Anthony Powell

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Powell, Anthony 1905–

Powell, an English novelist, has controlled with remarkable mastery all of the intricate developments in his roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time. Through the twelve volumes, Powell—or his narrator—witnesses change in English class and culture, as well as in his "dancers." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Although the novel series has become a predominant feature of the twentieth-century genre (the Hornblower tales or Gilbert Patten's 208 books about the Merriwells, for example), parts publication as such has remained moribund—at least until Anthony Powell modified and revived it in his A Dance to the Music of Time. Begun in 1951, The Music of Time now includes eleven novels. Like the tripledecker Victorian novel, understanding Temporary Kings, the penultimate work, depends upon one's having read the earlier ten parts. Powell's circus animals have changed in twenty years. (p. xxii)

A Dance to the Music of Time is one of the outstanding novelistic achievements of our age. To a great extent, parts publication has contributed to its success. Appearing periodically over a twenty-year span, the novels have a literary and historical ring of truth. Not only have Powell's readers and characters aged together, but Powell's style and view of the world have grown progressively complex. In fact Powell's intellectual growth stands as a metaphor for the development of his characters. The relatively simple fictional world of the public school in A Question of Upbringing has become almost Jamesian in Temporary Kings. Each decade, Powell writes, "poses new riddles, how best to live, how best to write." As his dramatis personae struggle to solve the former riddle, Powell himself solves the latter. (pp. xxii, xxiv)

Sam Pickering, Jr., "The Valley of the Shadow," in Sewanee Review (© 1974 by The University of the South), Spring, 1974, pp. xxii, xxiv.

For eleven volumes in Powell's A Dance To The Music Of Time we have heard distinctive and subtle tones as 'partners disappear only to reappear again'….

But first a few practicalities about [Hearing Secret Harmonies,] and a thought on the roman fleuve as species. Characters developed through a dozen volumes, or even seven or eight, acquire a life and solidity impossible to match in one or two. The vast success of Powell's major figures like Stringham, Templer, Widmerpool, Moreland, Pamela Flitton, works a bit against the personnel of later books. (p. 63)

To go further yet into practicalities. Those who pick up Hearing Secret Harmonies without a fair knowledge of what has gone before are likely to be driven towards either lip-flecked ferocity by the offhand, closed references to previous incidents and people (some so minor as to be microscopic even in the books where they featured); or towards a vehement and royalty-rich curiosity to find out what in God's name all the parentheses and near-subliminal flashbacks are about. I hope Powell is right to count on the second. (pp. 63-4)

This volume's major figure, as for the whole sequence, remains Widmerpool, and it is to him that we look for the theme of ADTTMOT. He goes mad….

This is, in fact, a darker book than any which had preceded it: the irony does not lift the corners of the mouth but rips the soul. Generally the prose is sharp, businesslike, and one can skip the routine acclaim for polish and elegance which, in previous volumes, has occasionally euphemised pugnacious mandarin and even sozzled mandarin. The volume is moving, impressive and to a degree honest. I do not like it as much as the earlier ones because...

(This entire section contains 9304 words.)

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it seems to lack what the others so supremely had, perfect hold on period and place. If a novelist picks a crackpot crowd of hippies for his central group, he could have it right, he could have it wrong: nuts do their own thing. I don't know whether Powell grew irritated at being told that he could not escape high-life and bohemia, except in the war books. If so, it is not much of an answer to show us the alternative society as an outfit of cranks. There is quite a bit in between.

One further point troubles me, and has throughout these later books. Widmerpool is a creation of genius (caricature more than character), unflaggingly obnoxious yet wholly credible and occasionally pitiable. It is a slightly arrogant view of life, though, which has a cabal of Etonian school kids take a dislike to someone in Book 1, set him off on a trip of about a million words and have him finish sexually disorientated, politically corrupt, mentally diseased. Fail to fit in at school and end up the dead-beat of dead-beats. That's some endorsement for the percipience of an inclique at the top school.

But subtler views of the world are also here, as sharp and entertaining as anything in the rest of ADTTMOT; and especially that unequalled flair for showing a very great deal via social set-pieces….

Powell has come a long way since the brilliantly hilarious but cagily circumscribed party chapters of Afternoon Men, his first novel, in 1931.

He does not always take kindly to symbolic interpretations of his work, but there is a Modigliani drawing which appears here and elsewhere in the series whose purpose is clearly to sound some overtones…. The drawing seems to stand for all that was sensitive, beautiful, creative, against Widmerpool's eternal aridity and selfishness. Near the end of this volume the old soak Bithel … manages to save the Modigliani from a bonfire organised by Murtlock. Somehow—and Bithel, ancient, plastered, decrepit, is quite a somehow—art will survive, just as books survived that other blaze in thirties Germany. Possibly this is the most heartening of the secret harmonies. In his quiet way, Nicholas (Powell?) is at the same positive game, writing away without much regard for fashion, power, cults, politics. (p. 64)

James Tucker, "The Music of Time," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd.; II Greek Street, London WIV 5LE), September, 1975, pp. 63-4.

The twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time are now completed by the publication of Hearing Secret Harmonies, and no judgment of this final instalment can be wholly independent of the work as a whole. Is it 'like Proust'?—the debt, after all, is acknowledged in the work itself. But the tribute is teasing. Proust is concerned with the inevitability of change. Powell … in fact demonstrates a principle of recurrence in human affairs adumbrated by thinkers as various as Heraclitus, Vico, Nietzsche and Mrs Erdleigh, not to mention sages in other cultural traditions. It is a principle that transcends the merely individual: Mrs Erdleigh, whose presence is predictable, since she appears in every third volume, has died, but her spirit looms larger than ever….

