Ted's Reviews > Temporary Kings

Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell
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it was amazing

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 expectation, standardized fantasy, obstructive to writing, as to living.

or perhaps

Takes place: summer 1958 to early summer ’59; then recollections of November ’59.
Nick Jenkins now in his early 50s – thus has entered his sixth decade.
Book published: 1973. Anthony Powell then entering his late 60s. Nick Jenkins is catching up with him in years.

The main characters (by roughly the number of pages they are referenced on – with new characters in bold) – Pamela Flitton (Lady Widmerpool), Louis Glober, Prof. Russell Gwinnett, Widmerpool, X. Trapnel, Dr. Emily Brightman, Hugh Moreland, Odo Stevens, Ada Leintwardine, Leon-Joseph Ferrand-Seneschal, Lindsay (‘Books-do-etc.’) Bagshaw, Jacky Bragadin, Rosie Manasch.

This my choice as a likeness of Lady Widmerpool, she the leader of the cast in the present drama

Five of these leading characters are either foreign or have foreign connections. Glober and Gwinnett are both Americans; Emily Brightman is British, but held an academic position in the States long enough to become well-acquainted with Gwinnett; Jacky Bragadin, son of a Venetian, married into a Philadelphia family of vast wealth. Only Ferrand-Seneschal has no American association, being a French Marxist intellectual.

Temporary Kings

So, who are these “kings”? And why temporary?

Old pal Mark Members (who latterly has found himself a very satisfactory fourth wife – American as it happens) offers Jenkins a visit to Venice by way of attendance at a literary conference. The conversational inducement includes, “… such meetings of true minds … (can offer) a potent drug. Besides, even at our age there’s a certain sense of adventure … Come along, Nicholas, bestir yourself … You’ll live like a king once you get there.”

Jenkins skeptical reply: “One of those temporary kings in the Golden Bough, everything at their disposal for a year or a month or a day – then execution?” So a first suggestion, kings not only of a tribe/people, but also of a cult, religion, a specific time of year – planting, growing season, harvest. In some cases the king executed once the event has elapsed, in others after the traditional period. Frasier suggests that some in ancient times followed this practice to assure (ritually, rather than rebelliously) that a ruler would not continue in command after an age associated with declining strength and mental acuity.

Jenkins also considers the advantage of being able to rub elbows, or merely cast eyes and ears towards, “a few additional pieces in the complex jigsaw making up the world’s literary scene.” This a suggestion implying a furtherance of the previous volume’s themes of the writing and publishing crowds, both of which he has current or recent connection to in a more than superficial fashion. Here we would be concerned with the royalty of these tribes, particularly of writers – and “temporary” can easily be ascribed to many, both writers and books advancing and retreating in favor almost as a matter of course. St John Clarke certainly the example of such.

Widmerpool an example, too, of a temporary king – having ascended to the Lords, then through revelations and accusations having been pushed lower in the chain of being by novel’s end. To say nothing of Pamela, though in her case her royalty a Queenly realm of men first enthralled by her looks, later held in sexual bondage till she’s finished with them; the end of her reign quite unlike any other.

We could go on. The Venetian palace now owned by Jacky Bragadin, who hosts there many of the main characters during the Venetian interlude – lending all of them a temporary aspect of royalty. The Tiepolo ceiling in this palace, offered to a flock of the Conference litterateurs as a previously unseen and rather scandalous work – “an unclothed hero, from his appurtenances a king, reclined on a divan … One single tenuous fold of gold-edged damask counterpane, elsewhere slipped away from his haughtily muscular body, undeniably emphasized (rather than concealed) the physical anticipation… of pleasure to be enjoyed in a few seconds time; for a lady, also naked, tall and fair haired, was moving across the room to join him where he lay.” While, standing in the shadows, his personal friend, invited to observe.

painting by Gerome
The ceiling by Tiepolo exists only in Powell’s novel

The hero, Candaules, indeed temporary, at least in one version of the legend - in which his exhibited Queen avenges herself by commanding the interloper to aid in killing the king.

(artist unknown, to the reviewer)

This art, its concomitant legend, studied by many of the Venetian attendees as highlight of the palace tour, assumes an unusual role in the complex story woven by Powell, affecting the relations of Widmerpool, his wife, the American scholar Gwinnett; as well providing a setting for the on-the-spot lecture by Dr. Brightman, and affecting her own relations, chiefly of interest to herself, with those previously mentioned.

And Brightman herself, certainly suggested as royalty, more than once accompanied by her court, sometimes such court spontaneously forming as she begins to declaim.

