O, How the Wheel Becomes It!

by Anthony Powell
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 676

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.

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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 for dirt and Isolde tries to promote her memoirs by unearthing the old affair with Winterwade, Shadbold is trapped into saying that he admires Winterwade’s novel and that he believes that Winterwade died a hero’s death in India. The knife of poetic justice is twisted even more when Shadbold’s wife lets him know that she has told Grigham about the Winterwade diary Shadbold has tried to squash.

The ultimate irony of the reversal of Shadbold’s efforts to keep Winterwade’s work suppressed is that, after the interview is screened on television, Shadbold seems to be on the threshold of more literary fame as a result of his knowledge of Winterwade than he ever gained on his own. Consequently, he attempts to locate the Winterwade diary. His desire to regain access to the work is intensified when he discovers that instead of dying a hero’s death in India Winterwade was killed while visiting a brothel. Shadbold feels justified in his previous scorn of Winterwade and even more determined to find the diary. In the last two chapters of the novel, however, after this momentary respite from attacks on his ego, Shadbold is dealt the final blow: Winterwade is to be the subject of a new critical study by Grigham, and the diary has been destroyed. Shadbold dies without ever having the opportunity to crush the reputation of Winterwade.

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