Mr Powell has never been more surprising. His capacity to capture a period through its incidental aspects, without ever sliding from comedy into caricature, has always been a vital element in his work. But here he has stock figures and stock situations, drop-outs and demonstrations, that might well seem all too obvious (and hence uncharacteristic) indications of the temper of the last decade, during which the action of his novel takes place. The narrative tension of Books Do Furnish a Room, the more spacious manner of Temporary Kings, are now set aside in favour of an approach which is at points as ambagious as that of Ariosto—an author in whose work Jenkins discovered illuminations casting bright if fitful lights on hitherto shaded aspects of Widmerpool.

Can such a technique and such material provide an adequate close? Hearing Secret Harmonies is not, on first acquaintance, so successful an independent work as its immediate predecessors. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect it to be; its position demands that it be given the benefit of the proper perspective…. We cannot see all parts of the dance at once, but it has always been Mr Powell's gift to take us back through it so that we read the patterns in a different way; the artist can play at being Time with time. So Nick Jenkins reflects on Poussin's Time and Ariosto's Time, the painter's time and the writer's time; and we can also reflect that Mr Powell inclines to the painter's position. As Nick observes of Poussin's lyre-playing figure: "The smile might be thought a trifle sinister, nevertheless the mood is genial, composed."…

Hearing Secret Harmonies depends on the sequence as a whole. By itself it is, as we would expect, vastly comic, but it is not (and here it may run against expectations) fully satisfying. There is no particular reason why it should be. As a conclusion to the series it begins to work in an entirely different way. The contemporary references that now seem a little too easy may well weather to something quite acceptable: they will come to be seen more in their functional aspect (for they are vital to the plotting) and less in their social dimension. The looser elements of construction will appear quite natural in terms of the articulation of the whole sequence, and the additional illuminations will emerge in their full significance, with Dicky Umfraville at eighty a part of the character we knew at Foppa's. Above all Hearing Secret Harmonies will matter because of its clarification (which is never a simplification) of what the whole sequence is about. If it remains, in one aspect, a social comedy, then its greatness is in the fact that in the end it is as much about comedy as it is about society.

Richard Luckett, "The End of the Line," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 13, 1975, p. 349.

In saying a few words about the final novel of Anthony Powell's Music of Time sequence it is hard to avoid an unnecessary bit of preaching to the converted, or alternatively a strident defense of how fine he really is. When I see that Clive James has said it is "going to be the greatest modern novel in English since Ulysses" I know I should stand back and raise a warning finger, but on completion of volume number 12 I really saw no way around mere total approval of the Jamesian pronouncement. Yes, if counted as one book, it is the greatest modern novel since Ulysses, and I am willing—as Joyce urged on his readers—to devote if not the rest at least a fair share of my future days to its perusal…. (p. 158)

Along with prognostication and stand-off dialogue there are … authoritative bequeathments of age, seen through Nick Jenkins' advanced eyes: "Two compensations for growing old are worth putting on record as the condition asserts itself. The first is a vantage point gained for acquiring embellishments to narratives that have been unfolding for years beside one's own, trimmings that can even appear to supply the conclusion of a given story, though finality is never certain, a dimension always possible to add." Hearing Secret Harmonies is in this sense "trimmings," even though [its protagonist] Widmerpool comes to a sad end, hoping to the very last to be known as just plain "Ken." In reviewing the book James Tucker suggests that "It is a slightly arrogant view of life, though, which has a cabal of Etonian school kids take a dislike to someone in Book I, set him off on a trip of about a million words and have him finish sexually disorientated, politically corrupt, mentally diseased." To which I would only reply, Up slightly arrogant views of life! Widmerpool should have been so lucky, his existence (like the young man carbuncular's, but so much more interesting) confirmed in my imagination forever. (p. 160)

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Volume XXIX, Number 1, Spring, 1976.

Quite simply, A Dance to the Music of Time is a long and marvellous novel about people-in-time. They are very much Mr Powell's people, in Mr Powell's own stretch of time, and place; but since we all dance to the music which "the winged and naked greybeard plays", in any place, in any age, the effect would be the same anywhere. Gradually the realisation has dawned that the experiences Mr Powell deals in are universal, not restricted; and one more achievement given a label of "characteristically English" has burst its bonds to awaken a much wider interest. The Dance has also burst out of another straitjacket, imposed on it by those who mistook the nature of the patterning Mr Powell was intending. As early as the second chapter of A Question of Upbringing (Vol. I), he was insisting that "disregard for the unities is something that cannot be circumvented in human life." In other words, there never was going to be a grand drawing together of all the threads, the revelation of a transcending design. Human character and motive are multifarious, so the patterns of the dance could not be too inexorable or obvious; and harmonies would be perceived, but they could never signify more than a moderate amount. As long as time itself lasted, and people were caught up in its music, the dance would continue; and it could never be resolved with a contrived flourish, all its participants bowing out together. The quite predictable resolution of Mr Powell's sequence was therefore one in which most of the famous characters remaining—and one character in particular—would finally be seen to be carried out of the dance while others stayed in it to carry on the steps. Hearing Secret Harmonies was destined to be more of a convenient termination than a resounding climax. (p. 58)

When the first books in the post-war sequence appeared there was more than a little puzzlement, and a shaking of wise critical heads. The leisurely progression of the narrative in each through a small number of carefully selected and painstakingly explored episodes was too like the slowness of life itself for some, and the concealed implications discerned in the most ordinary of incidents were not universally greeted as blinding revelations…. How strenuously the blurbs battled to make what they could of a formidable, yet curiously indefinable—possibly rather awkward?—animal. As late as Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (Vol. V) and The Kindly Ones (Vol. VI), each novel, while patently part of an ongoing series, could, we were assured, be read as "complete in itself." Or it might, of course, be helpful (the blurb of The Kindly Ones) to think of it as a sextet breaking down into two trilogies. (Patiently one told people to begin at the beginning, the only way of making sense of the whole story; but even now there are many who accepted those blurb assurances, started at V or VI, or even II or III, lost their way, and gave up.)

