Every Rusty Hint

Ian Sansom

  • Anthony Powell: A Life by Michael Barber
    Duckworth, 338 pp, £20.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 7156 3049 0

I happened to read Michael Barber’s rather off-beat and amusing biography of Anthony Powell while waiting for a delayed easyJet flight from Stansted to Belfast and enduring all the usual privations of short-haul, low-cost flying: being shunted from gate to gate, and from sky-blue-upholstered departure lounge to sky-blue-upholstered departure lounge; and being jostled, and jostling, on this occasion in the very burly company of the young men and women of the Scottish Gymnastics Display Team, and an elderly couple, both in wheelchairs, and a man tattooed from neck to wrist, and possibly lower, who was working his way loudly through a large box of Quality Street. Also pressed up close together at Gate 82 were an ugly ginger-haired man with ‘MINGER’ emblazoned across his T-shirt, a dozen or so crying infants, in and out of buggies, and three teenage girls with scraped-back hair who were sharing a Walkman and a can of Diet Coke and, as the afternoon wore on, started to play ‘I Spy’. ‘B.’ ‘B?’ ‘B.’ ‘Beer?’ ‘No.’ ‘Beard?’ ‘No.’ ‘Bollocks?’ Laughter all round. The teenagers and the minger and the tattooed man and the wheelchair couple and the Scottish Gymnastics Display Team may remember me as the little, flushed, balding fellow in jumbo cords with egg mayonnaise in his beard, alternately squatting and standing, clutching a cup of coffee and trying to read Anthony Powell: A Life, the book with the black and white photo of a grumpy man in tweeds on the cover. How Powell would have hated it, I thought, while squatting; all of us going about our little lives in the cramped, blue-upholstered domestic departure lounges of this world. For like most people with few affinities with and very little actual knowledge of or even interest in the lives of the English upper-middle classes, and with the usual number of chips on my shoulder, I had assumed that Powell was a prig and buffoon who wrote the kinds of book preferred by men who marry each other’s sisters and have housekeepers to look after the place in the country while they’re working up in town during the week, and who wouldn’t countenance a low-cost, short-haul easyJet flight from Stansted to Belfast.

I was wrong: not about Powell himself, perhaps, or about his readers, but most certainly about the novels. Powell emerges from Barber’s biography as a rather snobbish, dull individual who hated most of his contemporaries, but that’s pretty much what you’d expect because most writers emerge from their biographies as rather snobbish, dull individuals who hated most of their contemporaries: indeed, it’s almost impossible to think of one who doesn’t. As for his readers, Powell can hardly be blamed for his plummy fans any more than, say, J.G. Ballard should be blamed for the flakiness of his, or Anne Tyler for the limpness of hers. As for the books, they speak for themselves. Edmund Wilson once remarked of Powell that ‘he’s just entertaining enough to read in bed late at night in summer.’ This was presumably intended as a put-down, but to anyone but a literary critic it surely comes as a great recommendation, and should be taken up by everyone with enough summers ahead of them to get through the 12 novels that make up A Dance to the Music of Time, and the more than half-dozen other novels, and the four volumes of memoirs, and the three volumes of journals, and the biography of John Aubrey, and the collected reviews and criticism.

Anthony Dymoke Powell was born in Westminster on 21 December 1905 – a wintry rather than a Christmas baby. ‘It was because he was Welsh,’ Barber teases, ‘that Powell pronounced his name to rhyme with Noel and not, as you might expect, with towel.’ Powell was about as Welsh as I am Russian: he had an ancestor, Rhys ap Gruffydd, who ruled much of South Wales sometime around the 12th century. The Welsh thing obviously appealed to a wild, romantic longing in Powell’s otherwise rather tight-buttoned upbringing. His father, Philip, was from Melton Mowbray, and his mother, Maud, from Lincolnshire. Philip Powell was commissioned into the Welch Regiment, though ‘not on account of the Powells’ Welsh extraction’, as Powell admits in the first volume of his Memoirs, but because it was cheap. Barber describes Philip Powell as ‘difficult’, although he doesn’t elaborate and it’s hard to imagine exactly what this means, or indeed someone who isn’t: are there ‘easy’ people, like ‘easy’ maths? Wherein, one wonders, did the ‘difficulty’ lie? As for Maud, she doesn’t get much of a mention except that she ‘kept her looks’ and was ‘a good catch’.

