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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.)
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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 formulae for surviving in them. Nowhere, of course, is there the faintest advocacy of change or amelioration, for the great points to remember are these: if institutions were sanely and happily run, then, firstly, there would be nothing left in them to tease or satirise, which would make them deucedly boring, and secondly there would be no excuse for shifts and evasions, the devising of which gives Mr Powell (and his readers) so much pleasure. It is, perhaps, unfortunate if boys are whipped for things they haven't done: but doubtless they deserve whipping for something else (undiscovered) which they have; it is, furthermore, salutary for boys to be early acquainted with injustice (which is, at bottom, what their parents are paying for). In any case, when the first and the last has been said on the topic, it will never be Master Anthony Dymoke Powell who is undergoing the whip….
This is grossly unfair to Mr Powell; I fear I have gone much too far. But I have, I think, conveyed an idea—albeit crude and exaggerated—of Mr Powell's technique for coping with the given realities of institutions and of the manner in which he himself describes the process. Let us now consider how he applies this shrewd, compliant and elusive nous of his to dealing with people.
People, like institutions, are given. It is not one's business to reform or deplore them, but to put up with and if possible enjoy them. This is best done by responding to the worst which they may say with a light and well-bred laugh, and to the worst which they may do with disapproval so civilly modulated as almost to pass for approbation. They will then do and say a lot more things even worse than before, from all of which one may make entertaining calculations about what finally makes them tick. This method not only elicits such incidental gems as Robert Byron's remark that he would love to be, of all things, an incredibly beautiful male prostitute with a sharp sting in his bottom; it also leads to Mr Powell's profound conclusion on the character of Cyril Connolly, that he suffered, not from the common disease of mere egotism (or selfish desire to push his own fortunes) but from that rare and horrifying condition, a passionate interest in, and even love of, himself as such.
Having noted Mr Powell's diagnosis of Connolly, one should add that, from time to time, Mr Powell comes perilously near to making, or rather unconsciously disclosing the same diagnosis of himself…. What saves him from the infatuated interest in himself of which he accuses Connolly is this: Mr Powell, who can never resist deflating other people's pretensions, is in the end far too fair, too decent, too modest a man not to deflate his own.
Simon Raven, "On the Margin," in The Spectator, Vol. 237, No. 7737, October 9, 1976, p. 19.∗
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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 suggest, Powell is often frank about his secretiveness. He mentions a chance meeting sometime in the late 1950s with Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green), with whom he was once close. After recalling events from their now-cooled friendship, Yorke, almost in tears, declared that he was not well and insisted that he would soon die. Powell then observes: "I felt rather upset after this encounter. It was the last time I saw him. He died in 1974." Which is the more amazing: the flat refusal to explore still-powerful emotions or the disjunctive style which demands that the reader recognize that refusal?
Powell sees his function as observing the actions of others—a stance perhaps more successful in a novel than in memoirs. Infants of the Spring could be the autobiography of Nicholas Jenkins, the reticent, almost emotionless narrator of the Music of Time. In both books the narrator remains hidden behind a literary structure of great skill and wit. Throughout these memoirs Powell self-consciously plays with the reader like the novelist he is. He gives us a warning of what he is doing by recalling one of the favorite practical jokes of his paternal grandfather, who liked to "thrust a walking-stick suddenly between the shins of the companion strolling beside him; safely catching the victim, as he heeled over, just before reaching the ground." Powell himself is more intellectual, but no less up-setting in his jokes. He decries at length the tendency of novel-readers to suppose that a fictional character is ever an accurate portrait of any real person, but later boasts that he once met "in the flesh" the model for the most famous character in Waugh's Decline and Fall, Captain Grimes. (pp. 29-30)
Given his intricacies of style and multi-volumed novels, Powell might be thought a throwback to the Victorians, but Infants of the Spring makes clear that his true literary ancestors are to be found in the 17th century: especially John Aubrey, the author of the Brief Lives and the subject of Powell's one nonfiction book. He shares Aubrey's taste for the odd and quirky and his intricate, witty style…. In further imitation of Aubrey, Powell's accounts of his time at Eton and Oxford quickly become a series of brief lives. The full-length portraits of Yorke and George Orwell, good friends of his youth and middle age respectively, are curiously the most distant and belittling. Although he clearly admires Orwell and was a stout friend during his last years, Powell's long assessment remains annoyingly condescending. (p. 30)
Powell's accounts of more casual acquaintances, where there is no question of strong emotion, are completely successful, as if the added distance had improved his perspective…. Infants of the Spring certainly fails as a conventional autobiography, but succeeds as a sort of anti-autobiography: an entertaining puzzle full of good stories about others. As the book ends, Powell is preparing to leave Oxford for London, his marriage and first novels still before him. We have to wait for the next volume to discover if he can conceal his maturity as interestingly as he has his youth. (pp. 30-1)
C. David Benson, in a review of "Infants of the Spring," in The New Republic, Vol. 176, No. 4, June 11, 1977, pp. 29-31.
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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 there is a good likelihood that some of the energy missing from his experience went into damping down his capacity for experience. For if, when we compare him with Waugh and Connolly, his vision is unblinkered, it is also comparatively dim. And one can see why.
His father was an intelligent but eccentric soldier, who became very cantankerous as he grew older; and his mother spent her energies soothing her husband. Anthony, an only child, developed defensive habits of aloofness….
