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Reviews — From the November 2018 issue

Preposterously British

The life of Anthony Powell

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Discussed in this essay:

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time, by Hilary Spurling. Knopf. 480 pages. $35.

There are about four hundred named characters in A Dance to the Music of Time, a twelve-novel sequence that Anthony Powell, an En­glish writer who pronounced his last name “Pole,” published between 1951 and 1975. One of the most appealing is Aylmer Conyers, a retired general who’s nearly eighty when, in 1934, Powell’s narrator, Nick Jenkins, meets him at a party. Con­yers is an old friend of Jenkins’s grandparents, possibly a distant cousin, and family gossip portrays him as a colorful relic of Victorian imperialism. “Supposed to have saved the life of some native ruler in a local rumpus,” Jenkins’s uncle once explained. “Armed the palace eunuchs. . . . Fellow gave him a jewelled scimitar—semi-precious stones, of course.” But Conyers—who has been spending his retirement trying to prove that “poodles, owing to their keen natural intelligence, could profitably be trained as gun dogs”—soon disconcerts Jenkins by steering their conversation in an un-Victorian direction:

“I’ve been reading something called Orlando,” said the General. “Virginia Woolf. Ever heard of it?”

“I read it when it first came out.”

“What do you think of it?”

“Rather hard to say in a word.”

Jenkins, under further interrogation, admits he didn’t greatly enjoy Orlando. The general reproves him:

“The woman can write, you know.”

“Yes, I can see that. I still didn’t like it.”

The General thought again for some seconds.

“Well, I shall read a bit more of it,” he said at last. “Don’t want to waste too much time on that sort of thing, of course. Now, psychoanalysis. Ever read anything about that? . . .”

“I’ve dipped into it from time to time. I can’t say I’m much of an expert.”

“Been reading a lot about it lately,” said the General. “Freud—Jung—haven’t much use for Adler. Something in it, you know. Tells you why you do things. All the same, I didn’t find it much help in understanding Orlando.

Exchanges like these make it possible to see what V. S. Pritchett had in mind when he likened A Dance­ to Proust translated by P. G. Wodehouse. There was also a touch of General Conyers in the way Powell presented himself while he was working on his enormous project. Born in 1905, he spent the Twenties and Thirties worshipping Proust, T. S. Eliot, Hemingway, and anyone else who seemed opposed to the stuffy literary decorum that prevailed before the First World War. (Woolf, he thought, was insufficiently modern: she gave off “a distinctly Edwardian bouquet,” which is one explanation—not the only one—for Jenkins’s lack of enthusiasm.) At the same time, outside the realm of artistic standards, he was a wholly contented subscriber to the values of the British upper crust. A product of a military family, Eton, and Oxford, he married the fifth earl of Longford’s daughter and wrote the bulk of A Dance in a Georgian house in Somerset, where his reviewing made it clear that he was equally at home with The Man Without Qualities and Burke’s Landed Gentry.

Few critics found Powell’s poshness especially exotic when he started work on A Dance, toward the end of the Forties. By the Seventies, when he finished it, that was no longer the case. Readers showed signs of being puzzled by his breezy acceptance of privilege and the antiquated social codes that went with it, and he was similarly puzzled by the scruffy, coarsely accented types who now seemed to be running the show. Over the next twenty-five years, he published four memoirs and three journals. Some passages in these gave rise to the idea that he had become a vain, reactionary bore. “Vidia [Naipaul] was as usual in great form,” he noted in 1988.

He delivered a terrific diatribe against rich Arabs, indeed Muslims. . . . The food good, if rather oddly assorted, lobster soup, odds and ends of crab, almond crumble; excellent Pauillac (missed the Château) ’76.

Even conservative Fleet Street humorists—led by Auberon Waugh, his old friend Evelyn’s son—found jottings of this sort an irresistible target.

