Book review / Limp Lampitts' last bow

A Watch in the Night by A N Wilson Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Alan Clark would approve of Julian Ramsay, the central figure of AN Wilson's Lampitt Chronicles. For, as Wilson makes plain in the first pages of the fifth and final volume, A Watch in the Night, Julian is not a man who has had to buy his own furniture but rather has inherited it from several sources.

This initial information has deeper significance; Julian is not just a repository of other peoples' furniture but of their lives. He has stood in the shadow of the Lampitts, the eccentric aristocratic family with whom his path has crisscrossed since childhood, when his uncle's snobbish obsessions sent him down the Norfolk equivalent of the Guermantes way.

In later life, Julian is a dabbler, an unsuccessful novelist, an actor and a one-off radio playwright. His chief claim to fame is his 30-year stint on the Archers-like programme, the Mulberrys. Now he hopes to revive his career with a performance of Dear Time's Waste, a play inspired by Shakespeare's Sonnets, at the private theatre of Staithe.

The Sonnets provide a metaphorical scheme for the book, in which various characters play out neo-Shakesperian roles. This is not the first time such imagery has surfaced in the Chronicles, but, here, the parallels are more extended: Kit, the latest scion of the Lampitts, is the Young Man; Dodie, a black actress somewhat improbably cast as the BBC's Margaret of Anjou, is the Dark Lady; and Hunter, Ramsay's Widmerpool, is the Rival Poet.

The two presiding geniuses of the Chronicles are clearly Proust and Powell: the former consciously cited in Julian's waiting for his mother's bedtime- kiss and in the name of his Bloch-like friend, Bloom; the latter recalled in the raffish social comedy of the minor litterati, society ladies and club bores. Here, however, a third is added, Shakespeare, in what almost becomes ''A Jig To The Music Of Time''.

Wilson's views on Shakespearian production are less interesting than, say, his views on Catholic doctrine in Hearing Voices and, as a metaphorical framework, the Sonnets scheme is laboured. But the discussion of theatrical reality is an extension of the theme that has run through the Chronicles, namely the perception of truth and the distortion of writers, whether it be Hunter traducing James Lampitt for his own ends or St Paul mythologising Christ in the cause of evangelism. Shakespeare alone seems capable of universal sympathies and of the creation of characters open to infinite interpretation.

The Shakespeare Julian chiefly evokes is the poet of the Sonnets or the magician of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but the Shakesperian work which A Watch In the Night most resembles is Pericles, as Julian drifts somewhat aimlessly through his final adventures. Wilson's achievement through the series, in terms of its social sweep and engagement with the major intellectual and metaphysical issues of the day, is immense, but, at the end, he runs out of steam. It is significant that the chief Lampitt connection here, Campbell Dilkes, a composer with Percy Grainger's taste for folk-songs and fascism, is merely a relation by marriage.

Dodie, Kit and the Gielgudesque actor Gorley Swallow are attractive additions to the Chronicles' portrait gallery, but the potentially most interesting episode, Julian's encounter with latterday fascists, is skimped. There is an obvious Proustian precedent in the climactic revelations of homosexuality, but Hunter is no St Loup and his sexual preferences have been clear since the steamroom in Book Three. Likewise, the truth about James Lampitt's murder is finally confirmed but as a mystery, it has long lost its force.

In an earlier volume, Bloom comments "the fleuve novels have to be bloody lucky to make publishing sense...You pick up Volume Five or Volume seven and ask yourself, 'Who the fucking hell are all these people?'" This is particularly pertinent here where so many minor characters from earlier books are reintroduced that the second half almost resembles a curtain call. It is readers of the entire sequence woo will offer the loudest applause.