By the time the hump of Vol. VI is surmounted—and it no doubt helped that that book, The Kindly Ones, was arguably the finest in the series up to that point—the slow and stately progress, at the author's own unchanging pace, on his own narrative terms, in the medium of a comedy which is uniquely his, has at last been accepted. The blurb of The Valley of Bones (Vol. VII) tackles the whole matter with greatly increased confidence. The book is "another volume of Anthony Powell's long novel, The Music of Time. It begins the six-volume sequence planned as the second half of that work." (pp. 58-9)

One elementary and essential role of invention, of course, is that of tidying things up. Nearly all ordinary lives tail off, or peter out, with no ingredient of startling, or redeeming, farce or tragedy. But at least some fictitious lives, even in fictions as elbow-close to reality as Mr Powell's, must be given some extraordinary conclusion, must end in something approaching a climax….

Naturally, individual novels in a twelve-volume sequence did not need to have plot and characters tidied up too rigorously. People could easily be left in mid-career, or mid-decline, carrying on much as they usually did, with the expectation that they would turn up again in their familiar guises at some later stage. Endings had only to provide an adequate punctuation point; and indeed Mr Powell's endings have frequently looked engagingly offhand, even throw-away…. If anything, this inconclusiveness along the way made it necessary to give the final volume a special sort of resolution; if not some momentous gesture (unlikely for other reasons already suggested), then at least a form of tidying which would leave all outstanding matters decisively at rest.

It would not need to be too draconian in the sense of disposing, at a stroke, of a whole surviving set of major characters…. Since death had attended upon the greater number of the major characters …, it was clear that Widmerpool himself, indisputably the focal figure of the whole enterprise, would need to die before the work could be called complete. Widmerpool, of all people, could not be left running away laboriously and purposefully into the mists of the future.

Thus the handling of the death of Widmerpool would take on the nature of a crucial test. Certainly the success of the last volume as a conclusion to the series would depend on it. And there would be more serious issues at stake: the choice of a wrong kind of fate for Widmerpool would not logically undermine the achievement of the first eleven books; but in a strange way it might cast doubt on much that went before by leaving a notable flaw in the picture. (p. 60)

[The] literally fatal step on a decisively downward path for Widmerpool is taken when he falls first into alliance, then rapidly into rivalry, with the most powerful of Mr Powell's new creations, the diabolic Scorpio Murtlock [the leader of a cult]…. There is … a bitter contest between Widmerpool and Murtlock for power over the cult followers. In keeping with the times, the group has discarded its robes to run naked; and practises elaborate and alarming sexual rites, with Widmerpool doing the best he can manage. Running, striving to be ahead, has eternally been Widmerpool's obsession, and the climax of the struggle with Murtlock is the run on which Widmerpool, racing to the front of the group, shouts out "I'm leading, I'm leading now", collapses—and dies. (p. 62)

[His manner of death] is a merciless reduction of Widmerpool, and truly horrifying in the telling: suddenly all the comedy drops away and Widmerpool is left a pathetic martyr to his own striving. Murtlock's victory is that of one power seeker over another, and it carries pungent suggestions that the power men of the future may well be the priests of irrationality and violence. But the nagging question stays to be answered: would Widmerpool have gone out in that way? It is an extremely important consideration, because A Dance to the Music of Time has relied upon an especially nice adjustment between the real and the fantastic, and an involvement of readers in the sheer possibility of the characters and their doings. It would be deeply disappointing to have something impossible happen now.

I believe that many readers are going to find it hard to credit the circumstances of "Ken" Widmerpool's ultimate decay and demise. I also believe that as soon as they presume to be sceptical about it, alleging that "their" Widmerpool would not have ended in this way, somebody in the real world, outside Mr Powell's "fictions", will do something which will prove the author to have been only too moderate in his inventions…. Widmerpool's adaptability was always remarkable: a spectacular gift of will and energy enabled him to bounce back from public and private misfortune in a manner not at all uncharacteristic of some figures in real life. An ever-increasing confusion in our time about where power, advantage and meaning actually do reside, allied to the old, insatiable desire of wilful men to have these things for themselves, has produced some very strange postures among the famous, and will produce stranger yet. I feel that Mr Powell has designed an altogether appropriate and intrinsically likely end for Widmerpool, and one thoroughly in keeping with his beginning in the book. (pp. 62-3)

Alan Brownjohn, "And the Dance Goes On: On Anthony Powell," in Encounter (© 1976 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1976, pp. 58-64.

With Hearing Secret Harmonies Anthony Powell comes to the end of his magnificently ambitious novel sequence 'A Dance to the Music of Time'. So complete has been his creation that it is hard not to feel as one lays the book down that a whole world is being abandoned, a world whose characters and landscapes attain an almost tangible degree of reality. In this respect Powell has achieved what must surely be one of the criteria of a great, perhaps even epic, work of fiction—the ability to take the reader, for an instant, entirely out of himself into a set of situations and circumstances created for him by the novelist. If all great novels are, to quote the Nabokovian dictum, essentially great fairy stories, complete with the great fairy story's gifts of all-encompassing fantasy and totality of creative achievement, then the Music of Time must assuredly rank among their number….

