'What a chapter of chances,' Tristram Shandy's father says, 'what a long chapter of chances do the events of this world lay open to us!' The thought is echoed in the closing pages of Clive James's Brilliant Creatures, whose author-hero is said to be a 'chapter of accidents', and in the title and precarious plot of Anthony Powell's O, How the wheel becomes it! The wheel is Ophelia's, and suggests the incessant circlings of fortune, but quickly, in Powell's hands, comes to hint at roulette and the dodgy hazards of English literary life. Comedy loves chance, particularly when it's the messy, galloping kind which adds insult to ignominy. As when Uncle Toby whacks Walter Shandy on the shin with his crutch while making an irrelevant remark. Or when, to borrow an instance from James, you discover you owe a wallop of back tax on the day your car has been vandalised and peed in. Or when, as in Powell, an old flame, or flicker, turns up out of the blue to hog the television show you were already feeling nervous about. There is no sense of comeuppance on these occasions, only a view of scuttled dignity, and life getting out of hand. What is enjoyable about the tightrope is not the feat of someone's walking it or the threat that they might fall, but the possibility of a comic wobble, flailing arms and the spectre, but only the spectre, of disaster.
LRB 7 July 1983 | PDF Download