After the usual nursemaid and tutors and prep school Powell was educated at Eton and Oxford along with the usual people, before writing his first novel, Afternoon Men (1931), and going to work for the publisher Gerald Duckworth, which he compared to working on a chain gang (he had, it is safe to say, very little idea of what it might be like working on a chain gang). In 1934 he married Lady Violet Pakenham. Alas, as with Maud, you don’t get much of a sense of Lady Violet from Barber, who fancies himself as rather droll (he is the author also of a witty biography of Simon Raven), and his endearing, if sometimes rather vague sense of humour ambushes almost every insight. ‘Although a regular churchgoer,’ he writes, ‘Violet took a liberal attitude towards sex, the wilder shores of which intrigued her as much as her husband.’ I imagine – I don’t know – that just about everybody is intrigued by the prospect of the wilder shores of sex; the question is, having spied the shores, do they go there? But Barber is sketchy on such details and to be honest you may wish he’d never brought the subject up. Very little is said about Powell’s sons, Tristram and John – children are notably absent from the otherwise all-encompassing sweep and scope of A Dance to the Music of Time – but Barber writes very well and very straight and in some detail about Powell’s less than successful period as a screenwriter for Warner Bros, in Teddington and Hollywood, and about his war job in military intelligence, which according to Barber was ‘neither glamorous nor, in terms of the war effort, of particular importance’, and seems to have consisted largely of such duties as ‘the provision of soap for the Polish Women’s Corps’. After the war Powell became fiction editor at the TLS, and in 1952 he and Lady Violet moved to a big house in the country, The Chantry, by which time he had embarked on A Question of Upbringing, the first of the Dance to the Music of Time sequence, and had achieved his famous and much quoted ambition, to have a wife with a title and a house with a drive.

Like most biographies of writers, Anthony Powell: A Life is a peculiar sort of a job, like a slightly fuzzy portrait of a great portrait-painter by a not-bad apprentice artist. The book is not so much a portrait of a self as of a not-self, a character quite flat, and thin, and white, not even as rounded and remarkable as Powell’s amiable self-burlesque in his Journals, in which he leaps, wine-flushed, from the page, a blimpish but rather brilliant and charming fellow, kindly inviting people to luncheon, and fussing about his ancestors, and worrying about how he’s going to squeeze money out of English Heritage to help him pay for the maintenance of his house. Barber’s book suffers, not surprisingly, in comparison to the Journals and the Memoirs, both in terms of style and of the comparatively dim light it sheds on Powell’s work.

Intent on fishing out every rusty hint of roman à clef in Powell’s raging roman fleuve, Barber sets out to discover who, as he puts it, was ‘cannibalised’ for the books. Was A.M. Goodhart, Powell’s housemaster at Eton, really the flesh and bones behind Le Bas, the housemaster in A Question of Upbringing? Well, yes and no. Was Christopher Sclater Millard, the ‘self-confessed bibliomaniac and practising pederast who had compiled a monumental bibliography of Oscar Wilde’, the model for the flamboyant Mr Deacon? Probably. Is there a touch of Peter Quennell in the floppy-haired Mark Members? Is J.G. Quiggin really Cyril Connolly? And is Moreland Constant Lambert? Is Dr Trelawney ‘a projection’ of Aleister Crowley? Was Adrian Daintrey Zouch? Is Bagshaw Malcolm Muggeridge? Was Julian Maclaren-Ross the model for Trapnel? Was Widmerpool based on Denis Capel-Dunn? Or Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller? And was Powell himself the model for Rightlaw in his friend John Heygate’s novel Talking Picture? These are all interesting questions, with no real answers. In the end, wading through the names of people you’ve never heard of in order to try and match them up with the names of characters you can barely remember – there are more than three hundred in the Dance sequence – becomes a desperate enterprise. The facts mount up, the books recede, and the truth remains elusive.

