O, How the Wheel Becomes It! by Anthony Powell

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O, How the Wheel Becomes It! Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

To anyone familiar with the massive and magnificent twelve-volume novel series published by Anthony Powell between 1951 and 1975, A Dance to the Music of Time, this more recent comic satire will seem slim indeed. In fact, the book’s brief length (143 pages) and its narrow width in the British hardback edition make one think that Powell has written it to be literally a “slim” novel, confident that the critics will name it that anyway. This work is less a novel than a clever and witty literary indulgence, a satiric jab at creative and critical poseurs. The only character in the novel who remains unscathed at the end is Prudence Shadbold, for she pretends to be nothing more than what she is—a good craftsman and a good hand at a detective story.

The primary purpose of the novel seems to be to create an elaborate trap of poetic justice to destroy G. F. H. Shadbold, a pompous old hack who has not published anything in twenty-five years and whose earlier works, both critical and creative, were self-important and pedantic. The series of comic events which catch Shadbold in the web of his own past pomposity begin when his publisher, Jason Price, asks him to evaluate a recently discovered diary of Cedric Winterwade, author of a long-forgotten novel titled The Welsons of Omdurman Terrace, which Shadbold has previously recommended against republishing.

After Shadbold reads the diary of his old school companion and discovers Winterwade’s love affair with Isolde Upjohn, a 1920’s beauty much sought after by Shadbold himself, he recommends against publishing the diary in the most damning terms. His hopes to lay the ghost of his old friend to rest are soon dashed when he hears his name raised again by Horace Grigham, an English don who fancies himself an expert in the new structuralist and semiotic approaches to literature and who thinks perhaps Winterwade’s one novel might yield unexpected “cultural codes” worth investigating. Grigham is as pompous as a new critic as Shadbold is as an old one. Shadbold once again denies his dead friend by telling Grigham that he does not know him or his work.

The final blow to Shadbold’s efforts to suppress Winterwade’s works and his memory, and thus the final blow to his ego, comes when another ghost from the past appears—Isolde Upjohn herself, who wants Shadbold to write an introduction to her memoirs. This turn of events would not have been so disastrous had not Rod Cubbage, an obnoxious television interviewer, arrived at the same time (a day early, as the fates would have it) to do an interview with Shadbold. While Cubbage digs...

(The entire section is 676 words.)