I decided to follow up Books Do Furnish a Room with the next novel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series: Temporary Kings.

Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell

This instalment is set in the late 1950s, about a decade on from the events of the previous novel. Some new characters are introduced, and some old characters reappear, but it is the outrageous Pamela Widmerpool who is at the centre of much of the action in this book.

The novel begins with Nick Jenkins attending an international literary conference in Venice. Here he meets, amongst others, the sharp Dr Emily Brightman and the rather odd American scholar Russell Gwinnett, who informs Nick that he is a prospective biographer of X Trapnel.

A key scene occurs when Nick, Dr Brightman, Gwinnett, and others from the conference are allowed a rare private viewing of a Venetian palace’s ceiling, where the Italian Rococo painter Tiepolo has depicted King Candaules allowing his wife to be seen naked by Gyges. Nick is somewhat surprised to find Pamela Widmerpool there, and learns that she is staying at the palace as a guest, along with the American film director Louis Glober. As Trapnel’s biographer, Gwinnett is naturally very keen to meet Pamela, so Nick introduces them.

Then, even more surprisingly given the circumstances and their increasingly troubled relationship, Kenneth Widmerpool turns up. Widmerpool tries to persuade Pamela into going somewhere more private to talk, but Pamela seems to think that the painting of ancient King Candaules provides the perfect backdrop for their tête-a-tete, and so the husband and wife create something of a scene.

The theme of the painting is evidently apt in a number of ways. Firstly, Widmerpool is repeatedly replaced as husband by other lovers, and there is a growing sense that he might be replaced permanently and absolutely at some point soon. Then there are hints and rumours that Kenneth has actually privately watched his wife when she was with a lover. And, finally, there is the suggestion that we as readers have in a sense been voyeurs, watching the lives of all of these characters over so many novels.

One hears about life, all the time, from different people, with very different narrative gifts. Accordingly, not only are many episodes, in which you may even have played a part yourself, hard enough to assess; a lot more must be judged from haphazard accounts given by others.

Later that week, Nick visits his former colleague and amateur painter Daniel Tokenhouse at his house. After a chance meeting at lunch, Ada Leintwardine and Glober return to Tokenhouse’s residence to view his paintings and  once more Kenneth Widmerpool unexpectedly arrives, this time apparently on some secret business.

The rest of the narrative is set back in England later that year. More and more rumours seem to abound about some kind of trouble being in store for Widmerpool, with some suggesting that he is likely to be imminently arrested for spying.

Later that summer, a concert party is given by Odo and Rosie Stevens, where many of the familiar characters are present, including Glober, Polly Duport, Mrs Erdleigh, Jimmy Stripling, Audrey Maclintick and the Widmerpools. After the party ends, various guests drift out into the street, including a couple of separate groups who are waiting for a car. Amongst this mix is Louis Glober and Kenneth and Pamela Widmerpool, and soon an ugly scene commences, with Pamela making all sorts of accusations about her husband. However, her days of tormenting men are soon over, as Nick later mentions that she has committed suicide.

This was another complex, subtle, and entertaining read, in Powell’s unique style. However, I think I’ll now take a break from Nick and the other characters before reading the final instalment in the series.