Anthony Powell, by Henry Lamb © The Estate of Anthony Dymoke Powell/National Portrait Gallery, London

Worse, Powell’s place in literary history, which added to his air of grandeur, began to attract unflattering comparisons. By 1990, he was the last man alive who had dealt on equal terms with the likes of George Orwell, Graham Greene, and Waugh. Orwell, though, was the patron saint of the anticommunist left. Greene had held on to a giant readership for decades, and Waugh—downgraded by critics, after his death, in 1966—bounced back in the Eighties, when a TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited chimed with a mood of Thatcherite triumphalism. Powell had no such luck. An adaptation of A Dance during Tony Blair’s first year in office didn’t make a comparable splash, and there was a persistent tendency to contrast him unfavorably with the bigger names he’d known. After Powell’s death, in 2000, at the age of ninety-four, Naipaul read a few of his late friend’s books, then went on to write at length about his discovery that they were no good. The episode fed a diffuse suspicion that some of Powell’s admirers had been more impressed by his generosity and gregariousness—and maybe his poshness too—than they were by anything he’d done on the page.

Hilary Spurling has some harsh words for Naipaul—who was still alive when she wrote them—in Anthony Powell, an account of Powell’s life written with his estate’s cooperation. An acclaimed biographer of Matisse and of Ivy Compton-Burnett, and a mainstay of British review pages since the Sixties, Spurling first met Powell in 1969, and later made, at his suggestion, a major contribution to Powell studies by assembling a useful handbook to A Dance, published in 1977. Powell invited her to follow it up with an authorized biography, but by then she felt too fond of him and his wife, Violet, to turn an adequately cold eye on them, so she put the project off until now. The result is a very elegant, very tactful book that sticks closely to the paper trail and more or less skips the last twenty-five years of Powell’s life. It’s essentially a history of A Dance, and instead of soiling her hands with analytical grunt work, Spurling guides the reader to a wider view of the question of Powell’s oddly elusive personality, which can’t always be distinguished from the related question of quite what he was up to in his books.

As a young man, in the Thirties, Powell published five novels, running from Afternoon Men (1931) to What’s Become of Waring (1939). The last of these sold poorly because the start of the Second World War interrupted its distribution, and later a German bomb destroyed most of the print run. The bomb seems inappropriately emphatic. Powell’s Thirties books are comedies of diffidence, done in an up-to-the-minute post-Hemingway style—lots of unexplained dialogue and paratactic sentences and little interiority—but with a feeling for flatness, drabness, and understatement that goes well beyond the fashion of the day. Powell was a junior publisher at Gerald Duckworth, the firm that put out his early efforts, and he involved himself in their jacket designs. His first three novels advertised their none-more-deadpan quality with covers that all focused, in Spurling’s words, on an “expressionless wooden doll.”

In the twelve years that passed between Waring and A Question of Upbringing (1951), the opening book of A Dance, Powell filled various unglamorous posts in the British Army, endured a spell of deep depression after the war, and immersed himself in Proust and seventeenth-century En­glish prose. In some ways, he dramatically reconfigured his writing style, switching to a first-person narrator, allowing himself much more elaborate syntax, and starting work on what eventually became a massive social and historical fresco—a depiction, roughly speaking, of the interlocking worlds of the En­glish upper middle class, aristocracy, and bohemian intelligentsia between 1921 and 1971. (His ambitions grew as he went along: the original plan was for a trilogy with a much shorter timeline.) But ditching Thirties mannerisms didn’t make him less interested in affectlessness and understatement, and one of the things that makes A Dance a strange reading experience is the difficulty of judging the relative proportions of gentlemanly reserve, ironic distance, Hemingwayesque emotional obliquity, and deeply ingrained self-avoidance in the narrator’s discretion about his own inner life.

A famous instance of Jenkins’s stiff upper lip, if that’s what it is, occurs in the fifth book, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960), in which his young wife, Isobel, is in the hospital for unexplained reasons. At this point, the reader has barely met Isobel, their courtship and wedding having taken place offstage. Jenkins, on his way to pay her a visit, offers the reader a justification. He doubts that

an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. . . . Objectivity is not, of course, everything in writing; but, even after one has cast objectivity aside, the difficulties of presenting marriage are inordinate.

These reflections are cut short when he arrives at Isobel’s room, where the couple’s reunion goes like this:

“How were they all?” asked Isobel.

We went over the luncheon party in detail. . . .

“I shan’t be sorry to come home.”

“I shan’t be sorry for you to be home again.”

Late in the afternoon I left the place.

On the way out, Jenkins runs into his friend Moreland, whose wife, Matilda, is in the hospital, too. She’s expected to go into labor any day now. Without asking directly, Moreland implies a question about what Isobel is doing there. Jenkins responds:

“Isobel has just had a miscarriage.”

