Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time
By Hilary Spurling
(Knopf, 2018)

A framed letter faces me on the desk as I write this. Composed in an engaging mix of spidery longhand and erratic manual typewriting, with a rubber-stamped phone number giving it a further touch of the haphazard, dated September 1992, it reads:

Dear Mr. Sandford

I am delighted you like Dance well enough to want more, but I have always set me [sic] face against doing any sort of coda after I finished, because, even while I was writing, it was difficult enough to keep the same tone of voice, and now that I am so ancient it would be quite impossible. All the same, kind of you to ask.

Yours sincerely

Anthony Powell

PS I expect you know Hilary Spurling’s Handbook to a Dance (Heinemann), which is very good and amusing.

It was the beginning of a modest correspondence I kept up with Powell, author of the magisterial twelve-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, during the remaining eight years of his life. He would have been eighty-six at the time of our initial exchange, and by all accounts he was becoming increasingly crotchety, not least in the matter of the correct pronunciation of a name he insisted should rhyme with “bowl,” not “towel.”

One freezing January morning later in the 1990s, a plumber answered an urgent call to attend to a burst pipe at a large Georgian house in the southwestern English countryside. An elderly man dressed in tweed answered the door.

“Mr. Powell?” asked the plumber, pronouncing it Pow-ell.

“There is no one here of that name,” replied the old man.

“Oh, sorry,” said the plumber. “I must be at the wrong house.”

“I can’t help you,” said the old man.

The plumber then drove around the frozen neighborhood before being told that Anthony Powell did indeed live in the house he had just visited. So he returned.

The same man opened the door. This time the plumber enquired, “Does a Mr. Powell live here?” “No,” the elderly gentleman said. “However, do you mean Pole?” The plumber nodded. “Ah! Then go round to the back door, the leak is in the kitchen.”

This is surely a scene that could have been ripped from the pages of the Dance, peopled as it is by a cast of louche London artistic types, colorful military coves, and eccentric English landed squires. The series has been described as everything from “Proust anglicized” to “a kind of social accountancy, and not much more enlivening than the financial sort.” Evelyn Waugh’s son Auberon (of whom more presently) thought the whole thing no more than “an early upmarket TV soap.” P. G. Wodehouse, by contrast, was “absolutely stunned by [Powell’s] artistry.”

Despite the subject matter, Powell’s work “travels well” across the Atlantic. Its central thesis is that human behavior, of all races and classes, is intrinsically strange, and that as a species our greatest potential is for self-delusion, deception, and ultimately disappointment, though lest this sound excessively bleak or British there are plenty of wonderfully comic interludes along the way. Taken as a whole, it’s a refreshing corrective to modern America’s ultra-individualism, which has led its citizens to expect perfection in every aspect of life, relationships included.

Hilary Spurling is firmly in the camp of Powell’s supporters. She is a sharp, graceful writer, whose 1977 guidebook to the Dance Powell himself greatly admired, as seen above. Her knowledge and analysis of her subject’s work is at all times acute and never less than affectionate. They were friends, and it is easy to see why Powell appointed her his official biographer.

But has Spurling succeeded in bringing Powell alive within the 170,000 or so words of the new book before us? That is a harder question to answer. Much of the art of the Dance lies in Powell’s gift, frequently amounting to genius, for enlivening what in other hands might come off merely as a chronicling of the repetition and tedium of human existence. In that vein, it has to be said that Spurling sometimes struggles to animate her own cast of characters, although she often sets her main protagonist in an interesting social context.

She does have a gift for the deft character sketch of the many bohemian or offbeat types with whom Powell rubbed shoulders in the course of a life that took him from a lonely and nomadic boyhood at around the time of the Great War to his twilight years spent as an obsessive genealogist and high-and-dry Tory who had, almost incredibly, lived long enough to see in the twenty-first century. Of Powell’s one-time lover and occasional artist Nina Hamnett, for instance, Spurling writes: “When Nina complained of mice in her studio, a friend advised her to skin and eat them.” Or of the poet Edith Sitwell and her literary clan: “No aesthetic controversy, cutting-edge concert, first night or book-launch was complete without the Sitwells dressed in eye-catching outfits under identical black capes and high Spanish hats.”

