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Powell’s Way

Some of these effects, though, take their shape as quasi-mystical. Another way in which Powell differs from his friend Orwell is in his approach to the paranormal. Powell may have appeared to share Orwell’s disdain for superstition and quackery but, in Dance itself, if a shaman or prestidigitator makes a prediction, it invariably comes true. A Tarot card reader accurately divines a future romance for Jenkins in The Acceptance World, and in Hearing Secret Harmonies the saturnine Scorpio Murtlock astonishes a rural Jenkins neighbor by telling him with mystic precision where to locate a lost dog. Even that most pathetic of “psychic” contrivances, the Ouija board, is granted the power to foresee an immediate crisis by spelling out some key phrases from The Communist Manifesto and thereby to embarrass the dogmatic Marxist materialist J.G. Quiggin.

The lack of paradox here—Powell seeming as credulous as his own characters—somewhat upsets the otherwise well-kept balance between the historical and the comical. It also calls attention to an underremarked element in his cast: the large number of witches that it contains. Dance is positively hag-ridden. Charles Stringham is unmanned by a selfish mother and later gelded entirely by Miss Weedon, a cold-blooded and ambitious governess with a saving mission. Her working-class counterpart, the harridan-cum-slut and Communistic petroleuse by the name of Jones, is as previously noted given the sobriquet “Gypsy.” Jenkins’s Uncle Giles is only one of the characters to be severely put out by the Tarot-wielding lady who is named Myra Erdleigh. A serving girl goes mad and disrobes before the assembled Jenkins family. Albert, the family’s faithful retainer, is haunted by a fear of terrorism from the early suffragettes. “The Kindly Ones” themselves, or the Eumenides of Greek drama, are none other than the fatally empowered female Furies. Lady Warminster, Jenkins’s stepmother-in-law, is described as a “witch” on her first introduction, possessing “a calm, autumnal beauty that did not at all mask the amused, malicious, almost insane light that glinted all the time in her infinitely pale blue eyes.”

Most deadly of all her species, though, is the frigid nymphomaniac Pamela Flitton, who subsequently becomes the second wife of Kenneth Widmerpool and is rivaled only by Widmerpool’s own mother as a study in hysterical malice. Her end, which takes the gruesome form of a necrophiliac tryst in the penultimate novel Temporary Kings, completes the moral and emotional ruin of a number of men, including the brilliantly named pseudointellectual Leon-Joseph Ferrand-Seneschal. This, with its echo of the then notorious romance between Sonia Orwell and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, may be partly taken from life and if so would sharpen my proposed outline of the difference between Orwell and Powell.

V.S. Pritchett wrote that “Mr Powell’s English are punishing and punished. Their comedy has no silken threads; the threads are tweed.” He said this while considering only the first trilogy, but I think even at that stage it was evident that much more than merely tweedy materials were involved. The highest pitch attained by Dance is in the long stretch (The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, The Military Philosophers) comprising the years of the Second World War. After a frustrating period of service in Ulster, Jenkins finds himself attached as a liaison officer to those governments-in-exile that have stationed themselves in London. His portrayal of the gallantry of the forgotten combatants—the Belgians and Dutch and Poles—is a series of beautifully executed miniatures. (It also calls subliminally on the natural sympathies of a Welsh writer and soldier for the predicament of small nations.) He witnesses the liberation of the Low Countries, revealing the strong painterly qualities in his makeup:

On the whole, a march-past of Belgian troops summoned up the Middle Ages or the Renaissance; emaciated, Memling-like men-at-arms on their way to supervise the Crucifixion or some lesser martyrdom, while beside them tramped the clowns of Teniers or Brouwer, round rubicund countenances, haled away from carousing to be mustered in the ranks.

This somewhat recalls the figure of Rowland Gwatkin, Jenkins’s commander in the Welsh battalion:

He had draped a rubber groundsheet round him like a cloak, which, with his flattish-brimmed steel helmet, transferred him into a figure from the later Middle Ages, a captain-of-arms of the Hundred Years War, or the guerrilla campaigning of Owen Glendower. I suddenly saw that was where Gwatkin belonged, rather than to the soldiery of modern times, the period which captured his own fancy. Rain had wetted his moustache, causing it to droop over the corners of the mouth, like those belonging to effigies on tombs or church brasses. Persons at odds with their surroundings not infrequently suggest an earlier historic epoch….

