Ferdinand Mount: tussle and tumult

July 14, 2002|By Lisa Schwarzbaum | By Lisa Schwarzbaum,Special to the Sun

The Man Who Rode Ampersand, by Ferdinand Mount. Carroll & Graf. 256 pages. $25.

Long story short: Some 20 years ago, a boxed paperback set of Anthony Powell's four-volume, 12-book saga A Dance to the Music of Time arrived at my home, mysteriously, with no clue as to sender. I put the box on a shelf for five years. Then one day, just as mysteriously, I began reading. And reading. And devoured the thing whole, forever marking my literary education as pre-Dance and post: Apart from resonating as fully formed characters whose lives command interest on their own individual terms, the larger universe created by the intersection of those lives over time dazzled, distilling the history of modern Britain into perfect fiction.

There's method to this reminiscence. The Man Who Rode Ampersand, just out, was first published in 1975, the first in a five-volume series of historical novels collectively called A Chronicle of Modern Twilight. (Fairness, the Booker Prize-nominated final volume, came out here last year; the other three were never published in the U.S.)

The author, Ferdinand Mount, is one of those prodigiously talented lit-Brits who can edit with one hand -- he has run the Times Literary Supplement since 1991 --- and conjure up juicy tomes with the other. Mount specializes in characters more prone to comic, glittery outrageousness than Powell's players. But accrued and taken over time, they, too, assemble into a larger picture of a certain England at a certain moment in time.

One other thing: Powell, who died at the age of 94 in 2000, was Mount's uncle.

Although the anthropological value will be enhanced for those who read Fairness before it, and who are thus already familiar with the asthmatic hero Aldous (Gus) Cotton -- I wasn't -- it's not necessary to have previously traveled with the son to appreciate the picaresque exploits of the father, Harry Cotton, the one-time gentleman jockey whose story Ampersand is.

Harry is a man who never chooses moderation when excess will do, and who variously becomes a gambler, a bartender in a seedy brothel, a soldier, and finally a spy in Ireland. (In many ways he reminds me of the maddeningly mysterious father Ricky Pym in John Le Carre's A Perfect Spy.)

The narrative POV shifts between that of the regularly exasperated son cataloging the eccentricities of his old man ("My father had a taste for custom and ceremony. He responded with delight to the incapsulation of feeling in symbol. He liked parades, processions, fetes, protest marches, harvest festivals, inductions -- anything involving ritual and uniform"), and that of the old man himself, abrim with cocky banter.

But Ampersand is engaging as much for the brightly sketched ancillary characters that accompany Harry on his ride through the 1930s and '40s, as for the sensitively captured history of tussle and tumult between parent and child.

Of one barfly, it was "difficult to establish whether he was an unusually vital sexagenarian or an adolescent with a hereditary predisposition towards alcoholism." Of another, called Boy Kingsmill, he "was not a boy, had never been a boy, had sprung from his mother's womb aged a vigorous forty-five."

Mount's own vigorous attention to even the subtlest details of character and class gets this first leg of his five-volume saga off to a fine gallop.

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a critic for Entertainment Weekly and a regular contributor to national magazines. She was previously a feature writer at the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine and has worked for The Boston Globe and the Real Paper.

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