Time Unfolded

Perry Anderson sums up the achievement of Anthony Powell

Comparisons between works of art, Adorno maintained in Minima Moralia, are inevitably at once refused and demanded by them. That they may simply be incongruous he disregarded. Cases where parallels are as close as those between Proust and Powell lend ‘the compulsion to evaluate’ he thought so generally inescapable a particular force, requiring especial care. We are dealing with two great writers, one universally, the other marginally, acknowledged as such. Yet in at least a couple of respects that have traditionally been held central to the art of the novel, construction of plot and depiction of character, Powell unquestionably ranks far above Proust. How much does such an advantage matter? Novels that scant or defy plot have a long and distinguished history – Sterne in the 18th century, Goncharov in the 19th, Rilke in the early 20th, dozens thereafter. Starting later, effectively in the interwar period, major work dispensing with characters became a regular feature of the literary landscape, from The Trial to La Nausée onwards: Beckett, Borges, Gracq, Calvino and others. Proust, however, disavowed neither, innovating rather than abolishing them, as he saw it. As a claimant to both, he is subject to comparative judgment of what he made of them.

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[1] Setting aside partial versions, complete translations started to appear in roughly this chronological sequence: 1920-39, Spanish, English, Czech and Polish, in that order; 1945-59, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese; 1960s, Danish, Croatian, Swedish; 1970s, Dutch, Arabic, Korean, Finnish; 1980s, Norwegian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Chinese; 1990s, Russian, Farsi, Turkish. So far, it would seem, 21 languages in all.

[2] ‘Call it cynical commodification or geek chic, either way the Proustian “brand” sells’, reports Adam Watt genially in The Cambridge Introduction to Proust. ‘Could the notion of a “kitschified” Proustian text help explain this pop-cultural Proust?’ asks Margaret Gray, devoting a not excessively troubled chapter to the question in The Postmodern Proust. There is ‘no high-cultural writer more amenable than Proust to pop-cultural appropriation,’ notes Christopher Prendergast in Mirages and Mad Beliefs: Proust the Sceptic.

[3] ‘Marcel Proust’ (TLS, 18 August 1950): in many ways Powell’s most considered judgment of Proust’s achievement, puzzlingly not included in the long section – sixty pages – devoted to him in Miscellaneous Verdicts.

[4] Though the status of The Dream in China compares to that of A la recherche in France, readings of it are mercifully more various. The two most distinguished literary scholars of it in modern times, C.T. Hsia and Yu Ying-shih, held diametrically opposite views of the Daguanyuan, the interior landscape garden within the clan compound, scene of central episodes of the novel: for Yu, the construction of a utopia of beauty and purity conceals the degradation and squalor on which it is built; for Hsia, even before tragedy overtakes them, it is a keep of oppressive constraint and boredom for its young inhabitants.

[5] The prologue to Contre Sainte-Beuve expounds another key tenet of Proust’s aesthetic. Opening with the words ‘Every day I set less store by the intellect,’ he explains that it is sensations alone which allow a writer to repossess his intimate reality. What he made of these, literally and metaphorically, in the countless exercises in ekphrasis of A la recherche, is unsurpassed. Perception is, of course, inherently tied to the subject as comprehension is not: ideas can be shared in ways that sensory impressions cannot. Proust’s elevation of the first faculty over the second was one of the conditions of Bowie’s ‘inward rapture’.

[6] ‘Proust is completely detached from moral considerations. There is no right and wrong in Proust nor in his world. (Except possibly in those passages dealing with the war, when for a space he ceases to be an artist and raises his voice with the plebs, mob, rabble, canaille.)’

[7] Had he lived longer, Amis would no doubt have joined them, Powell belatedly realising that ‘he is more spiteful than I thought.’