I was really tempted to just write "mostly harmless" as my review. I spent most of a year reading this series, and it tickles my sense of humor to go for the Adams joke. But I'm not hoopy enough to do that.
I can't say I liked this series of books, but I did not hate it. At this point I think I'm still in my post-Ambassadors phase of not hating any book that isn't the Ambassadors. I actually liked three or four of them. And it is obvious that this series is a major accomplishment and belongs on the list of top 100 novels, even if it was not to my tastes.
A major theme of this book are that the importance of people that you meet in your life rise and fall in an unpredictable way. And Powell did need 12 books to do that, because his protagonist, Nick, needs to run into old acquaintences from long ago. We are treated to an endless series of parties, dinners, conversations, gatherings, a major war, conventions, etc. where characters talk, in passing, about interesting things that happened to them off camera. But during this process we keep bumping into old friends and making new ones. For example, a character who suddenly became the focus of one novel dies, and then in a later novel we meet an academic who wants to write his autobiography.
I grew to look forward to every book's "Widmerpool Reveal". At first they took me by surprise. They'd be somewhere, and a mysterious figure would come up out of the shadows and it would be... WIDMERPOOL! Soon that got predictable though. In the later novels there would be the Pamela reveal, too. A character would talk about how he is obsessed with a new woman, and then the woman would show up and it would be... PAMELA! My Golly!
"Binkenbanken told me that Lady Helga Cranthighs sister, Lady Mulberrybottom had married a droll stockbroker, and I was anxious to
meet the fellow. Just as fate would have it, Lady Mulberrybottom walked into the restaurant at that moment -"
DOUG: ... and let me guess. Widmerpool.
"- and on her arm was none other than my old acquaintence, Widmerpool."
DOUG: I haven't checked email in fifteen minutes. Let me go do that.
The protagonist, Nick, has very little personality of his own. We learn in detail about the spouses of his friends, and their children, and their inlaws, and their cousins, and their cousin's inlaws, but we never find out the name of his own children. He casually states that he's finished his first novel, but we never find out what it was about. Or maybe we do. The "detached narrator" gimmick got very old for me very fast.
At one point he is at one of the frequent parties or lunches or dinners, and he begs off to leave, because he has to visit his wife in the nursing home. Turns out we find out in passing that she just had a miscarriage. The narrator is more interested in pointing out that the doctor is the same guy we saw two novels ago at the Old Boy's Dinner helping out someone who had a heart attack or something. The doctor doesn't recognize him. And a figure wearing a dressing gown shuffles by, looking down. But then he looks up, and... IT'S WIDMERPOOL!
Book 2 was the least enjoyable by far. That could be because I was getting used to the style, but I don't think so. I think Books 1 and 2 were all about introducing lots of characters so Nick would have people to re-encounter in later books. Sure enough, in book 12: "Do you remember me? We met briefly at Sillery's party in book 1!" I don't mind books with lots of characters, but this was lots of characters with NO PLOT. Yaah! The writing was very good, but it didn't save them for me. After book 2, things settle down a bit and some actual storytelling takes place although, as I've said, its all about various parties etc.
This book reads a lot like a spoof of a British Novel. People calling each other by their last names all the time, "Hello Wardminsterchire!" "Say there, Badden-Boden-Biden-Baden!" People reacting phlegmatically to events, "The Jerries just raped and killed my mother. I say. That's hardly cricket, is it?" Name a British Novel cliche and you will find it here. But that doesn't detract from this series; it makes it amusing.
There was a scene in book seven (one of the ones that I liked) that made me laugh. He'd been away at the war, and got to go home on leave. So he saw his wife, who was 9 months pregnant. But they didn't have any sort of emotional reunion, because they had to condense the usual novel's worth of who-had-to-close-his-house, who-is-working-for-where, and who-is-schtupping-whom to a few pages. It was funny watching Powell try to do it. They just rapid fire gossiped, getting as much of it in as possible.
A nice thing about a book of this length is the author has time to really set up a joke. In book 1 we meet a character who takes a train ride with the narrator. Jenkins says, "I wouldn't talk to him again until we met in the war." So I assumed that there would be this big reunion. When they meet again in book 8 - the character doesn't remember Jenkins at all. Why should he? They shared a train ride a couple of decades ago.
From book 12: "I was turning the pages that evening with the sense - essential to mature enjoyment of any classic - of being entirely free from responsibility to pause for a second over anything that threatened the least sign of tedium."
Wish you told me that in book one, Tony. A bit late now.
I know this was kind of a rambly review. I'm not talented enough to review a 12 novel epic concisely.
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