Anthony Powell Essay - Critical Essays

Anthony Powell Long Fiction Analysis

Of the many pleasures and rewards offered by Anthony Powell’s novels, none surpasses that to be found in coming to know, and continually being surprised by what happens to, a variety of fascinating characters. For Powell, an interest in character was primary. This can be seen in his absorption in the biographies sketched by John Aubrey, in the series of verbal portraits that dominate To Keep the Ball Rolling, and in his statement that a concern for character was central in his beginning A Dance to the Music of Time. Successful fiction, though, involves more than the presentation of a series of characters, however intriguing. When characterization is conveyed with wit, both in dialogue and description, when the style becomes a pleasure in itself, as it does in Powell’s work, one has enough ingredients for writing worth reading, but not enough for a novel, certainly not for a novel of the scope and stature of A Dance to the Music of Time. Such a novel, like any successful work of art, must satisfy the aesthetic requirement of unity—it must convey a sense of structure and order.

A Dance to the Music of Time

Although not the sole ingredient on which the unified structure of A Dance to the Music of Time depends, character does help provide this sense of balance in the work. For example, Powell achieves a degree of unity by having a single narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, yet A Dance to the Music of Time is not really the story of Nick Jenkins, just as it is not essentially the story of Kenneth Widmerpool, important as both these characters are. Although himself a participant in the “dance,” Nick basically observes and reports; he does not give structure to the events that he relates: No persona, only Powell himself, could do this.

Many writers, certainly, achieve structure through plot, which may be the soul of fiction as Aristotle thought it was of drama. For Powell, however, the demands normally implied by “plot” run counter to his fundamental sense of time’s complex mutability; to give his work a definite beginning, middle, and end, with action rising to and falling from a specific climax, would be justified neither by his sense of reality nor his artistic intentions.

This is not to say that conscious arrangement of incident is not present in A Dance to the Music of Time. On the contrary, because the author has exercised intelligent concern for such arrangement, continual surprises are enjoyed in a first reading, and anticipation of the irony of coming events gives a special pleasure to rereading the series. It would be yielding too readily to the seductive appeal of paradox, however, to claim that it is a crafted sense of the random that gives basic structure to A Dance to the Music of Time—that its order lies in its apparent lack of order.

If not to be found primarily in character or plot, what is the key to the structure of the dance? Unwilling, with reason, to accept the idea that it has no clear structure, that it is, even if cut from a loaf made of remarkably milled flour, essentially “a slice of life,” critics have proposed a variety of answers.

The title of the series, as Powell has explained, derives from an allegorical painting in the Wallace Collection in London, Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Comparisons between the painting and the novel may be ingeniously extended, but it seems improbable that they were extensively worked out by Powell as he began a series that, he writes in Faces in My Time, would consist of a number of volumes, “just how many could not be decided at the outset.” It would appear more probable that the Poussin painting, expressing the French artist’s sense of the permutations time produces in human life, while an important analogue to Powell’s intention in the series, was only one of a number of sources of the work’s pattern. Another source might have been Thomas Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament(1592), a masque organized around the four seasons, contrasting the arts and the utilitarian spirit, and involving a sophisticated, semidetached “presenter”; it was the basis of a musical composition by Powell’s close friend Constant Lambert.

Other structural keys have been proposed, including the importance of mysticism (the Dr. Trelawney, Mrs. Erdleigh aspect) and the signs of the zodiac. There would seem to be some validity in most of these interpretations, but the attempt to see any one as a single key to the series appears reductionist, in the sense that a strict Freudian or Marxist reading of William Shakespeare is too limiting. Insofar as the pattern of the dance can be extrapolated from the work itself, most critics have agreed that it must be seen as a reflection of theme.

Of the many thematic strands, that which is central appears to be the conflict between power and art, or imagination and will. Jenkins himself suggests this at more than one point in the series. From the perspective of this conflict, in which Widmerpool, the extreme example of the self-centered power seeker, is thematically contrasted to Hugh Moreland the musician, and later to X. Trapnel the writer, the characters and their actions fall into a meaningful, if somewhat shadowy, pattern. The pattern is hardly simple, though; few characters are purely villainous or heroic; some artists seek power; some professional soldiers and businessmen are artistic and imaginative; both victories and defeats tend to be temporary.

