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Powell’s Way

A Dance to the Music of Time

collected in four “movements,” by Anthony Powell. A Question of Upbringing (1951). A Buyer’s Market (1952). The Acceptance World (1955). At Lady Molly’s (1957). Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960). The Kindly Ones (1962). The Valley of Bones (1964). The
University of Chicago Press, each $17.95 (paper)

A Dance to the Music of Time

a seven-hour miniseries adapted by Hugh Whitemore. broadcast in the UK on Channel Four
Videocassettes distributed by VCI, £19.99

Journals: 1982-1986

by Anthony Powell
London: Heinemann, 305 pp., £9.99 (paper)

Journals: 1987-1989

by Anthony Powell
London: Heinemann, 239 pp., £12.99 (paper)

Journals: 1989-1992

by Anthony Powell
London: Heinemann, 238 pp., £12.99 (paper)

Suppose yourself to be netted in some elaborate dream, where the examination topic for tomorrow involves the invention of a fictional conversation. The characters must be Englishmen, located at some midpoint in the recent age of ideology, who are part upper-crust and part bohemian, yet who are earnestly discussing the supernatural:

“My own occult interests are so sketchy. I’ve just thumbed over Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie. Never participated in a Black Mass in my life, or so much as received an invitation to a witches’ Sabbath.”

“But I thought Dr Trelawney was more for the Simple Life, with a touch of yoga thrown in. I did not realise that he was committed to all this sorcery.”

“After you knew him he must have moved further to the Left—or would it be to the Right? Extremes of policy have such a tendency to merge.”

“Trelawney must be getting on in age now—Cagliostro in his latter days, though he has avoided incarceration up to date.”

“What will happen to people like him as the world plods on to standardisation? Will they cease to be born, or find jobs in other professions? I suppose there will always be a position for a man with first-class magical qualifications.”

This is taken from The Kindly Ones, the sixth novel of Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume cycle collectively entitled A Dance to the Music of Time. The sequence may be said to “cover” the span of years that lay between the Great War and the Sixties. And Mr. Powell himself, now enjoying his ninety-second year, is and was very much a part of the social and literary history of England (and, he would wish to have it noted, of Wales too) over that protracted period of crisis and decline. He is one of the few living authors who was on easy and familiar terms with George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Muggeridge, and his collection of criticism, Miscellaneous Verdicts, together with four volumes of memoirs and three books of journals, provides an imperishable trove of first-hand acquaintance and reminiscence. A seven-hour dramatization of Dance, made and transmitted on British television in late 1997 after almost two decades of aborted schemes and rehearsals, may or may not have enlisted a wider audience for his work. It is a certainty, however, that the novels have gradually won for themselves a consecrated readership which is impervious to changes in fashion.

This is true in spite of a number of objections or perhaps reservations that have hindered the cycle’s acceptance thus far, perhaps especially (though there does exist an Anthony Powell Society in Kalamazoo, Michigan) in these United States. It is sometimes said that Powell works on too small a canvas, and depends for his effects on too much coincidence occurring within a too-limited circle. The response to this among some of his fans, as he would emphatically not wish to call them even if they do hail from Kalamazoo, has been to announce him as “the English Proust.” Whether or not this helps matters it may be too early to say.

Certainly, Dance is a work, and an exercise, of memory. Anthony Powell, who pronounces his name to rhyme with “pole” rather than “towel,”1 is a Welshman who was born into a solid family, was educated at Eton and Oxford, worked in London publishing and literary journalism, became a novelist and the biographer of John Aubrey, served in the British army in Northern Ireland during the Second World War, married the daughter of a noble line—Lady Violet Pakenham, of the celebrated Anglo-Irish Longford-Fraser writing dynasty—and holds High Tory opinions.

His narrator in Dance, Nicholas Jenkins, is the relatively “straight” man in the conversation above. He has a Welsh name with no pitfalls of pronunciation, is born of a solid family, and follows all the steps just traced for Powell except that his biographical subject is Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. His Tory instincts are so automatic as to be, for many readers, practically impalpable.

Both author and character are guarded admirers of the elliptical Marcel: Powell going so far as to make a stout comparison between Proust and the Galsworthy of The Forsyte Saga, and to define his own oeuvre as occupying a place equidistant from both. (The most obvious and frequently made contrast, which is with the work of Evelyn Waugh, is one that Powell finds himself resenting in his own diaries. For one thing, as he says, “everything ‘serious’ in Waugh is confronted with the Roman Church; less serious matters, as often as not reduced to farce.” For another, Waugh, the striver and arriviste, really is open to the charge of snobbery.) Powell’s novels are unusual in that they leave the religious conscience and experience entirely untreated, and replace it by an emphasis on the numinous and the occult.

