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Temporary Kings, Page 2

Anthony Powell

  Remembrance of these censored letters had revived when I was ‘doing the books’ on Fission. A work by Ferrand-Sénéschal turned up for review. Quiggin & Craggs had undertaken a translation of one of his philosophico-economic studies. Although the magazine was, in theory, a separate venture from the publishing house producing it, the firm – Quiggin especially – was apt to take amiss too frequent disregard of their own imprint in the critical pages of Fission. I should in any case have consulted Bagshaw, as editor, as to whether or not a Quiggin & Craggs book might be safely ignored. Bagshaw’s preoccupations with all forms of Marxism, orthodox or the reverse, being what they were, he was likely to hold views on this one. He did. He was at once animated by Ferrand-Sénéschal’s name.

  ‘An interesting sub-species of fellow-traveller. I’d like to have a look myself. Ferrand-Sénéschal’s been exceedingly useful to the Party at one time or another, in spite of his heresies. There’s always a little bit of Communist propaganda in whatever he writes, however trivial. He also has odd sexual tastes. Political adversaries like to dwell on that. In America, they allege some sort of scandal was hushed up.’

  Bagshaw turned the pages of Ferrand-Sénéschal’s book. He had accepted it as something for the expert, sitting down to make a closer examination.

  ‘You won’t find anything about his sexual tastes there. I’ve glanced through it.’

  ‘I’ll take it home, and consider the question of a reviewer. I might have a good idea.’

  By the following week Bagshaw had a good idea. It was a very good one.

  ‘We’ll give Ferrand-Sénéschal to Kenneth Widmerpool for his routine piece in the mag. It’s not unlike his own sort of stuff.’

  That was Bagshaw at his best. His editor’s instinct, eccentric, unguarded, often obscure of intent, was rarely to be set aside as thoughtless or absurd. He reported Widmerpool as being at first unwilling to wrestle with the Ferrand-Sénéschal translation (having scarcely heard of its author), but, on reading some of the book, changing his mind. The article appeared in the next issue of Fission. Widmerpool himself was delighted with it.

  ‘One of my most successful efforts, I think I can safely aver. Ferrand-Sénéschal is a man to watch. He and I have something in common, both of us intellectuals in the world of action. In drawing analogy between our shared processes of thought, I refer to a common denominator of resolution to break ruthlessly with old social methods and outlooks. In short, we are both realists. I should like to meet this Frenchman. I shall arrange to do so.’

  The consequences of the Ferrand-Sénéschal article were, in their way, far reaching. Ferrand-Sénéschal, who visited London fairly often in the course of business – cultural business – was without difficulty brought into touch with Widmerpool on one of these trips. Some sort of a fellow-feeling seems to have sprung up immediately between the two of them, possibly a certain facial resemblance contributing to that, people who look like one another sometimes finding additional affinities. In the army, for example, tall cadaverous generals would choose tall cadaverous soldier-servants or drivers; short choleric generals prefer short choleric officers on their staff. Whatever it was, Widmerpool and Ferrand-Sénéschal took to each other on sight. As a member of some caucus within the Labour Party, Widmerpool invited Ferrand-Sénéschal to meet his associates at a House of Commons luncheon. This must have gone well, because in due course Ferrand-Sénéschal returned the compliment by entertaining Widmerpool, when passing through Paris on his way back from Eastern Europe, touring there under the banner of a society to encourage friendship with one of the People’s Republics.

  This night-out in Paris with Ferrand-Sénéschal had also been an unqualified success. That was almost an understatement of the gratification it had given Widmerpool, according to himself. Either by chance or design, his comments on the subject had come straight back to the Fission office. That was the period when Widmerpool, deserted by his wife, was keeping away from the magazine. Not unreasonably, he may have hoped, by deliberately building up a legend of high-jinks with Ferrand-Sénéschal, to avoid seeming an abandoned husband, unable to amuse himself, while Pamela lived somewhere in secret with X. Trapnel. That could have been the motive for spreading broadcast the tidings of going on the Parisian spree; otherwise, it might be thought, an incident wiser to keep private. Certainly highly coloured rumours about their carousal were in circulation months after its celebration. Apart from other considerations, such behaviour, anyway such brazenness, was in complete contrast with the tone in which Widmerpool himself used to deplore the louche reputation of Sir Magnus Donners.