Socially, however, he was very active. He spent a lot of time with eccentric and colorful friends like Maurice Bowra, the don who became Warden of Wadham, and Hubert Duggan and Robert Byron and other figures from the world of Evelyn Waugh. To be with them was to be aloof from his father's world, while he was also aloof from them, in the sense of being average and anonymous.
The keynote of that world was bad behavior: outrageousness of some kind—dandified, roguish, brutal, or whatever. But of course there were well-behaved people in that world—they were perhaps its social cement—and Powell was one of them. "Well-behaved" is in fact one of his categories in this book, and a very characteristic one.
The trouble is that that category is interesting only as a polar opposite to "badly behaved," and Powell is always defusing that polarity. He will not allow us any real outrage at the bad boys—will not allow that they were bad. It comes as a shock to hear, for instance, Bowra and a rival salon-holder: "Bowra always referring to Kolkhorst as 'Kunthorse'; Kolkhorst, to 'that fly in the ointment on the seats of the mighty.'"
And it is clear that it was just that element of violence which attracted Powell to them. But he admits to nothing comparable in himself. His own tone is this, about another friend: "He was one of the nicest of men, in certain moods content to live a quiet even humdrum existence; at other times behaving with a minimum of discretion, altogether disregarding the traditional recommendation that, if you can't be good, be careful."
One is tempted to suggest that Powell's whole career has been conducted according to that traditional recommendation….
Who should be recommended to read this? Of course lovers of Powell; beyond them, I'd say it all depends on how interested you already are in English dandyism. He won't get you interested. He has told us so often that there is nothing remarkable about him that it has started to be true.
Martin Green, "An Intelligent Bystander," in Book World—The Washington Post, October 9, 1977, p. E3.
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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.
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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 champagne, for as surely as our hero leaves one dinner party we know before he tells us where he's going.
This is disappointing because Anthony Powell, now 73 and apparently well into his anecdotage, could have written a very skillful memoir, although it may be argued he has written it already. His 12-volume series, A Dance to the Music of Time, is one of the masterpieces of fiction in this century and, as he acknowledges, much of it was drawn from material that composes Messengers of Day. This book is a good lesson in understanding the fine hand of the novelist, for the sensibility that turned these tiresome and commonplace episodes into art knew at one time where its vocation lay….
Powell has always had two particular strengths as a novelist. One is his ability to discern the subtle distinctions within personalities: the small quirks and tics and offhand phrases that turn, in time, into masquerades. The other is his understanding of the role coincidence tends to play in life: how people and places and events tend to mingle capriciously, at odd moments and with consistency, as variations without a theme.
It cannot be said that these skills are much in evidence here. The portraits are flat and drawn so cursorily that the reader neither learns to know the subjects nor cares to. Powell is either ambivalent about telling "the whole story"—which can be forgiven—or is an ungifted historian outside the realm of fiction….
His friend Evelyn Waugh once said that autobiographies ought to be written by those with no interest in the future; in Powell's case it would seem that his recollections were defeated before they were begun, for he seems to have no interest in the past. The short, isolated vignettes are both languid and dry, having about them a stale flavor of age and repetition….
Powell's recollections are clearly in order and cross-indexed, but there simply is something missing in them—perhaps it is the element of curiosity. He has used his characters for what they could have offered him as a storyteller; having observed and recorded, he leaves the outer shell, which promptly flops onto the pavement.
I imagine this is to some extent a matter of what one expects from autobiography about which, of course, there is no consensus nor are there any hard and fast rules. It is all very well to draw scenes and tell tales and repeat phrases, but by inviting the reader into the realm of his memories the writer, mindful of his vanity, has certain responsibilities. There should be some evidence of an interior life, an illumination as well as an explanation. We don't care how Powell did things so much as why.
One continuing theme is the years Powell spent as a publisher's assistant in London, a Dickensian sort of existence, years of torpor and uncertainty, punctuated by some brilliant characters and some wild interludes. Why, the reader yearns to know, did he stay on and on? Powell prefers to cast his eye around the room rather than focus on himself…. That is fair enough, in its way, but by merely exhibiting a jaundiced detachment Powell fails to deliver the sort of insight a reader may expect from the memoirs of a literary man. Nor is such an omission redeemed by the funny stories and good lines in which the book abounds. Wit is not so much a substitute for wisdom as it is its companion, and one unrelieved by the other can grow intolerable.
There are a few things worth mentioning. Enthusiasts of Evelyn Waugh will be interested to learn that Powell was acquainted with all the parties to the failure of Waugh's first marriage. He was, in fact, witness to several episodes in what has been, in Waugh's life, a decidedly mysterious interlude. Unfortunately, Powell raises nearly as many questions as he answers and, in fact, is sometimes garrulous where it need hardly matter. Several pages, for instance, are devoted to proving how Powell saw through the slimy characters of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess—years, indeed decades before his opinion was confirmed by the facts. So what? Anyone's career is full of as many good judgments as bad: this presumably was included to bear out the notion that novelists frequently see what politicians do not. Powell's powers of analysis may have been acute in that instance, but elsewhere he is as devoted to deplorable people who didn't happen to be double agents. All of which means that, in the end, we are in the realm of memory and interpretation, very perilous waters, and A Dance to the Music of Time is a safer vessel than these haphazard recollections.
