A Writer's Notebook 
by Anthony Powell.
Heinemann, 169 pp., £14.99, February 2001, 0 434 00915 6
Show More
Show More

Reviewers are always sternly instructed to check page proofs against finished copies of books, and I do, I will. But the proofs of Anthony Powell’s A Writer’s Notebook provide, along with numerous unimportant oddities of phrase and spelling which seem to be errors of transcription from script to voice to type to print (‘I would like to thank my wife, who read the manuscript book onto tape, and also Helen Gould, who typed it’), one lovely new alignment which ought not to be allowed simply to vanish into its own correction. It’s good to get things right, but we don’t have to rush it. Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time has 12 volumes, of which the tenth is called Books Do Furnish a Room; he wrote two further, later novels, not in the sequence, called O How the Wheel Becomes It and The Fisher King. The Powell offered to us here, in the pre-title list of his books, is the author of a nine-volume sequence of novels called A Dance to the Music of Time, and a further four-volume sequence called Books to Furnish a Room.

The attraction of the slip is manifold. It is just the kind of thing that would happen within a Powell novel. It would be followed by various comic complications, intricate embarrassments, sundry opportunities for adultery or switches of sexual allegiance, and might involve a politician or two. It would go ‘rackety’, to use a favourite Powell word. In his Journals he mentions ‘rackety parties’, ‘the rackety side of life’ (this in connection with Scott Fitzgerald), a ‘somewhat rackety woman’, and a character at the Oxford of Philip Larkin’s novel Jill is said to be ‘an aggressively rackety minor-public-school undergraduate’. ‘Rackety types have a link with people of the intellect,’ Powell writes in his notebook, and his novels are full of quite unintellectual types, usually women, who have this link. They fall for, or hang out with, composers, writers, singers, painters, get involved in little magazines or dubious publishing houses. The link, presumably, is a certain freedom from what’s expected; but the rackety types are a lot freer than the intellectuals, and they notch up love affairs of a kind the intellectuals can only dream of.

The slip also points us directly to the title of the tenth volume in the sequence of novels, and to Powell’s continuing preoccupation with reading or the lack of it. The phrase is the nickname of one Lindsay Bagshaw, a shabby but not disagreeable literary operator, who brings out some of Powell’s best comic writing. Bagshaw has been taken as a representation of Malcolm Muggeridge, a connection which Powell, in his Journals, first denies then half accepts. Well, perhaps he just denies intending it. ‘This too never intended,’ he notes – the other connection he is refusing is that of the fictional don Sillery with the historical Maurice Bowra. But then Powell adds that rereading his own novels ‘brought Malcolm to mind more than once in case of Bagshaw, quite involuntary on my part’. Bagshaw is ‘not in the front rank of literary critics’, indeed we are told ‘there might have been difficulty in squeezing him into an already overcrowded and grimacing back row,’ but he is a survivor, possessed of a ‘wheedling, self-deprecatory manner’, which has ‘procured him a wide variety of jobs, extracted him from equally extensive misadventures’. ‘His movements,’ we learn, when the narrator, after many years of not seeing him, catches sight of Bagshaw on a railway platform, ‘suggested hope to avoid recognition, while a not absolutely respectable undertaking was accomplished.’ There are two stories about how he came by his nickname. In one, Bagshaw is drunk, and, seeking to verify a quotation from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, pulls over a vast bookcase on himself. As the many volumes fall on him, he is said to have commented: ‘Books do furnish a room.’ In the other story, he is about to sleep with the wife of a well-known drama critic – the chap himself is away at the first night of The Apple Cart – and glancing around the critic’s booklined study, and demonstrating what the erring lady took to be an extreme lack of sensibility, he is supposed to have remarked: ‘Books do furnish a room.’ The narrator thinks neither story is likely to be true, but that makes the nickname all the more irresistible. Drink, sex and scholarship point to one end. Bagshaw knows that books are not furniture, but his jokes and his career suggest an easy understanding of all the people who can’t imagine what else books would be.

