The obituaries recently published for Anthony Powell are infused with elegy, as though marking the end of a tradition. Here was the last man left with the confidence to write as he pleased. The room he occupied in the house of English literature was distinct, somewhere on a staircase nobody else climbed. Before the last war, he had published several Firbankian novels so light and comic that they are almost disembodied. For more than fifty years he wrote regular book reviews for The Daily Telegraph with a gruffness all their own. From 1951 onwards, the twelve volumes of his roman-fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, appeared with clockwork punctuality, one every two years. Four volumes of autobiography finally depicted the social tissues out of which he had woven his fiction.
Powell once explained that “I have absolutely no picture of myself.” Elsewhere he also said that he had begun to write because he couldn’t think what else to do. In these respects, he was unusual. His generation included W. H. Auden and John Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, George Orwell, and others besides who all had clear views of themselves, and judgments to make, of the sort which allows art to be a human endeavor which can stand outside time.
The son of a colonel, educated at Eton and Oxford, Powell shared the social background of these gifted contemporaries, but few, if any, of their intellectual, political, or even artistic concerns. It is obvious from everything he wrote that he admired order, with regulated behavior down to clean fingernails and the proper attire for every occasion—that degree in society which should not be taken away, Shakespeare warns, or else “hark! what discord follows; each thing meets in mere oppugnancy.” But Powell lacked the characteristic that might have been taken for granted in someone so essentially conservative, namely a moral outlook, some gauge to enable the passing of judgment. This too was most unusual.
Rather small in stature, stooping forward attentively, he had a stare with elements of offense and defense in it, under incongruously untidy eyebrows. The voice was nasal, close to a comic turn in itself. His wife, Lady Violet, was an earl’s daughter, and he could discuss relentlessly the ramifications of her family tree. Genealogy absorbed him, and he hunted down abstruse information in every sort of reference book. Here was a social creature of a rather private but conventional English type. The urbanity of his manners and conversation revealed at once what was good and bad about his novels. For him, all human conduct reduced to foible. People were only the anecdotes which could be told about them. Cynicism, irony, paradox, all were unspoken even though implicit, and there was no place at all for higher things or purposes. The story was enough, self-contained, its own point, a means as an end in itself. That was the way of the world. Those who could, laughed; those who couldn’t were fools.
The power of fiction derives from showing characters confronted by choices and the consequences which follow from the choices taken or avoided, as in real life. That is the function of plot, in itself sometimes a dreary mechanism, but always indispensable. Hidden within plotting are the moral values which inform the writer, and which he wishes to convey.
A Dance to the Music of Time may contain as many as five-hundred characters, in a social chronicle of the times. Powell resorted to the device of a first-person narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, evidently an alter ego. Powell’s powers of observation are always clever, and sometimes even brilliant. Proust was no doubt his model, but comparison is wide of the mark. Proust was determined to show how and why his characters made their choices, and his plotting is accordingly contrived for his purposes. But Powell’s narrator has no idea why the people he is meeting and recording have come to be the way they are, in all their vagaries and mere oppugnancy. In the absence of plot, happenstance or what Powell has called “the inexorable law of coincidence” has to serve to move action forward. The one truly memorable character is an archetypal social climber with the exactly calculated name of Widmerpool, but even his extreme case remains morally neutral. Reducing people to anecdotes, Nicholas Jenkins becomes a club bore clearing a jovial but empty space around himself.
Powell’s fans are many, and they include such eminent judges as Kingsley Amis, John Bayley, A. N. Wilson, Ferdinand Mount, and Hilary Spurling. The last of the art for art’s sake school, an anecdote and a grin is quite enough for them. John Bayley, for instance, has defended Powell with a learned discourse on his use of the word “lacustrine.” Powell’s language in its circumlocution seems to strive to fill the moral vacuum. To give just one example: “A house-party of perhaps twenty persons sitting down to dinner would be individually lucky to get more than a glass of white Bordeaux that certainly did not startle the connoisseur by its pretensions.” This has the Powell stamp, but it is a bombastic way of saying that the wine was meagre and bad.
Malcolm Muggeridge and Auberon Waugh were among the few who dared to criticize Powell either as novelist or stylist. He did not take kindly to it. A formidable man for a grudge, he stuck photographs of supposed enemies in a collage on the wall of his lavatory, where he had opportunity to study them in a process of elimination. Few things riled him as much as comparison with Evelyn Waugh. He was a comedian, he liked to say, accepting the liberating power of laughter, while Evelyn Waugh was a satirist, quite differently out to change the world. Powell once asked Cyril Connolly for an opinion on him and his rival as novelists. “I said I thought Tony had more talent and Evelyn more vocation. Tony is likely to dry up and Evelyn to make mistakes, but you can learn from mistakes, you can’t learn from drying up.”
Elegy is appropriate: it looks like closing time in the house of English literature.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 9, on page 3
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