But then Barber doesn’t pretend that he’s writing what is sometimes these days called a ‘critical’ biography. It might be interesting, though, for a biographer to indulge in and enjoy themselves a little more with the literature: to speculate, say, on whether Powell’s vast project, of writing books which he obviously intended to accompany his readers throughout their lives, was a subtle way of imposing and establishing rank in the manner of the Modernists. It might also be interesting to address the question of whether Powell’s creation of a coherent realm, a world, in which lives unfold over time, amounts to a philosophical rather than a literary enterprise (which would certainly help explain the sometimes rather crude and discordant musings about the meaning of Time and Life and such like, often dumped unceremoniously at the beginnings of chapters, which make Powell sound like Santayana on a bad day). And it might be considered almost essential in a book about Powell to try to explain how and why he was funny. ‘I do not myself set out to be a humorous novelist,’ he once claimed, but he certainly was, whether he liked it or not, though admittedly not the kind that makes you laugh. Indeed, Powell raises within himself and within his work the vexed question of the place of the ‘wry’ in English literature.

Perhaps Hilary Spurling, who is working on the official biography of Powell, will address some of these questions. She may also pay more attention to Powell’s magnificent biography of John Aubrey, John Aubrey and His Friends (1948), arguably the key to understanding Powell’s inclinations and ambitions as a writer, and also to curiosities such as his Writer’s Notebook (2001), a collection of obiter dicta, which is not only stuffed full with Wildean asides – such as ‘Don’t you adore the Daily Mirror?’ and ‘Being Irish is like being homosexual, it gives the speaker a permanent topic of conversation’ – but also reveals Powell as a man obsessed by love and sex and books: ‘The disgusting feeling when a woman suddenly ceases to love you’; ‘Love, like a fearful din in your ears’; ‘How to write a good Jewish novel – write a good novel, and give the characters Jewish names.’ There’s a thought: Powell not as a British Proust, but as an English Philip Roth; Nick Jenkins a gentile Nathan Zuckerman.

Barber’s most significant insight into Powell’s work may be a fleeting suggestion that his distinctive style developed not only as a result of his immersion in the work of Aubrey and his contemporaries, but also as a result of his years at the War Office, ‘the tortuous jargon of minutes and papers hard to shake off’. This may explain why Powell’s often long, sinuous sentences actually work towards clarity and refinement rather than slithering conceit:

Silted-up residues of the years smouldered uninterruptedly – and not without melancholy – in the maroon brickwork of these medieval closes: beyond the cobbles and archways of which (in a more northerly direction) memory also brooded, no less enigmatic and inconsolable, among water-meadows and avenues of trees: the sombre demands of the past becoming at times almost suffocating in their insistence.

It may also explain why some of Powell’s shorter, more epigrammatic sentences have the sound of a government information booklet: ‘Different couples approach with varied technique the matrimonial vehicle’s infinitely complicated machinery.’ And it may further explain why his mode of characterisation tends towards cool disdain rather than outright mockery: ‘The only change in Anne Stepney (last seen at Stringham’s wedding) was her adoption of a style of dress implicitly suggesting an art student; nothing outrageous: just a general assertion that she was in some way closely connected with painting or sculpture.’ Above all, Powell’s war years may provide the clue to why one reads his books, and his biography, in and out of airport lounges, or in bed in late summer at home, with a growing sense that things have somehow gone horribly, irretrievably wrong. As Powell puts it definitively in his Writer’s Notebook: ‘Everything might be all right, but somehow it isn’t.’