Most good novelists make life seem more interesting than it is. The very fact that their work offers a continuous aesthetic or psychic frisson is a kind of falsehood, a betrayal of reality; and one of the hardest things for any writer to capture is the feeling that nothing much is happening. If I had to praise only one aspect of Anthony Powell’s work, it would be his ability to capture this dailiness and ordinariness, and to combine it with a range of incidents and characters as broad as that tackled by any English-language novelist this century. There is a stereotype of Powell as a snob and novelist of society, and it’s true that he has written about Eton in the Teens, Oxford in the Twenties, and all that; but his oeuvre also encompasses pub life, literary life, the British film industry in the Thirties, war in Northern Ireland and London, campus uprisings in the Sixties and hippy cults in the Seventies, not to mention such subjects as abortion, adultery, alcoholism, voyeurism, necrophilia, black magic, and the awfulness of MPs. There is a lot of the world in Powell’s work, and a lot of history too. To give just one example, The Military Philosophers, the ninth novel in A Dance to the Music of Time, contains a description of the Whitehall response to news of the Katyn massacre (‘One would really have thought that someone at the top of the Polish set-up would have grasped that this is not the time to make trouble’) that is both a grimly valuable piece of documentary realism and also a subtle account of the fact that realpolitik is often no more than brutal fantasy. And throughout all this, that sense of dailiness and ordinariness – which hereinafter I’ll refer to as D&O – remains intact.
Powell is 92 this year. He has written 19 novels, four volumes of memoirs, one sort of biography (John Aubrey and His Friends), three plays, two books of collected literary criticism, and now, with the arrival of Journals 1990-92, three volumes of diaries. The D&O is there from the first words of his first novel, Afternoon Men, published 65 years ago.
‘When do you take it?’ said Atwater.
Pringle said: ‘You’re supposed to take it after every meal, but I only take it after breakfast and dinner. I find that enough.’
They stayed downstairs where the bar was. Upstairs there was a band, but dancing had not begun to any extent yet because it was still early in the evening. The room downstairs was low with a bar running all along one side of it and some tables and a few divans. The windows in the wall opposite the bar were all open, but they looked out onto a well, so that the room was really quite stuffy and there was a smell of ammonia. Several people they knew were sitting at tables or up at the bar, but they found a place to themselves in the corner of the room and sat down. Pringle said:
‘If you pay for this round and give me three-and-nine-pence we shall be all square.’
Atwater, thinking about the brandy they had drunk at dinner, did not say anything. The quality of the brandy had been poor. But he gave Pringle half a crown, a shilling and three pennies.
The exhilarating flatness of this is consciously ‘modern’, in the way shared by Waugh’s early novels or Hemingway’s early fiction, but Powell’s noticings depend on a lack of emphasis which is all his own. Many of that passage’s effects rely on not being too heavily stressed; their success depends on their lack of underlining, and to spell them out (as I’m about to do) is to kill them off, and lose the all-important D&O. Examples: Atwater’s ennui-propelled way of asking a question – you can hear his absolute lack of interest in the answer (and we never find out what Pringle’s pills are for). The atmosphere of the nightclub, its unglamorous seediness – it’s not a den of iniquity or a Greeneish theatre of vice, it’s just a place where a lot of people go and waste time and nothing much happens. The relationship between Pringle and Atwater, locked in a struggle for psychological and financial supremacy – in other words, ‘friends’. The way Pringle’s stinginess accompanies his hypochondria and interestedness in himself; the way Atwater watches and waits. All this is classic D&O.