[A world has] been created for the delectation and education of the reader. To be able to say this is, alone, an indication of the power and complexity of Powell's work.

Max Egremont, "The Passing of Time," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Max Egremont 1976; reprinted with permission), March, 1976, p. 55.

Anthony Powell's enormous novel, A Dance to the Music of Time, demands for its full enjoyment … a mixed response …, a combination of gullibility and critical detachment. That this great work exerts a powerful enchantment is attested by almost every reader who has consumed some or all of the 2,678 pages Powell has published to date…. [The] title itself and the explication of the title Powell supplies, with characteristic generosity, on his second page, announce that all that is to follow is to be taken as a gigantic spectacle, an elaborate dance, which invites attention to its choreography as well as to the significance of its movement. Moreover, Powell's prose, which is thickly verbal, continually reminds us that his "stage is only a stage, [his] players are only players"…. (pp. 223-24)

A study of Powell's use of his medium—language and the devices of fiction—enhances our understanding and enjoyment of his work not only because it confirms that he is a choreographer of great skill but also because it reveals that the special brand of illusion he creates is perfectly appropriate to the interpretation of human experience he has to express. We are taken in by him while we read him; when we extricate ourselves from his enchantment we discover that the rhetoric of his fiction has implications of its own, and they are consistent with assumptions about human behavior his novel fictionalizes. Eventually we may approach, by this conscious exercise of gullibility and detachment, a finer reading of "'the language of his heart,'" to borrow a beautiful phrase from Pope that Powell quotes late in his novel…. (pp. 224-25)

The finest of his strategies was to invent Nicholas Jenkins…. The novel is Jenkins, and Jenkins is the novel. We get the whole of Powell's "subjective presentation" from him, and at no point do we get an outsider's view of him. We live with him for over fifty fictional years as he observes, reflects, and records, but we never learn the color of his hair or the shape of his nose, because we are inside him all the while and are not shown his "superstructure" from another vantage point.

Powell further complicates his task as author by assigning the office of narrating the dance to one of the dancers: Jenkins is an active participant in the events of the novel, and as such he becomes, like the figures in the painting by Poussin which gives the novel its name, one of a group of "human beings, facing outward … moving hand in hand in intricate measure … unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance"…. He is well aware of his own limitations, and, indeed, a principal device of Powell's fiction is to insist on his narrator's fallibility. (pp. 227-28)

So often does he misconstrue the evidence he confronts, so often must he revise his initial inferences, that Jenkins develops a habit of forbearance; like that other Nick he resembles in so many important ways, Fitzgerald's Carraway, he is "inclined to reserve all judgments." He is continually surprised by events ("I had not expected the evening to turn out this way"), and for that reason, among others, he never claims the oracular powers or unfailing perspicacity some authors would like to claim for their narrators.

Now these admissions of fallibility are not merely expressions of Jenkins' ingratiating modesty and candor. They serve a purpose in Powell's fictional strategy by helping to enforce the illusion his novel creates. We credit Jenkins' telling of this lengthy tale not only because he seems a plausibly imperfect human being, liable to error like the rest of us, but also because we assume, probably without thinking, that when his judgment is wrong, there must be a right judgment and therefore the object to be judged must exist. Another narrator might have described Trapnel's appearance as he entered the novel, then have given us a summary of his nature, a summary to be confirmed by his subsequent behavior in the novel…. This procedure might be called "illusion by assertion and demonstration." The fiction is established and our credence won simply by asserting, then demonstrating, "truths" (all imagined, of course) the author would have us accept. Powell's procedure, which might be called "illusion by revision," is to assert a truth only to revise it and thus to remove all doubt about the existence of whatever occasioned it…. (p. 229)

When Jenkins is unsure, it is usually because he perceives so much and is aware of so many possible ways of understanding what he perceives. He mistrusts his judgments not only because he knows he is fallible but also because he has so many judgments to choose from. As he observes the steps of a fellow dancer, Powell puts in his mind not a single, "official" explanation of them but a number of equally cogent interpretations, thus greatly complicating Jenkins' effort to discern the truth. This procedure is Powell's most powerfully persuasive fictional device, and it may be unique with him…. (p. 230)

[Jenkins'] only abiding conviction is that many things are possible where human beings are concerned and that "categorical knowledge" or absolute certainty is therefore impossible. A novel in which all things are possible, however, is inconceivable: by his very selectivity … the novelist imposes an order on experience and thus implies purpose or plan. Conversely, he must convince us that what he relates had to be, that nothing else was possible, if his novel is to appear a well-shaped whole, a significant simulacrum of life. Form is fate, and fate is form. The novelist is God…. (p. 234)

Just how Powell performs the paradoxical feat of sustaining the illusion of possibility all the while controlling his dancers' movements to complete his elaborate, predetermined form is revealed by a single episode which epitomizes much of his novel. It occurs in the third volume when Powell arranges for Jenkins to meet, apparently by accident, a disparate group of old friends and recent acquaintances at the Ritz Grill, where Jenkins has gone for a specific purpose of his own, thus "willing" what follows. The party decides, quite spontaneously, to move on to the Templers' house, and it is during their journey on the Great West Road that Jenkins first takes Jean in his arms….