This is chivalric, perhaps, but by no means tweedy. It is chivalry, too (as well as anticommunism), that motivates the disgust of Jenkins at the pusillanimity of the British government in helping to suppress the news of the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn: an ignoble moment in which Widmerpool, by now a military intelligence officer, plays an especially ignoble part, denouncing the Polish exiles for their “lack of circumspection” in choosing to embarrass Great Britain’s gallant Soviet allies. Other off-scene occurrences, most notably Hiroshima and the Final Solution, play no part at all, though Jenkins may surprise some readers when, on learning of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, he experiences the instantaneous sense that now, at last, everything will be all right. Only when the war is won, and Jenkins finds himself in Normandy and posted without warning to Cabourg—the Balbec of Proust, Albertine, Charlus, and the Swanns—does an air of anticlimax supervene:

Proustian musings still hung in the air when we came down to the edge of the water. It had been a notable adventure…. At the same time, a faint sense of disappointment superimposed on an otherwise absorbing inner experience was in its way suitably Proustian too: a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent; to rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.

That is very fine. “Anticlimax,” however, is an inadequate word for the extreme disappointment that awaits in Hearing Secret Harmonies, the closing volume of Dance. Here, the shortcomings of the preceding novels appear condensed and intensified. Confronted by what he would doubtless call “the Sixties,” Powell sounds less and less like a stoical and skeptical observer and instead takes on the lineaments of a vaporing old bore. The book supposedly concerns the cult of youth and the traps that this cult will set for the trend-crazed older person who needs or desires to appear contemporary. But it is no longer informed by experience and curiosity, well-recollected and hard-won and wrought over in reflection. Rather, it resembles the plaintive tone of a beached colonial retiree, convinced that all around him is going to the dogs. There’s a distinctly elderly quaver in the way that Jenkins alludes to a current “pop star,” and also his cringe-making effort at the capturing of “youth culture” usages. (Things are “a drag.” People “freak out.”)

Worst of all, an ill-carpentered and strenuous scenario almost enlists our sympathy for the dread Widmerpool. It becomes plain at last that, having recruited Widmerpool to the roles of conceited schoolboy, arrogant businessman, overbearing staff officer, intolerable Labour politician, crypto-fascist, crypto-Communist, and potential model for the Fifth Man (to name only the most salient ones), Powell has run out of things to do with him, has exhausted the capacity of his most vivid creation. Widmerpool’s Nemesis—as a ludicrous cult-slave to a boy young enough to be his son—does not come close to matching his earlier hubris. Nor is it consistent with his grossly well-nurtured sense of self-interest and self-preservation. Some of the country house scenes, of the sort in which Powell elsewhere excels, are more farce than comedy and often read like a rough draft for Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In the preceding novels, the dubious thaumaturges and mystic adepts are, so to speak, kept under restraint. Even at their most irritating, they sometimes succeed in supplying some salt and leaven to the narrative. Here, they take over entirely. Powell loses his way in a sort of pallid drizzle of New Age babble, picked up at third hand along with his other impressions of “the Sixties,” and allows even his most robust characters to succumb to runes, horoscopes, and the sickly blandishments of Aleister Crowley. To invert, in fact, what has been so often and unfairly said against Powell, the verdict here must be that events are random and unstrung rather than intricately coincidental. The series does not end or conclude, still less achieve a resolution. It just stops.

The later entries in Powell’s Journals often rise to similar self-parody: that of the disaffected country squire. He pens devotional entries to Mrs Thatcher (“The answer”), complains about modern education, loves cats, reiterates his glee at the death of the traitorous bumboy W.H. Auden, watches the press to see who has been knighted or ennobled, quarrels intermittently with Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, misses the firm hand of the Shah of Iran, admires his sound rural neighbor Vidia Naipaul, and expresses strong distaste for Salman Rushdie unless the latter is physically menaced by Muslims (“If they live here, they must obey the laws of this country like everyone else. If they don’t, they must get out”). When invited to a literary prize event in Jerusalem, he revolts at the prospect of having to be civil to “the terrorist Menachem Begin.” (It would be a great mistake to construe such an entry as being, in any sense, pro-Palestinian.) This is all intensely enjoyable but it diminishes that very distance—between the Waugh style and the Powell style—which was once thought, and felt, to be important to his readership, and to himself.

The success and failure of Dance are both of epic dimensions. And it is Time—an element that Powell himself sometimes capitalizes—that has the final victory. An undertaking that set out to be, and was, an updating of the English novel manages to sustain itself with grace and wit over several long movements before being overtaken and outpaced by history and events. “Time,” as Powell’s despised Auden famously wrote, “will forgive many things.” It will certainly “pardon Kipling and his views” and will even pardon Paul Claudel: “Pardon him for writing well.” But the strains die away, the syncopation begins to falter, the band wants to go home, and the characters lose definition as they begin to droop. As in Poussin’s framing, only Time calls the tune and distinguishes the dancers from the dance. I first began to read Dance when it was incomplete and there was something to look forward to. The pleasure then afforded was rather greater than that which is offered by a long look back.

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