Standing at ease

Robert Taubman

  • Faces in My Time by Anthony Powell
    Heinemann, 230 pp, £8.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 434 59924 7

At the beginning of this volume Anthony Powell marries into the Pakenham family, which has some resemblance, he discloses, to the Tollands in his sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time. By the end, he has written the first of those novels, A Question of Upbringing. Intervening, the war years provide his main subject, and one sees how closely – the Welsh regiment in Northern Ireland, command of the Defence Platoon at Div HQ, transfer to Military Intelligence and liaison with Allied and Neutral military attachés at the War Office – Mr Powell’s own story has been anticipated by Jenkins in the novels. The war is thus ‘ground already traversed’, and Mr Powell himself suggests that the novels ‘throw more light on the experience than can be achieved in memoirs’. This will not dampen the curiosity of those who want the memoirs as footnotes to the real thing. In any case, it’s a useful conjunction to have, the life and the art version set side by side, both of them now recalled out of the past; and the voices of two narrators, so much alike but with different claims to authenticity.

As for the novels, I have found them more arid and depressing than many readers, more so than the humour makes up for. Wholehearted admirers must bring to them, it seems to me, some more generous affection for human nature: or perhaps the opposite would do as well – a positive taste for its frailties and deficiencies; low expectations, and a wilful satisfaction in seeing them justified. But yes: the novels are the real thing: more imaginative and memorable, with every minor incident (often not unlike a scrap of memoirs in itself, such as the scene of the demob outfits that concludes The Military Philosophers) splendidly achieving its dramatic effect. There was something more vigorous, too, in the anti-romantic tone of the novels – which they shared with Evelyn Waugh’s novels, though in a minor key. Pamela Flitton comes to mind as an ATS driver at the War Office, with her ‘Stuff the Ambassador’, or the picture of her, ‘standing by the car, surveying the street with her usual look of hatred and despair’. I wish the old note were sounded again in these memoirs, which are prosaic and unromantic enough, but not in the same way positively disenchanted.

The tone here is urbane and genial, so much so, indeed, that it strikes me as a carefully managed, rather than an absolutely natural tone. He recounts a good deal of literary as well as military life; there are anecdotes of Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Waugh, Greene, Eliot and others. Only Malcolm Muggeridge is given a full, persuasive study, bristling with interest and Mr Powell’s kind of psychological deconstructions, recalling those of the novels (and incidentally his admiration for Stendhal). There’s urbanity in the novels, but not unchecked by irony. Here, in the convention of memoirs, it’s more genial and extensive, admitting a lot of gossip-column trivia where I’ve looked for the joke only to discover that there isn’t one. Sheer geniality, not any desire to criticise or ridicule, seems to account for even the mildly disobliging anecdotes, like one about not dining well at the Cyril Connollys’: ‘Whether or not the proprietor of a mobile coffee-stall got wind of this, one of these was certainly parked every night in a strategic position just opposite the house. There Connolly dinner-guests would sometimes end the evening with a sausage-roll or two.’

About Anthony Powell himself one is more or less limited to drawing inferences. A man, you would say, unusually at case in society – in fact, several different sectors of society, aristocratic, military, artistic and bohemian – and who, with a wide range of acquaintance in them all, looks back now on ‘a decade when new friends were made’. And a man at ease with himself. He has a deprecatory way with anything of merely personal importance, such as his marriage, which though not lengthily considered proved successful: ‘In consequence, taking a risk in the matter seems something not always to be condemned.’ The thought of death occurs little: only after the war was there a moment of fatigue in which ‘the prospect of death seemed curiously inviting,’ and later he includes among the risks of embarking on a long novel that of ‘simply dying (something bound to happen sooner or later)’. In the London Blitz he was sustained by a remarkable bookish detachment: ‘After dinner I would return to my one-room flat, get into bed right away with some book likely to be useful in writing the Aubrey biography. In this manner a good deal of fairly operose 17th-century material was painlessly absorbed; war lending attraction to the prosiest aspects of the past, works like Toland’s History of the Druids, or Hearne’s Remarks and Recollections, calming to the spirit while the blitz was reverberating through the night air.’ Even so guarded a man betrays something by what he admires, and two examples stand out: one is his friend Alexander Dru, for the quality of his mind; the other, among the war leaders encountered, is Lord Portal – apparently for the mildness of his manner as Chairman of the Travellers’ Club General Committee. ‘Portal was indeed a leader for whom one guessed it would have been easily possible to feel devotion, though I never knew him personally. The only conclusion seems to be that all sorts are required at the top if a war is to be won’– a conclusion which, if flat, is no less characteristic of his equanimity than the reasons for this particular admiration.