What Powell sees and has Jenkins see is that all men are "driven" but "at different speeds" (and, one might add, on different routes), that their fates are determined but willed, and that each is ordinary but extraordinary. One may generalize about human beings, but only to say that each is unique, with a separate fate that is "the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be." (p. 235)

As Dryden wrote in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, "'Tis evident that the more the persons are, the greater will be the variety of the plot. If then the parts are managed so regularly, that the beauty of the whole be kept entire, and that the variety become not a perplexed and confused mass of accidents, you will find it infinitely pleasing to be led in a labyrinth of design, where you see some of your way before you, but discern not the end till you arrive at it." So far, over two hundred persons have appeared in Powell's novel, and its plot is wondrously varied. We can now see that its parts are managed so "regularly" that a beautiful whole will be completed when the final volume is published and when we have arrived at the end of his "infinitely pleasing … labyrinth of design." It will be a whole, however, which demonstrates that human lives often seem "a perplexed and confused mass of accidents," because "the behaviour of humans is, undeniably, extraordinary." It will respect the singularity of persons, grant them possibility, and work its enchantment, not by coercion, but by deftly engaging us in contemplating the continually surprising—and humbling—variety of human experience. (p. 239)

Thomas W. Wilcox, "Anthony Powell and the Illusion of Possibility," in Contemporary Literature (© 1976 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Volume 17, Number 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 223-29.

Although profoundly different from either Trollope or Gals-worthy in style and philosophy, the memorable chronicle [Anthony Powell] has written of his period is equal to either of theirs, while as an elegant, witty and skillful literary craftsman, Powell is their superior.

Beginning with the appearance in 1951 of A Question of Upbringing, the dozen parts of ["A Dance to the Music of Time"] constitute a roman fleuve that provides a vivid look at English life from the summer of 1914 to the present….

Powell has said that his work is symbolized by Poussin's painting, "A Dance to the Music of Time," where the figures of the Seasons move to the notes of the lyre played by Time, "the winged and naked greybeard."…

In these volumes the many characters moving in and out of the dance become familiar and at length fascinating, unforgettable….

At the same time the reader absorbs the Powell style, complex, highly polished, patterned and formal, and the comic sense that lightens and infuses the whole. And he looks with increasing anticipation and delight for the carefully constructed set-pieces that stick in the mind as vividly as scenes from Breughel….

[The] occult has always had an allure for Powell, but now as he ages the mystic and necromantic are treated with a new depth of concern. And sex in exotic form, though presented in a humorous and inexplicit way, continues to receive the heightened attention first apparent in Books Do Furnish a Room … and later, more extensively, in Temporary Kings….

The three postwar books have a different tone from those that went before. They are drier; much of the gaiety and insouciance are gone; the style glitters less, is more compact, sometimes to a point where parsing is called for. Nick is older now, and the last two decades have not been happy or easeful. Thus, almost physically, the character of this era is reflected.

Powell has often been called a comic writer and it is true that he has created numerous memorable scenes of high comedy, but he has always been a more serious commentator than at first he seems, and his insights, however jocular the context, are basically serious. Yet Hearing Secret Harmonies demonstrates that in spite of somber interludes his creativity is still ebullient, his wit sparkling and his literary skill vigorous.

John S. Monagan, "Change Partners and Promenade," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 4, 1976, p. H4.

The year is, roughly speaking, 1970—a half century after it all began. Dr. Trelawney's benign mystical cult of World War I days has been succeeded by a Mansonian band that roams the English countryside preaching "harmony" but indulging in power games and unspeakable sexual rites. One of its adherents is Kenneth Widmerpool, now a peer, recently suggested for a Nobel Prize but wishing to be called just plain Ken. The Walpole-Wilson residence in Eaton Square, once the scene of deb-dance dinners, is now an African embassy. The eminent publisher J. G. Quiggin has twin daughters who work for an underground publication called Toilet Paper. A television symposium devoted to the late, once venerated novelist St. John Clarke is dominated by discussion of his possible homosexuality. Nick Jenkins, the cool, eagle-eyed narrator who has been telling us how all this came to pass ever since his public-school days in the 1920s, confesses to an occasional bout of "Accidie … feeling fed up with life."

It's over—and for those of us who have come to regard the unfolding of Anthony Powell's grand sequence of novels, "A Dance to the Music of Time," as the most absorbing long-running literary experience of our time, the publication of the twelfth and final volume ["Hearing Secret Harmonies"] is like the death of a best friend….

Since 1951, when the first volume was published, "The Music of Time" has sounded not only the mostly comic harmonies of social change in a very particular English set but the deeper harmonies of life as it is lived elsewhere in the Western world. Powell's characters have always dropped clues as to their inventor's intentions—the series is, among other things, a meditation on the value of the novel as a human enterprise…. (p. 79)

"The Music of Time" examines the processes of Power, Love, Death and Harmony in the casual minutiae of hundreds of lives ranging from a parlormaid who sees ghosts to an American film producer. Seismic events rumble distantly offstage: Marxism and Trotskyism are registered only as whimsical fads acquired by the novelist St. John Clarke in his dotage; World War II as a battlefield far removed from the provincial training outposts and dingy intelligence offices where much of the sequence's war trilogy is set. (pp. 79-80)

Written in an emotionally understated, elaborately patterned style something like masculine needlework, Powell's long novel—it must be read in sequence—recalls one of his own favorite books, John Aubrey's "Brief Lives." Before embarking on his masterpiece, Powell completed a biography of the great seventeenth-century English chronicler, "John Aubrey and His Friends." In it he wrote, "To the question: 'What are the English like?' worse answers might be given than: 'Read Aubrey's "Lives" and you will see'; for there, loosely woven together, is a kind of tapestry of the good and evil; the ingenuity and the folly; the integrity and the hypocrisy; the eccentricity, the melancholy, and the greatness of the English race." To the question: "What have civilized Westerners been like in the first 70 years of the twentieth century?" worse answers might be given than: read "A Dance to the Music of Time." (p. 80)

Charles Michener, "Powell: The 'Dance' is Over," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 5, 1976, pp. 79-81.

