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Powell’s Way

In the decades of silence that intervened before the inaugural volume of Dance, Powell did something more than mature in the cask as a stylist. He metamorphosed both himself and his writing. The result is anything but Wodehousian: the creator of Jeeves and Bertie would not have written the sugar scene that way and famously shunned the least suggestion of the sexual motive. One of Powell’s achievements is an unusual down-to-earthness about what used to be called the facts of life. When Jenkins has a crudely carnal interlude with the taunting and disliked Gypsy Jones in A Buyer’s Market, Powell not only expends almost three pages on the encounter—which he would never have done in Afternoon Men—but also contrives to summon the exact thrill of disgust which men are liable to experience on such occasions. “Any wish to remain any longer present in those surroundings had suddenly and violently decreased, if not disappeared entirely.”

But the chief attainment of the long fallow period before this volume of Dance was Powell’s evolution from amoral, even prim, spectator to fully engaged social and political raconteur. The world in which Nick Jenkins grows to manhood is the interwar world, and most of his intellectual and aesthetic seniors or contemporaries are moving to the “left.” Powell makes as plain as he possibly can his distaste and contempt for this herd phenomenon. The old Oxford tutor Sillery, whom Jenkins revisits as he would a zoo animal in order to study and record his peculiarities, is portrayed as a posturing nincompoop, wedded to fashion and with his sails trimmed to power. So, in their varying forms, are half a dozen or more of Powell’s signature characters, from the critic J.G. Quiggin to the guilt-ridden aristocrat Erridge, and from the vain old belle-lettriste St John Clarke to the ambitious publisher Howard Craggs. The term “fellow traveler” was not in common currency in England before the cold war, but in a passage of unusual zest in The Kindly Ones Powell sums up what might be called his encapsulating view of matters:

Simple lifers, utopian socialists, spiritualists, occultists, theosophists, quietists, pacifists, futurists, cubists, zealots of all sorts in their approach to life and art, later to be relentlessly classified into their respective religious, political, aesthetic or psychological categories….

This tirade is of interest, because it echoes so well a similar piece of liverish invective by George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier:

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England.

Powell knew Orwell, shared his interest in Bohemia and Fitzrovia (and his contempt for Bloomsbury), and often discussed arcane ideological and sectarian matters with him. In his Journals, Powell, a supporter of Franco, claims to have elicited from Orwell the admission that even the victory of the Generalissimo would have been preferable to a triumph of the Spanish Communists. Yet there is no character remotely corresponding to Orwell in the twelve novels, unless we make a slight guess about the chaotic but attractive Bagshaw in Books Do Furnish a Room: the burned-out radical who preserves an interest in doctrinal schism, literary low life, and the pamphleteering style. Virtually every other political radical is represented throughout as either a knave or a fraud or a crook. And Widmerpool, here, is the Proteus. Though averse to all risk and a stranger to all principle except that of advancement, he still throws in his lot with “the Left,” as when, working in the City of London as a broker in the 1930s, he expresses approval of the Moscow show trials and becomes an especially nasty specimen of the apologist type.

The simplest means of delineating Powell’s extreme and splenetic conservatism, then, is probably to contrast it with the manners of his famous contemporary. Orwell would not, I think, have straightforwardly described a character as resembling “a thoroughly ill-conditioned errand-boy,” as Powell’s narrator does, as naturally as breath itself, in The Acceptance World. He would not have done so because he would not have assumed that all his readers used or shared the social reference; he would not have done so because he would have had occasion to wince at hearing others employ similar braying tones and judgments; and he would not have done so, I surmise, because of the implication of the word “conditioned.” Moreover, if Orwell had served in a regiment made up chiefly of Welsh coal miners, and fictionalized it as carefully as Powell did in The Valley of Bones, he would not have dreamed of saying, after an encounter with a faintly bibliophile fellow officer (Roland Gwatkin, the luckless but honest bank manager turned honest but luckless soldier who is one of Powell’s most finely realized minor characters): “This was the first evidence come to light that anyone in the unit had ever read a book for pleasure.” The Welsh miners were rightly famed for their literacy, their workingmen’s institutes, and their splendid union-endowed lending libraries: Powell degrades the speech of the “other ranks” and the lower echelons to the low-comedy status of semi-disaffected plebeian singing and babbling, of the sort that might be loftily overheard by a junior officer eavesdropping in the pub.

Finally, I do not believe that Orwell would ever have made use of the expression “to work like a black,” as Powell does in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant. I do not mean, here, to deploy retrospectively what Powell’s admirers would take pleasure in apostrophizing as “correctness.” The fact is that these attitudes seem instinctive, and that they are revealing. Powell knows perfectly well how to “signal” a commonplace phrase, and to detach himself from any lazy attitude to its implications. Indeed, I have never read an author so fond of the ironic quotation mark. Widmerpool the schoolboy is described as going not for a run but for a “run” and the same technique is used to mark off terms as quotidian as “backstage,” and as loaded as “Munich.” The decision not to use inverted commas in this case, then, is a decision.

