I was vaguely aware that it had been some time since I had last read a volume from Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, but it was only when I actually checked the date recently that I discovered that I read the last installment (At Lady Molly’s) back in July. So, I decided it was high time to continue with the series and so picked up volume 5: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant from the bookshelf.

Casanova's Chinese Restaurant by Anthony Powell

Although the timeline in the novel shifts around a little, most of the narrative focuses on the mid-1930s, when Nick Jenkins and his contemporaries are in their early thirties. Some world events are alluded to in the narrative – most notably the Spanish Civil War, which Erridge Tolland disappears to participate in. However, as with the previous four volumes I have read, this book focuses in on a relatively small number of social scenes involving Nick and his circle of friends and acquaintances at parties and dinners.

As well as some familiar characters, such as Members, Quiggin, and the ever pompous Kenneth Widmerpool, we are also introduced to some new people. Nick becomes close friends with Hugh Moreland, a talented composer, and starts socialising with some of his musical colleagues and friends.

Thematically, this installment deals quite a lot with marriage and contrasts various different relationships. In fact, Nick himself gets married, although he only announces this piece of information to us in passing, after having mentioned Moreland’s own nuptials:

Not long after, perhaps a year, almost equally unexpectedly, I found myself married to; married to Isobel Tolland. Life – the sort of life Moreland and I used to live in those days – all became rather changed.

This is very characteristic of Nick’s self-effacing style. I love the way he phrases it: “I found myself married.”

Towards the end of the book there is also a surprise meeting with Nick’s old school friend Charles Stringham. Nick has been invited to a party thrown my Charles’ mother in honour of Moreland’s new symphony, when a rather drunken Charles turns up unexpectedly. Nick is asked to help remove the prodigal son, now an alcoholic, from the society gathering, in a rather sad scene:

“My dear Nick.”

“Charles.”

“I had no idea you had musical tastes, Nick. Why did you keep them from me all these years? Because I never asked, I suppose. One always finds the answer to everything in one’s own egotism. But how nice to meet again. I am a recluse now. I see nobody. I expect you already knew that. Everybody seems to know by now. It is just a bit like being a leper, only I don’t actually have to carry a bell. They decided to let me off that. Thought I should make too much of a row, I suppose. You can’t imagine what a pleasure it is to come unexpectedly upon an old friend one knew several million years ago.”

I have to say, I find Charles remarkably like Sebastian Flyte from Brideshead Revisited (although Charles is perhaps not quite as charming nor as tragic a character as Sebastian is). The scene is one of several in the book that is tinged with sadness. In fact there is a real bleakness about some of the lives Nick encounters. I wonder what the next installment will bring.

I own eleven of this twelve-volume series of novels, and it is the next installment, book six: The Kindly Ones, that I am missing. So I am now busy scouring online second-hand book sellers to see if I can find a 1983 Flamingo edition of this book to match the rest of my set.

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