"A Dance to the Music of Time" … has been widely recognized as one of the most important works of fiction since the Second World War. Like any monumental effort, Powell's novel evokes the question whether it is an act of will or of faith. We puzzle about the summits of European classicism: Is the self-confidence of, say, the plays of Racine based upon the artist's drive to prevail over subject matter and time or upon his faith in the promises of God or in the unchanging nature of man? We, who mostly feel impermanence, instability, and thwarted expectations, find classicism's sheer nerve astonishing, the more so when the work justifies its overweening assumptions…. The subjective "I feel"—no matter how outrageous the feelings—of so much contemporary writing is far more modest than the objective, classical "It is." Powell writes in the first person, but his is no humble effort, and Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator, who describes himself as a man of "classical taste," recognizes the challenge he has set for himself in his determination to pin down twentieth-century England, and to make something solid and enduring of the mutability of his age. He often refers to the obstinately unclassical nature of his world, and he seems very much a man of the twentieth century in his attraction to the seventeenth. (p. 140)

"Important" connotes not only ambition but ambition fulfilled, like it or not. Powell's work demands the word, and I myself, a Powell-worshipper, find the novel's grandeur, as I read and reread it, edging almost past my understanding. I used to think its power was its prose. Now that the work is complete, I tend to give more weight to its chronicle form: as each successive volume has appeared, Powell has tightened or tensed his weaving of the ridiculous and the excruciating. The novel looked, as it began, something like a comedy of manners; then, for a while, like a tragedy of manners; now like a vastly entertaining, deeply melancholy, yet somehow courageous statement about human existence. A historical novel of the author's own era—fiction disguised as autobiography—it records the alterations that a man born in 1905 might observe and suffer from, and uncovers at least one classical constant: the ages of man. Youth, for instance, always lives in the present…. The volumes demonstrate that merely living is education, and put life's lessons in a classical form—the maxim. For example, "There is no greater sign of innate misery than a love of teasing."

One could cull a small volume of such sententiae from "A Dance to the Music of Time," and one could also read the work for its historical value. It is history only insofar as history has invaded private life….

Yet now that I have read "Hearing Secret Harmonies," I think that "A Dance to the Music of Time" is neither wit nor document but a novel about the struggle between good and evil, and that Powell conceives that everlasting war as a struggle between will and faith. The work subtly but ever more insistently contrasts the quest for power with the urge to create. The power seekers are killers and lovers of death, and the defenses against them are disinterestedness, playfulness, and, above all, artistic dedication. Jenkins' faith in art allies Powell's work with Proust's, but there are striking dissimilarities between the two writers: Proust was a deliberately showy stylist who set out to create a new French prose, while Powell's language is so demure that until one begins closely to examine all its tricks and suppleness it reads like statements of fact instead of the complex artistic arrangement of English words that it is.

The persuasiveness that Powell has achieved in the earlier volumes inclines the reader to accept what Jenkins says in "Hearing Secret Harmonies": that the revival of irrationality in the form of parody religion, occultism, or magic is wicked, and that the cults that have proliferated everywhere in the Western world are dangerous…. It is hard to know whether Jenkins feels imperilled because people moving toward their seventies are apt to feel that things are getting worse or whether Powell's work, which has registered so many recognizable truths about the past, is recording something real about the present: that the organized irrationalities that attract many young people—and that I have thought of as a marginal phenomenon, a lunatic fringe—are intended as attacks on our civilization. (pp. 140-42)

The race we have been watching was not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, and while Powell's meek have not inherited the earth, they alone in the world of this novel left legacies…. [It] seems to me that the twelve volumes of "A Dance to the Music of Time" may be read as a thirteenth chapter of one of the least conventionally pious books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes. Or, more hopefully—more religiously, perhaps—as an explication of these lines from T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding":

            And all shall be well and             All manner of thing shall be well             By the purification of the motive             In the ground of our beseeching.       (p. 142)

Naomi Bliven, in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 10, 1976.

Latecomers probably should not be admitted during [Hearing Secret Harmonies, the] finale to Anthony Powell's twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time…. For Powell is here concerned with staging effects for the subscription crowd—"the touching up of time-expired sets, reshaping of derelict props, updating of old refrains."

The time is the tumultuous 1960s. Favorites from earlier volumes—Dicky Umfraville, Jean Duport, Flavia Wisebite—totter back to take bows with Powell's tirelessly ruminative narrator, Nick Jenkins. (p. 80)

With utmost precision, Powell measures the decline of a society in the curve of a false smile or the adulterous squeak of a bedspring. He is a writer who should be read in bulk, however. Dipped into at random, any one of these books can seem bland at best. But several together reveal rich patterns in the caperings and transformations, the pairings and partings, the exits and reappearances of Powell's more than 300 characters. Later installments take on the throb of a long hangover, pierced occasionally by icy glimpses of mortality. (p. K7)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), May 17, 1976.

