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A Dance to the Music of Time: Casanova's Chinese Restaurant

The early part of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant fades back to the late 1920s, as narrator Nicholas Jenkins befriends composer Hugh Moreland. Over the next several years, the two men, members of the same quasi-Bohemian circle, converse at length about art, love, and life while they progress from pub to pub and from youth to (relative) maturity. The group includes the bilious music critic Maclintick and the artist Barnby, who demonstrates his knack for womanizing by picking up a waitress at the titular restaurant. Moreland marries actress Matilda Wilson at around the same time Jenkins marries the socially elevated Isobel Tolland. The narrative returns to the novel’s present in the middle ’30s as Jenkins lunches at the Tolland house with his wife’s large family, learning there of his brother-in-law Erridge’s plans to travel to Spain, then in the thick of civil war. Jenkins leaves to visit his wife in the hospital, where she’s recuperating from a miscarriage and the pregnant Matilda is also seeing her doctor. Widmerpool makes a typically unexpected appearance there as well, undergoing treatment for boils. Moreland and Jenkins later visit Maclintick at home and are exposed to to his argumentative wife and their corrosive marriage. Matilda loses her baby, and Moreland throws himself into his work. He completes and premieres his symphony while simultaneously becoming emotionally (and perhaps physically) entangled with Priscilla Tolland, Jenkins’ sister-in-law. Maclintick loses his job and is abandoned by his wife, thereafter gassing himself to death. Moreland breaks off his affair, and Priscilla almost immediately becomes engaged to another man.

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These synopses are getting more and more difficult to write, as the further I read into the series, the more important each detail seems to become. Passing references have accumulated from volume to volume until there’s no such thing as a minor character any more....Read More