Voyeur

Paul Delany

  • To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell. Vol. IV: The strangers all are gone by Anthony Powell
    Heinemann, 208 pp, £9.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 434 59941 7

The action of A Dance to the Music of Time comes to the reader by courtesy of Nick Jenkins, that non-participant observer whose presence never seems to make any impact on the endless round of social gatherings he attends. When Powell began to publish his memoirs, fans of Dance hoped that the mystery of what Jenkins was really like might be revealed; now that the memoirs are completed, it is clear that these hopes will never be satisfied. ‘Scratch an invisible narrator, get an invisible narrator’ – to borrow the old joke about actors. Sometimes Powell’s memoirs appear to be mere piffle (‘Once more the food was good, though not up to Air France’), sometimes acute, sometimes one suspects an elaborate joke is being played on the reader. Hardly ever, though, does the author present himself as a figure of substance: it is not Jenkins’s creator we meet, but Jenkins’s ghost.

The tone of this volume, and of the Memoirs as a whole, is set by a remark of, Powell’s friend Alick Dru: ‘one of the least supportable things of later life was the fact that you began to see almost everyone else’s point of view.’ This Laodicean stance characterised Nick Jenkins from the beginning; and it may have been a convenient perspective for the narrator of such a long and variegated sequence of novels. It also reinforces Powell’s claim that ‘envy, hatred and malice ... are almost always disadvantageous’ when writing novels. Yet like many comic writers, his own prevailing attitude is one of detachment, seasoned at times with schadenfreude.

Still, it comes as a surprise to learn from the Memoirs that Powell’s exemplary novelist is Dostoevsky, and that he considers The Devils the greatest novel ever written. One can see hints of the Dostoevskian mode in Powell’s novels, particularly in his brilliant scenes of the eruption of egotism and disorder into conventional social functions. But these incongruities never manifest any substantial principle of evil, as they would in Dostoevsky. Evil usually is expressed in either politics or personal morality: Powell has managed to become a considerable novelist without showing more than a token interest in these two subjects. For him, personal actions first show themselves as just happening, the products of random encounters on London streets; behind chance there is an endless cycle of re-enactments of a few myths; behind the myths perhaps an occult significance – though Powell’s use of occult themes remains entirely enigmatic.

In all these traits, Powell remains a traditional kind of British novelist, interested in society (in the older sense) rather than either the individual or the state. Above the social realm politics loom – treated by Powell either satirically or dismissively. Beneath society lies domestic life, whose passions and commitments he reveals only obliquely, as they might be inferred by a curious outsider. Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men, marks out his favourite ground: the hours between four and six when people have a freedom to manoeuvre in the transition from the demands of a career to those of family. His heroes – Stringham, Bagshaw, Trapnel etc – try to extend the drinking hours into a whole way of life, having failed to strike any deeper roots in the world. His anti-hero – Lord (Ken) Widmerpool – moves ponderously through this world of grasshoppers stubbornly insistent on being an ant.

Widmerpool’s success as a comic figure stems directly from Powell’s deliberate omission of any recognisable motivation for his antics: neither his inner life, nor the prizes at which he aims, are given any visibility in the novels. The social round is bathed in a clear light, while everything else is left hazy. Indeed, Powell’s mode of composition is predominantly visual; and it is in character for him to claim that the human race can be divided into ‘voyeurs and exhibitionists’. He defines himself as one of the former – the right class, presumably, for the novelist who strives both to appreciate the performances of those he meets, and to speculate on their hidden compulsions. Voyeurism also implies, for Powell, a lust for control of others: sublimated in the novelist’s art, indulged directly by Dance’s exemplars of worldly power, Lord Widmerpool and Sir Magnus Donners.

But if voyeurism is a master-concept in Powell’s novels, what role can it claim in his memoirs? Here, caution and even prudery seem to have drawn the thickest of curtains across the secret life of Powell and his peers. His concept of autobiography is reflexive: draw the portraits of a man’s friends, and let the man himself appear in the various sides of his nature that are implicitly revealed. But Powell’s friends serve mainly as a source of ‘copy’: wandering through this gallery of eccentrics, it is more apparent what he saw in them than what they saw in him. He offers some shrewd comments on how a friend might be transformed, or absorbed, into a novelistic character: but he withholds the crucial revelations that might allow us to compare the imagined personality with the raw material that contributed to his or her making. He records in The strangers all are gone, for example, that he first met C.P. Snow in 1958 (when four volumes of Dance had already appeared), but his account of him offers only a few banalities that shed no light on Snow’s part, if any, in the creation of his fellow Life Peer, Widmerpool.

Inevitably, Powell’s determined reticence makes one wonder if the voyeur has any intrinsic interest, once dissociated from what he has looked upon. The strangers all are gone offers hardly any revelation of its author not already available from reading between the lines of Dance. Its very title, with its hint that strangers and friends are ultimately synonymous, seems to leave a last word that we cannot really expect to know others – nor even, probably, ourselves.