Furthermore, the sexual designs woven in the “dance” complicate a bipolar view of theme. Sexual attraction, or love, in the novel usually involves both an imaginative appreciation of a perceived beauty in the desired partner, and some attempt to impose one’s will on another. Thus, with vagaries of desire, thematic antitheses and syntheses may fluctuate within individual characters. It is clear, however, that when Matilda Wilson goes from the artist Moreland to the industrialist Sir Magnus Donners, or Pamela Flitton leaves Widmerpool for the novelist X. Trapnel, a thematic point is made. (Indeed, the women in the series, generally less convincingly presented than the men, often seem to serve as scoring markers in the thematic game.)

That this thematic conflict, while it should not be simplistically defined, was essential to Powell’s concept of the work’s structure is shown additionally by the way prototypes were transmuted into fictional characters. Frank Pakenham, for example, unlike his fictional “counterpart” Widmerpool, not only would seem to have a number of virtues but also has enjoyed a long and happy marriage, blessed by eight children. Clearly, the structure of the series requires that such satisfaction be denied its thematic villain.

A suggestion, then, may be made as to the probable way Powell proceeded in constructing his series. He apparently started with a novelist’s interest in certain people that he knew, those he felt would be worth portraying. Then, to create order in his work, he fitted these people’s fictional representatives into thematic patterns, changing reality as needed to accomplish this patterning. Using the thematically identified characters, he then, at a lower order of priority, considered and manipulated the plot, using plot itself to demonstrate another major theme, that of “mutability.” The result was a uniquely constructed work of art.

Afternoon Men

Before beginning his major work, Powell wrote five novels; a case can be made for their being excellent works in their own right. Had Powell not gone on to write his roman-fleuve, they may have gained him a certain lasting recognition. As it is, inevitably they are regarded primarily as preparation for his masterpiece. The use of the “detached” narrator, coincidence in plot, ironic style, clipped dialogue, the theme of power, art, and love—all these attributes of A Dance to the Music of Time are anticipated in the early novels. Afternoon Men, picturing a London social scene the young Powell knew well, is the first of the five early novels. Powell described it as “something of an urban pastoraldepicting the theme of unavailing love,” with not much plot in the conventional sense. He saw the design of this first novel to be “not without resemblance to the initial framework” of the sequence. Although the protagonist, William Atwater, is not the narrator—the story is told mainly from his point of view, with the author occasionally intruding in his own voice—he may be compared, in his wit and detached forbearance, to Nicholas Jenkins. It is essentially in its ironic style, however, especially in the dialogue, that Afternoon Men anticipates the later series.

Venusberg and From a View to a Death

Venusberg, Powell’s second novel, also has a protagonist, Lushington, who is comparable to Nick Jenkins. Flashback, a technique later significant to the series, is employed in this novel’s construction, and the theme of love is extended to include adultery, while power and clairvoyance, topics prominent in A Dance to the Music of Time, are introduced. Powell’s next novel, From a View to a Death, dealing with the interrelated themes of art, love, and power, emphasizes the latter. Arthur Zouch, a painter and womanizer, uses art and love in his search for the power he believes is his by right of his being an Übermensch. Fittingly, for one who not only debases the gift of imagination but is also a would-be social climber, he is defeated by a member of the country gentry. Technically, the book is interesting in that Powell experiments with a shifting point of view.

Agents and Patients

Art, sex, and power—specifically power derived from money—are the subjects that provide structure in Agents and Patients. In this novel, each of two confidence men, Maltravers and Chipchase, attempts to fleece a naïve young man, Blore Smith, Maltravers by playing on Smith’s sexual innocence, Chipchase by playing on his artistic innocence. As the title, drawn from John Wesley, suggests, the issue of free will and determinism, significant in a less direct way in A Dance to the Music of Time, is an underlying theme. Excellent as it is as satiric comedy, Agents and Patients puts such an emphasis on plot and theme that the characterization, usually Powell’s strongest suit, tends somewhat toward caricature.

What’s Become of Waring

What’s Become of Waring, Powell’s last novel before the war, is perhaps a less impressive achievement than the four that preceded it. It is, however, close to A Dance to the Music of Time in more than chronology. Although it has a carefully worked out, conventional plot, Powell still manages, as James Tucker...

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