  This censure could, of course, have been a double-bluff. When we had met at a large party given for the Election Night of 1955 – the last time I had seen him – Widmerpool deliberately dragged in a reference to the weeks spent together trying to learn French at La Grenadière, adding that it was ‘lucky for our morals Madame Leroy’s house had not been in Paris’, words that seemed to bear out, on his part, desire to confirm a reputation for being a dog. That was early in the evening, before Pamela’s incivility had greatly offended our hostess, or Widmerpool himself heard (towards morning, after Isobel and I had gone home) that he had lost his seat in the House. In Fission days, Bagshaw had been sceptical about the Paris story, without dismissing it entirely.

  ‘I suppose some jolly-up may have taken place. The brothels are closed nowadays officially, but that wouldn’t make any difference to someone in the know. I’m not sure what Ferrand-Sénéschal is himself supposed to like – being chained to a crucifix, while a green light’s played on him – little girls – two-way mirrors – I’ve been told, but I can’t remember. He may have given Kenneth a few ideas. I shall develop sadistic tendencies myself, if that new secretary doesn’t improve. She’s muddled those proofs of the ads again. I say, Nicholas, we’ve still too much space to spare. Just cast your eye over these, and see if you’ve any suggestions. You’ll bring a fresh mind to the advertisement problem. It’s a blow too we’re not going to get any more Trapnel pieces. Editing this mag is driving me off my rocker.’

  In the light of what I knew of Widmerpool, the tale of visiting a brothel with Ferrand-Sénéschal was to be accepted with caution, although true that he had more than once in the past adopted a rather gloating tone when speaking of tarts, an attitude dating back to our earliest London days. Moreland used to say, ‘Maclintick doesn’t like women, he likes tarts – indeed he once actually fell in love with a tart, who led him an awful dance.’ That taste could be true of Widmerpool too; perhaps a habit become so engrained as to develop into a preference, handicapping less circumscribed sexual intimacies. Such routines might go some way to explain the fiasco with Mrs Haycock, even the relationship – whatever that might be – with Pamela. That Ferrand-Sénéschal, as Bagshaw suggested, had been the medium for introduction, in middle-age, to hitherto unknown satisfactions, new, unusual forms of self-release, was not out of the question. By all accounts, far more unlikely things happened in the sphere of late sexual development. Bagshaw was, of course, prejudiced. By that time he had decided that Widmerpool was not only bent on ejecting him from the editorship of Fission, but was also a fellow-traveller.

  ‘He probably learnt a lot from Ferrand-Sénéschal politically, the latter being a much older hand at the game.’

  ‘But what has Widmerpool to gain from being a crypto?’

  Bagshaw laughed loudly. He thought that a very silly question. Political standpoints of the extreme Left being where his heart lay, where, so to speak, he had lost his virginity, the enquiry was like asking Umfraville why he should be interested in one horse moving faster than another, a football fan the significance of kicking an inflated bladder between two posts. At first Bagshaw was unable to find words simple enough to enlighten so uninstructed a mind. Then a lively parallel occurred to him.

  ‘Apart from anything else, it’s one of those secret pleasures, like drawing a moustache on the face of a pretty girl on a poster, spitting over the stairs – you know
, from a great height on to the people below. You see several heads, possibly a bald one. They don’t know where the saliva comes from. It gives an enormous sense of power. Like the days when I used to throw marbles under the hooves of mounted policemen’s horses. Think of the same sort of fun when you’re an MP, or respected civil servant, giving the whole show away on the quiet, when everybody thinks you’re a pillar of society.’

  ‘Isn’t that a rather frivolous view? What about deep convictions, all the complicated ideologies you’re always talking about?’

  ‘Not really frivolous. Such spitting itself is an active form of revolt – undermining society as we know it, spreading alarm and despondency among the bourgeoisie. Besides, spitting apart, you stand quite a good chance of coming to power yourself one day. Giving them all hell. The bourgeoisie, and everyone else. Being a member of a Communist apparat would suit our friend very well politically.’