A bit later on, we’re introduced to “J. D. Bernal, a Jewish Italian from Tipperary, also a practicing Marxist,” and to Powell’s close friend, the musician Constant Lambert, who “carried about him the aura of a conjuror [with] a repertoire of false noses, fake beards and alternative personalities picked up from a magic shop on Shaftesbury Avenue, and claimed to be the only composer who could play God Save the King literally by ear. (Lambert’s characteristically dangerous party trick was to hold his nose and play tunes by forcing his breath through his punctured eardrum.)”

The only problem with this parade of glittering vignettes is that Powell himself is sometimes reduced to a walk-on part in his own biography. Eton- and Oxford-educated, happily married to an earl’s daughter, and even as a young man a bit of an old fogey, he emerges as a relatively colorless character who seems to function chiefly as a “feed” for his many peculiar friends. Perhaps that’s only appropriate in light of the superbly detached role Powell gives his alter ego, Nick Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time. Both the author and his fictional self seem to go through life as scrupulously neutral observers of the human condition, rarely offering a declarative judgment on people or events, let alone asserting their own identities. It’s a skillful technique, which the author carries off throughout the roughly three-thousand-page, million-word Dance as it passes over some sixty years of English social history, conveyed through perfectly ordinary (which is to say, often absurd) situations rather than conventional drama. Powell himself as portrayed by Spurling may be self-effacing to the point of near invisibility, but his magnum opus more than once touches the artistic heights occupied by P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh.

Yes, there are moments within the sequence where the prose is arid and the terminology fustily dated. Powell’s characters adopt “sun spectacles,” for example, when finding themselves in “not wholly inclement climes,” or travel on that “uncomfortable but commodious conveyance” the omnibus. The author sometimes makes heavy work of simply getting the reader from A to B. When introducing the minor character Rosie Manasch, who emerges as a patron of the arts in the tenth installment of the series, Books Do Furnish a Room, Powell notes: “In the course of preliminary conclaves with Bagshaw on the subject of Fission’s first number, mention was again made of an additional personage, a woman, who was backing the magazine.”

Or, of two members of Parliament, Labour and Conservative, meeting at a funeral described in the same book: “The two had gravitated together in response to that law of nature which rules that the whole confraternity of politicians prefers to operate within the closed circle of its own initiates[,] differences of party and opinion having little or no bearing on the preference.”

The Dance, then, may have an old-fashioned roll to it, but beyond the occasional dowager style Powell’s genius was to sustain a vibrant and highly credible imaginative world. Some of the series’ individual performers recur from book to book, going on together from school to university, their careers interweaving, marrying, divorcing, fighting for their country, haunting the rackety dives of London’s postwar Soho, and finally catching up with life in the hedonistic, culturally vapid 1970s. As anyone who’s ever written a novel will tell you, it’s hard enough to convincingly develop even a single life over any protracted time. Powell does this for literally scores of deftly drawn, sometimes honorable, not infrequently comic, invariably compelling leading characters, appearing and disappearing and then reappearing at intervals, all in perfectly logical order, guiding us from the Great War to the moon landings in the process, with the subordinate cast, typically drawn from the English literary or artistic demimonde, providing the crucial ballast.

Powell’s achievement is that of the architect as well as the author. The delicate slapstick of events is slowly drawn together, the apparent coincidences and chance reunions never less than true to life, the touch exquisitely light in its sardonic treatment of the material. Here is Powell’s doppelgänger, Nick Jenkins, speaking in a rare moment of intellectual candor in the third book of the sequence, The Acceptance World:

I began to brood on the complexity of writing a novel about English life, a subject difficult enough to handle with authenticity even of a crudely naturalistic sort, even more to convey the inner truth of the things observed. . . . Intricacies of social life make English habits unyielding to simplification, while understatement and irony—in which all classes of this island converse—upset the normal emphasis of reported speech.

As Hilary Spurling remarks, Powell’s roman à clef really is a form of elegant soap opera, with cyclical themes and characters and an infallible knack—the envy of many a television screenwriter—of ending each episode with a crisis. (Powell spent the winter of 1936–37 script-doctoring for Warner Bros., an experience that, however venal, he later admitted was invaluable “when one came to the engineering” of the Dance.)

