Antony Powell chose Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant as the enigmatic title for this fifth volume of his epic A Dance to the Music of Time, because life is a restaurant. The menu is the romantic relationships life provides, exotic, varied and full of unusual flavours, some quite strange.
It’s a novel about love, marriage and infidelity, with a cast of eccentric characters, and a range of lovers. Some are Casanovas, able to charm the birds off the trees, whilst others struggle to find love or a partnership that works. Once again the narrator, Nick, observes these people, but passes little or no judgment on them.
The events take place in the 30s, but Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant begins after the war, as Nick walks through the bombed out streets of London. He passes a pub he used to frequent in the 1930s, and remembers the people and events of that time.
We soon find ourselves in the maternity home where Isobel, his wife has had a miscarriage. It is there that he first meets Moreland, whose wife Matilda has also lost a child. Moreland is a composer. Nick goes with him to the pub and is drawn into a world of musicians and actors. I have said before, one of the reasons I like these novels is that Nick moves through the intellectual and artistic world of his time providing streetwise and contemporary insights into issues that are usually reserved for academic histories or biographies. But this episode is less about ideas, and more about the dangers of infidelity.
In the pub we meet Deacon, the painter, and Maclintick, , Gossage and Carolo, who are all trying to make a career in music. Deacon is buying a piece of antique porcelain off a budding actor who later becomes involved with a wealthy woman from Nick’s set. It may be platonic. Who knows? Powell typically waits until the end of the novel to tell us that the antique porcelain is a fake! It’s of course a belated and amusing comment on the salesman himself.
Once again the episodes of the novel revolve around social occasions – nights in the pub, high society parties, and home visits to down and out artists. Stringham enters, as drunk as ever, and is incredibly charming to Maclintick’s wife. Unusually Nick gives a clear visual description of this bad tempered and aggressive woman. She arrives at the post concert party in a pink floral dress with flouncy sleeves that is quite over the top.
She is a figure of fun, and Stringham soon drops her when the old family retainer arrives to take him away. This relationship is quite odd. She is much older than Stringham, and seemingly in love with him, though her presence in this scene is quite hard and professional – she is the one keeping Stringham from the booze, and seems to have devoted her life to this. Ah! The perils of true love.
Moreland has a wonderful wife. She is intelligent, and attractive by dint of grace and personality rather than sheer beauty, but Moreland seems to have become involved with one of Nick’s young female relatives. Meanwhile Maclintick’s wife leaves him for the lodger, a talented musician. They go to live in the North or the Midlands – for Powell always some god forsaken place devoid of culture or beauty.
It’s a sign of how much I like these novels that I can forgive him for that.
Maclintick becomes the victim of the infidelity of his wife. It’s a telling moral point at the heart of this novel.
Once again Powell has entertained, and shown us some truths about human life. Excellent stuff.