The number of political and historical references is astonishingly high, and occurs with a minimum of concession to the uninstructed reader. If you don’t recall Count Karolyi, or Sforza, you will miss some important allusions in the table talk of the windbag diplomat Sir Gavin Walpole-Wilson, whose paralyzingly stuffy dinner parties are an essential part of young Jenkins’s initiation into London life. (This man’s awkward sister is made by Powell to summon a world of silly high-minded do-goodery by stating her intention of spending an evening at home. “I can make a start on my article about the Bosnian Moslems for the news-sheet of the Minority Problems League.”)

Elsewhere, Powell shows himself highly alert to the difficulty of being an antimodernist modernist, and also acutely desirous that Nick Jenkins should not be “out of touch,” by making a series of well-timed references to Marx, to Jung, and to Virginia Woolf. A single aside in A Buyer’s Market, set in the 1920s, does duty for the whole by describing “that wayward and melancholy, perhaps even rather spurious, content of the self-consciously disillusioned art of that epoch.” His only complete failure in this line is a protracted satire on a minor outbreak of Trotskyism in the artistic classes: he must have relied upon a cruel practical joker as his source for a running joke that does not “work” in the least. (While the society novelist St. John Clarke, author of such literary atrocities as Fields of Amaranth, Match Me Such Marvel, and Dust Thou Art, is represented as being seduced to Trotskyism by a nasty German male secretary, and thus as having upset his more hard-boiled Stalinist spongers, he continues to speak only in the same sheepishly “progressive” tones that any fellow traveler might have employed at that epoch.)

Powell’s politics also betray him into the one great absence, or perhaps better, say refusal, that mars his fiction as an echo or mirror or madeleine of the period. The television dramatization of Dance, though feeble enough for some of the inescapable reasons I have tried to suggest, was at least pedantically faithful to the text. It inserted only one incident that occurs nowhere in the work. As Jenkins watches a Socialist/Communist parade of unemployed “Hunger Marchers” into Hyde Park, and notes with amused contempt the number of modish and fashionable dons and scribblers who have attached themselves to the procession, a gang of Blackshirts rushes forward with knuckle-dusters and truncheons and falls upon the subversives. It isn’t simply that the Mosley element makes no appearance at this point in Dance. It is more that the Fascist and crypto-Fascist element in upper-class British society makes no appearance at all. The only actual Blackshirt who is mentioned even en passant is the unnamed daughter of a Soho Italian restaurateur.

Think of it—a lovingly etched social portrait, with background, of the British upper classes in the 1930s, and there isn’t a Unity Mitford or a “Chips” Channon or a Lord Halifax among the lot of them. It is, given Powell’s enormous acuity and fidelity, quite out of the question that this should be a mistake or an omission. Pro-Hitler opinions are indeed voiced, as are naive estimates of the German threat (the first volume of Dance was not published until well after the war). But these are put into the mouth of Kenneth Widmerpool, who is otherwise represented as a Stalin-worshiper, and of Jenkins’s Uncle Giles, elsewhere always referred to as “a bit of a radical” and as the family’s black sheep.

Yet Powell clearly has the capacity to summon history to his aid. The schoolboy Nicholas, for example, is visited by a military friend of his father’s on the day that the archduke and duchess are assassinated in Sarajevo. General Aylmer Conyers, an excellent and deceptively bufferish “friend of the family” figure, subjects him to a gruff senior-junior interrogation about the neighbors in the district, and their children:

“Fenwick in the Gloucesters?”
“Yes, I think so—the regiment that wears a badge at the back of their cap.”
“And Mary Barber’s father?”
“He’s in the Queen’s. Richard Vaughan’s is in the ‘Twenty-Fourth’—the South Wales Borderers.”
“What about the father of the Westmacott twins?”
“A Gunner.”
“What sort of a Gunner?”
“Field, but Thomas and Henry Westmacott say their father is going to get his ‘jacket’ soon, so he may be Royal Horse Artillery by now.”
“An exceedingly well-informed report,” said the General. “You have given yourself the trouble to go into matters thoroughly, I see.”

A few pages later, Jenkins is looking back on the war and reports, almost as tersely as a Powell Jazz Age character: “The Fenwicks’ father was killed; Mary Barber’s father was killed; Richard Vaughan’s father was killed; the Westmacott twins’ father was killed.” In other equally brusque asides, we learn that Jenkins’s uncle was also killed on the Western Front, and his father wounded in Mesopotamia. The master of the longueur knows, in other words, how to be curt when the need arises. A similarly potent sentence occurs five novels later, in Temporary Kings, when Jenkins leaves the bedside of Hugh Moreland—after Stringham, his most endearing friend—and records: “That morning was the last time I saw Moreland. It was also the last time I had, with anyone, the sort of talk we used to have together.” This is the melancholy of change and decay but it is derived, very substantially, from the associated decline in the fortunes and indeed the values of England.

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