“Oh, Lord,” said Moreland, “I am always hearing about miscarriages. I used to think such things were quite out of date, and took place only in Victorian times when ladies—as Sir Magnus Donners would say—laced themselves up ‘a teeny, teeny little bit too tight.’ Rather one of Sir Magnus’s subjects. I may add I shall be quite bankrupt unless Matilda makes up her mind fairly soon. She keeps on having false alarms. It is costing a fortune.”

In fairness to Moreland, this apparent display of self-involvement is meant to convey more than embarrassment: he’s trying to spare Jenkins from any pressure to say more on a painful topic. (Sir Magnus Donners is a business magnate whose “supposedly unconventional tastes in making love” are a running joke in their social circle.) And in fairness to Powell, it seems likely that the narrator’s silence—he doesn’t mention the miscarriage again—is meant to emphasize the depth of his feelings, which he doesn’t always suppress this forcefully. Jenkins is relatively open about his experiences of lust, anger, and sexual jealousy, especially in The Kindly Ones (1962), in which he finds out that a married woman he had an affair with betrayed him in turn with a rather ghastly fellow. But that’s about the limit of his expressive range. “You are thought cold,” a clairvoyant tells him, and she has a point. Three books pass between his son’s birth and his next reference to the boy, occasioned by a trip to Eton “to make some arrangements about a son going to school.” A Czech friend from the war years, who dies under house arrest after falling afoul of his country’s postwar Communist regime, was a “man one greatly liked.” By Jenkins’s standards, it’s an unusually lavish envoi.

Still, experiencing and articulating a range of complex emotions on his own account isn’t Jenkins’s function. He is primarily an ironic observer of an endless round of cocktail parties, weekends in the country, strained jollifications in the officers’ mess, and so on. He’s insatiably curious about people’s “method of conducting life” and, even more, their “method of attack” when it comes to imposing their will on others. He brings great social intelligence to bear on their hidden motives in conversation—Lady Walpole-Wilson’s concern not to seem bitchy or snobbish as she fends off a proposal to invite the frightful Mrs. Widmerpool around, or Moreland’s waffling about higher things when he’s trying to avoid the subject of a girl with whom he had an extramarital affair. Instead of playing out primarily in Jenkins’s life, themes and emotions ripple across his social world like movements in a dance, as suggested by the sequence’s general title, borrowed from a painting by Poussin—an allegory in which four figures dance under an open sky, observed by a naked old man who’s cradling a lyre. (Jenkins is a man of large visual culture, and he often describes characters’ appearances by likening them to, say, “a less aggressive, more intellectual version of Folly in Bronzino’s picture.”)

Some of Jenkins’s sentences—“Crisis was unremitting, cataclysm not long to be delayed,” for example—sound like translations of a difficult Latin text. Others—“He still supported a chronic weariness of spirit with an irony quite brutal in its unvarnished view of things”—sound as though they’d be more comfortable in French. Many of them, even to a British reader, seem preposterously British. But like Jenkins’s friend Stringham, who always uses a “very level voice . . . when intending to convey covert meaning,” Powell is at his stiffest when he’s being sly. He offers, among other things, a more sophisticated version of the pleasure to be had from reading obituaries in London newspapers, in which old-fashioned, formal language can be used to mask catty intent. Jenkins always thinks about the other person’s point of view, and takes care to explain that the other person’s behavior might seem entirely reasonable when considered in the light of this or that factor. The more he does so, the more obvious it gets that the person under discussion is a self-interested bore, or a pretentious fool, or a spiteful nymphomaniac.

Powell took one or two rogues in his gallery from life. (Spurling reports that Barbara Skelton, the model for Pamela Flitton, the spiteful nymphomaniac, sent Powell a letter: “Dear Tony, I am suing naturally. . . . In the meantime can you advise me a good publisher for my novel?”) Most were composite figures, and a handful share features with analogous phonies in Proust, whose disquisitions on social “laws” left an impress on A Dance’s early installments. Powell is much drier, though. Whereas Proust’s narrator writes haunting, reverberant meditations on love and death, such as his response to Bergotte’s demise in The Prisoner, Jenkins is likelier to construct—in the words of the Marxist historian Perry Anderson, a Powell fan—a “baffle against sonority.” Flinty nuggets of general wisdom fill in for expansive musings. “The persons we see most clearly are not necessarily those we know best.” Bossy, “basically heartless people” make the best consolers. Less persuasively, having lots of titled relatives to keep track of frequently makes aristocrats shrewder than “apparently more perceptive persons” from humbler families.