Philip Terzian, "Anthony Powell and His Crowd," in Book World—The Washington Post, September 17, 1978, p. E6.
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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, George Orwell and—the writer to whom he is inevitably compared—Evelyn Waugh. These writers convey impressions through vivid phrases; Powell deals in sober facts. For instance, he is aware that not everyone will know the composition of Pop at Eton or the full membership and later achievements of the original Eton Society of Arts. His explanations of these and other English institutions are always helpful, for he explains rules, speculates on the more obvious motives and delineates the lines of force in the power struggles. In dealing with the lively eccentrics who make this generation attractive to people who would rather read about them than read their works, others have portrayed Waugh more acutely, but none that I know of has noted or described Waugh's "curious little high-pitched affirmative sound, a mannerism that always remained with him." Powell adds many other details, some of them—notably the history of composition of Waugh's Decline and Fall—questionable but too complex to examine here.
However, Powell does take pains to be precise in his substance. The style is another matter, for in these volumes Powell shows himself to be perhaps the clumsiest professional writer ever to emerge from Eton and Balliol. (p. 512)
Robert Murray Davis, in a review of "Infants of Spring" and "Messengers of Day," in World Literature Today, Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 511-12.
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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 Welsh Regiment. Part of the training took place in Wales, which Powell was afterwards to transpose into The Valley of Bones. Later he was posted to Military Intelligence in Whitehall, and Powell covers factually much of the ground he treated fictionally in The Military Philosophers. But whereas in fiction Powell is able to tease officialdom, when reminiscing he gives it a respect that deadens. His character portraits have a hollow echo too, and his account has none of the humorous warmth and melancholy that inhabit the war trilogy of The Music of Time. In that one remark of Stringham's, 'Awfully chic to be killed', there is more of the war than in these pallid, rekindled events.
How, though, can a writer of Powell's sensibilities make the telling of his life such a dull matter? Of course it is a drawback to have already written a version of it in A Dance to the Music of Time. Often, for a fuller description of event or character, we are referred back to the corresponding novel while the narrative is delivered in the abbreviated tongue of retired colonels. A wartime instructor is 'a charming old boy with a V.C.', and Powell's best man for his wedding, 'an old friend, reliable for such an occasion'.
Fear of stepping out of line is evident also in Powell's attitude towards sexual behaviour. Powell's views on homosexuality remain those of the entrenched heterosexual….
But Powell is far more sympathetic, because reserve and convention are dropped, when discussing the problems of writing fiction—or 'creative fantasy' as he has called it. Towards the end of the present volume he gives an explanation of his decision to embark on The Music of Time. The explanation is of interest since it shows how some writing talents were stimulated by the crisis of war and others not. Powell was one who found his energies cut short by the gathering menace of the late Thirties and, when war came, his inspiration ran dry. Unlike other non-political writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green and William Sansom, whose imaginations were braced by the crisis, Powell had nothing to say. It took until the late Forties for Powell's inventive faculties to recover, but the freshness of invention that had inspired the early novels had gone. Thus the idea that germinated with A Question of Upbringing he planned to span over a number of volumes at least. The result we know, and it has won him wide admiration, but it is also arguable that the war killed off a talent which many have missed.
It is sad that there should be such a noticeable falling away in Powell's memoirs, and one looks for what the reason can be. Twenty-five years of writing The Music of Time proved an exhausting exercise. The revelations on life that came to Proust did not come to Powell, and although he dislikes the comparison, I suspect that at the outset he hoped they might. Proust developed his eccentric vision that led to hitherto unrealised conclusions by remaining an outsider; and perhaps as a homosexual and partly Jewish, he had much that enabled him to resist the threat of conformity. But Powell has determinedly remained a gentleman, and a gentleman's life has become his smokescreen against revealing a complex character. But it is a smokescreen that is confining his memoirs, just as it prevented The Music of Time from being the life-changing monument it ought to be.
Simon Blow, "Gentleman's Reflections," in New Statesman, Vol. 99, No. 2564, May 9, 1980, p. 719.
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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 inadequate knowledge of British social protocol, that F. Scott Fitzgerald was surprised that Lord Donegall should be surprised when he used the word "cinquecento."…
Sometimes "Faces in My Time" gets a little more ruminative than some readers might wish. Mr. Powell asks himself whether George Orwell was influenced by Charles Péguy, whether Joseph Conrad was affected by Henri-Frédérique Amiel. He goes into considerable detail about the favorite reading of a fellow officer during the war.
Mr. Powell is also the author of "John Aubrey and His Friends," a critical biography of a 17th-century writer who published a wonderfully pithy book of short portraits called, "Brief Lives." Aubrey's book was in the form of notes that he never found time to finish and these have a lively, staccato shorthand quality. Mr. Powell also uses a "Brief Lives" approach in "Faces in My Time," but his shorthand, curiously enough, is not pithy or staccato but verbose and circumlocutory. He is capable of writing phrases like "recognizing the expediency of not contemplating too analytically the metamorphosis." Or "my immediately post-war dentist."
Literary historians may be concerned to know how Mr. Powell's fictional soldiers correspond to the gentleman he based them on. I was not, but these portraits are enjoyable in their own right. It is interesting to hear Mr. Powell say that reviewing anonymously in The Times Literary Supplement, speaking as the voice of the paper, as it were, tends to inhibit both praise and blame.