The dance to time's music is at last finished—none too soon, some may say, though most critics regard Powell's achievement as being, if not exactly Proustian, at least one that sets him in the highest rank of living British writers. An antic, enigmatic cast of characters (e.g. shady dons, public schoolboys, society hostesses, bohemian painters, poets, novelists, musical generals, tycoons, forward offspring of the upper class), whose names are usually more memorable than their faces (Bijou Ardglass, Buster Foxe, Flavia Wisebite, Pamela Flitton, Sir Magnus Donners, X. Trapnel, Kenneth Widmerpool) come together, part, and come together again in ever more surprising conjunction—providing emblematic moments of fantastic comedy, delayed by intricate stylistic foreplay and an inexhaustible perception of the complex motives informing every action, gesture and velleity. In the earlier volumes, comedy abounds, heightened by inexplicit pain and pathos; later in the series, perverse and sinister influences grow larger, magic is a resource, death a presence. This isn't a true chronicle of English life, though the discreet narrator is indeed a close simulacrum of the author, and no doubt most of the characters have real counterparts. No matter. It is an addictive social fantasy, strictly controlled by the author's sense of the ambiguity of human relationships and an indispensable literary style: down-to-earth when need be; when working up one of his great scenes, freely calling upon the hypnotic syntax and symbols of the 17th century. (p. F9)

Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 30, 1976.

High drama is not Anthony Powell's line: the passions, the deaths, the decisive actions mostly happen off stage. Nor is he, or Nick Jenkins speaking for him, at all inclined to be censorious. Both observe and scrupulously analyze people's behavior, and then just accept it with a wry smile or a shrug. Therefore Mr. Powell's characters—like most of the people we meet in everyday life—tend not to be clearly nice or clearly nasty or, indeed, clearly anything. They simply exist: they are themselves: and their motives, however interested we may be, remain ultimately unfathomable. (p. 633)

A Dance to the Music of Time is a very English book in its social subtleties, its understatement, its gentle irony, and its beautifully controlled use of the English language. It may represent an acquired taste, but, once the taste has been acquired, it offers marvelously civilized entertainment…. Hearing Secret Harmonies brings the music to its close with a suitably dying fall. It is as good as any of its predecessors. There has been no slackening whatsoever of Mr. Powell's achievement.

He makes us see not only his world, but ours, through his eyes. Not only his characters, but our own lives and the lives which are constantly weaving and unweaving themselves around us, become part of the pattern, part of the inexplicable dance. (p. 634)

Anthony Lejeune, "An Acquired Taste," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June 11, 1976, pp. 633-34.

Twelve volumes, 300 characters and a million words have eased into the stream of literary history since Kenneth Widmerpool first came huffing up the tarmac of a dreary winter's day, pushing himself to run off schoolboy fat, and manifesting those incipient signs of will power that for a quarter of a century have dominated the pages of A Dance to the Music of Time. Now [in Hearing Secret Harmonies] Widmerpool is dead: victim of a heart attack during a predawn jog with some of his hippie companions from an occultist commune; done in by his Creator not 10 pages before the melancholy and mournful dance of life and death has finally been "suspended in the wintry silence"—the time and space, in fact, where it all began.

Twenty-five years ago, or even ten, it would have been almost impossible to predict the direction that Anthony Powell's human comedy, the most significant novel sequence on English society since The Forsyte Saga, was to take. It was virtually certain from the fifth volume on (Casanova's Chinese Restaurant) that the series was heaving into a valedictory for the 1930s, that the motifs of disintegration, decay and death had entered more than casually, and that the war trilogy (The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art, The Military Philosophers) was trumpeting the mini-apocalypse of the class and decade that Powell and his surrogate narrator, the novelist Nicholas Jenkins, knew and really understood. It was almost certain, too, given the enormous cast of characters and their proliferating relationships, that Powell would not be attempting in the final volumes a retrieval, a tying together in the Proustian sense, of all the themes paid out like so many separate threads since the beginning of the sequence. By means of a scrap of information here, a letter received there, a parenthesis dropped elsewhere, Powell was quite content merely to kill off old protagonists by the brace or by the dozen—his most recent books often seeming in places like roll calls of the dead—and, in the way of yet greater surprise, suddenly to introduce new ones. Clearly, Powell was not, like Galsworthy, out to wallow in the past or, like Proust, to recapture it.

What, then, was he out to do? Hearing Secret Harmonies, the last of the twelve volumes, furnishes a number of clues…. The most transparent of them indeed concerns death: not individual death, dispensed with in an aside or conducted offstage; … but death as a transcendent or metaphysical notion, providing an inevitable fascination for a writer who has seen scores of characters in their dance to the grave. (p. 758)

If the novelist is of necessity a voyeur, looking on life only that he may convert it into art, so his fascination for death need not be a necrophiliac perversion but rather the natural consummation of artistic curiosity. In the grand design of the sequence, Powell's danse macabre is no less significant than his antic hay.

Thus, one of the secret harmonies in these novels is that death, though unpleasant to contemplate, must always be anticipated, and generally it befits the dancer. (p. 759)

Hearing Secret Harmonies, before ending on a dying fall, pulls out further stops of Powell's confrontation between power and imagination. Widmerpool, hitherto the demigorgon of conservatism and power, succumbs to imagination at last. Liberal, liberated, tuned-in, Widmerpool—now "Ken"—escapes the grim fate of ending up as a university chancellor to fall prey to the unspeakable rites and practices of Murtlock's "Harmony" gang. Widmerpool fails in his bid to become a new messiah of Dr. Trelawney's old spiritualistic mumbo jumbo ("The Essence of the All is the Godhead of the True"), and is leveled in humiliation to the lowest ranks of disciple; power is hoist with its own petard.

Yet Powell's implications in killing off Widmerpool are potentially more depressing. Widmerpool, if nothing else, was a great life forcer, and in the course of The Music of Time all the great life forcers—male as well as female, the power hungry as well as the imaginative—have proved expendable. We are left, alas, with durable mediocrity, or that seems to be what Jenkins-Powell implies! Even Jenkins himself, who from time to time came up to snuff as heroic material, has pretty well been refined out of the works. Surely, were we to read The Music of Time as a realistic picture of English upper- and middle-class decline and fall, we could count on mediocrity to supply society's harmony, and the men of power and imagination to furnish the discords.