When the series’ narrator joins the Army in 1939, he is promptly assigned to the corrosive Kenneth Widmerpool, his school contemporary of twenty years earlier. The physically clumsy, socially tone-deaf Widmerpool then returns at intervals in each of the remaining novels of the series, variously translated from businessman to MP to university chancellor­–cum–pagan cultist, a figure at once ludicrous and sinister, and in all one of the great comic ogres of twentieth-century literature. It says something for Powell’s artistry that there was intense competition among his circle to be publicly identified as the model for this character synonymous with the harsh and manipulative use of power. The author’s brother-in-law Lord Longford laid the strongest claim, but the likes of Powell’s wartime chief Denis Capel-Dunn, the art historian Gerald Reitlinger, and even the sometime Tory prime minister Ted Heath all made a persuasive bid for consideration.

If not exactly required reading these days, Powell’s masterpiece is one of Western literature’s enduring feats and might be one of the few things that still nurtures an awareness of an older, more reticent England, not dead perhaps but gone into hiding until the present tabloid version self-destructs. The author himself lived long enough to see such bracing developments as punk rock and Sarah, Duchess of York, as well as a modern idiom in which domestics would come to refer to assaults, not servants—all recorded in his wonderfully mordant late-life diaries. A modest man with a profound dislike of reckless informality and self-promotion, Powell continued working almost until the end, publishing the final volume of his Journals in 1997. He once told me in characteristic tones that he was “not wholly unsatisfied” by the Dance as a whole. It remains good literary fun, a brilliantly contrived escape from the banality of the real world. The author Michael Frayn perhaps put it best when he recalled stumbling on Powell for the first time: “It was like discovering a complete civilization—and not in some remote valley of the Andes or the Himalayas, but in the midst of my own life. . . . Another world had been superimposed upon my own, refracting and reflecting it.”

Apart from a brief postscript, Hilary Spurling has chosen to end her book with her subject’s completion of the Dance cycle in 1975. This is a pity, because some curious things happened during the remaining quarter-century of Powell’s life. Apart from turning out a stream of increasingly free-form reviews and memoirs, Powell found himself at the age of eighty-four at the center of one of those explosive literary feuds the English seem to do almost as well as their  national genius for the political sex scandal. His adversary was Evelyn Waugh’s eldest son, Auberon, who published a damning review of Powell’s latest volume of memoirs in the Sunday Telegraph, a paper to which they were both long-time contributors. Running as a subplot there was also the fact that Powell seemed to some to have lived his professional life in Evelyn Waugh’s shadow: never quite attaining the same level of success that Brideshead Revisited, in particular, brought to Waugh in the U.S., although by the same token scrupulously avoiding that book’s prevalent tone of narcissism and Roman Catholic proselytizing. Powell was simply too honorable to be a publicist for himself or indeed any other cause. His diaries cannot be read, as the elder Waugh’s can be, for their joyful cascade of indiscretions. When Waugh died at the age of sixty-three in 1966, Powell wrote merely that his friend had made a “great performance” of his life. By contrast, “I have absolutely no picture of myself,” Powell said. “Never have had.”

Spurling glides over the whole Sunday Telegraph incident by taking what could be called the psychological approach. The younger Waugh, she writes, had himself published an autobiography, “contain[ing] a scary portrait of Evelyn as a monstrous egoist who regarded all his sons, and this one in particular, as rivals to be snubbed, derided and put down. Even in his own distress, Powell regarded young Auberon’s response as essentially vicarious, the vengeful product of a largely loveless childhood.”

Be that as it may, Powell went ballistic over Auberon’s review, severing his relations with the Telegraph, which rather bizarrely commissioned a bust of their departing éminence grise but then found they had nowhere to put it. It perched for a while on an office filing cabinet. The Powells and the Waughs never spoke again. It all could have been a scene from one of those darkly funny contemplations of the London literary world taken from Books Do Furnish a Room, the best individual installment of the Dance.

Hilary Spurling has written a long and elegant book that illuminates the world of Anthony Powell as much as it does Powell himself. Any readers not yet familiar with the Dance, widely available today in various formats, should treat themselves to it immediately. Much more than a mere comedy of British manners (although brilliantly illuminating that nation’s two enduring hang-ups, sex and class), it is both intimate and panoramic, with an authenticity that lifts it above the crowd. The dozen component novels, so beautifully written, so riotously entertaining for all their pervasive air of human melancholy and social decay, are the work of a master of his craft. We have not his equal.♦

Christopher Sandford is the author, most recently, of The Man Who Would Be Sherlock: The Real Life Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle.

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