When Mr. Powell returned from Hollywood, where he was briefly employed in writing a film about messenger boys, he found the pocket of his dinner jacket filled with swizzle sticks. That's what "Faces in My Time" reminds me of: a dinner-jacket pocket filled with swizzle sticks.
Anatole Broyard, in a review of "Faces in My Time," in The New York Times, Section III, February 4, 1981, p. C21.
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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 Violet, his wife, shares the literary talents of the prodigious Pakenham family to an exceptional degree.
Powell's happy marriage, however, may account for the scarcity of feminine faces among the heterogeneous males in this book. Apparently he is one of the last of our polite authors, far too polite to unbutton himself or others in public. If Powell does not lay bare his inner soul, he allows us glimpses through the interstices of his social contacts. Never sensational, he keeps his cool, to borrow a colloquialism. His tone is that of civilized conversation, gathering momentum here and there in a comical anecdote, one of the funniest concerning Queen Victoria's first cousin, the venerable Duke of Cambridge. Hearing of an outbreak of venereal disease at Sandhurst, "he set off for the Royal Military College at once, en civil, carrying as ever a rolled umbrella, to deliver a rebuke. When the cadets were all assembled, the Duke of Cambridge waved the umbrella above his head. He thundered: 'I hear you boys have been putting your private parts where I wouldn't put this umbrella!'"
Since we were contemporaries at Eton and Oxford I have known a sizable proportion of the personalities in these pages and can vouch for the accuracy of Powell's portrayals.
Harold Acton, "Anthony Powell: Meat and Drink," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, March 8, 1981, p. 18.
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"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 in Ireland and their marriage after they'd known each other for three weeks: "I shall not attempt to describe how my personal problem was (to borrow a favoured Jamesian idiom) beautifully solved, when Violet Pakenham arrived at the house…. She herself has in any case touched on that in her own autobiographical volume 'Within the Family Circle' (1976)." The essentials are there (together with a typically Powellian reference to further reading), and he withholds the rest so gracefully that that in itself has a certain romance….
Powell doesn't spare us the miserable gloominess of wartime London. If you have never been in a war, this aura is more affecting than dramatic battle scenes, because more easily imaginable. The war means tedium and discomfort. The blitz causes insomnia. Mrs. Powell leaves, having just found out she is pregnant, for the country. "It was a sad and upsetting moment when the train steamed out at Paddington, and one I don't care to dwell on," writes Powell.
When his own train steamed out for his regiment, "No one talked much so far as I can remember. It was a long journey, one leading not only to a new life, but entirely out of an old one. Nothing was ever the same again."
It's as if the anonymity of being in uniform has liberated Powell's writing from its shyness in this volume. More often than in the earlier works, we know how he feels. And he is suddenly forthcoming about which acquaintances went together to make certain characters in "A Dance to the Music of Time."…
This book is really an account of how Powell stayed himself through the war, a heroic task for anyone. In his case it resulted in writing "A Dance to the Music of Time."
Even though the world seemed to be ending, or at least changing fearfully, Powell looked after his cats, enjoyed France, and kept on thinking about Welshmen, Kierkegaard, and John Aubrey. It is this relentless, humorous mind that invigorates the reader all through all 12 volumes of "A Dance to the Music of Time." This book should encourage anyone living through a catastrophe.
Maggie Lewis, "An Anglophile's Delight," in The Christian Science Monitor, March 9, 1981, p. B3.
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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 pages devoted to Violet's family tree….
Pain, as Powell readers know, gets registered no more sharply than pleasure. There is, however, a good deal of subliminal throb. While his wife is writing for the press "on horses and equitation," Powell's career as a largely unread novelist goes nowhere. He works for Warner Bros. near London, hacking out scripts about messenger boys and Victorian philanthropists. None are produced….
Faces in My Time can be read as one humiliation after another, swallowed with barely a twitch. When his fifth novel, What's Become of Waring, sells exactly 999 copies, Powell records the figure in the tone of a conscientious bookkeeper. When World War II comes and his colleague Evelyn Waugh flies off to serve as a commando in Greece, Powell goes to the War Office, enlists—and gets assigned to posts in England and Wales, where there is little to do but read Kierkegaard. When George Orwell dies, Powell is left to choose the hymns. In every Powell book somebody has to play the misfit schoolboy who wears the wrong kind of overcoat. In Faces the author takes the role. (p. 72)
Melvin Maddocks, "Muted Memoir," in Time, Vol. 117, No. 10, March 9, 1981, pp. 72-3.
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[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 circumstances was, of course, altogether inexcusable…. One learns in due course (without ever achieving the aim in practice) that, more often than not, it is better to keep deeply felt views about oneself to oneself. In any case a little good sense—a little good manners even—might have warned me that such a confession was not one to make to a slightly older friend, who, even then, was rapidly becoming one of the ever brightening stars of the Oxford firmament.
