‘Am I a Snob?’ was a question the author never asked himselfby Fatema Ahmed / December 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time, notes that “human life is largely lived at surface level.” The value of the remarkable 12-volume cycle of novels that is Anthony Powell’s monument lies not in any psychological depth, but in its social comedy and pungent insider’s analysis of the aristocratic circles in which the author moved. Those qualities have won him the admiration of Marxist historians as well as belles-lettrists. Perry Anderson has said: “There is no other work in the annals of European fiction that attempts meticulously to recreate half a century of history, decade by decade, with anything like the emotional precision or details of Powell’s 12 volumes.”
It wasn’t easy for him, though. In The Acceptance World, the third novel in the cycle, Jenkins is struggling with writing a novel. The problem, as he sees it, is that, “intricacies of social life make English habits unyielding to simplification.” He compares himself to an Oxford contemporary called Mark Members, who is making much better progress as a man of letters: “Viewed from some distance off, Members and I might reasonably be considered almost identical units of the same organism, scarcely to be differentiated even by the same sociological expert.”
In a virtuoso act of narration and observation, Powell puts a sliver of society—where the haut bohemia intersects with the Establishment—under the microscope. In 1959 he briskly responded to criticisms of Proust’s upper-class obsession that he thought others might apply to his own work: “His world would have not been less ‘narrow’ had Proust restricted himself to a novel about chartered accountants or rodent operatives.”
Unlike Virginia Woolf, whose work he detested, Powell never asked himself the question, “Am I a Snob?” But since his death in 2000 the image has persisted of the novelist as emotionally frosty and genealogically-obsessed, who haughtily pronounced his surname “pole.” The caricature is recognisable. His sometime friend, the spy and television personality Malcolm Muggeridge, is said to have claimed that Powell’s two ambitions as a young man were to have “a wife with a title and a house with a drive.” In that, at least, he could count himself a success.
Powell was born in 1905. His father was a temperamental infantry officer and his shy mother came from a former land-owning family in Lincolnshire. He went to Eton and Oxford, married Violet Pakenham, daughter of the 5th Earl of Longford, served as a liaison officer to friendly governments in exile during the Second World War and bought a country house in Somerset, where he lived for the rest of his life. He published five short wry novels in the 1930s, a not-very-brief life of John Aubrey after the war, was a prolific reviewer of novels, and in 1951 embarked on Dance, publishing an instalment at roughly two-year intervals until the final volume came out in 1975.
Hilary Spurling’s long-awaited biography is both an authorised account and a memoir of her friendship with Powell. Spurling met him in 1969, when she was the literary editor at the Spectator. She compiled a useful and entertaining handbook to Dance in 1977 and was appointed as his official biographer “on the understanding that nothing whatever was to be done for as long as possible.”
Spurling handles a long life deftly, but there’s an air of apology about the undertaking; a sense that the biography is trying to dispel the caricatured image of her subject sustained in his memoirs and journals. The first volume of the memoirs, which Spurling draws on for her own book, begins with three intensely boring chapters of family genealogy. Spurling emphasises Powell’s lonely childhood: “Genealogy joined him up to an extended family he never knew.” Fair enough. But in the kind of telling detail at which Spurling excels, we also learn that when Powell left a dead-end job at the publisher Duckworth’s in 1936, the last thing he did was to order the Shorter Oxford Dictionary and Burke’s Landed Gentry on trade terms.
Powell’s generation of writers all knew each other, overlapping at Eton or Oxford (often both). They included Henry Yorke (publishing as Green), Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly; he met Orwell during the Second World War. He had known Henry Yorke since he was 10; Waugh read aloud to him the first 10,000 words of Decline and Fall in 1927. He outlived all these peers and in his later years was always asked about them. But there are indications he never felt fully at home in their company. One wonders which Oxford contemporary he meant when he wrote, “with them there always seemed to be an amateurishness, a narrowness of view, a way of treating the arts as a socially useful weapon.”
When Powell was dogsbodying at Duckworth’s in the 1920s, learning about publishing and falling in with painters, his life—and Spurling’s book—come alive. He was the lover of the artist Nina Hamnett, who liked to boast that Modigliani had said she had “the best tits in Europe.” Giving no indication of how they knew each other, in his memoirs Powell priggishly refers to Hamnett’s engaging memoirs as “a trifle too breathless in tone,” but he perhaps had not enjoyed being referred to as “my little Etonian.”
A Dance to the Music of Time divides neatly into four trilogies: the first is a coming-of-age story; the second sees the narrator getting involved in a wider social world and casting about more freely backwards and forwards in time; the third covers the Second World War; the fourth takes us from postwar Grub Street to the late 1960s. As narrators go, Jenkins is almost a cypher since, unlike Proust’s narrator, he rarely indulges in analysing his own desires.