Powell’s career is most conveniently divided into three main parts: the five prewar novels; A Dance to the Music of Time; and the memoirs, journals and journalism. Afternoon Men might not be the best of the early books, but on the other hand it might, and it’s certainly characteristic of the world and manner of the period – like Waugh’s Decline and Fall it has the attractive bloom of first-book freshness. It is told mainly in dialogue; it describes a world of boozing, parties, and doing as little work as possible, and its characters – the painter Barlow, the permanently smashed Fotheringham, the tarty Harriet – are interested in things like trying to con friends into renting country cottages so that they can go and stay in them, and having sex with people they don’t like. (The novel is also true to its period and milieu in that it is glancingly but disgracefully anti-semitic: Verelst, who succeeds with Susan where Atwater fails, is ‘dark and had bags under the eyes and rather a thick nose, but the general effect was not bad and he hardly looked like a Jew at all.’ There’s nothing like this anywhere else in Powell’s work.) It’s a funny book, and a bleak one, whose main interest is in the underdescribed ways in which people behave. When Pringle finds out that Harriet has been cheating on him with Barlow, he attempts suicide by swimming out to sea; but then he loses his nerve, changes his mind and is picked up by a fishing boat. Quite a few writers might have got this far, but only Powell would have had the subsequent arrival of the fisherman who had lent Pringle dry clothes for the trip home, and the extensive discussion of how much to tip him, and whether to offer him a drink:
Mrs Race said: ‘This sort of question is always so difficult to settle. Afterwards one always feels one has given either too much or too little.’
Barlow said: ‘I think ten shillings is really too little. On the other hand, a pound seems a lot. You see, they only picked him out of the water.’
Atwater said: ‘They have probably got the whole incident out of all proportion to its importance, in their minds, by this time. You must remember that.’
Sophy looked through the door.
‘Shall I ask the man how many lumps of sugar he likes?’ Barlow said:
‘Yes, ask him that.’
The manner and humour are that of all Powell’s five prewar novels. One of the beneficial paradoxes of Powell’s D&O is that because the quotidianness of life is so well evoked, the things that interrupt it stand out. As a corollary to the fact that most writers make life seem too interesting, surprises in books are almost never sufficiently surprising; but Powell gives his fictional upsets their proper weight and unexpectedness. Life’s surprisingness, which was to be one of the chief subjects of A Dance to the Music of Time, is much manifest in the early books: there’s the death of Frau Ortrud Marvin, lover of the callow journalist Lushington, in Venusberg; in From a View to a Death, there’s the hunting accident which kills the would-be Nietzschean superman Zouch; in What’s Become of Waring, there’s the death by drowning of the eponymous travel-book-writing anti-hero. A working definition of black comedy would be that it is the genre in which death is comic; but the deaths in these books are narrated in a plangent deadpan which is both comic and tragic, so that they have the shape of black comedy but not the texture. They are as interesting as any novels written in the Thirties.
Counterfactuality seems to be in vogue at the moment – in certain circles, I’m told, it’s the new rock ’n’ roll – so it’s tempting to wonder what kind of writer Powell would have become if it hadn’t been for the war. The five early novels are formally and tonally very alike: perhaps he would have gone on writing more or less the same book, à la Greene/Green/Compton-Burnett. But I doubt it. In any case, Powell had a 12-year break from fiction, a thing very few novelists have ever had, and his next book after What’s Become of Waring (1939) was A Question of Upbringing (1951), the first volume of the 12-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. This has been called ‘the most important work of fiction in English since Ulysses’ – which is otiose, since one of its great virtues is a D&O-based aversion to cant terms like ‘importance’. It’s one of English fiction’s few 20th-century masterpieces, whose slight critical eclipse will, if there is any justice, pass when the eight-part television adaptation begins screening later this year.