I pause … [at this quotation], at the idea of Powell unburdening himself to anyone. Certainly he does not often allow Jenkins to indulge himself in that, in particular with regard to his marriage. Powell shares that reticence to such a degree that he offers no reason beyond the possibility of embarrassment for his casual statement about those "deeply felt views." Given that statement, one might wonder that he has been able to commit an act of autobiography. But in fact he has not. These three books, dealing with Powell's life up to 1951, when he published A Question of Upbringing, the Dance's first part, are carefully labelled "memoirs"; the generic distinction is important. Autobiographies trumpet the self, concern themselves with the fashioning of a consciousness, an "I" to which the external world is subordinated. Memoirs, however, look outward, dealing not so much with their "I" as with the world in which he lives…. Autobiographies are always ambitious in intention and appearance; memoirs, however grandly conceived, have the appearance of modesty in two senses of the word. First, in that they seem to make no claim for themselves other than to tell a few anecdotes about one's life and times. Second, because their focus upon the external world provides the opportunity for self-effacement. The achievement of a memoir need not, however, be modest—it can achieve more to the degree that it finds a subject which allows it to be something other than a string of loosely connected stories.
In practice, the two forms are almost always mixed, as in Yeats's Autobiography. To Keep the Ball Rolling, however, provides as pure an example as I know of memoir, books in which Powell follows his own advice about confession nearly without exception. The basic facts are of course all there, most of them corresponding to the outline of the life Powell has given to Jenkins: born in 1905, his father an army officer, educated at Eton, then Balliol. Messengers of Day covers his life in London after leaving Oxford—working for Duckworth's, the publishers, and then the start of his career as a novelist, with Afternoon Men in 1931. Faces in My Time begins with his marriage to Lady Violet Pakenham in 1934, and then moves through the war, ending with his plans for the Dance. Beyond that, Powell says little about his writing, except to bemoan attempts at an identification of his friends and relatives with his characters; still less about his emotional life as a young man, except to hint that he had one and that it's not particularly interesting.
Self-revelation enters indirectly when it does at all, stray sentences in a description of someone else. Powell writes, for example, that he was not sure he would accept an invitation to meet George Orwell, because "I was at first unwilling to involve myself in so much frugal living and high thinking."… My point about Powell's statement, however, is that his reticence can't be confused with personal austerity. Since he rarely mentions what he does—observation aside—at the parties described either in his novel or his memoirs, it's hard at first to realize that Powell is not just a connoisseur of raffish characters, but a bit of one himself, drawn to the "seedy chic" of the demi-monde by something more than voyeurism.
Yet it would be equally wrong to mistake that raffishness for a mannered frivolity…. Powell's interest lies in the arts themselves rather than in being "artsy." One need not live frugally. A fastidious reluctance to use one's habits, tastes, and talents as social weapons, vulgar tools with which to provoke or offend, will be enough. As with so much else in Powell, it is a matter of taste.
Modesty too is a matter of taste, and for Powell a virtue. In these books he has seized the appearance of modesty that memoir affords—its self-effacement, its air of conversation. A Dance to the Music of Time also has that feel of memoir. Yet in its scope the novel is anything but the product of modest ambitions, nor is the final integration of its anecdotes a modest achievement. That integration takes place through Jenkins' imposition of a controlling metaphor upon his experience, and in the style through which he observes and comprehends that experience. The standard comparisons are with Proust and Waugh, the first because the Dance takes the form of memory, the second because Powell and Waugh were friends, and because much of the Dance takes place, like Waugh's novels, at parties and in country houses. Both comparisons strike me as inappropriate. Powell is not interested in memory for its own sake, and he does not turn his London into Waugh's Metroland. A more fruitful comparison is with Meredith. Both novelists set their work within a system, a frame to which action within the novel can be referred; in Meredith's case, his ideas about Comedy; in Powell's, the conception of the Dance. Both view the incidents they describe as essentially funny. Meredith reduces his characters to counters in some grand game, with which to illustrate, albeit ironically, the aphorisms with which his novels are studded. Powell's comedy works by regarding his characters not as counters or things, but as invididuals, in accordance with Nietzsche's observation, quoted in Faces in My Time, that "the individual when closely examined is always comic." (pp. 596-98)
Jenkins expects nothing of Powell's other characters in both senses of the phrase: he finds their actions random, unpredictable, but also has no faith that those actions will ever take an unambiguously positive turn. This results in a sense of comic resignation similar to that of Meredith's narrators, in which laughter lies not so much in the practical jokes of daily life themselves—the tennis match between Messieurs Orn and Lundquist in A Question of Upbringing is a good example—as in Jenkins' post facto comprehension of an incident, his way of treating all characters as if they were Uncle Giles. In A Buyer's Market, however, Nick wonders, "Was it possible to take Uncle Giles seriously? And yet he was, no doubt, serious enough to himself." That realization forces Powell to substitute sympathy for Meredith's derision. Jenkins never loses his sense of detached amusement at the other characters' grotesqueries, but combines that with an attempt to understand their motivations and self-conceptions, to take all circumstances into account.
Yet in expecting nothing of those around him, Jenkins above all does not expect them to share his style of perception…. Jenkins' style, because it expects nothing, not of himself but for himself, is an act of pure generosity. This suggests another comparison—the Jean Renoir of The Rules of the Game, to which Powell's early novel From a View to a Death (1933) bears a surface resemblance, although its poker-faced narration lacks the movie's, or the Dance's warmth. This generosity requires that both Powell and Jenkins refuse to speak with authority about others, about the ways in which Uncle Giles may be serious to himself. Hence the clouds of speculation, of circumstances taken into account, which are responsible for the Dance's peculiar flavor, but also for its main weakness, the way in which, as James Tucker says, "Jokes may be stilted by their own fat."
