Anthony Powell Powell, Anthony (Dymoke) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Simon Raven

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anthony Powell was born on 21 December, 1905, with a silver-plated spoon in his mouth, his father being a regular officer in a dim regiment of the line and his mother a Wells-Dymoke (of the Lincolnshire family which supplies the new Monarch's Champion at coronations). From the time when he was first old enough to assess these circumstances Mr Powell has accepted them, as he has accepted all others of his life, with quiet, well informed and ironic amusement, unperturbed by envy on the one hand or guilt on the other. What is given is given, in this world as in Euclid's, and it is very silly and perverse to fret oneself about it.

This is one message of Infants of the Spring. The second is that such uncomplaining acceptance does not amount to passivity. Civilised acceptance implies civilised understanding, the latter of which teaches one, not indeed to attempt to change the given circumstances (for this, though sometimes possible, is a messy, time-consuming and pleasure-spoiling business), but to change or modify one's position in regard to them. It is all a question of angles and attitudes….

But all this is to anticipate. Before further examination of Mr Powell's philosophy as revealed, or hinted at, in Infants of the Spring, I should state that this book is the first volume of Anthony Powell's memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling; that it comprehends some foggy Welsh genealogy (going back to the ap Howels of the sixteenth century and even to the ap Gruffydds of the twelfth), some diverting sketches of the author's more immediate forebears, and an account of his first twenty odd years from birth to leaving Oxford with a Third in History—an account distinguished by that sly and mocking brand of common sense which has already been illustrated above.

This operates, first, at the expense of institutions and is instructively exemplified in Mr Powell's loving elaboration of his own...

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C. David Benson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anthony Powell may enjoy the most peculiar reputation of any novelist writing in English. Although many well-read Americans have apparently never heard of him, for others his recently completed 12-novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, is the most sophisticated chronicle of modern life we have. Both admirer and uninitiate will be disappointed if they go to this first volume of memoirs [Infants of the Spring] expecting to learn anything directly about Powell the man or the writer. They will find instead a puzzling volume as artful as any of his fictions and employing many of the same devices—a vastly clever and informative narrative that deliberately plays with and perhaps even mocks its readers.

Powell belongs to the great generation of British writers who came to maturity just after World War I. Many, including Waugh, Betjeman, Connolly, Orwell and Muggeridge, were Powell's friends and as a group they have been especially attracted to autobiography…. This entire generation was marked by having experienced the extinction of the privileged England of their childhoods which was replaced by a completely different post-war world. (p. 29)

Powell is less forthcoming about himself than about his ancestors and adopts many strategies to avoid self-revelation. His elegant sentences are not the tools for inner probing; he maintains in his prose the cool exterior we see in the book's photographs and willingly confesses nothing. Yet there are frustrating clues of a more turbulent inner life. Powell clearly has no warm feeling for his emotional father (who may be the cause of his own extreme detachment), but all he will allow himself are indirect judgments, harsh in their brevity: "He was never able to make up his mind whether success or failure in a son was the more inimical." Likewise, near the end of his section on Oxford, Powell admits that although he has recorded mostly colorful activities, "a great deal of my time was spent in a state of deep melancholy." Was this simply a fashionable adolescent pose or does it reveal something essential about the man? Powell will not say. And yet, as these examples...

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Martin Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

My old teacher, F. R. Leavis, would spend critical time only on novelists who reach the level of "significant fiction"; and the "insignificant" category turned out to include Trollope and even Thackeray. Recently I've rejected that criterion, and preferred a vertical slicing of writers into different kinds or qualities of significance, instead of his horizontal slicing between adequate and inadequate quantity. But Anthony Powell reawakens the old idea in me; his is such a clear case of insufficiency—of a lack of intensity of being….

[Infants of the Spring] is not a novel but an autobiography—but much more about other people than about himself—so like his novels. So the same reaction seems appropriate. He spends some pages instructing us in the differences between art and life, but I remain unconvinced that that matters, as far as my interest in Anthony Powell goes. He was an intelligent bystander in the literary England of the '20s and '30s, which was an interesting case of the kind of dandyism which can come to power when a society loses faith in its models of mature manhood, as England did after 1918. That is what he wrote his novels about, and that is what he writes his autobiography about. Powell saw everything that was going on, in the sense that he was more centrally placed than most other observers, in terms of class and family ties, and in terms of temperament. He was as passionately curious about the scene as, say, Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly; but his vision suffered, and suffers, fewer of the limitations and distortions caused by self-dramatization….

