“An author’s journalistic sundries often reveal more, anyway on the surface, about the writer than do the books,” writes the British novelist Anthony Powell. Powell is one of the last survivors of an illustrious and distinctive literary generation that included Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, and Christopher Isherwood. To read the collected occasional writing of such a well-read and well-connected figure can be a rich, resonant pleasure. Miscellaneous Verdicts, like most such collections, can be thought of as an “intellectual autobiography”; taken together, these “writings on writers” illuminate Powell’s own career—the inevitable ambition and entrepreneurship as well as the sensibility and ideas. Through his comments on other writers, particularly his contemporaries (many of whom he knew as friends, rivals, or both), the reader gains a sense of a long writing life rich in involvements and enthusiasms.
The reader might reasonably assume a book reviewer of such long standing to have articulated an ethic of the craft. Powell in his introduction somewhat diffidently calls reviewing “a craft not without all intrinsic interest” and offers a few thoughts on it. “Reviews can be well or badly written,” he writes. “Even assuming the ideal reviewer remains uncorrupted by prejudice—a pretty big assumption—reviewing must always remain a far from just estimate of the worth of any book of real merit.” Reviews, says Powell, “can reveal all kinds of shifting in literary fashion, individual style, even proclaim the age of the reviewer.”
Powell divides his collection into four sections: “The British,” “The Americans,” “My Contemporaries,” and “Proust and Proustian Matters”—Marcel Proust being a confessed enthusiasm of his. The first section betrays his interest in genealogy and is highlighted by enjoyable, slightly puzzling pieces on “English Genealogy,” “The House of Lords,” and “Burke’s Landed Gentry.” “Commonly thought of as a pursuit best adapted to keeping the various classes of society apart, it is scarcely too much of a paradox to say that the chief lesson of genealogy is to show how extraordinarily close the classes are—and have always been—together,” he writes, adding that “there is scarcely a family, if fully studied, that would not reveal a remarkable variation in social pattern.” Lest the reader succumb to a facile notion of the British peerage as a fossilized anachronism, he notes that “just about half the titles in the present House of Lords were created after 1900.”
Powell’s subjects—literary biographies, books of criticism, collections of letters, and novels—give him ample occasion to ruminate on the craft of writing and the lives of writers. His book yields a generous number of satisfying, edifying literary aphorisms. Benjamin Disraeli, he writes, “came of a good Jewish family; so although not brought up in the circles described in his own novels, was in a position to hear of them at second hand from men who knew society well; in some ways a most advantageous situation for the development of a writer.” On the Victorian novelist Robert Surtees: “It is perhaps fruitless to regret that any writer is what he is, or to hope that he could have been otherwise. If Surtees had been different in some respects he might also have been different in others, and we might never have had his best work.”
Among Victorian writers, Powell seems to feel special affinity for Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. He praises Conrad’s Eastern World (1966) by Norman Sherry as “the best sort of literary detective work” and calls the complicated, elusive Kipling “a writer of the first rank, a genius, though perhaps even in that category, a genius of rather a peculiar kind.” Why has Kipling been so hard for many readers to swallow or to take seriously? “Most writers have a personality, not necessarily attractive, that must be accepted over and above their writing, as such—D. H. Lawrence, for example. In Kipling’s case, this personality was unusually strong; to some more pungent than was tolerable.”
Henry Jamesians will enjoy Powell’s reviews of the several volumes of Leon Edel’s great James biography. Powell praises Edel’s “technique in handling the formidable number of writers and others who abutted on James’s life.” On Edmund Wilson, he writes that “every American writer, of any standing whatever, has influenced him to at least some degree.… on account of its very wideness of scope Wilson’s point of view veers about in what at times seem mutually contradictory directions.” In summation, he says that while Wilson is “often irritating, he is also often worth reading.” Quoting Wilson approvingly, Powell hints at his own ethic of and enthusiasm for reviewing: “The trouble with most of our American literary journalism is precisely that the literary critic usually doesn’t make any effort to understand the writer’s point of view.”
Among the Americans, Powell seems especially to like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, he writes on reviewing André Le Vot’s 1984 biography, lived miserably “in spite of early success, a very reasonable amount of money flowing in, and his meeting everybody an ambitious young writer might want to meet in an epoch when writing was more highly, certainly more romantically, regarded than today.” He...
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