As I’ve already said, the most widely voiced objection to Powell’s work in general and A Dance to the Music of Time in particular is that it is snobbish. If Powell’s undeniable interest in dukes and duchesses and whatnot were all there was to him then the charge would probably stick; but the question of Powell and snobbery is more suggestive and more complicated than that. In crude terms the allegation of snobbery can be easily dealt with by the demonstrable fact that Powell is at least as interested in other areas of life as in the upper echelons of society (and let’s not forget that ‘society’ in that sense is not something in which many 20th-century English writers have been interested, and has some rarity value as a subject). Some of the most memorable characters in A Dance to the Music of Time are the miners and bankers with whom Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator, serves during the war, or the literary down-and-outs with whom he mingles after it; a large part of the value of the work is that it encompasses Lady Huntercombe’s dance, as well as the vissicitudes of the small magazine Fission, the aspirations of Mona Templer the would-be starlet, and the military dreams of Roland Gwatkin the bank employee. A glimpse at Hilary Spurling’s wonderful Invitation to the Dance, a handbook-cum-guide to the sequence, makes the point about the sheer range of Powell’s interests. Here is the entry for one relatively minor character, Albert Creech:
The Jenkinses’ cook (formerly hall-boy to Jenkins’s grandmother) at Stonehurst in 1914: ‘Albert, fleshy, sallow, blue-chinned, breathing hard, sweating a little, fitted an iron bar into sockets ... Rolled shirt-sleeves, green baize apron, conferred a misleadingly businesslike appearance, instantly dispelled by carpet-slippers of untold shabbiness which encased his large, chronically tender feet. All work except cooking abhorrent to him, he went through the required movements with an air of weariness, almost despair.’
Middle to late thirties; moody, timorous, sceptical, cruelly persecuted by women; his fear of suffragettes (‘Don’t want any of them Virgin Marys busting in and burning the place down’) makes a keen impression on the young Jenkins. Beloved by the parlourmaid Billson who is herself beloved by the soldier-servant Bracey: ‘Albert, for his part, possessed that touch of narcissism to be found in some artists whatever their medium – for Albert was certainly an artist in cooking – and apparently loved nobody but himself.’ Precipitates Billson’s breakdown by his engagement to another, and gives notice (‘ “Madam,” he said, “I’ve been goaded to this” ’) on the day of the Conyers’ visit. Joins up (‘firm as ever in his desire for the quiet life’) as canteen cook.
Hotel chef between the wars: ‘He had now settled down to be a fat man, with the professional fat man’s privileges and far from negligible status in life. He still supported a chronic weariness of spirit with an irony quite brutal in its unvarnished view of things ... He could have passed for a depressed, incurably indolent member of some royal household (there was a look of Prince Theodoric) in hopeless exile.’ Turns up again in 1939 running the Bellevue where Uncle Giles dies, Dr Trelawney gives trouble and General Conyers proposes spending a second honeymoon.
Gone forth in his cerements, according to Mrs Erdleigh, by 1944.
No snob, in the conventional sense of the word, could have written that character. And yet, and yet ... Perhaps there is a kind of snobbery in Powell’s work, but it is a kind shared by many writers (and perhaps by all good ones). This is the snobbery of finding some things more worthy of attention than other things, and of choosing to find a character’s quirks interesting in and for themselves. Snobs are like novelists, and vice versa, in the way they choose to invest certain people, and certain worlds, with interest. In other words, all exclusive attention (and all attention in fiction is necessarily exclusive) is structurally similar to snobbery, whether that attention is being lavished on a whisky priest, Mrs Dalloway or the Duke of Buccleuch. To put it another another way, for a novelist, qua novelist, snobbery is not necessarily the sin of sins.
The character on whom attention is lavished most generously in Dance is that of Widmerpool, the sequence’s anti-hero, comic butt, principal baddy and gargoyle in chief. Widmerpool is an intermittently sinister buffoon, the incarnation of Powell’s fascination with psychological types who pursue power. Jenkins greatly dislikes him, but as time passes we come to wonder if the opposition between the two characters is quite as clear-cut as our narrator likes to think. It’s true that Widmerpool does do one or two things that are not much short of outright evil – during the war he causes the death of Stringham and Templer, two old semi-friends from school, thus fulfilling a joking prophecy made (seven novels earlier in the sequence) by Stringham: ‘That boy will be the death of me.’ But even this cuts both ways. Widmerpool’s lifelong status as a figure of ridicule in Jenkins’s eyes is rooted in the fact that he had been a joke at school: ‘he would have remained a dim outline to me if he had not at an earlier date, and before my own arrival, made himself already memorable, as a new boy, by wearing the wrong kind of overcoat.’ Now that is snobbish, toxically so; is it so surprising that the object of these feelings becomes a freak? Not that Widmerpool is in any sense to be admired; but over time and with rereading, Jenkins comes to seem an increasingly devious figure, one just as keen on getting in and getting on as Widmerpool, but much more reluctant to be caught doing so. In fact the gargoylisation of Widmerpool can be seen as a displacement by Jenkins of those aspects of his own character which are ambitious, snobbish, devious, voyeuristic and hypocritical. Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks quotes Desmond MacCarthy’s mot on the topic of ‘real national characteristics’: that of the English is ‘an inflexible determination, in the face of truth, honour and art, to have things both ways’. No book has ever been more about that than Dance.