Yet if Powell will not impose a meaning or judgment upon individual action, he will—almost in compensation—impose a principle of order upon experience in its larger, external motions. And that principle, the Dance, is not simply a comic one. At Eton, Powell was considered moody; the action of his novel possesses an air of somber inevitability, of melancholia—something brought home by the quotation from Robert Burton with which the whole sequence concludes. Isn't the fact that the closely examined individual is always comic essentially a sad one, a suggestion of human limitation and frailty more than anything else? The conclusion to Meredith's The Egoist leaves me drained, disturbed, confused; similarly the end of A Dance to the Music of Time.
Yet hopeful as well. That sense grows from Nick's style, which I find both valuable and wise. Kenneth Widmerpool, with whose death in Hearing Secret Harmonies the novel ends, is commonly taken to be the Dance's focus. Yet though the novel is built around him, it is not about him. He is an organizing principle, a means, not an end, and serves primarily to establish a system of judgment within the novel. For Widmerpool, sweeping all before his insistent I, before his will to dominate, ignores precisely what one finds in Nicholas Jenkins—the willingness, the understanding, required to see things as being more complex than one can fully understand. And that failure on Widmerpool's part makes us value Nick's style, turns it into the novel's final good, a process delicately realized largely because Nick never takes an explicit stand against Widmerpool, never blames him for what he cannot help, for being, even more than Uncle Giles, a man from whom nothing can be expected. A Dance to the Music of Time is finally a quiet affirmation of the value of Nick's, or Powell's, style. This is not a modest claim for him to make, neither, I think, is it a false one.
His three volumes of memoirs, however, persist in their modesty. In his novel, Powell turned a temperamental inability to talk about himself to an advantage; he doesn't repeat that here. One needs a subject; given that Powell will not take himself as one, as an autobiographer does, he must find one external to himself. I have never been so fascinated by Widmerpool in his own right as most readers, yet Widmerpool is what the memoirs lack, inasmuch as the character gave Powell a subject upon which to exercise his style. He doesn't have that here—or, rather, he has a series of subjects, each providing the occasion for a well-wrought two or three pages. But there's very little to connect those short scenes to each other, and this gives the memoirs a fragmentary quality that makes reading them an exercise in frustration. At times, in Infants of the Spring especially, Powell does pursue a single subject for a dozen pages, as he does with Orwell or Bowra. This concentration upon a single subject at length produces a formal intensity altogether lacking in these books as a whole, and one wishes that instead of letting his memoirs take their present form, Powell had produced a volume of similar portraits along the lines of David Garnett's Great Friends. These books are always lively, engaging, and important as sources for those interested in the period. But they are modest in every sense of the word.
Yet for all that, valuable. The ways in which Powell withholds personal information finally present something more useful and interesting than frankness—some insight, however fleeting, into the psychology behind the Dance. This is true above all of the title he has chosen for the series (one presumes there will be at least one more volume): To Keep the Ball Rolling, a title taken, along with the first volume's epigraph, from Conrad's Chance:
To keep the ball rolling I asked Marlow if this Powell was remarkable in any way.
"He was not exactly remarkable," Marlow answered with his usual nonchalance. "In a general way it's very difficult to become remarkable. People won't take sufficient notice of one. don't you know."
Powell has made a career out of that quotation—from remarking, or taking sufficient notice, of others, and from not, some would say, taking sufficient notice of himself. But a character not worth remarking? No; that modesty is simply the attitude Powell has found essential to the production of his fiction, something more than a pose yet less than the truth. The pedestrian don't have so many interesting friends and aren't snapped up as undergraduates by talent scouts like Maurice Bowra. And they don't write novels like the Dance, a work that even its critics must account in some way remarkable. This epigraph is Powell's ironic acknowledgement of that fact; these memoirs—tantalizing, for all their faults, in the occasional glimpse they offer of those deeply felt views—a way to keep his own ball rolling, just outside the reader's grasp. (pp. 598-600)
Michael Gorra, "The Modesty of Anthony Powell," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1981–82, pp. 595-600.
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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.
Perhaps a clue to why these memoirs are so dispiriting can be found in the following apologia:
I have chosen to make a kind of album of odds and ends in themselves at times trivial enough.
This has the complacency, and the weary arrogance, of the writer who has given up.
Stephen Brook, in a review of "The Strangers All Are Gone," in New Statesman, Vol. 103, No. 2670, May 21, 1982, p. 23.
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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 always been concerned with the distorting effects produced by memory. Now, in this final volume [The Strangers All Are Gone] which begins more or less in 1952 at the time when The Buyer's Market was published, he finds that 'as one picks one's way between the trees of Dante's dark wood of middle life, its configuration becomes ever less discernible…. All the time a perspective that once gave at least the illusion of order to the past diminishes….'
So one need not look for 'sustained chronological narrative' here. Nor will Powell readers—and these volumes of autobiography obviously offer their ripest interest to us fortunate addicts of his fiction—expect to find revelations about his private life….