The first instalment is set mainly in the early 1920s at Eton and Oxford, both of which are never named. Nicholas focuses on his two best friends: Charles Stringham, who is wry and well-connected; and Peter Templar, who is confident and more middle class. A third figure, Kenneth Widmerpool, has no friends at all.
If Proust’s great novel is popularly reduced to “man eats madeleine,” Dance might be characterised as the “Rise and Fall of Kenneth Widmerpool.” The most unpopular boy in school (infamous for having once worn “the wrong kind of overcoat”) over 40 years becomes a solicitor, stockbroker, holder of powerful army desk jobs in the Second World War, a Labour MP, disgraced peer, chancellor of a new university and, finally, a member of a New Age cult.
Perhaps it’s most useful to regard him as Jenkins says he has learnt to in the second novel, A Buyer’s Market (1952), “as one of those symbolic figures, of whom most people possess at least one example, if not more, round whom the past and future have a way of assembling.”
Widmerpool steadily patronises Jenkins, asking at one point: “Who exactly buys ‘art books?’… It doesn’t sound to me a very serious job.” Jenkins seems to divide his friends and acquaintances into those who belong to “a world of the will,” of whom Widmerpool is merely the most monstrous example, and those who don’t. For example, Widmerpool tells him after the war: “I have come to the conclusion that I enjoy power” and “might like governing black men.” (He of course turns out to be a sexual masochist.) For Jenkins, though, “the arts themselves… by their ultimately sensual essence are in the long run, inimical to those who pursue power for its own sake.”
Powell later explained that he realised that a very long novel would be a “release from the re-engagement every year or so of the same actors and extras hanging about for employment at the stagedoor of one’s creative fantasy.” Why bother creating new characters when you could just re-use them? Setting out without a completely fixed scheme, however, required both “a sufficiently broad base at the start from which a complex narrative might emerge” and also “undeveloped characters” and “potential situations.” This leads to teasing statements in the first two volumes in particular, such as “Even then I did not recognise the quest for power” (of Widmerpool) and “He piled his luggage, bit by bit, on to a taxi; and passed out of my life for some 20 years” (of Sunny Farebrother).
Much of the pleasure of Dance lies in not wondering what will happen next, but who will appear next. Once most of the enormous cast of characters has been introduced, its members cross the narrator’s path at unexpected moments and in unlikely combinations. The coincidences would seem contrived, if the world being described weren’t so incestuous. Waugh writes in his memoir A Little Learning (1964): “After I had written the review expressing doubts of the authenticity of so many coincidences, I began to reflect on my own acquaintance with him and understand that his was genuine social realism.” That Waugh was reviewing the work of a lifelong friend was, of course, further evidence of the smallness of their world.
After the first volume, Powell typically begins each book with a self-contained scene, sometimes involving a character to whom we haven’t yet been introduced, or set in an undefined past, or skipping ahead from the previous book. Only after a while does the scene’s significance unfold. This technique reassures the reader that the author has a plan—and gave Powell room to improvise.
Jenkins is not an omniscient narrator, but as Stringham says to him during the war, and not without an edge (at this point he is as down and out as anyone from his class can be): “My dear Nick, you know everybody. Not a social item escapes you.” Jenkins’s colourlessness makes him a regular confidant for the other characters and most importantly for Widmerpool, who says at one point, “when a confessor has been chosen, the habit is hard to break.”
Powell isn’t a stylist on the level of the sentence and can be guilty of extraordinarily clunky passages. But as he says in his memoirs, “with all novelists, you have to put up with something.” His greatest strengths are passages of deadpan dialogue, such as this exchange between the narrator and the communist agitator Gypsy Jones (“La Pasionaria of Hendon Central”): “‘Why are you so stuck up? she asked, truculently. ‘I’m just made that way.’ ‘You ought to fight it.’ ‘I can’t see why.’”
When he started writing Dance, elements of the world he was describing—that of “the last true leisure class in Europe” (in Perry Anderson’s phrase)—were clearly on their way out. Unlike Brideshead Revisited—a premature and sentimental lament over the passing of an idealised class (as Waugh later acknowledged)—Dance is forensic and detached, its architecture so complicated that Powell and his narrator can wring surprising amounts of emotion out of the slightest phrases.
The most likeable character in the sequence is the composer Hugh Moreland, who has more than a touch of Powell’s composer friend Constant Lambert—“the first contemporary I found, intellectually speaking, wholly sympathetic”—about him. Jenkins mentions their final conversation and Moreland’s death in the 11th book: “It was also the last time I had, with anyone, the sort of talk we used to have together.” Similarly, in his memoirs, Powell’s laconic verdict on the outbreak of the Second World War—“Nothing was ever the same again”—is oddly powerful. To make the most of this sentiment for 12 novels, without being sentimental, might be the true nature of Anthony Powell’s achievement.