young men had appreciably increased, several of the new arrivals in uniform, one in a turban, two or three American.
In this room, against this background, Sillery’s machinations, such as they were, had taken shape for half a century. Here a thousand undergraduate attitudes had been penitentially acted out. Youth, dumb with embarrassment, breathless with exhibitionism, stuttering with nerves, inarticulate with conceit; the socially flamboyant, the robustly brawny, the crudely uninstructed, the palely epicene; one and all had obediently leapt through the hoop at Sillery’s ringmaster behest; one and all submitted themselves to the testing flame of this burning fiery furnace of adolescent experience. Such concepts crowded in only after a few minutes spent in the room. At the moment of entry no more was to be absorbed than the fact that another guest had already arrived, to whom Sillery, with much miming and laughter, was narrating an anecdote. Any immediate responses on my own part were cut short at once, for Sillery, as if ever on his guard against possible assassination, sprang from his chair and charged forward, ready to come to grips with any assailant.
‘Timothy?… Mike? … Cedric?… ’
‘Carteret-Owen? … Jelf?… Kniveton? … ’
‘Jenkins – how are you, Sillers?’
‘So you’ve come all the way from New South Wales, Nick?’
‘No – of course – you were appointed to that headmastership after all, Nick?’
‘I can see you haven’t quite recovered from that head wound…’
The question of identification was finally established with the help of the other caller, who turned out to be Short, a member of Sillery’s college a year senior to myself. Short had been not only a great supporter of Sillery’s tea-parties, but also vigorously promulgated Sillery’s reputation as – Short’s own phrase – a ‘power in the land’. We had known each other as undergraduates, continued to keep up some sort of an acquaintance in early London days, then drifted into different worlds. I had last heard his name, though never run across him, during the war when Short had been working in the Cabinet Office, with which my War Office Section had occasional dealings. He had probably transferred there temporarily from his own Ministry, because he had entered another branch of the civil service on leaving the University.
Short’s demeanour, now a shade more portentous, more authoritarian, retained, like the sober suit he wore, the same consciously buttoned-up character. This mild, well-behaved air concealed a good deal of quiet obstinacy, a reasonable amalgam of malice. Always of high caste in his profession, now almost a princeling, he stemmed nevertheless from the same bureaucratic ancestry as a mere tribesman like Blackhead, prototype of all the race of fonctionnaires, and, anthropologically speaking, might be expected to revert to the same atavistic obstructionism if roused.
Sillery, moustache a shade more ragged and yellow, blue bow tie with its white spots, more likely than ever to fall undone, was not much changed either. Perhaps illusorily, his body and face had shrunk, physical contraction giving him a more simian look than formerly, though of no ordinary monkey; Brueghel’s Antwerp apes (admired by Pennistone) rather than the Douanier’s homely denizens of Tropiques, which Soper, the Divisional Catering Officer, had resembled. Even the real thing, Maisky, defunct pet of the Jeavonses, could not compare with Sillery’s devastating monkeylike shrewdness. So strong was this impression of metempsychosis that he seemed about to bound up on to the bookcases, scattering the photographs of handsome young men, and pile of envelopes (the top one addressed to the Home Secretary) as he landed back on the table. He looked in glowing health. No one had ever pronounced with certainty on the subject of Sillery’s age. Year of birth was omitted in all books of reference. He was probably still under eighty.
‘Sit down, Nick, sit down. Leonard and I were talking of an old friend – Bill Truscott. Remember Bill? I’m sure you do. Of course he was a wee bit older than you both’ – Sillery had now perfectly achieved his chronological bearings – ‘but not very much. These differences get levelled out in the sands of time. They do indeed. Going to do great things was Bill. Next Prime Minister but three. We all thought so. No use denying it, is there, Leonard?’
Short smiled a temperate personal acquiescence that could not at the same time be interpreted for a moment as in any way committing his Department.
‘Wrote some effective verse too,’ said Sillery. ‘Even if it was a shade derivative. Mark Members always sneered at Bill as a poet, even when he respected him as a coming man. Rupert Brooke at his most babbling, Mark used to say, Housman at his most lad-ish. Mark’s always so severe. I told him so when he was here the other day addressing one of the undergraduate societies. You know Mark’s hair’s gone snow white. Can’t think what happened to cause that, he’s always taken great care of himself. Rather becoming, all the same. Gives just that air of distinction required by the passing of youth – and nobody got more out of being a professional young man than Mark when the going was good. He was talking of his old friend – our old friend – J. C. Quiggin. JG’s abandoned the pen, I hear, perhaps wisely. A literary caesarean was all but required for that infant of long gestation Unburnt Boats, which I often feared might come to birth prematurely as a puling little magazine article. Now JG’s going to promote literary works rather than write them himself. In brief, he’s to become a publisher.’