Powell himself would probably have been amused by the slip on the pre-title page, since he shares Bagshaw’s perception of the place, if not the value, of books in the social world. Most of the characters in the novels themselves are the reverse of great readers. ‘Books,’ we are told, ‘were by no means the first interest’ of Sir Magnus Donners, the industrialist. That is putting the matter mildly, although it is true that when he thought he was dying, Sir Magnus set himself ‘to read the best – only the best – of all literatures, English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian’. Even then, of course, he left a few literatures out, and when he learned the doctors had got the diagnosis wrong, he just ‘went back to making money, governing the country, achieving all-time records in utterance of conversational cliché’, as the narrator’s friend Moreland phrases it. There is also Bill Truscott, tipped for greatness when he was a young man, who turns with age into a stodgy civil servant, and tells the narrator: ‘I never read novels nowadays.’ Perhaps remembering his old reputation for sophistication, or in the narrator’s fussy but very funny phrasing, ‘possibly thinking that admission … suggested a too headlong falling off from what had once been an all-embracing intellectual coverage’, he then corrects himself. ‘That is, you understand, I don’t find much time, with so many things going on – as we all have – of course, I fully intend … and naturally …’ A few years later, the narrator, himself a novelist, is seated at dinner next to a woman who says brightly: ‘I’m afraid I haven’t read any of your books. I believe you write books, don’t you? I hope you won’t mind that.’ Not much he can do if he does mind, and he mildly tells us he is ‘in the process of picking out one of the several routine replies designed to bridge this not at all uncommon conversational opening’ when a rackety interruption dispenses with all need to respond. But he certainly could have found, among the routine replies, a remark about books furnishing a room.

Powell’s Notebook is not a journal (he published two volumes of journals, as well as four volumes of memoirs, and the two novels I have mentioned, after he finished A Dance to the Music of Time), but a slender, concentrated gathering, over a very long time, of phrases and names and jokes and ideas. Powell himself says he doesn’t know when he started it, but, taking his cue from the early appearance of a name which surfaces in his first novel, Afternoon Men, supposes the date must have been around 1930. On the last page, the phrase ‘Under Review’ is offered as a possible title, and since Powell published a collection of criticism called that in 1991, the closing date might be around 1990 or a little before. A Dance to the Music of Time was published between 1951 (A Question of Upbringing) and 1975 (Hearing Secret Harmonies). Powell was born in 1905 and died in 2000.

Powell comments in the Notebook on ‘Henry James’s inability to invent good proper names’ – the inability may more properly belong to our culture, since James took a lot of his names straight from the Times – and certainly suffers from no such inability himself. ‘Drawbridge, a butler’, he writes. ‘Blackhead, a civil servant’. ‘Stringham … Roderick … Watkin … Tokenhouse’. But then we might remember that Powell borrowed the name of Widmerpool, his lamentably, pompously comic recurring character, from a Cromwellian captain of horse. Powell says in his introduction that ‘increasingly, throughout the Notebook, Shakespeare became my companion, his point of view ever more congenial.’ This sounds pretty grand, even Widmerpoolish, and it’s a pleasure to report that what Powell gets out of Shakespeare, on the evidence of the Notebook, is mainly a series of wonderful anachronistic jokes, as when he recalls the character in Antony and Cleopatra (Scarus), who says just before the battle for Alexandria that he has ‘yet room for six scotches more’. The OED gives ‘incision, cut, score or gash’ as the first meaning for ‘scotch’, and cites this passage. Powell also notes that Sonnets 74, 77 and 82 indicate that ‘the Young Man was a reviewer.’ The indicative phases are: ‘When thou reviewest this, thou dost review/The very part was consecrate to thee’; ‘The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,/And of this book this learning mayst thou taste’; ‘The dedicated words which writers use/Of their fair subject, blessing every book’.