  ‘But Widmerpool’s the greatest bourgeois who ever lived.’

  ‘Of course he is. That’s what makes it such fun for him. Besides, he isn’t a bourgeois in his own eyes. He’s a man in a life-and-death grapple with the decadent society round him. Either he wins, or it does.’

  ‘That doesn’t sound very rational.’

  ‘Marxism isn’t rational, Nicholas. Get that into your head. The more intelligent sort of Marxist tells you so. He stresses the point, as one of its highest merits, that, like religion, Marxism requires faith in the last resort. Besides, my old friend Max Stirner covers Kenneth – “Because I am by nature a man I have equal rights to the enjoyment of all goods, says Babeuf. Must he not also say: because I am ‘by nature’ a first-born prince I have a right to a throne?” That’s just what Kenneth Widmerpool does say – not out aloud, but it’s what he thinks.’

  Bagshaw had begun on his favourite political philosopher. I was not in the mood at that moment. To return instead to sorting the Fission books was not to deny there might be some truth in the exposition: that Widmerpool, conventional enough at one level of his life – conventional latterly in his own condemnation of conventionality – might at the same time nurture within himself quite another state of mind to that shown on the surface; not only desire to reshape the world according to some doctrinaire pattern, but also to be revenged on a world that had found himself insufficiently splendid in doing so. Had not General Conyers, years ago, diagnosed a ‘typical intuitive extrovert’; coldblooded, keen on a thing for the moment, never satisfied, always wanting to get on to something else? In one sense, of course, the world, from a material assessment, had treated Widmerpool pretty well, even at the time when Bagshaw was talking. On the other hand, people rarely take the view that they have been rewarded according to their desserts, those most rewarded often the very ones keenest to be revenged. Possibly Ferrand-Sénéschal was just such another.

  Whatever Ferrand-Sénéschal’s inner feelings, the meeting with him in Venice was not to be. Not even a glimpse on the platform. His death took place in London only a few days before the Conference opened. He suffered a stroke in his Kensington hotel. The decease of a French author of international standing would in any case have rated a modest headline in the papers. The season of the year a thin one for news, more attention was given to Ferrand-Sénéschal than might have been expected. It was revealed, for example, that he had seen a doctor only a day or two before, who had warned him against excessive strain. Accordingly no inquest took place. Death had come – as Evadne Clapham remarked, ‘like the book’ – in the afternoon. Later that evening, so the papers said, Ferrand-Sénéschal had been invited to ‘look in on’ Lady Donners after dinner – ’not a party, just a few friends’, she had explained to the reporters – where he would have found himself, so it appeared, among an assortment of politicians and writers, including Mr and Mrs Mark Members. Social engagements of this kind, together with a stream of acquaintances and journalists passing in and out of his suite at the hotel, had evidently proved too much for a state of health already impaired.

  The London obituaries put Leon-Joseph Ferrand-Sénéschal in his sixtieth year. They mentioned only two or three of his better known books, selected from an enormous miscellany of novels, plays, philosophic and economic studies, political tracts, and (according to Bernard Shernmaker) an early volume, later suppressed by the author, of verse in the manner of Verl?ine. This involuntary withdrawal would make little difference to the Conference. Well known intellectuals were always an uncertain quantity when it came to turning up, even if they did not suddenly succumb. Pritak, Santos, Kotecke, might equally well find something better to do, though not necessarily meet an unlooked-for end. I made up my mind to ask Dr Brightman, when opportunity arose, whether she had ever encountered Ferrand-Sénéschal; if so, what she thought of him.

  The youngest and best-looking of the troupe, the one Dr Brightman had called the Soubrette, took a plate round for the collection. The rest burst en masse into Santa Lucia. The programme came to an end. Preparations began for moving on to another hotel. Before they got under way, the old singer, in participation with the Soubrette, surreptitiously examined the takings, both gesticulating a good deal, whether with satisfaction or irony at the extent of the offering was uncertain.

