Anthony Powell Powell, Anthony (Vol. 1) - Essay

Powell, Anthony (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Powell, Anthony 1905–

Powell, a British novelist, is best known for his projected twelve-volume series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Anthony Powell's The Music of Time is concerned not with the decisions that people must make but with those they try to avoid…. Powell's "new men," like Widmerpool and Quiggin, push their way rather than swim along with the tide; and consequently they are traitors to their upper-class friends, whose code demands that no one work hard or accomplish anything…. Powell's concern is to prevent his "normal" people from sinking from the weight of their eccentricities. Their lives are tales told by one of themselves of successive marriages and divorces, of constant re-formations and regroupings, of lost opportunities and wasted chances…. The re-alignments of these couples … leave them little time for other activities; and in this comic format, Powell charts the course of the upper classes as they weave their bored way through the years between the two great wars. Everyone seems to know everyone else; in fact, everyone seems to have had an affair with everyone else….

Powell's concern with their personal failings and private lives notwithstanding, they continue to function in a public way; they do keep the world operating despite their neglect, ignorance, and flightiness. The result is a "true" social fiction, and in this sense Powell is a finer social critic than Waugh….

There is in Powell's comedy a generous awareness of the sadness of life, an awareness to which his characters (except perhaps for Jenkins himself) remain almost totally blind. Against a vast background of depression, coming war, and moral chaos, they seek entanglements and fruitless re-alignments. Ennui leaves them little time for anything but self-gratification, and often their charm lies in their powers of self-deception.

Frederick R. Karl, "Anthony Powell's The Music of Time," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 238-44.

In Afternoon Men … [Powell's] visual descriptions are sketched in a minimum of words. But a good half of his effect Powell gets through his extraordinarily precise ear for speech….

The Music of Time is obviously an immensely more ambitious work than Afternoon Men. The world Powell describes remains one in which Society and Bohemia meet and at times merge, as Mayfair and Soho do in simple topographical fact. The sense of formal order is as strong as ever: Powell sees life aesthetically, as it were….

We shall not know how good The Music of Time is until we have the whole of it. Powell himself practically forces us to make a comparison between the work and A la recherche du temps perdu, not only because of the title but also because of his style, which in A Buyer's Market is Proustian to the point almost of pastiche. But Proust's is not only a picture of a society in decay: it is also the embodiment of a philosophy of time; and so far any such unifying philosophy has been lacking in Powell's sequence. What we await now is the great generalization, the equivalent of Le temps retrouvé.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 220-23.

Admired, paradoxically enough, by both the Angrys and their well-deployed enemies, [Anthony Powell's] fiction is, in essence, the work of a cultured wit who is able to comfortably scan his own age. Best of all, he never goes beyond what he knows and feels. The territory of his … novels is, therefore, based on a world he understands and loves, and because he does not care so much, his humor has meaning as well as bite. Powell very well might be England's best comic writer since Charles Dickens….

Powell's early probings were done in his five prewar novels, which were, in a sense, finger exercises for his later, larger efforts. In these extremely funny works there are twists to complicated plots, various oddballs chase one another about, clever lines are tossed off, and fatuous characters are displayed, observed, and caricatured. It is all quite delightful, and it is always useful to see pomposities steadily exposed, but there is a vagueness of focus which prevents the entertainments from becoming serious criticism. The laughs too often come a bit cheaply, are forced out of situations rather than characters.

All this changes with The Music of Time. Powell is working with a larger canvas, and his humor does not have to be sprayed about every page.

Charles Shapiro, "Widmerpool and The Music of Time" (© 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in his Contemporary British Novelists, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 81-94.

[Anthony Powell's] reputation rests almost exclusively on a long novel sequence called A Dance to the Music of Time, individual sections of which have been appearing since 1951…. Though reflecting a concern with [the] great period of change between the world wars, and a constant obsession with divisions of society, The Music of Time is in no way a sociological chronicle. Powell's fascination with class is intellectual—to such an extent, in fact, that Jenkins [the protagonist] remains detached and dispassionate even in the most personal situations. But this "intellectual" approach does not stifle Powell's sensitivity. If his persona has distance, he also has a more encompassing view; if he thinks, it is because he wishes to reason; and if he keeps from explicitly displaying his own emotions, it is so he can more vividly record the feelings of others. The novel, consequently, becomes something of a phenomenon: a massive work forwarding no philosophy, forcing no esthetic, fostering no strict ideologies, attempting no moral. It is, rather, a synthesis of observations and evocations built around themes and characters…. (pp. 1-2)

Powell's early works are dynamically static, directed to portraying boredom, hopelessness, and helplessness as part of the intellectual and human tradition. The Music of Time is dramatically active, renewing its power through steady accretion, seeking to discover some form in the least thing, meaning in the most fleeting memory, a pattern of existence that is acceptable in the face of modern complexities. If the prewar novels are involved with showing the loss of certain virtues, The Music of Time demonstrates a concern with the "tentative reconstruction of values" that has been going on for over two generations. Just as any of the volumes in The Music of Time could have been entitled "the acceptance world," so each of Powell's early novels might have been called "the rejection world." (pp. 6-7)

Powell, the comedian, asks and observes; but he declines to answer or editorialize. He achieves such total detachment that whether he is writing narrative or dialogue one can almost hear the snap and click of the camera shutter. Yet, in spite of his sheer objectivity, he often betrays compassion for the human condition. While never waxing sentimental, nor relinquishing his firm belief that life, at every turn, is subject to (and predicated upon) ironies, Powell provides, here and there, touches of pathos…. (pp. 30-1)

Time is the controlling medium in Powell's novels, but it is viewed neither philosophically, psychologically, nor scientifically. One finds little of that Bergsonian mysticism which informs Remembrance of Things Past, the Freudian stream-of-consciousness refined in Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury, and the Einsteinian relativity absorbed in The Alexandria Quartet. In all these cases time becomes internalized, subjected to personal ordering…. For Powell, however, external time (clock time) is the flux. Time is actual; its very sheerness brings about events as it relentlessly pursues the dancers who, loving, marrying, dying, are reluctant to admit that they are changing at all. Powell returns to the classical conception of time: the musical old greybeard who conducts the rounds of the seasons, or the cold goddess Mutability, altering people and events from day to day. Consequently, time functions critically, not mystically. Passing because it must, it is not mysterious, only at moments indefinable. Powell is concerned with time, not obsessed by it; for while he sees it as blasting the hopes of some, wasting the promises of others, he knows that it is also the sole arbiter for shaping in the future the formless formulae of the past. It is this outlook that enables him to focus on the essential aim of the novel sequence: to play changing sensibilities against the continuum of human history. This concept is at the center of The Music of Time. Stated with thematic force, it resounds as a note of resignation, often melancholy or sad, sometimes even tragic, but mostly pitched to the comic stoicism of the narrator, which keeps the sequence from growing tedious, oppressive, or unwieldy. (pp. 107-08)

Powell, as a comedian, is interested in showing tragedy as underlying comedy, not vice versa. Thus the theater may become a grand euphemism for war since both promote the grand illusion that character spontaneously controls fate, while in reality it is driven by larger forces toward an anticipated conclusion. (p. 233)

[The] total impact and scope [of The Music of Time] have achieved for Powell the status of a major contemporary novelist. For The Music of Time, in revealing an energy, force, and sustaining power that outstrips many postwar novels one-third its length, deals not simply with the "big" problems of the English upper class—the biggest being its decay and the likelihood of its extinction—but with major problems of our century. (p. 248)

Robert K. Morris, in his The Novels of Anthony Powell, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968.