Anthony (Dymoke) Powell 1905–
English novelist, dramatist, journalist, and scriptwriter.
After writing five urbane and humorous novels during the 1930s, Powell solidified his reputation as a major literary figure with his twelve-volume novel, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–1971). In this work, as in his pre-World War II novels, Powell chronicles the insular world of the English upper class with a mixture of sharp satire and shrewd insight.
A Dance to the Music of Time follows a group of characters whose lives mirror social changes from pre-World War I to the 1970s. These people pass through the narrative in what appears to be a drifting, almost inconsequential manner, but this randomness ultimately evolves into a final pattern, that of "dancers" whose lives are controlled by a certain fate and by the passage of time. In describing this "dance of life," Powell evokes the image of the dancers in the Nicholas Poussin painting that gives the novel its name: "Human being, facing outward …, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance." The pattern is observed and interpreted by the narrator Nicholas Jenkins, a novelist whose life is similar to Powell's in many respects. The central tension in A Dance to the Music of Time is between Jenkins, who is sensitive and loyal to his own values, and Kenneth Widmerpool, a self-serving materialist who unscrupulously pursues financial gain and social status.
Literary authorities have praised A Dance to the Music of Time, some suggesting that it stands as the greatest English novel since World War II. Critics have applauded the skill with which Powell drew from his extensive knowledge of the arts. Powell's complex, often convoluted prose style is refreshed by his subtle, ironic humor, and his deftness in capturing the essence of his characters has also been commended. However, some critics have objected to the fact that Powell studied only the upper classes in this novel. Others have contended that Powell failed to examine certain aspects of human behavior, most notably the passion of sexual relationships, thus making many of the affairs seem superficial or improbably simple.
Powell's reticence is also a characteristic noted by critics of his four-volume memoirs, collectively titled To Keep the Ball Rolling. Comprising Infants of Spring (1976), Messengers of Day (1978), Faces in My Time (1980), and The Strangers All Are Gone (1982), these memoirs are less autobiographical than they are evocations of an era, with Powell acting as observer and recorder. Each book is loosely ordered, developing as Powell muses on events from his life and recalls his many friendships. Some critics assert that the character descriptions of Powell's famous friends are the most interesting part of these volumes, perhaps because of the intriguing parallels between those people and the fictional characters of A Dance to the Music of Time. Reviewers of the memoirs have expressed regret that Powell never discusses his own life in detail. None-theless, To Keep the Ball Rolling provides valuable insight into Powell's creative technique by revealing the processes through which he created art out of everyday life.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 7, 9, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15.)