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Powell’s Way

Jenkins is observant and active, he is curious about others, and he has a strong sexual drive. As the tempo of the dance increases, what more natural than that he should find himself meeting a former partner or dreaded rival? It is while he is waiting for an especially ubiquitous and mobile young critic named Mark Members—who I should surmise is modeled on the figure of the late Sir Stephen Spender—that we discover an early 1930s Jenkins in the third novel, 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.

It is this “inner truth” or “inscape” that more than anything has foredoomed the television dramatization. Fidelity to period and costume and accent are one thing, and the producers expended a too-literal effort in this regard while carelessly rendering the crucial Kenneth Widmerpool as a hapless rather than a hateful figure. Irony and understatement are not easily relayed to the screen, and still less are Jenkins’s long inward monologues, encapsulated conclusions, or aperçus, of the sort that punctuate Dance. In At Lady Molly’s, for example, when Jenkins finds himself a witness to a quarrel between strangers:

His hostess was determined to let him off nothing. I had the impression that she was teasing him, not precisely for my especial benefit, but, at the same time, that my presence as a newcomer to the house afforded a particularly favorable opportunity for the application of torments of this sort. I found later that she was indeed what is called “a tease,” perhaps the only outward indication that her life was not altogether happy; since there is no greater sign of innate misery than a love of teasing.

In Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, Jenkins shows himself equally quick at detecting a nuance:

“Charles uses gouache now,” said Mrs Foxe, speaking with that bright firmness of manner people apply especially to close relations attempting to recover from more or less disastrous mismanagement of their own lives.

Or at pointing out to us something that perhaps, subconsciously, we knew already:

He also lacked that subjective, ruthless love of presiding over other people’s affairs which often makes basically heartless people adept at offering effective consolation.

Sometimes, too, these maxims or aphorisms are put into the mouths of Jenkins’s circle of friends:

“What is wrong with Widmerpool?”

Feeling low generally,” said Templer. “Mildred had to drag him out tonight. But never mind that. It is extraordinary those two should be engaged. Women may show some discrimination about whom they sleep with, but they’ll marry anybody.”

(“I was careful and logical about affairs,” says a key female character in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, “really sort of scrupulous about who and where and when, and completely reckless when it came to marriage.”)

Then there is Bernard Shernmaker. “One of his goals was to establish that the Critic, not the Author, was paramount. He tended to offer guarded encouragement, tempered with veiled threats, to young writers.” Or an Indian school contemporary in The Acceptance World, named Ghika, who “fixed his huge black eyes on Widmerpool, concentrating absolutely on his words, but whether with interest, or boredom of an intensity that might lead even to physical assault, it was impossible to say.” And of two members of Parliament, Labour and Tory, meeting at a funeral: “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, rather than waste time with outsiders; differences of party and opinion having little or no bearing on the preference.”

These are all Jenkins supplying his own chorus. The almost chilly detachment can strike closer to home, as in the glimpse we get of his own pre-1914 military parent in The Kindly Ones:

Certainly the tense nerves of men of action—less notorious than those of imaginative men—are not to be minimised. This was true of my father, who, like many persons who believe primarily in the will,—although his own will was in no way remarkable—hid in his heart a hatred of constituted authority. He did his best to conceal this antipathy, because the one thing he hated, more than constituted authority itself, was to hear constituted authority questioned by anyone but himself. This is perhaps an endemic trait in all who love power, and my father had an absolute passion for power, although he was never in a position to wield it on a notable scale.

This annihilating filial verdict, and the other less solemn ones, demonstrate Jenkins’s practice of stopping the music, often for several beats, and standing back. It might be said that he gives himself time. Not for him the pell-mell of Dickens, who went into a shop to buy writing paper and heard a woman customer inquiring after the serial chapter he was going to write on it. Jenkins/Powell’s dry and laconic style is particularly evident in exchanges, such as the one in A Buyer’s Market with the sluttish radical Gypsy Jones (“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.”), as is an occasional slapdashery in the prose. In the paternal reminiscence cited above, the word would be “underestimated” rather than “minimized.” Also, any sentence by Powell that begins with the word “Although” is fated to end in a dangle. “Although a Saturday evening, the place was crowded,” in The Acceptance World, is typical. Interestingly, Powell does not commit this bêtise in any of his nonfictional writing. But, although generally hostile to postmodern readings, he is fond of saying that his readers and his narrator are the coauthors of the novels, just as “Galsworthy is essentially a Forsyte novelist.”


