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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.

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.”

2.

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.”

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.

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.

  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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