  ‘To sing Neapolitan songs in Venice is rather like a Scotch ballad in Bath,’ said Dr Brightman. ‘Naples is unique. Even her popular music doesn’t export as far north as this. A taste for Naples is one of the divisions between people. You love the place, or loathe it. The character of the traveller seems to have no bearing on the instinctive choice. Personally I am devoted to the Parthenopean shore, although once victim of a most unseemly episode at Pompeii when younger. It was outside the lupanar, from which in those days ladies were excluded. I should have been affronted far less within that haunt of archaic vice, where I later found little to shock the most demure, except the spartan hardness of the double-decker marble bunks. I chased the fellow away with my parasol, an action no doubt deplored in these more enlightened days, as risking irreparable damage to the responses of one of those all too frequent cases of organ inferiority.’

  She briskly shook the crop of short white curls cut close to her head. They looked like a battery of coiled wire (like the Dark Lady’s) galvanizing an immensely powerful dynamo. The bearing of the anecdote brought Ferrand-Sénéschal’s name to mind again. I asked if she had ever met him.

  ‘Yes, I once was introduced to Ferrand-Sénéschal in the not very inviting flesh. He told me he despised “good writing”. I praised his French logic in that respect. As you doubtless know, his early books are ridiculously stilted, his later ones grossly slipshod. I was at once hustled away by his court of toadies. Certain persons require a court. Others prefer a harem. That is not quite the same thing.’

  ‘Some like both.’

  ‘Naturally the one can merge with the other – why, hullo, Russell.’

  The young American who had come up to our table seemed to be the only one of his countrymen at the Conference. He was called Russell Gwinnett. We had sat next to each other at luncheon the day before. He had explained that he taught English at a well-known American college for women, where Dr Brightman herself had spent a year as exchange professor, so that they had known one another before meeting again at the Conference.

  ‘How are you making out, Russell? Have you met Mr Nicholas Jenkins? This is Mr Russell Gwinnett, an old friend from my transatlantic days. You have? Come and join us, Russell.’

  The serious business of the Conference, intellectuals from all over the world addressing each other on their favourite topics, took place at morning and afternoon sessions on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. To reanimate enthusiasms imperilled by prolonged exposure to the assiduities of congress life, extension of the syllabus to include an official luncheon or dinner was listed for almost every day of our stay. These banquets were usually linked with some national treasure, or place of historic interest, occasions to some extent justifying the promise of Members that we should ‘live like kings’. They
gave at the same time opportunity to ‘get to know’ other members of the Conference. Through the medium of one of these jaunts, which took place at a villa on the Brenta, famous for its frescoes by Veronese, Gwinnett and I had met.

  He was in his early thirties, slight in figure, with a small black moustache that showed a narrow strip of skin along the upper lip above and below its length. That he was American scarcely appeared on the surface at first, then something about the thin bone formations of arms and legs, the sallowness and texture of the skin, suggested the nationality. The movements of the body, supple, not without athletic promise, also implied an American, rather than European, nervous tension; an extreme one. He wore spectacles lightly tinted with blue. His air, in general unconformist, did not strongly indicate any recognizable alignment.

  I had not sat next to him long the previous day before unorthodoxy was confirmed. Having invoked the name of Dr Brightman, Gwinnett (like herself) created the usually advantageous foundation of good understanding between writers – one by no means always available – by showing well-disposed knowledge of my own works. That was an excellent start. He turned out to hold another ace up his sleeve, but did not play that card at once. In showing control, he began as he went on. After the gratifying, if subjective, offering made in the direction of my own writing, he became less easy. In fact he was almost impossible to engage, drying up entirely, altogether lacking in that reserve of light, reasonably well-informed social equipment, on the whole more characteristic of American than British academic life. This lapse into a torpid, almost surly reluctance to cooperate conversationally suggested an American version of the least flexible type of British don, that quiet egotism, self-applauding narrowness of vision, sometimes less than acceptable, even when buttressed with verified references and forward-looking views. If Gwinnett showed signs almost of burlesquing a stock academic figure, he was himself not necessarily lacking in interest on that account, if only as a campus specimen hitherto unsampled; especially as he seemed oddly young to have developed such traits. Even at the outset I was prepared for this diagnosis to be wide of the mark. There was also something not at all self-satisfied about him, an impression of anxiety, a never ceasing awareness of impending disaster.