He was the last literary lion of his generation and contrary to the accusations of snobbery he had a profoundly democratic literary instinctby Ferdinand Mount / June 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
At three in the morning, Anthony Powell took a turn for the worse, and the doctor was summoned. He was new, youngish and he turned out to be called Powell too. While they were waiting, the novelist’s elder son, film director Tristram Powell, chatted to Dr Powell about what part of Wales his ancestors came from. It was a typical Powellian moment: unexpected, genealogical, comical, melancholy. Tony Powell died later that night, quietly, at a great age (94) after a long period of frailty, surrounded by his two sons and his wife Violet to whom he had been married for 65 years, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren asleep in the converted stables beyond the lawn. He left behind the slightly surprising instructions that his ashes were to be scattered on the lake below the Chantry, his Regency house in Somerset. The fishing syndicate, however, would need to be consulted, because they had a tricky feeding programme for the trout. Another Powellian moment: unsentimental, down-to-earth, not without a touch of the macabre.
Still, his death seemed a calm and graceful one. The huge obituaries all recognised him as the last literary lion of his generation, and his 12-volume novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, as perhaps the greatest achievement in English fiction since the war. Yet almost at the same moment, the old chorus of detractors launched into their familiar catcalls: Powell was an incurable snob, obsessed with upper-class life, Dance was a soap opera for a closed society which was destined for the scrapheap of history-in fact, was already smouldering there. Vainly his admirers asked whether, on that account, Shakespeare was to be dismissed for his obsession with the life of the Danish court. Powell certainly was greatly interested in family trees, and the old green volumes of the Complete Peerage were always on a handy shelf, although he said that, if there was a Burke’s of Bank Clerks, he would buy that, too. But the accusation of snobbery needs not merely rebutting, but standing on its head. Powell’s fascination was not at all with the smug connections of a closed caste, but rather with the remarkable anarchic openness of English life, its quirks and eddies and, indeed, with the ups and downs of life generally-as conveyed in the torrential quotation from Burton’s Anatomy with which he closes the twelfth and last volume of Dance. As a matter of fact, his fiction was extraordinarily democratic in a way few other writers of his time could claim. The light plays evenly on each personage-not merely on the beautiful, elusive Jean Duport, or the charming, doomed Stringham or even on the monstrous Widmerpool, who has joined the fictional valhalla of Raskolnikov, Fagin, Sherlock Holmes and Jeeves-but also on Alfred Tolland, the dim aphasic relation who only appears at family parties, on Le Bas, the awkward housemaster with a weakness for late Victorian poets, on Eleanor Walpole-Wilson, the dogbreeding dyke, on Uncle Giles, who so memorably said in the 1930s, “I like the little man they’ve got in Germany now.” Indeed, it is these unremarkable, unglamorous characters whom we are most pleased to meet again and the sense of whose ongoing life Powell revives. The same is true of places-the Ufford (the private hotel in Bayswater which is the nearest thing to a home for Uncle Giles), or the upstairs room at Foppa’s restaurant, or Stonehurst, the Aldershot bungalow rented by the narrator’s parents.
It is not simply that these people and places are shabby or past their best (if they had one). It is more that they simply exist as we do, without necessarily having to take to drink or communism or the priesthood (or, in the case of Graham Greene characters, all three) in order to qualify for fictional attention. Perhaps the most crucial of Powell’s insights was that everyone, when you got to know them, was equally extraordinary. It is this evenness of curiosity, this utter lack of bedazzlement, which gives the world of his novels-particularly the middle volumes about the war-their unique quality, a kind of shimmering solidity which both haunts you as irremediably other, and yet breathes a familiarity which makes you want to identify the original models-which are, of course, composites. “If someone is good for being a ‘character,’ he is probably good for many characters. You can form the basis of perhaps half a dozen people from one human model” (Dickens certainly did with his father), as Powell liked to say when maddened by admirers’ claims to have found “the real Widmerpool.”