[The] laconic objectivity with which he treats his material is well-judged. What, after all, is a writer's life? It is a matter of sitting at a desk writing words. Nothing in a public sense happens to him; nothing too private for his novels properly matters to the public. It is fair, therefore, that the summing-up should offer 'an album of odds and ends in themselves at times trivial enough', especially since Powell 'has often found the trivial to be more acceptable, even in the long run more instructive, than attempts at being profound.'
Yet the relationship between life and letters, hardly trivial to any writer, is one that has always fascinated Powell in his awareness of the 'uncertainties … regarding what is true, what worth writing about.' And this relationship is exposed here when he comes to write about people who served, to some extent at least, as models for characters in his fiction. We can observe with a quickening of interest the contrast between the vital completeness of a character in a novel, who has no proper existence beyond those lines of fiction which serve to delineate him, and the original breathing man. The paradox of course is that it is the fictional character who seems to take on autonomous life such as can hardly be claimed by the man described in a biography or memoirs….
The portraits of friends and acquaintances have been the liveliest part of Powell's memoirs, as indeed they tend to be in any consistently readable autobiography….
Interest of another sort is provided by a chapter called 'Fit for Eros' in which, by way of Erich von Stroheim and the Chatterley trial, Powell takes a look at the battle for 'uninhibited treatment of sex in art', the outcome of which has certainly been the most remarkable development in literary manners this century. Powell's objections to Lady Chatterley, and indeed to Lawrence as a novelist, seem pretty just, and he finds 'a certain justice in the rights and wrongs of Lady Chatterley being hammered out without a vestige of humour on either side', not something that could be said of his own treatment of that absurd case. Characteristically, this chapter says nothing about the remarkable development of Powell's own handling of erotic themes that took place over the quarter century of The Music of Time's composition. (p. 23)
These volumes of memoirs stand in fascinating and splendidly entertaining relation to his fiction, while at the same time sketching, with the economy of a great artist who can bring a drawing into life with what seem to the onlooker absurdly few strokes of the pencil, la vie littéraire of the last half-century. They recall, in their mixture of portrait sketches always individual, not perhaps wholly reliable, with ruminations on the difficult business of writing and forging a career as a writer and some penetrating maxims, drawn from experience and observation of literary work, those other masterpieces of casual reminiscence, Ford Madox Ford's Memories and Impressions. (p. 24)
Allan Massie, "An Album of Odds and Ends," in The Spectator, Vol. 248, No. 8030, June 5, 1982, pp. 23-4.
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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 joke is being played on the reader. Hardly ever, though, does the author present himself as a figure of substance: it is not Jenkins's creator we meet, but Jenkins's ghost….
[It] comes as a surprise to learn from the Memoirs that Powell's exemplary novelist is Dostoevsky, and that he considers The Devils the greatest novel ever written. One can see hints of the Dostoevskian mode in Powell's novels, particularly in his brilliant scenes of the eruption of egotism and disorder into conventional social functions. But these incongruities never manifest any substantial principle of evil, as they would in Dostoevsky. Evil usually is expressed in either politics or personal morality: Powell has managed to become a considerable novelist without showing more than a token interest in these two subjects. For him, personal actions first show themselves as just happening, the products of random encounters on London streets; behind chance there is an endless cycle of reenactments of a few myths; behind the myths perhaps an occult significance—though Powell's use of occult themes remains entirely enigmatic.
In all these traits, Powell remains a traditional kind of British novelist, interested in society (in the older sense) rather than either the individual or the state. Above the social realm politics loom—treated by Powell either satirically or dismissively. Beneath society lies domestic life, whose passions and commitments he reveals only obliquely, as they might be inferred by a curious outsider. Powell's first novel, Afternoon Men, marks out his favourite ground: the hours between four and six when people have a freedom to manoeuvre in the transition from the demands of a career to those of family. His heroes [in Dance]—Stringham, Bagshaw, Trapnel etc—try to extend the drinking hours into a whole way of life, having failed to strike any deeper roots in the world. His anti-hero—Lord (Ken) Widmerpool—moves ponderously through this world of grasshoppers, stubbornly insistent on being an ant.
Widmerpool's success as a comic figure stems directly from Powell's deliberate omission of any recognisable motivation for his antics: neither his inner life, nor the prizes at which he aims, are given any visibility in the novels. The social round is bathed in a clear light, while everything else is left hazy. Indeed, Powell's mode of composition is predominantly visual; and it is in character for him to claim that the human race can be divided into 'voyeurs and exhibitionists'. He defines himself as one of the former—the right class, presumably, for the novelist who strives both to appreciate the performances of those he meets, and to speculate on their hidden compulsions. Voyeurism also implies, for Powell, a lust for control of others: sublimated in the novelist's art, indulged directly by Dance's exemplars of worldly power, Lord Widmerpool and Sir Magnus Donners.
But if voyeurism is a master-concept in Powell's novels, what role can it claim in his memoirs? Here, caution and even prudery seem to have drawn the thickest of curtains across the secret life of Powell and his peers. His concept of autobiography is reflexive: draw the portraits of a man's friends, and let the man himself appear in the various sides of his nature that are implicitly revealed. But Powell's friends serve mainly as a source of 'copy': wandering through this gallery of eccentrics, it is more apparent what he saw in them than what they saw in him. He offers some shrewd comments on how a friend might be transformed, or absorbed, into a novelistic character: but he withholds the crucial revelations that might allow us to compare the imagined personality with the raw material that contributed to his or her making….
