O, How the Wheel Becomes It!
“Divided from herself and her fair judgment, without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts,” the mad Ophelia intones the enigmatic lines from which Anthony Powell takes the title of his latest novel: “You must sing A-down a-down, and you call him a-down-a. O, how the wheel becomes it! It is the false steward, that stole his master’s daughter” (Hamlet). O, How the Wheel Becomes It! turns on the conceit of the wheel of fortune, that metaphorical wheel to which all sublunary creatures are subject, that familiar trope which figurates the tumults and the chances of this wavering world. To say, however, that this novel deals with the mutability of human life and how it wheels about is to indulge in the kind of pretentious word-spinning that is the specialty of the novel’s main character—G. F. H. Shadbold (generally known as Shad), an aging but successful literary hack. Only Shad is capable of deriving momentous significance from the nonsensical ramblings of a suicidal madwoman; only he is capable of distilling that significance into pithy prose. The novel begins by paying dubious tribute to Shad’s interpretive ingenuity.
“In one or other of G. F. H. Shadbold’s two published notebooks, Beyond Narcissus and Reticences of Thersites, a short entry appears as to . . . Ophelia’s enigmatic cry: ’O, how the wheel becomes it!’ . . .” Shad follows up his commentary with a characteristically extravagant extrapolation:“But as to the first wheelwright’s wheel, only a step was required from invention of that disc rolling on its own axis as an aid to transport for man to develop those potentialities into the even graver menace to his kind of the roulette-board.”
That G. F. H. Shadbold, a professional man of letters who has not published a book in twenty-five years, is a precious, pompous, and ultimately vacuous critic is deftly shown in this opening paragraph. Moreover, the reader is invited to speculate that Shad, rather being beyond Narcissus, is in fact a paradigm of narcissistic self-indulgence, and that if he is a reticent Thersites, it is only because he lacks the courage of that carping critic who was slain by Achilles for directing his vituperative wit against the Greek hero.
The expert way in which the beginning of the novel is managed offers insight not only into the narrative strategy Powell deploys but also into the savagely light tone he sustains throughout. Though written from the third-person point of view, O, How the Wheel Becomes It! does not boast an omniscient narrator. The narrator, for example, does not know from which of Shadbold’s two published notebooks the pithy reflection comes (nor, presumably, does he care), and the narrator’s uncertainty is an integral part of Powell’s literary technique. The tone of the novel, consequently, is at once conjectural, speculative, distanced, light, and civilized, but it is a tone that belies a devastating irony verging on nastiness. Underlying the periphrastic and eloquent splendor of the surface, the polished nicety of Powell’s high style is sheer animus directed against a society in which literary journalists such as Shad flourish like flies:Notwithstanding the comparative leanness of this output Shadbold was not to be dismissed as a lightweight, a mere hack. He had worked hard reviewing other people’s books up hill and down dale, tirelessly displayed himself on the media and elsewhere in every variety of lecture, quiz, panel-game. . . . Insofar as the cliché can be used without irony he had become a respected literary voice.
The cliché, of course, cannot be used without irony, and Shadbold is to be dismissed as a lightweight, a mere hack. Because the narrator views all the characters from a seemingly polite distance, the irony is intensified and the reader is precluded from identifying with any of them. (A reviewer, however, might detect the slightest of resemblances between his métier and Shad’s.)
At the beginning of the novel, Shad is faring well in “the lottery of life’s more intimate relationships” and apparently stands “in little or no risk from the wheel’s hazards,” but, as the narrator sagely observes, “nobody can tell where things are going to lead, nor to what purpose they may not be twisted.” The rather unsubstantial oeuvre of G. F. H. Shadbold has brought him no mean measure of notoriety, a notoriety no doubt sustained by the fact that his works are alluded to rather than read, his true genius residing in the art of self-promotion. To date, he has produced “the slimmest of slim volumes of verse,” Unweeded Gardens; a homoerotic play about his school experiences, Irregular Conjugation (The Forte et Dure Press); two novels, Trip The Pert Fairies and Thumbs; a remaindered book, Bavarian Swan Song; “a...
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