It may seem a mere paradox to talk of his dramatizing himself as undramatic, for his is not a case of tense and mysterious anonymity, like early Hemingway. But I think...

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The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most that is memorable [in Infants of the Spring] is derived: other men's witticisms, other men's adventures, the force of other men's characters. The portraits of Orwell and Connolly stand out, Bowra and Henry Green disappoint. But far from a tale told by an idiot savant, here are reminiscences of a seasoned novelist, full of years and clear memories, surrounded by the ghosts of famous friends, speaking over port beside a wood fire. Let me suggest that there are much worse ways to spend an evening. (p. 48)

A review of "Infants of the Spring," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Spring, 1978), pp. 47-8.

Philip Terzian

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is astonishing how an epoch can grow cold. All it takes, or so it would seem, is a sufficient number of memoirs mixed with the requisite stories and nicknames, all repeated and confused by whatever rendition is at hand. It has happened before and, undoubtedly, will happen again….

Now, in the second volume of Anthony Powell's memoirs [Messengers of Day], the cast of London in the '20s is brought forth for one more turn at the footlights, a cast wearily familiar by now: He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn (Waugh), Osbert and Dame Edith, Brian on the beach and Tallulah on the floor. Somewhere between Balliol and Dunkirk the British intelligentsia must have conspired to get sick on the same oysters and...

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Robert Murray Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is difficult to determine whether Anthony Powell's stance as a completely unremarkable man is the result of art or nature. Occasional passages [in Infants of Spring and Messengers of Day] seem to contain irony so subtle as to be almost invisible, but for the most part his portraits of contemporaries are neither vivid nor searching, and his literary judgments, including those of his own work completed or in progress, are commonplace. (pp. 511-12)

Others have conveyed more vividly the atmosphere of Eton, Oxford and London in the 1920s, and Powell alludes to and frequently comments on the reminiscences of such contemporaries as Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green), Cyril Connolly,...

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Simon Blow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the close of the second volume of Anthony Powell's memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling, Powell had published his first three novels; at the opening of this new volume [Faces in My Time] he continues to work part-time for the publisher, Duckworth's. The major event of the early chapters is his marriage; Eton and Oxford friends are less in his life than formerly as he tries his hand in the more lucrative Grub Street of scriptwriting. This existence has its hazards but Powell's setbacks are well concealed beneath his now highly developed restrained narrative manner….

What's Become of Waring, Powell's fifth novel, was published early in 1939, and when war broke Powell joined the...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For those who don't know him, Anthony Powell is an English writer who put out five very good novels in the 30's and a dozen not quite as good, collectively called "A Dance to the Music of Time," between then and now….

Now Mr. Powell is writing his memoirs, and he has every reason to. England is a small country and it appears, from "Faces in My Time," the third volume of another projected series, that the author knew almost everyone worth knowing in his day. He tells us, for example, that Elizabeth Bowen was blind to cockroaches in her kitchen, that Dylan Thomas fell asleep under a bed in which two women were unsuccessfully trying to make love, that Somerset Maugham prided himself on a rather...

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Harold Acton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Readers of [Powell's] autobiographical series will be able to trace the origins of some of his characters, a veritable goldmine for future thesis-writers. In his third volume, Faces in My Time, he introduces us to more friends and acquaintances in the course of his literary career and service as a military intelligence officer during the last world war, explaining how some of these contributed to his fictional narrative. Certain figures, like Constant Lambert and his own brother-in-law Henry Lamb, recur as in his novels, and we are delighted to meet them again. How refreshing it is to read of his marriage that "after nearer fifty than forty years" he has "never wished to be married to another woman". Lady...