Another aphoristic insight—that not drinking alcohol is a sign of being rather controlling—points to what’s ostensibly the sequence’s master theme. This is a contrast between clubbable yet sensitive types, like Jenkins, and power-seeking philistines, like Kenneth Widmerpool, a sneak, toady, pedant, plodder, social climber, impotent sexual voyeur, and “château-bottled shit” whose rise and fall is the sequence’s main narrative thread. It’s a slender thread, and it might be better to think of A Dance as a series of freestanding comic novels, with a few motifs and plot points suggesting long-range planning, rather than as something more tightly assembled. Too much stress on structural integrity doesn’t do Powell any favors, because after finding his feet a few books in, and inventing a tone that’s unlike anything in mid-twentieth-century British fiction, culminating in a tragi-farcical flashback to the start of the First World War, he lost control of the enterprise in the final installments, bringing retribution down on Widmerpool against a backdrop of Sixties grooviness that he was not well equipped to handle. In the end, the droll, mischievous arranging intelligence moves closer to the stodgy narrator, and they agree that the country is going to the dogs.

Powell’s conservatism didn’t have the theological dimension of T. S. Eliot’s, the pop-eyed attack of Waugh’s, or the curiously personal gloom of Philip Larkin’s. A character in his first novel thinks unpleasant thoughts about a Jewish sexual rival, but Powell didn’t otherwise go in for anti-Semitism, or associate with Hitler-friendly cliques, and he accepted the need for war with Nazi Germany before quite a few members of Parliament did—Labour as well as Conservative, as he would have been quick to point out. Moderation was a cardinal virtue. Enthusiasm, of any sort, was suspect. All the same, it’s a stretch for Spurling to call him, as she does, “invincibly apolitical.” Like confining his last quarter century to a postscript, her decision to deal with Powell’s politics on their own terms seems like a friend and admirer’s affectionate spin.

Being apolitical, for Powell, meant not liking the kind of people—Conservative as well as Labour—who become MPs. One of Jenkins’s brothers-in-law, a Tory MP called Roddy Cutts, has “the forceful manner, half hectoring, half subservient, common to representatives of all political parties, together with the politician’s endemic hallmark of getting hold of the wrong end of the stick.” With that established, Powell could be married to a stalwart of the local Conservative association, and arrange for Widmerpool to become a Labour grandee, without feeling he had joined the partisan fray. (Spurling doesn’t mention his excitement about—and dinners with—Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties.) Politics, both for Powell and for Jenkins, is what the other lot do. It’s perfectly proper, no doubt, for those affected by the Great Depression to want something to be done about it, but no “ponderable alteration,” as More­land remarks, “will make the human condition more bearable,” and those of Jenkins’s friends who trade in “Left Wing thought” are invariably motivated by egoism of a highly dubious kind.

The main political bad guy, as you’d expect, is Widmerpool, whose lust for power makes him spend the Thirties extolling the virtues of Hitler and Stalin as well as the left wing of the Labour Party. (We don’t meet any Hitler-friendly conservatives.) Other leftists are careerists, like J. G. Quiggin, a Marxist critic who becomes a successful publisher, or self-involved eccentrics, like Erridge, aka Lord Warminster, a guilty young aristocrat who goes off to take part in the Spanish Civil War. It’s taken as read that all such characters, “like less idealistic persons,” are chiefly out to please themselves, and at least Erridge—a snide portrait, in part, of Orwell—has the courage of his convictions. Tepid liberals, especially those in modish left-wing guise, tend to attract Jenkins’s most withering disdain, which is another explanation for his distaste for Woolf and other Bloomsbury figures. It might be part of the attraction for Marxist Powellites, along with the sinister potency that Jenkins attributes to members of the Communist Party.