Which is quite possibly the way we are not meant to read it at all. The Music of Time is a formidable bit of realism by a master ironist and comedian, but in the end it has proven itself to be less a fictional history about sixty years of English society than a mythical delineation of it…. Powell's plan, it seems, was to create a world where life and art, time and space, ran on synchronously and parallel. Such is the world of myth. Hearing Secret Harmonies gives us a new perspective on it: takes us to the vanishing point where the parallels almost converge.

The new perspective is Nietzsche: Nietzsche at a dinner party and consequently Nietzsche without tears…. Nick mentions that "Nietzsche thought individual experiences were recurrent, though he put it rather differently." This, essentially and at last, is Powell's justification of his design in The Music of Time, and the most oblique reply to critics who have found the series growing more incestuous in its pairings of partners, more involuted, coincidental, factitious. Powell has not expanded the world of his dancers simply because he has not wanted to. Characters aplenty he has, but they talk much the same way, do much the same things, find themselves at many of the same parties or weekend houses. Powell's dance has progressively wound down because the seasons, life, wind down in their momentum to begin anew.

What Nietzsche has ultimately done for The Music of Time is to give it a novelistic, as well as a philosophic order: to make this myth of recurrence part of the entire comic fabric. (pp. 759-60)

Powell, as well as Nietzsche, recognizes the weariness and futility connected with the theory of recurrence, the myth of eternal return. Earlier writers have chosen to treat the myth tragically; Powell goes about treating it comically, balancing life and death, reality and art, accepting them and not expecting to change them…. Perhaps it is futile to think that the more things change, the more they remain the same, but still better is the idea of continuing than standing still. Powell's world in A Dance to the Music of Time continues. There is no apocalypse or apotheosis; it does not end with a bang or a whimper; it does not give us any final message about time, the dance or the dancers. Fortunately. "We have art," Nietzsche said, "in order that we may not perish through truth." (p. 760)

Robert K. Morris, "Powell's Dance to the Grave," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), June 19, 1976, pp. 758-60.

Powell's novels reveal a High Tory nonconformist (if such a mixture is possible), widely read in English and French, with a passion for authors such as John Aubrey and Robert Burton; who is fascinated by genealogy and physiognomy; has a good eye for buildings and sculpture; loves painting and likes to describe fictional characters by cross-reference to favorite pictures.

Although Edmund Wilson spoke of Powell's novels as light reading, they make demands on the reader of a specific and unusual kind. Because the story-line in the sequence flows on from book to book and the characters and the narrator make so many references to past events, there is little profit in starting to read the novels out of order once the third volume is passed. As the work gathers way, the loyal reader picks up the recapitulations and echoes from the past, and these create not only a sense of life lived but of life shared with the writer. The final volume is the ultimate crossword puzzle, for without having just read the first book the reader misses the point of what is happening. Such a world of private allusion makes the casual reader feel excluded, but this is the way sequence is meant to work.

The narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is a gentleman of the old school. He is leisurely and eccentric in his selection of events. He commands a style that might be called middle-mandarin. It is capable of superb comic effects and good description but can degenerate into a genteel pleonasm, like a pastiche of the novel of extreme sensibility. What sets Jenkins apart from most characters in modern fiction is his social composure. He knows exactly who he is and what he can expect of himself. (pp. 354-55)

It follows that a sequence of twelve novels based on Powell's vision of man as dancer in circles must, as it gathers way, move further and further from naturalism or, at times, probability. Instead of the life-imitating chaos of events, Powell creates a mood akin to comic fatalism, which gives an inevitability to the most incredible coincidences, hear-says, and unforeseen correspondences. This law of inevitable coincidence applies especially to the meetings between Jenkins and Widmerpool but is in operation all the time and produces about a score of improbable couplings and marriages in the course of the work. At times, this lends strength to the Metropolitan Romance aspect of the novels by creating the motion of a private galaxy where the elect whirl about, meet, part, remeet, and always oblivious of the ordinary world about them. (p. 357)

It is paradoxical … that despite the great length of the novel sequence the reader is left with the impression of something small, rather delicate, a string of vignettes or miniatures, rather than a solid structure. This smallness, culminating in the refusal to end the sequence with a flourish, without valedictory passages, without giving the reader that sense of moral or spiritual growth he might have expected, finally suggests that the comparison should not be with Proust [as many critics have done, usually at Powell's expense,] but with someone working on a much smaller scale: Noel Coward, whose theatrical historical pageant Cavalcade offered its audiences much the same pleasures as The Music of Time. The suggestion is not hostile (Coward was a great craftsman and entertainer) but is meant to pin down the essential quality of the sequence and to explain its hold over its devotees. Powell's ability to "hit off" the flavour of each period (up until the end of the 1940's) is celebrated justly, and readers enjoy this period detail, the popular songs, the modish paraphernalia, the new social types coming into being. And so a man with an antiquarian, rather than a historian's, feeling for the past has written a long novel that has elements in it of a parable about the decline of his class and is itself the swansong of the Metropolitan Romance. For a writer who has not believed in a general framework of ideas or historical theories, this is the greatest paradox of all. (p. 369)

Richard Jones, "Anthony Powell's Music: Swansong of the Metropolitan Romance," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 3 (Summer, 1976), pp. 353-69.


Powell, Anthony (Vol. 3)


Powell, Anthony (Vol. 9)