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Maggie Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Faces in My Time" is a delight to read and hard to review, because it is full of things I wanted to know, but it is also the third volume of Anthony Powell's autobiography, following his elegant and magically funny 12-volume novel, "A Dance to the Music of Time."… Though there is a lot in "Faces in My Time" for anyone interested in the life of the mind, it's very tempting to be a Powell snob and tell general readers they can't have this until they've read the rest.

They can, though. Powell is very well read, very intelligent, and very private, but even that won't keep you away. Here he is refusing to tell us much about falling in love with his wife while recounting a visit to her family's castle...

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Melvin Maddocks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After twelve volumes of his justly celebrated sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell, 75, has established himself as the reigning novelist of British understatement. In this third volume of his autobiography [Faces in My Time], the master whisperer so thoroughly muffles the barbarous yawps of the mid-20th century—from Dylan Thomas to World War II—that they emerge as discreetly as the sound of one teacup cracking.

As this most seemly of chronicles begins, Powell, 28, is about to marry Violet Pakenham, 22. An opportunity, surely, for a passing brushfire of emotion, recollected in tranquillity? Not at all. Whatever might be hot or sweet is buried in the cool shade of 13...

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Michael Gorra

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The first three volumes of To Keep the Ball Rolling confirm] what one has always suspected: that Powell's sensibility and that given to Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator of his twelve-volume novel, A Dance to the Music of Time, are virtually indistinguishable. This similarity becomes evident in looking at the attitude struck by either Powell or his character toward his own gaffes…. Look … at a sketch of Maurice Bowra in Infants of the Spring:

One evening, dining tête-à-tête with Bowra in his rooms, I spoke of how little I liked being at Oxford, and how I longed to get it over and go down. The lack of finesse in voicing such sentiments in the particular...

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Stephen Brook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Strangers All Are Gone displays the same desultory qualities as the preceding three volumes [of Powell's memoirs]: reticence, arbitrariness, sketchiness. No one would guess from these memoirs that Powell is a novelist of considerable grace and humour. This book is not so much poorly organised as not organised at all. Episode follows vignette follows reflection seemingly at random. It is not simply that the book has no shape but that it suggests a life the author is too lazy to shape for the reader…. The self-effacement is almost total, and an opinion or prejudice, when volunteered, is invariably conventional. Powell writes, as he has always done, about Time and Death, but has nothing to say about either....

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Allan Massie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anthony Powell has always tended to puzzle even while he delights. Wodehouse once said: 'It's extraordinary how interesting his stuff is, you know. And it just goes on and on, with nothing much in the way of scenes or anything'. Not perhaps a fair judgment on A Dance to the Music of Time—think of the party given by Mrs Foxe for Moreland's symphony or of the dinner at Stourwater at which the Seven Deadly Sins were enacted for Sir Magnus Donners's camera—the words might well be applied to Powell's four volumes of memoirs, though here it is not perhaps so much scenes that are lacking as the narrative impetus expected from the conventional autobiography.

That is reasonable enough; Powell has...

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Paul Delany

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The action of A Dance to the Music of Time comes to the reader by courtesy of Nick Jenkins, that non-participant observer whose presence never seems to make any impact on the endless round of social gatherings he attends. When Powell began to publish his memoirs, fans of Dance hoped that the mystery of what Jenkins was really like might be revealed; now that the memoirs are completed, it is clear that these hopes will never be satisfied. 'Scratch an invisible narrator, get an invisible narrator'—to borrow the old joke about actors. Sometimes Powell's memoirs appear to be mere piffle ('Once more the food was good, though not up to Air France'), sometimes acute, sometimes one suspects an elaborate...

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Michiko Kakutani

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like Nick Jenkins, the amiable narrator of his roman-fleuve, "A Dance to the Music of Time," Mr. Powell tends to be self-effacing and reserved when it comes to talking about himself. He eschews glimpses "into the person crater, with its scene of Hieronymus Bosch activities taking place in the depths," preferring the role of observer; like another famous narrator named Nick—Nick Carraway of "The Great Gatsby"—he remains a sympathetic but somewhat distant guest at the carnival by the sea. And yet if Mr. Powell's own life seems less than remarkable on the surface, his memoirs still promise a special fascination, for the author belongs to and has chronicled that remarkable generation of English writers who came...

(The entire section is 1119 words.)