There are certainly lumpy and blinkered moments in the Notebook. ‘One of the basic human rights is to make fun of people,’ Powell says. ‘It is now threatened.’ It’s a pleasure to make fun of people, and it’s good to be able to take it. But it looks more like a privilege than a right. Not all of Powell’s joke are hilarious (‘he had taken an aegrotat in the university of life’; ‘one touch of Nietzsche makes the whole world kin’; ‘those whom the sods love die young’), but it seems hard to demand a perfect score from a notebook, and many of the jokes manage to be both obvious and oblique (‘a male prostitute called samphire, because he was a “dreadful trade”’; ‘I saw them coming up the street together looking like Culture and Anarchy’; ‘did Tiny Tim not die at all, but grew up to join the firm of Scrooge and Marley and become like Tiny Rowland?’). A ‘Jubilee Ode’ for the Queen runs:

Though she may not ponder Borges
When she’s cutting meat for corgis
At least a dozen answer to her helm
And in visiting a Naafi
She rarely quotes Cavafy
She’s an expert on the bloodstock of her realm.

There are pithy phrases of the kind one imagines notebooks are designed for (but rarely contain): ‘an author who allows himself a good deal of platitude’; ‘it’s too late now to die young’; ‘the beauties of yesterday become muttering, mad old women.’

All this is entertaining, but I don’t think we can claim it’s revealing. There are thoughts here of the kind one imagines novelists storing up for themselves or their characters, but not many of them. A reflection on large families (‘I am an only child, accordingly there has always seemed to me something sinister about large families’) finds its way into the narrator’s mind in At Lady Molly’s. An idea about reading (‘reading novels demands almost as much talent as writing them’) is given to the writer X. Trapnel in Books Do Furnish a Room. The closest we get to an insight about what drives or organises the fiction is perhaps this remark: ‘a great deal of individual success in life is based on not having the slightest idea of what other people are like.’ We might back it up by this apparently unrelated comment: ‘the English, unlike the Americans or even continentals, never really believe in the existence of the world around them.’ Not knowing what other people are like, which may go with not knowing what we ourselves are like – ‘self-love is so often unrequited,’ Powell says in another jotting – allows us to ignore all kinds of differences and obstacles, while not believing in the existence of the world around us allows us to trample on and even steal whole chunks of it without thinking it real enough to suffer loss or damage. A version of empire, familiar enough in its domestic or intimate instances, too. But ignorance and error will only take us so far, and they can bring with them, in Powell’s fiction and in lived history, colossal and frequently comic comeuppances. ‘Success in life’, for Powell the novelist, is an object of curiosity, a form of social behaviour to be tracked with interest, but always from a distance, and none of his more reflective characters, however fully achieved their art or thought or career, could be called ‘a success’. The very idea usually produces its counter-image immediately, like the sight of the only manuscript of Trapnel’s novel floating in the Regent’s Park Canal, where his mistress has dumped it. ‘Do you know what all that mass of paper looks like,’ Trapnel says, lucid although very drunk. ‘A manuscript. Probably someone’s first novel. Authors always talk of burning their first novel. I believe this one’s drowned his.’ Then he fishes the book out of the water and realises it is his. ‘I never thought of this,’ he says. ‘I never thought she’d destroy my book.’ The narrator comments: ‘He stood there, still smiling slightly, almost as if he were embarrassed by what had happened.’ This is the revenge of the rackety on the very idea of success, and we realise that for Powell it’s not only successful people who haven’t the slightest idea of what other people are like. Or rather we do have the slightest idea, but only the slightest. Its slightness is our undoing.

In A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell has his narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, talk constantly, and rather ploddingly, of pattern and design. The very title, with its glance at Poussin, evokes rhythm and return, and the novels are devoted to coincidence, both as a sort of realism of the improbable – an implied claim that actual life has more coincidences than most fiction allows itself – and as a structuring principle, which Powell himself calls a convention and a convenience. ‘Life continued in its mysterious, patterned way,’ Jenkins says when he comes across Widmerpool in a quite new context after not seeing him for some time, but it’s not at all clear that life does anything of the sort, even in Powell’s novels. A little later, Jenkins tries to find ‘some parallel, however far-fetched’, between Widmerpool and the retired General Conyers (a man who holds the theory ‘that poodles, owing to their keen natural intelligence, could profitably be trained as gun dogs’ – the next we hear of him he is ‘indisposed’ after falling ‘headlong from the stable loft where the poodles’ food was stored’). Jenkins says he is ‘hoping to construct one of those formal designs in human behaviour which for some reason afford an obscure satisfaction to the mind: making the more apparent inconsistencies of life easier to bear’. This is pretty vague, but it’s clear that Jenkins would like to find the designs he is forced extravagantly to construct, and that life’s patterned way, when it is not a convenience, is a consolatory fantasy.

