‘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…