Nick” Jenkins does not give us his long life story, or the story of his contemporaries in, so to speak, first gear. In the opening volume, A Question of Upbringing, for example, he is a boy at Eton and the time is just after the First World War. At the start of the sixth volume, The Kindly Ones, he is a smaller boy living at home in the pregnant summer of 1914. The general title of the sequence is taken from a painting done by Nicholas Poussin in 1639, and hanging at present in the Wallace Collection. It represents Time as rather gloatingly savoring his advantage over those who gyrate to his lute. Musical and painterly allusions recur throughout the novels, providing many of the binding references that are necessary in a work of a million words and almost five hundred characters, and several of the crucial subordinate figures are either painters or musicians by profession.2

What Powell is aiming for is the harnessing of counterpoint. Characters appear and disappear and then reappear, as do certain events and objects (a practical joke here, a painting there). People die in one book and are encountered afresh in a later one. But as the sequence takes hold of the reader, the separate melodies become slowly subordinate to the basic one, and strive for a harmonic whole. A strong minor figure, the war-invalid Ted Jeavons, is described not by accident as “seething with forgotten melodies” and does exert a bonding force on numerous large changes of scene. By a happy chance, the dictionary definition of “counterpoint” also has an application to heraldry. It denotes the meeting of two chevrons at their “points,” or apexes, in the center of an escutcheon, or shield. This has a real analogue in Powell’s method, which relies to an unusual degree on kinship and lineage. (In life as in fiction, his most consistent interest is in genealogy. The best-known cartoon drawing of him, executed by the late Mark Boxer, shows him standing before a well-bookmarked volume of Burke’s Landed Gentry, the British version of the Almanach de Gotha, to the revised edition of which Powell himself contributed a very feeling and expert preface.)

As composer and as orchestrator, and indeed as herald and genealogist, Powell chiefly means to control. He attains this objective by striking certain chords which, echoing in the mind even of an inattentive reader, will firmly but gently recall him to an earlier one. Let me give a single illustration. In the first volume, A Question of Upbringing, we are introduced to the school friends who will feature in the life of Nick Jenkins. Among these are Kenneth Widmerpool, the most dogged and fearsome solipsist in modern fiction, and Charles Stringham, the languid and epicene loser, who, at once fatally charming and fatally languid, succumbs to a combination of alcohol and inanition. (Stringham, I have found, is one of the few of the dramatis personae to hold the attention of female readers in a story that some but not all complain of finding excessively masculine.3 )

Widmerpool is insufferable from the start, but more as someone prematurely pompous and absurd than, as he later proves, someone decidedly sinister. The charming Stringham makes game of him, imitates him to perfection, and treats him as a figure of fun. “That boy,” he asserts in a commonplace phrase, “will be the death of me.” Eight volumes and two decades later, in The Soldier’s Art, Widmerpool does deliberately and cynically, by the exercise of bureaucratic fiat in sending the unresisting young man to a front-line wartime posting, cause Stringham’s death. Widmerpool’s callousness is also the oblique cause of his own ensuing ruin and disgrace, these being precipitated when (in another coincidence mediated by about four degrees of separation) he contracts an ambitious but calamitous marriage to Stringham’s unstable niece. And yet there is nothing of the morality tale in the way that this complex evolution is set down. Nor does Jenkins make any effort to assist the reader to judgments or conclusions.

The events and developments are so widely spaced in time, yet so intimately filiated by the social class and background of the participants, as to make any complaint about the over-strenuous exertions of coincidence seem almost ill-natured. Powell is so much at his ease here that he describes Eton and Oxford without ever going to the bother of identifying them by name. We thus learn a great deal about Widmerpool—about Powell, too, perhaps—by discovering that he is a meritocratic child of a rural manure supplier, and that he does not go “on” from school to university. The strings are slowly drawn together with extreme deftness. And Jenkins himself often gets small details “wrong,” just as a real narrator would. In Temporary Kings, for example, he sees a character named Odo Stevens colliding with Pamela Widmerpool at a conference in Venice. “Pamela had hit him in the face the last time I had seen them together,” he recalls of a memorable evening in the London Blitz that is set down in A Soldier’s Art. He has forgotten that the volatile pair also ran into each other just after the war, at a party to launch the radical Fission magazine in Books Do Furnish a Room.

But more than this, it is very far from improbable that a small and highly stratified island society should find its more educated and leisured members running into one another at successive conjunctures. (The disruption of wartime, so well evoked by Powell in the third of what are really four trilogies, often makes this more likely rather than less. Malcolm Muggeridge and Arthur Koestler actually did discover themselves in the same latrine-digging platoon on the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, and nobody will say that this coincidence lacks either aptness or verisimilitude.)

That defense entered, it is no less true that Powell keeps his pages well-peopled with new arrivals, that he maintains the familiar ones in plausible yet unpredictable circulation, and that he steps well outside the immediate social milieu of his chief characters. The aforementioned Odo Stevens, a self-made jeweler from Birmingham, doesn’t come on stage until the third trilogy, in The Valley of Bones. He has changed his name from Bert, and flourishes in wartime and combat conditions. By the close of the cycle, he has bedded half the “society” women Jenkins knows.

  1. 1

    Sir Charles Powell, former chief political advisor to Margaret Thatcher, pronounces his name Pole-style. Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair, is a staunch Towellist. The fact that the two men are brothers makes Anthony Powell seem more of an English social realist than he is sometimes credited with being. 

  2. 2

    Hilary Spurling has had the happy idea of composing a guide or concordance, entitled Invitation to the Dance: A Handbook to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (Little, Brown, 1977; republished 1992). 

  3. 3

    The physical profile with which Stringham is introduced is an excellent micro-specimen of the Powell style: “He was tall and dark, and looked a little like one of those stiff, sad young men in ruffs, whose long legs take up so much room in sixteenth-century portraits: or perhaps a younger—and far slighter—version of Veronese’s Alexander receiving the children of Darius after the battle of Issus: with the same high forehead and suggestion of hair thinning a bit at the temples. His features certainly seemed to belong to that epoch of painting: the faces in Elizabethan miniatures, lively, obstinate, generous, not very happy, and quite relentless.” 

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