The more you read Powell, the more ironic the title of his sequence becomes. Characters do disappear and return, like figures in a dance; although some of them just disappear, as several of them shockingly do in a bombing raid in The Soldier’s Art. But when they return, their situation or behaviour usually mocks the very idea of pattern or prediction, and Jenkins remarks on his own bafflement even more frequently than he remarks on the dance effect. ‘One never learns to expect the obvious,’ he says. ‘To be told something that comes as a surprise, then find everyone has known about it for ages, is no uncommon experience.’ By the end of the sequence it’s clear that only someone like the unctuous and obnoxious Canon Paul Fenneau is still talking about the music of time: ‘To those familiar with the rhythm of living there are few surprises in this world.’ To everyone else, there is scarcely anything except surprises. Jenkins even manages, while on military service during the war, to visit Cabourg, Proust’s Balbec, without knowing he has been there until he has left, and is provoked to characteristic musings. His ‘faint sense of disappointment’ is ‘in its way suitably Proustian too’: ‘a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond 100 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.’

Prose like this, of course, is what makes Powell unreadable for many, and Jenkins’s own regular apologies for his bumbling don’t help a great deal. He sees himself as indulging in ‘rather banal reflections’, and has no illusions about the ‘subtlety’ of his ‘speculations’. His ‘professional reflections’, he says at one point, are ‘at best subjective, at worst intolerably tedious’. But then this just means his impersonation of a bore is at times so perfect as to be indistinguishable from the real thing, and I don’t think anything at all can be said in defence of sentences like: ‘In a writer’s life, as time shortens, work tends to predominate, among other things resulting in a reduction of attendance at large conjunctions of people.’ Fewer parties, in other words. And Jenkins’s discretion about his private life is downright pathological. ‘With the age of 30 in sight a sense of guilt in relation to that subject makes itself increasingly felt.’ ‘That subject’ is marriage: the passive mood hides what it’s supposed to hide, but also reveals that a lot of hiding is going on. The following instance is even stranger, because it begins in the first person and slithers off into generalised allegory: ‘I was then at the time of life when one has written a couple of novels, and moved from a firm that published art books to a company that produced second-feature films.’ Oh, that time of life. Trying to make the individual self disappear, Jenkins succeeds only in absurdly universalising it.

In his Journals 1987-89, where he reports on a rereading of the whole of A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell says he thinks the work is ‘as far from A la recherche in one direction as from The Forsyte Saga in another’. At times it seems even further from any lived human life than it is from either. But Powell goes on to distinguish himself from Waugh and the resort to farce. This is helpful, and we are left, those of us who keep reading Powell and keep quietly laughing, with a sense of discreet comedy which needs further definition. In Books Do Furnish a Room Jenkins comments on a distinction Burton makes between satire and comedy: he calls it an ‘antithesis’. On the last page of the last volume Jenkins quotes Burton again, this time distinguishing between ‘comical’ and ‘tragical matters’. Of course comedy often slips into tragedy, satire or farce, and a good thing too. But Powell’s ‘tone’ – a term he uses often and a compositional element he worries about a lot – rests on the maintenance of a comedy which doesn’t slip, or slips only into pallor, not into another genre. He allows himself, to borrow his own phrase, a good deal of platitude, but that’s not all there is.

Stealth and obliquity are essential to Powell’s style. ‘Without making excessive claims for Sir Bertram’s imperturbability, or good humour, one could see that it took more than an excited elderly man … socially to discompose him these days.’ This may mean that the irascible and unpleasant Sir Bertram has acquired a little self-control, or has traded his bad temper for pompousness, or just got old and tired, but what’s funny is the (wild) idea of making excessive claims for his imperturbability or good humour – one has only to think of them to see that any claims at all would be out of place. We can find effects like these everywhere in Powell: in an image like that of ‘the unbelievably inexpert adjustment’ of a soldier’s false teeth – horrors of dentistry lurk in the formal phrasing – or that of certain British officers, failing to live up to Marshal Lyautey’s requirement of ‘gaiety’ in a military man, who ‘had to be admitted to fall unequivocally short in that respect’. ‘Unbelievably inexpert’ and ‘unequivocally short’ look like simple periphrasis; like ‘large conjunctions of people’, or ‘a sense of guilt in relation to that subject’. But they are periphrasis as irony rather than avoidance; like sentences in Jane Austen, they take you back to the issues they pretend to abandon.