Aside, then, from its many well-cut sapiences about the unchanging elements in human nature, the series is kept moving forward by two energies—humor and history. English radical and liberal critics have generally been leery of Powell. Raymond Williams’s retrospective The English Novel, for instance, makes no mention of him at all. The late Sir Victor Pritchett, who reviewed several novels in the cycle as they came out, was somewhat more generous in saying: “In the Fifties Mr Anthony Powell was the first to revive the masculine traditions of English social comedy. He retrieved it on behalf of the upper classes. The joke that he is a Proust Englished by Wodehouse has something in it.” Only the Marxist Perry Anderson has thought to connect the history in the novels to their humor:

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 twelve volumes. Neither Balzac’s panorama of the Restoration, nor Zola’s chronicles of the Second Empire, nor Proust’s reveries in the Belle Epoque can match a comparable span of time, an attention to variations within it, or a compositional intricacy capable of uniting them into a single narrative…. The elegance of this artifice was only compatible with comedy.

Although this is not to say that Balzac and Proust, to say nothing of Chekhov, are lacking in humor, such a synthesis goes a long way toward explaining the tremendous impact of Powell’s grotesque antihero and Everyman, Kenneth Widmerpool. The shortest way of capturing the essence of this grotesquely fascinating and repellent figure might be to say that he is a monster of arrogance and conceit, but entirely wanting in pride. Bullying to those below him, servile and fawning to those set in authority, entirely without wit or introspection, he is that type of tirelessly ambitious, sexless, and charmless mediocrity that poisons institutional life, family life, and political life. He is the perfected utilitarian and philistine:

Widmerpool remained totally unimpressed by the arts. He was even accustomed to show an open contempt for them in tête-à-tête conversation. In public, for social reasons, he had acquired the merest working knowledge to carry him through a dinner party, content with St John Clarke as a writer, Isbister as a painter.

I don’t know about those things,” he had once said to me. “If I don’t know about things, they do not interest me. Even if artistic matters attracted me—which they do not—I should not allow myself to dissipate my energies on them.”

Widmerpool haunts the series from the first page to the last, making both his entrance and his exit as a dogged and uninspiring runner rather than as a dancer of any kind. But it is at a dance that he experiences the moment of humiliation that some regard as the climactic point of the novels, and to which Jenkins recurs again and again as the story progresses. The unwilling object of his affections, a girl named Barbara Goring, decides that Widmerpool is sour and requires “sweetening.” She intends to sprinkle a little sugar over him. But the top of the large sugar shaker is poorly secured and:

More from surprise than because she wished additionally to torment him, Barbara did not remove her hand before the whole contents of the vessel—which voided itself in an instant of time—had descended upon his head and shoulders, covering him with sugar more completely than might have been thought possible in so brief a space. Widmerpool’s rather sparse hair had been liberally greased with a dressing—the sweetish smell of which I remembered as somewhat disagreeable when applied in France—this lubricant retaining the grains of sugar, which, as they adhered thickly to his skull, gave him the appearance of having turned white with shock at a single stroke, which judging by what could be seen of his expression, he might very well in reality have done underneath the glimmering incrustations that enveloped his head and shoulders. He had writhed sideways to avoid the downpour, and a cataract of sugar had entered the space between neck and collar; yet another jet streaming between eyes and spectacles.

That final placing of the word “writhe” completes the abjectness of the picture, while also conveying the almost masochistic humility with which Widmerpool receives this and other buffets from life and fate. Powell’s detachment here is extraordinary as his gift for halting the frame and capturing an instant of time is displayed to full effect. Perhaps, too, there is something Proustian in the vague redolence of Widmerpool’s pomade. It might also be mentioned here that Powell wrote several short, brittle novels during the Jazz Age, of which the first and arguably the most important, his Afternoon Men, was published in 1931. In that novel appear the sentences, not at all untypical, “They ate. The food was good.”

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