But the Americans. Might they not be newly recognized, if yet to be marked temporary, kings? The Americans, curiously almost absent from the war-time novels in the series, Jenkins having few if any contacts with this ally, none at all in course of his duties. The narrative now suggests that in the succeeding post war years, hardship fading into memory, a new reality confronts the British home front, “America” becoming a more insistent touchstone for the artistic intelligentsia, even American “culture” seeping (or is it sweeping?) into that of the Isles. This idea could be thrown into the mix of all those above.

Against this long list of suspects, perhaps the most likely idea, it seems to me, is that Powell’s main “temporary kings” theme is that of the arc of everyman. Once into our fifties we have all, no matter to what degree successful, so long as still present and accounted for, reached whatever rung of “royalty” will be our peak vantage point. From there, we gaze out at not only the sphere of influence and excellence which we have attained, but also look back at earlier chapters, things accomplished and overcome, and feel some sense, however modest, of our worth. Fully knowing, as we do, that from this certainly temporary peak, going forward implies descent.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Previous review: Studs Lonigan
Next review: Last Comes the Egg
Older review: Organization Man

Previous library review: Books Do Furnish a Room
Next library review: Hearing Secret Harmonies
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Reading Progress

October 31, 2016 – Started Reading
October 31, 2016 – Shelved
October 31, 2016 –
page 16
5.56% "I had no great desire to meet Ferrand-Seneschal - 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, forever folding and unfolding their tents in its oases."
November 3, 2016 –
page 89
30.9% "Though my father approved of the Latin (France, Italy) approach to sex and food... his temperament, a craft of light tonnage, borne effortlessly into heavy seas no matter how calm the weather on setting sail, was preordained to violent ups and downs in foreign waters. Language, currency, timetables, passports, cabmen, waiters, guides, touts ... were scarcely required for the barometer to register gale force."
November 7, 2016 –
page 117
40.63% "Jacky Bragadin was casting anxious glances around the room. Of the Conference members, the majority were continuing to contemplate the Tiepolo. He feared the painting had hypnotized them, caused an aesthetic catalepsy to descend. Their state threatened to turn his home into a sort of Sleeping Beauty’s Palace, rows of inert vertical figures of intellectuals, for ever straining sightless eyes upward toward the ceiling"
November 11, 2016 –
page 180
62.5% "Through the shadows, recurrently dispersed by flashing headlights of cars passing and repassing, a slim trousered figure receded through murky byways, slinking between shifting loafers and parked vehicles. It certainly looked like Pamela Widmerpool. She was alone, moving slowly, abstractedly, through the Venetian midnight."
November 14, 2016 –
page 224
77.78% "Trapnel, speaking as a critic, used to insist that every novel must be told from a given point of view. An extension of that fact is that every story that one hears has to be adjusted, in the mind of the listener, to prejudices of the teller; in practice, most listeners increasing, reducing, discarding, much of what they have been told. In this case Bagshaw's father was the only human being who really knew the facts."
November 16, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Wow! This may be a tough review to write. Impresses me as perhaps a masterpiece somehow on a level above the preceding tales. At any rate a wonderful read. It could almost be read on its own, though of course not having become versed in the author's narrative style, the masterful phrasing he employs so deftly, the sly comedy which creeps in unexpectedly ... would necessarily lessen the impact ... still ...

message 2: by Teresa (last edited Dec 02, 2016 09:45PM) (new)

Teresa Ted wrote: "Wow! This may be a tough review to write. Impresses me as perhaps a masterpiece somehow on a level above the preceding tales. At any rate a wonderful read. It could almost be read on its own, thoug..."

This may have been a tough review for you to write, Ted, but it was a great one for me to read.

I'm almost finished #12 and when my memory fails me more than it already is starting to (I've just hit my mid-50s,so slightly older than Jenkins in this installment), I hope to come back to your reviews to refresh my memory. Looking forward to your assessment of #12.

message 3: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Number 12 so far gives indication to me that it's going to be a really great windup to his dance. Thanks for such a nice comment, Teresa.

message 4: by Fred (new)

Fred Forbes Ted, where did you find the painting by Gerome?

message 5: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted This is the image location, Fred.


Hope that helps. I found it by googling "Candaules and Gyges". It showed up as the first image on the right hand part of the page, without even bothering to search in the Images domain.

message 6: by Fred (new)

Fred Forbes Thanx, Ted. Using that info I was able to dig up more info. It is in the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York City. The reason I asked is that when I searched under Gerome I found a lot of his images but not that one.

message 7: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Amazing what can be found nowadays.

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