Allan Massie

Getting the detail right

Evelyn Waugh told Nancy Mitford he was ‘surprised to find’ that Proust ‘was a mental defective. He has absolutely no sense of time.’

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Evelyn Waugh told Nancy Mitford he was ‘surprised to find’ that Proust ‘was a mental defective. He has absolutely no sense of time.’

Evelyn Waugh told Nancy Mitford he was ‘surprised to find’ that Proust ‘was a mental defective. He has absolutely no sense of time.’ (Joke, given the novel’s title?) ‘He can’t remember anyone’s age. In the same summer as Gilberte gives him a marble and Françoise takes him to the public lavatory in the Champs Elysées, Bloch takes him to a brothel.’

Well, I can’t remember just where all this comes in A La Recherche, but suspect that either Waugh or Scott-Moncrieff, whose translation he was reading, made a confusion of tenses. Be that as it may, time is a problem for the novelist, especially one writing a ‘roman fleuve’ published over the years in successive volumes, or one who employs the same character or characters in a succession of books.

Agatha Christie, for instance, got herself into a mess with old Hercule Poirot, though she never seemed to mind and sailed serenely on. All the same, on his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1917), old Papa Poirot, as he refers to himself there, has already retired from the Belgian police. So one may assume that he is over 60 at least. Yet he was still solving murders 50 years later.

Nobody, I suppose, minds about such oddities. Other novelists who aim at accuracy of representation may get into more serious difficulties. Even Anthony Powell, scrupulous in having friends check that he got things right, sometimes apparently muddled his chronology.

In A Buyer’s Market Mr Deacon’s death (from a fall down the stairs of a nightclub) seems to have taken place no more than a matter of months after Jenkins encountered him at the coffee-stall. Yet, when Jenkins meets him with Moreland and the music critics in the Mortimer at the beginning of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, their ‘renewed acquaintance’ appears to have lasted longer. Jenkins remarks, for instance, on the ‘regular autumn exhalation of eucalyptus, or some other specific against the common cold (to which Mr Deacon was greatly subject).’ ‘Regular’ suggests years rather than months. Is Jenkins’s memory at fault, or did Powell find that, having killed off Deacon a couple of books previously, he had more use for him?

Again, the first sentence of A Buyer’s Market is: ‘The last time I saw any examples of Mr Deacon’s work was at a sale, held obscurely in the neighbourhood of Euston Road, many years after his death.’ Well, that novel was first published in 1952. Twenty years later when Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final book in the sequence, appeared, we learn that this isn’t true. Deacon has been rediscovered as E. Bosworth Deacon and Barnaby Henderson stages a retrospective exhibition of his work at his new gallery.

How to account for this discrepancy, not admittedly of any great importance? Had Powell forgotten the opening of A Buyer’s Marke , or did he not care that he seemed to be allowing Jenkins to contradict himself?

The answer to the question may depend on just when we think Jenkins is telling — or writing? — the story. Is he indeed writing it at all? Powell himself was vague when I asked him about this on a visit to The Chantry some 20 years ago. As far as I remember he said that he rather supposed Jenkins was sitting by his fireside reminiscing. I didn’t find this satisfying, if only because Jenkins’s manner and elaborate style are scarcely conversational; indeed they are highly, and enjoyably, literary. But I didn’t pursue the matter, partly because I felt it would be bad manners to do so, since it seemed to me that Powell hadn’t thought about this question at all. No good reason, you may say, why he should have done so.

Yet he had thought deeply about the structure of the long novel. Hence, his remark on the importance of putting down what he called ‘markers’, characters or incidents lightly touched on when they first appear, to be picked up and developed at a later stage in the narrative, one example being the shy undergraduate, Paul, briefly met in Sillery’s rooms in A Question of Upbringing, not encountered again until the last volume when he reappears as Canon Fenneau at the Royal Academy dinner. Nevertheless one wonders how much was planning, how much happy chance. When at Stringham’s wedding in A Buyer’s Market we are told that ‘Little Pamela Flitton, who was holding the bride’s train, felt sick at this same moment, and rejoined her nurse at the back of the church’, did Powell already envisage her appearance as a femme fatale in The Military Philosophers and later volumes? Did he already know that she would vomit into that large pot, so difficult to clean, after Erridge’s funeral in Books Do Furnish a Room? I wish I knew.