Many of his attitudes seem a long way from the modern world. In fact, he’s no recluse: travelled widely in the Thirties, had a representative experience of the war at least as it affected the UK, and was specially concerned, at the War Office, with the fate of the occupied countries. But just as character and anecdote are what interest him about people, not at all the state of society, so with most of the experience he records: he will be found alert, receptive, analytical or simply amused, but also fundamentally incurious and undisturbed. It isn’t just a lack of ‘commitment’ in the Forties sense, which he would gladly disclaim, but rather the lack in the book of any strong personal presence. Comparing this with Goodbye to All That, as one literary man’s war memoirs with another’s, I’m struck by the contrast with Robert Graves’s modernity. It doesn’t seem to matter that his was an earlier war, or a different kind of war – Mr Powell’s being much more the contemporary kind we know about – but Graves was modern in that his personal involvement is so much more vivid and immediate – existential, as it was then not called.

It seems unlikely that any of the existential oracular questions – Who are you? – would get Mr Powell’s attention. But a chapter called ‘Kierkegaard in Whitehall’ brings about at least an interesting conjunction, by giving him Alexander Dru to work with. If this doesn’t seem the likeliest of conjunctions, neither of course does Mr Powell’s connection with George Orwell – described in an earlier volume and recalled here when he chooses the hymns for Orwell’s funeral. In Dru, he found ‘a friend of extraordinary brilliance and subtlety’, as well as efficiency in Military Intelligence (Liaison). But what he dwells on is the side of Dru that was fascinated by Kierkegaard – he had already published his translation of the Journals – and who ‘did perhaps accept a touch of self-identification in concentrating on this peculiar and tormented figure’. He is lightly sketched in the character Pennistone in The Military Philosophers, leaving out ‘immensities’ which include an existentialist distaste for abstract thought and a love of religious contemplation; and leaving out, too, the strength of Mr Powell’s admiration. It’s as if for once his reserves have been penetrated, his imagination stretched as nowhere else in these memoirs. However congenial the friendship, the admiration seems to have been for a mind wholly unlike his own.

Dru’s interest in the existential spread widely – for instance, to Charles Péguy (‘Need I add that he is an existentialist’) – but it’s impossible to believe he found an existentialist in his friend Powell. Mr Powell ignores the existential themes of Sartre’s novels, sent for review and unfavourably recalled as ‘a “committed” sequence, Communist in flavour’, besides lacking in humour. Humour, however, is the only reason for their appearance here, since they provided a comic episode in his life as a reviewer (threatened libel action by a Mr Ashton-Gwatkin, a fellow Etonian improbably mentioned in one of the Sartre novels – ‘by odd coincidence at the same house as my own years before’). ‘lf, as it was rumoured he planned, Sartre had come to London to defend his novel in court, a great legal comedy – not to say farce – was missed.’ The tendency to dissolve into farce, or at least a preference for it if the possibilities are open, will be recognised from the Powell novels. In real life it seems to put him, on the existential plane, in the first of Kierkegaard’s categories, the aesthetic – the others being the ethical and the religious – which has Don Juan as its archetypal figure.

A propos, there’s more of the obvious Don Juan (in Kierkegaard’s sense) about Jenkins in the novels than in Mr Powell as he presents himself; and here I think the reticence of the memoirs is all in Mr Powell’s favour. Jenkins, though an attenuated character, has airs of superiority, successes in love, a fuller capacity for experience, it’s allowed to seem, than those around him. There’s something suspicious about the elaborate literary references that occur to him during the Thanksgiving Service in St Paul’s (here dismissed in a phrase), a hint afterwards of impatience with the common herd: ‘Just then I had other things to ponder: Isaiah: Blake: Cowley: the wayfaring men: matters of that sort that seemed to claim attention.’ Mr Powell doesn’t write about himself in this vein. If all memoirs are a bit egotistical, these are among the least self-indulgent. By removing himself as far as possible, providing no boosts to his ego, he creates for himself a more agreeable character than he did for Jenkins, even though largely in absentia. The paradox is that the writer disappears more completely from the memoirs than from his novels.

He has something to say, not much, about the genesis of A Dance to the Music of Time, begun soon after the war. It’s surely a climacteric moment when, within one sequence of events, the time comes to embody that sequence itself in another form, by transposition into fiction: but Mr Powell betrays none of Proust’s interest in this. The idea that there might be some pattern or meaning in events is not altogether absent from the memoirs, but somewhat sceptically regarded – ‘coherence, if any,’ he says, ‘emerging only decades later.’ Coherence, if any, hasn’t yet emerged in the memoirs, and I don’t think it can be perceived in his novel sequence. What he usually notes with delight, in both memoirs and novels, is much simpler – evidences of what he calls ‘the inexorable law of coincidence’. This provides a lot of fun, especially in the novels, where its truth to life can also be recognised. But it’s apparently with something deeper in mind that he directs us to the Poussin called ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’, which he looked at in the Wallace Collection at the start of his work and ‘knew at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be.’ Having made the claim, however, Mr Powell withdraws and leaves us only with a tautology: ‘The one thing certain is that the four main figures depicted are dancing to Time’s tune.’ Very different allegorical interpretations have been given to the figures, he explains, but he finds them ‘equally applicable’. With a typical scruple, he doesn’t press his own preference, though he has one – as with the war leadership, where ‘all sorts are required at the top’ – leaving the impression that it simply doesn’t matter.