‘So I heard,’ said Short. ‘He’s starting a new firm called Quiggin & Craggs.’
‘To think I used to sit on committees with Howard Craggs discussing arms embargoes for Bolivia and Paraguay,’ said Sillery. ‘Sounds like an embargo on arms for the Greeks and Trojans now. Still, I read a good letter from Craggs the other day in one of the papers about the need for Socialists and Communists hammering out a common programme of European reconstruction.’
‘Craggs was a temporary civil servant during the war,’ said Short. ‘Rationing paper, was it? Something of the sort.’
‘That was when JG made himself useful as caretaker at Boggis & Stone,’ said Sillery. ‘I expect that explains why JG dresses like a partisan now, a man straight from the maquis, check shirts, leather jackets, ankle-boots. “Well, Quiggin’s always been in the forefront of the Sales Resistance where clothes were concerned.” That was Brightman’s comment. “Even if he did live ‘reserved and austere’ during hostilities – ‘reserved’ anyway.” We all enjoy Brightman’s rather cruel wit. Brightman and I are buddies now, by the way, all forgiven and forgotten. Besides, I expect JG’s circumscribed by lack of clothing coupons. All right for such as me, still wearing the suit I bought for luncheon with Mr Asquith at Downing Street before the Flood, but then it was a good piece of cloth to start off with, not like those sad old reach-me-downs of JG’s we’re all so familiar with. No doubt they disintegrated under the stress of war conditions. Why not ankle-boots, forsooth? I’d be glad of a pair myself in winter here.’
Sillery paused. He seemed to feel he had allowed himself to rattle on rather too disconnectedly, at the same time could not remember what exactly had been the subject in hand. Like a conjuror whose patter for a specific trick has become misplaced, he had to go back to the beginning again.
‘We were talking of Bill Truscott and his verse. I expect Bill has abandoned the Muse now, though you never know. It’s a hard habit to break. Would you believe it, I produced a slim volume myself when a young man? Did you know that, either of you? Suggested the influence of Coventry Patmore, so the pundits averred. I suppose most of us think of ourselves as poets at that a
ge. No harm done. Well, that shouldn’t be such a bad job at the Coal Board for Bill, if things are constituted as you prophesy, Leonard. Once Bill’s been well and truly inducted there, he should be safe for a lifetime.’
Again Short allowed polite agreement to be inferred, without prejudice to official discretion, or additional evidence that might be subsequently revealed.
‘ But what mysterious mission brings you to our academic altars, Nick? We don’t even know what you are doing these days. Back writing those novels of yours? I expect so. I used to hear something of your activities when you were a gallant soldier looking after those foreign folk. You know what an interest I take in old friends. Leonard and I were just speaking of poor Prince Theodoric, who was once going to perform all sorts of benefits for us here, endow scholarships and whatnot. Donners-Brebner was to co-operate, Sir Magnus Donners having interests in those parts. Now, alas, the good Prince is in exile, Sir Magnus gathered to his fathers. The University will never see any of those lovely scholarships. But we must march with the times. There’s a new spirit abroad in Prince Thedoric’s country, and, whatever people may say, there’s no doubt about Marshal Stalin’s sincerity in desire for a good-neighbour policy, if the West allows it. What I wrote to The Times. Those Tolland relations of yours, Nick? That unsatisfactory boy Hugo, how is he?’
I dealt with these personal matters as expeditiously as possible, explaining my purpose in staying at the University.
‘Ah, Burton?’ said Sillery. ‘An interesting old gentleman, I’ve no doubt. Many years since I looked into the Anatomy.’
That was undoubtedly true. Sillery was not a great reader. He was also wholly uncurious about the byways of writing, indeed not very approving of writing at all, unless books likely to make a splash beyond mere literary consideration, of which there was no hope here. He abandoned the subject, satisfied apparently that the motive alleged was not designed to conceal some less pedestrian, more controversially viable activity, and the unexciting truth had been told. A pause in his talk, never an opportunity to be missed, offered a chance, the first one, of congratulating him on the peerage conferred in the most recent Honours List. Sillery yelled with laughter at such felicitations.