In Journals 1990-92 there is a strong hint as to the much-debated identity of the model for Widmerpool. The man named is – notwithstanding Lord Longford’s highly Widmerpoolian attempt at self-identification – one Denis Capel-Dunn, a wartime Cabinet Office official described but not named in Faces in My Time, the third volume of Powell’s memoirs (where he goes by the nickname The Papal Bun). There is also a hint, or at least a non-denial, that Barbara Skelton was the model for Pamela Widmerpool, the unforgettably nasty, semi-necrophile nymphomaniac who is one of the sequence’s great triumphs.
These might not sound like high-level insights, and perhaps they aren’t: it would be silly to pretend that the Journals are anything like first-rate Powell, or that they will attract new readers rather than appealing mainly to confirmed fans. (Powell has fans, which, as Alan Bennett has pointed out, is almost always an offputting thing.) But the Journals are characteristic of the third tranche of Powell’s writings, the memoirs and journalism, in that they are full of good things. In his non-fiction he has the attractive trait of remembering to put in all the interesting bits – an important but often neglected point, which Powell perhaps had sharpened and clarified for him by his studies of John Aubrey. The memoirs in particular are extraordinarily dense with characters, incidents and insights, and have the best short psychological studies of, inter alios, Waugh, Greene and Orwell. The Journals aren’t at that level, but they aren’t without interest, especially once the reader gets used to the lists of people met, wines drunk, parties and social occasions, some of which manage to attract the highest accolade: ‘Enjoyable’.
In Journals 1990-92 we learn that V.S. Naipaul met John Major shortly after he had been elected PM, and found him ‘quick and dazzling’ (‘not the sort of praise Vidia gives to everyone’); we learn that Powell’s favourite-ever film was Stroheim’s Foolish Wives; and that Jilly Cooper turned up to lunch wearing shorts (‘for which she is perhaps getting a shade too grown-up’). Powell speculates about Kingsley Amis’s mental health around the time of the publication of the latter’s Memoirs, which upset him by repeating ‘my remark about Auden, which was clearly not to be repeated in a book’ (the remark in question was, on news of the poet’s demise: ‘I’m delighted that shit has gone’). There isn’t a set-piece to match the dinner party with Mrs Thatcher in the first volume of diaries, Journals 1982-86 (she’s ‘very attractive, though not at all easy’) and there is no single meditation to match that in the same book on the relative social-climbing skills of Waugh, Beaton, Betjeman and Peter Quennell. On the other hand, we do get Powell’s last word on his old school chum Henry Green. Nick Jenkins would never have been this unguarded:
My final judgment on Henry, my oldest intimate friend, who meant a great deal to me when we were both growing up, is that he was really rather a shit. His behaviour to his friends, stinginess, inordinate snobbery, treatment of Dig, vanity about his supreme importance as a writer, combined with no very keen intelligence, all emerge again in rereading the Waugh Letters, which I am now doing. In relation to his conceit, Henry once remarked to me in the Thirties: ‘I suppose I am generally recognised now as being as good as any novelist can be.’ Kingsley Amis once in a review of a reprint of some Green novel (or Pack My Bag) said it sounded as if it were written when the author was drunk; which it may well have been.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.