Inevitably, Powell's determined reticence makes one wonder if the voyeur has any intrinsic interest, once dissociated from what he has looked upon. The strangers all are gone offers hardly any revelation of its author not already available from reading between the lines of Dance. Its very title, with its hint that strangers and friends are ultimately synonymous, seems to leave a last word that we cannot really expect to know others—nor even, probably, ourselves.
Paul Delany, "Voyeur," in London Review of Books, May 5 to May 18, 1983, p. 19.
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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 of age between the wars—a generation that includes Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Henry Green, Harold Acton and Malcolm Muggeridge. (p. 9)
More discursive than the previous three volumes, "The Strangers All Are Gone" is, in Mr. Powell's words, "a kind of album of odds and ends in themselves at times trivial enough." In addition to the portraits of Mr. Muggeridge, Kingsley Amis and V. S. Naipaul, there are ruminative digressions about the 1960 obscenity trial of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and the differences between America and England, as well as lots of color about the author's family and friends.
"Hitherto a comparatively sustained chronological narrative has been achieved," he explains. "But the last 20 or 30 years are not always tractable to continuity of design. As one picks one's way between the trees of Dante's dark wood of middle life its configuration becomes ever less discernible…. Books are published; professional schemes take shape or fade away; journeys are made; new persons met. All the time a perspective that once gave at least the illusion of order to the past diminishes. The outlines of individuals and events, perhaps clear enough in themselves, grow ever more blurred in relation to each other."
This difficulty with "continuity of design" is not peculiar to middle age, however. Whereas fictional events may be orchestrated and shaped into a pleasing pattern, real events tend to be messy and resistant to the tidy, idealized designs favored by the imagination. As a character in "Dance" says at one point, "Human beings aren't subtle enough to play their part. That's where art comes in." It is an observation that underlines the different effects of Mr. Powell's otherwise remarkably parallel novels and memoirs.
Both the memoirs and the novels, after all, detail what happened to those young people who grew up during the 20's—that hectic decade in which parties and easy flirtations provided an escape from the memories of the Great War—and the uneasy, politized decade of the 30's. Both deal with the close-knit world bound on one end by bohemian Soho and on the other by aristocratic Mayfair, a world in which nearly everyone has attended public school and Oxbridge and knows everyone else. And both chronicle the gradual decline of the upper middle class and announce the noisy advent of the brash new world ushered in by World War II, which "drew a hard line across the story of one's days after which nothing was ever quite the same again."
The language Mr. Powell employs in both his fiction and nonfiction is elegant and poised; it achieves irony by understatement rather than exaggeration. In both too Mr. Powell's penchant for long, intricate sentences reflects his books' expansive, anecdotal form. A Proustian density results from the accumulation of details, and physical descriptions and personal mannerisms—from the absence of an accent to the presence of a mustache—are used to illuminate people's inner lives, whether they are Orwell and Connolly in the memoirs of X. Trapnel and Pamela Flitton in "Dance." Interested readers can also trace correspondences between the fictional and real characters—between, say, Sillery and the warden of Oxford's Wadham College, Maurice Bowra; between Stringham and an Etonian named Hubert Duggan; between the Tollands and the author's in-laws, the Pakenhams.
The difference, of course, is that the memoirs record events and personalities, while "Dance" transforms them into myth. That myth, in turn, illuminates Mr. Powell's vision of life as a dance, in which human beings move "hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle."
Because "Dance" is fiction, Mr. Powell can attach a moral to the story, find a parable in his characters' fates. The New Man, Widmerpool, who stands for everything that is rude and ungainly, acquires more and more social and political power as the decades pass, while Stringham and Templer—those charming exemplars of all the old public school virtues—are killed in the war.
The weakest sections of "Dance," in fact, are those least transfigured by the imagination. (pp. 9, 19)
Mr. Powell seems well aware of the limitations of writing about firsthand experience. Lamenting his inability to sum up the quality of post-Oxford life, he tells us in his memoirs, "Since there was not much pattern to these early years in London, I can introduce some of those who played a part only in a rather disjointed manner; though perhaps the chain of acquaintance that led to certain byroads in itself illustrates the sort of life I was leading." Or again, "The images that present themselves to the mind of any novelist of more than amateur talent take an entirely different form when the same writer attempts to describe 'real people' known to him, the former altogether more complex, free-wheeling, wide-ranging…. The 'real person' who sets going the idea of a major 'character' in a novelist's mind always requires change, addition, modification, development, before he (or she) can acquire enough substance to exist as a convincing fictional figure…. The smallest deliberate change made by a novelist to suit the story's convenience means, in truth, that all genuine dependence on the original model ceases—in contrast with traits (possibly inconvenient from a fictional point of view) that must unavoidably be chronicled about a 'real person' in Memoirs or Autobiography."
Clearly, gifted memoirists are able to transcend these limitations, but more often than not they are not accomplished novelists. In Mr. Powell's own generation, it was Cyril Connolly, Peter Quennell and Harold Acton—authors who never produced major works of fiction—who succeeded in writing the most resonant autobiographies. On the other hand, Mr. Powell's memoirs, like those of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Henry Green, tend to read like an etiolated version of his fiction. (pp. 19-20)
Michiko Kakutani, "The Novelist As Memoirist," in The New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1983, pp. 9, 19-20.
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