It’s no great discovery that Powell was a Tory. Along with his sketches of rackety London literary life, these character assassinations are a big part of his claim to fame. They’re often pretty funny, and Jenkins can be just as mean about people he has no political quarrel with. But a couple of his assumptions can make him hard to follow. One is the idea that “Left Wing thought” isn’t too far from spiritualism and magic on the spectrum of early-twentieth-century crankery. Mystic adepts turn up here and there in the books, capped with in the hippie cult that kills Widmerpool, suggesting a grand statement, but one that’s never quite uttered in any comprehensible form. The other assumption is that victory in the Second World War was Pyrrhic thanks to the election in 1945 of a Labour government, which went on to give the country such things as socialized health care. Jenkins registers the shock in his own way in an account of a victory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, spoiled for him by the “fashionably egalitarian ideal” embodied in the guest list. All sorts of people have been invited, which is “fair enough in theory” but in practice creates an “uneasy nervous tension.”

There’s an additional explanation for Powell’s depression in 1946. Spurling reveals that his wife had an affair with an unidentified man during the war, later telling Sonia Orwell that “he was the love of her life.” Powell found out afterward. They patched things up and seemed happy enough together for more than fifty years. But it’s hard not to speculate about the way his feelings about the episode might have informed, say, The Kindly Ones.

Spurling is impressively severe about the urge to treat fiction as disguised autobiography, but the story she tells accounts convincingly for Jenkins’s mixture of sociability and reserve. Powell had an isolated childhood, in part because his mother, Maud Wells-Dymoke, was sixteen years older than his father, Philip Powell, which caused comment and made her retreat from company. There was no extended family network—both parents had strained relationships with their families—and his father’s army postings meant they rarely stayed in one place for long until Philip’s tightly wound temperament brought an end to his career. Eton, where Powell wasn’t notably brilliant, was the first community he felt part of, and after a miserable time at Oxford, with few opportunities to meet girls, he embarked on a life much like Jenkins’s: publishing, writing, girlfriends, a lightning courtship of Lady Violet Pakenham, an unsuccessful stint as a screenwriter, lots of reviewing, war service, and finally the big house in Somerset. An inheritance from his father paid for it: Powell’s books never made much money.

It wasn’t a recipe for an unguarded or unconventional man, or for a man who gave freely of his emotions, though everyone agreed that Powell was a brilliant listener. Of boys who played pranks on the teachers at Eton, Spurling writes: “Tony never joined in this sort of thing himself but he liked the kind of boy that did.” “A colourless young man with some humour” was one acquaintance’s verdict in 1928. “Nobody could get the wrong impression of you,” another told him, “because you don’t give anything to go on!” When Violet observed that Jenkins was somewhat blank, Powell said that he was meant to be, and added: “I know Jenkins is awful, but think he’s more to be pitied than blamed.” Even quite close friends would sometimes fly off the handle and tell him his writing was “bloody boring,” or denounce its “inherent drabness” in the public prints. A lifelong insomniac, and a sufferer of black moods who used genealogy as “a kind of . . . knitting” until he became a fearsome bore about it, Powell took great offense at these betrayals, but perhaps there were times when he worried that they had a point.

Or perhaps he was more self-knowing—self-referential, even—than the betrayers imagined. In 1953, a reviewer called Jocelyn Brooke wrote an appraisal of his novels that ended: “One feels in all Mr. Powell’s work a sense of inward desolation, a dead-centre of emptiness.” Powell was very pleased and befriended the man. Widmerpool was assembled from bits and pieces of various people who’d annoyed Powell over the years, but his life is inextricably tangled up with Jenkins’s, and there are times—his surreal appearance on a castle staircase in A Buyer’s Market (1952), for instance—when Powell seems to be playing with the idea that Widmerpool might be Jenkins’s dark self, a projection of all the pushy gaffes that Jenkins never makes. The image at the center of the final book—Widmerpool naked in the open air, cradling a film camera, watching hippies perform a weird sexual ritual—could almost be a parody of the Poussin painting with which Powell began the sequence, suggesting that Powell’s detachment has something in common with Widmerpool’s voyeurism. Either way, it’s a virtue of Spurling’s book that it lets you see Powell as both a convivial chap in tweeds and, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote of Henry James, “a resigned and ironic inhabitant of Hell.”

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is a contributing editor of the London Review of Books. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Likely Story,” appeared in the December 2016 issue.

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