The technique behind the 12-volume series was not quickly or easily arrived at. He wrote five novels before the war, while he was working for Duckworth’s the publisher: Venusberg, Afternoon Men, From a View to a Death, Agents and Patients and What’s Become of Waring? They are light, crisp and funny (Afternoon Men was adapted for the West End stage, rather effectively), and some people prefer them to the postwar series, but then these are usually people who prefer Evelyn Waugh to Powell. Like Waugh, he was interested by Firbank, and Hemingway too, but his interests stretched a good deal further, to include ee cummings, Dostoevsky and Stendhal. His circle stretched further too. His regular lunch companions were George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge, and of the next generation he was quick to spot the talents and gain the friendship of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and VS Naipaul. He brought out four volumes of autobiography to forestall the biographers (although Hilary Spurling was not discouraged from producing a considered life after his death), and in his late eighties, to the consternation of some of his nearest and dearest, he published three volumes of quite unsuspected journals which contained not only some uninhibited judgements (of Virginia Woolf: “What a dreadful woman she was-humourless, envious, spiteful”), but also some acute and thoughtful literary criticism.
The style which he evolved for his great panoramic roman-fleuve was peculiarly his own, and seemed to have been long brewing during his war service with the Welsh Regiment and in the Cabinet Office and his postwar researches into the world of John Aubrey (which bore fruit in two volumes of biography and selections from Aubrey’s work). There was a 12-year gap between What’s Become of Waring? (1939) and the first volume of Dance, A Question of Upbringing. The texture of the new style was much denser: in the length of the sentences, in the heavy adverbial structures, the adjectival impasto and, most remarkable and then unfashionable, the substantial participial clauses moored alongside the main sentence. At its most successful, the entire sentence would then convey something of a whole world, containing with it the awkward contradictions and slippery undermining in which real life abounds. Occasionally, in its efforts to include so much, the whole sentence would collapse into ponderousness. But then that is the risk you take (as you take it with Henry James, or even with Kingsley Amis, when he gives his serpentine syntactical second thoughts one twist too many). As Powell himself was fond of saying, with every writer there is always something you have to put up with.
Although he was not at all a performance wit like others of the same generation such as Maurice Bowra or Osbert Lancaster, some of his remarks linger in the mind. One often notices them being quoted without the quoter remembering where they came from, such as his remark that self-pity is the basis of all bestsellers.
Self-pity was certainly not his own failing. Although occasionally touchy (his friendship with Malcolm Muggeridge never recovered from the latter’s supercilious review of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant), basically he was of an amiable and curious temperament, even when housebound in old age, remaining eager for gossip and ready to meet and form a view of a new visitor. His dedication to the craft of writing was unremitting, and while tolerant of most human vices and failings, he showed little mercy towards slapdash work (usually signing off his regular reviews for the Daily Telegraph by pointing out a couple of solecisms which had caught his eye).
His willingness to point out where celebrated authors had gone off the rails became an enjoyable mannerism, brilliantly parodied by satirist Craig Brown-“Hamlet is a not uninteresting play, but the plot is flawed.” Yet on rereading the journals and recalling our conversations over 40 years or more, since I first spent Christmas at the Chantry (he was my uncle by marriage, and after my mother died, the Chantry was almost a second home to me), I find that his sharp, practical criticisms are never to be wholly disregarded (to use another of his favourite double negatives).
Lying propped on a Regency settee, with one of his favourite, scrawny, Cornish Rex cats on his lap and talking in a drawl which even to my ears sounded a little old-fashioned, his conversation had an ample strolling tempo which might range from the horrors of the War Office to his fruitless sojourn in Hollywood, where he met Scott Fitzgerald-just. But then back to books. VS Naipaul said that he had never met anyone else except himself who was so utterly absorbed as Powell in the life of being a writer. Perfection of the work then was his preferred choice, but the life was by no means to be underestimated either.
I think his books will be read a long time hence, as, say, Fielding or Jane Austen (also an English upper-class specialist, one might think) are still read, and that my own pleasure in them has nothing much to do with the background we shared. Perhaps I shall turn out to be wrong, but what Powell’s detractors fail to grasp is that the underlying argument is not that dreary one about class, but more about what a novel should be like: should it “privilege” kings and geniuses, or glamorous spies and drug addicts; should it feel a duty to tackle “great themes,” or should it attempt to render life as it really looks and feels to most of us, trying in the process to satisfy Dr Johnson’s test that a book should help us to enjoy life or to endure it? It may seem odd to compare Anthony Powell to James Joyce (although Powell did admire Joyce as a great naturalistic writer, even if he thought Ulysses went off a bit), but I think they were ultimately engaged on the same task: to celebrate the light of common day.