A characteristic experience in reading Powell is laughing two sentences too late – not because you’ve only just got the joke (there isn’t a joke), but because the comic implications of the earlier sentence were so beautifully disguised in bumbling. When Charles Stringham, a friend of Jenkins, mentions his time at Oxford, he does so with flamboyant understatement: ‘I explained … that my own college days had been among the most melancholic of a life not untinged by shadow.’ When Jenkins himself offers the same sentiment, he manages to sound like Dr Johnson rewriting Salad Days:

Reverting to the university at forty, one immediately recaptured all the crushing melancholy of the undergraduate condition. As the train drew up at the platform, before the local climate had time to impair health, academic contacts disturb the spirit, a more imminent gloom was re-established, its sinewy grip in a flash making one young again.

Everything is closely placed here: the word ‘reverting’, the balanced clauses, the ‘sinewy grip’, and the startling equation of youth with misery. Powell makes us laugh by turning upside down what we took to be the truth. And at his best, he makes us laugh again, because the upside down version now looks a little truer than the other one.

Another characteristic reading experience, which occurs largely at the level of the chapters rather than the sentences, is being ready to laugh a little too soon. Powell structures his novels through set-pieces, usually social occasions, elaborately prepared, and then wrecked by a ludicrous (or occasionally disastrous) interruption. The effect is not farcical but it is, most of the time, comic. We know the interruption is coming, we even know it’s likely to involve Widmerpool, but we don’t know how, and we are already amused by the waiting. A funeral starts in a country church, for example:

Rain was pouring down in steely diagonals across the gravestones. Within the medieval building, large for a country church, the temperature was lower than in the open, the interior like a wintry cave … There was a longish, rather nerve-wracking wait, emphasised by much coughing and clearing of throats. Then came manifestations from the porch.

‘Manifestations’ is one of Powell’s carefully unspecific words. We don’t know what they are yet, or who’s producing them, but we do know they will be rackety and funny. And we know, or hope for, something else. We expect the interruption not only to break up the formal occasion, but to enhance it or confirm it in some way, fill it out, just as Powell’s best sentences make the upside down version of the truth look truer. In this instance the interruption comes from Widmerpool and five other people, first having an argument outside the church and then ‘advancing up the aisle in diamond formation’. They are the ragged and various remnants of the dead man’s life in publishing and politics, a sort of disgraceful moving tableau of his past. A little earlier, Powell evokes a previous funeral in the same place, where a party of German prisoners of war improbably wandered across the churchyard, ‘forming a rough-and-ready, unknowing guard of honour’ to the just buried corpse, which happened to be that of a war hero. Jenkins’s speculations here do not abandon his cautious and middle-winded idiom, but they do offer a full-blown theory of what Powell thinks is happening when we seem to hear the music of time.

As so often on such occasions, the sharp contrast between life and death was emphasised by one of those incongruous incidents that seem to bear on the character or habits of the deceased. So far from diminishing the nature of the ceremony, their aptness often increases its intensity, bypassing, so to speak, ingenuities of ritual and music, bridging with some peculiar fitness the gulf presented to the imagination by the fact of death. The sensibilities are brought up with a start to accept what has happened by action or scene, outwardly untimed, inwardly apposite.

Untimed and apposite. Lacking ‘formal design’ or anything resembling a ‘mysterious, patterned way’, life in Powell’s novels, and indeed often outside them, manages to provide a comic and moving commentary on itself, because unscripted chance can behave like a writer, and because the imagination, desperate or just idle, is haunted by the idea of aptness, which others have called a rage for order. Taking Shakespeare’s scotches as our Scotches begins to look less like a lamentable if wonderful joke, and more like a miniature instance of how far we are ready to go for our untimed music.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences