A decade has passed since the events of the previous volume, and Jenkins has reestablished his writing career. He travels to Venice for a literary conference, there meeting an American, Russell Gwinnett, who is at work on a biography of X. Trapnel, and learning of the death in London of Ferrand-Sénéschal. Rumor connects him with Widmerpool, lately elevated to the House of Lords, the two allegedly sharing a taste for sexual depravities; press reports scandalously link Pamela Widmerpool with the death of the French philosopher. The attendees visit a palazzo where Pamela is a guest, along with Louis Glober, an American impresario, to view a painted ceiling by Tiepolo depicting the fable of Candaules and Gyges. Gwinnett, seeking information about her relationship with Trapnel, pursues an encounter and she becomes infatuated with him. Jenkins visits the studio of Tokenhouse, an old friend of his father’s, and sees a troubled Widmerpool there, involved in some kind of shady political dealing that may involve espionage across the Iron Curtain. Upon return to England, Jenkins attends a military reunion, discovering more details about Stringham’s death in a Japanese POW camp and listening as Sunny Farebrother relishes the possibility of Widmerpool’s arrest. Gwinnett is also in England, immersing himself in Trapnel’s milieu and alternately resisting and inviting Pamela’s advances, which include haunting his hallway in the nude in the middle of the night. Later, Odo Stevens and his wife, the former Rosie Manasch, host a charity concert. An ailing Moreland conducts the orchestra, and the audience is filled with faces from the past. Widmerpool, having somehow escaped indictment, is also in the crowd and one of the last to depart. In doing so, he is involved in a near-melee incited by shocking insults from Pamela and by her revelation that Ferrand-Sénéschal died in flagrante with her as Widmerpool watched. Months go by, and Jenkins engages in a few final conversations with the dying Moreland in his hospital room. We learn through this epilogue that Pamela has killed herself via overdose in Gwinnett’s hotel room, Gwinnett has fled to the Mediterranean, and Glober has died while racing vintage cars in France.
We’re ten years further into the story, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Powell took that much time between writing the last book and this one. But no, his clockwork-like regimen stayed on schedule, and Temporary Kings came out in 1973, just a couple years after Books Do Furnish a Room. It’s not as though his style had time to change in between, but it feels to me as if it did. He seems freer and more direct than before. (He’s certainly more expansive, this being the longest installment in the series.) Is this reflective of the narrator’s aging and maturity, or of the changing mores of the era? Or both?
Jenkins, now in his fifties, may well be readier to show his cards, and England itself is considerably different than it was. The economy has improved, and a distinctive new culture is on the ascendant. It’s hard to imagine Powell listening to skiffle music, but he does mention the Teddy boy movement, and we know that skirts are about to shorten and that London is about to start swinging. Maybe that’s why things that used to be hinted at in the text have become explicit: “He produced a pair of nail-scissors from a small red leather case. He told me he carried them round with him in case the need arose.” Those who’ve read the book will recognize that quote, and know why my marginal comment on it was “!!!!” And that’s well before Pamela gets wound up and starts telling it like it is.
Even the artistic metaphors that used to lie quietly on the page without explication are now spotlighted. Candaules, his nameless wife, and Gyges are roles played by various characters in the book as well as the subjects of a fictitious fresco. Jenkins has always loved to drop allusive references, and Moreland and Jenkins have talked in the past about how specific pieces of music and writing can comment on the people around them, but I don’t recall it happening to the extent it does with the Tiepolo mural in Temporary Kings. This shared interest in the intermingling of art and life is what bonds the two friends so closely, come to think of it. The saddest moment in the Dance may occur when Jenkins says, “That morning was the last time I saw Moreland. It was also the last time I had, with anyone, the sort of talk we used to have together.”
That’s not the only lament for the past in the book, by any means. One of the subjects of Temporary Kings is nostalgia, and half of the text seems to serve as a trip down memory lane. In addition to Moreland, a host of other characters who haven’t been seen for a while take cameo turns on stage, apparently just to catch us up on what’s happened to them. Rosie and Odo show off their jointly assumed respectability, Mrs. Erdleigh casts a spell or two, Matilda breezes through a party, and more peripheral figures such as Stripling, Carolo, and Norma (Barnby’s waitress/muse) act as spear carriers. Even Jean has a ghostly presence, seen in the person of her daughter Polly. These appearances are rewards for consistent readers, but must be baffling to anyone who picks up this book cold. I suppose Powell shouldn’t be expected to worry about wooing new fans in the eleventh book of his twelve-volume series, so I can’t really criticize him here.
I expect a bit more wrap-up in the final volume, but beyond that I’m not sure what’s coming. On the one hand I’d love to have this symphony end with a grand climax, but that wouldn’t really be in keeping with the Dance as a whole. It’s impossible to imagine that it can end at all. Powell may have stopped writing, but life will just go on for all his characters, won’t it?
- Book One: A Question of Upbringing
- Book Two: A Buyer’s Market
- Book Three: The Acceptance World
- Book Four: At Lady Molly’s
- Book Five: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant
- Book Six: The Kindly Ones
- Book Seven: The Valley of Bones
- Book Eight: The Soldier’s Art
- Book Nine: The Military Philosophers
- Book Ten: Books Do Furnish a Room