John Lanchester

  • Journals 1990-92 by Anthony Powell
    Heinemann, 238 pp, £20.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 434 00430 8

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.

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