Anthony Powell Powell, Anthony (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Powell, Anthony 1905–

Powell is an English novelist and screenwriter. His twelve-volume fictional work "A Dance to the Music of Time," is gradually coming to be considered a masterpiece of modern fiction. The Poussin painting, from which the novel's title is derived, establishes and defines the pattern of the work. As in the painting, where the four seasons, represented as four dancers, move to the music played by Time, the novel explores the seasons of life and the cyclic nature of time. Powell's prose is characterized by formal elegance and subtle wit. (See also CLC, Vols. 1,3,7,9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Arthur Mizener

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Despite Powell's inexhaustible interest in the highly competitive literary and artistic life of London, he has never shown the slightest desire to gain power for himself, a characteristic that helps explain the strange, almost anthropological interest with which he examines those men—of whom the power-hungry are the most obvious example—whose public image of themselves is so important to them that they subdue their whole natures to it.

With this insight into the folkways of men of will, Powell gives us an understanding of a fundamental distinction of character in twentieth-century life. His sense of its refinement is remarkable….

Powell is specially fascinated by the comic predicament of men of will who, though wholly engrossed by personal policy, are pitifully incapable of effective action…. (p. 80)

It is possible to work out the chronology of The Music of Time, but there are astonishingly few dates in it. It is the human sense of time rather than chronology that interests Powell, the shape of the feelings at a particular age, the characteristic tone of a period. He fixes our attention on "that feeling of anxiety … that haunts youth so much more than maturity," or the "sense of guilt in relation to [marriage that] makes itself increasingly felt" as one approaches thirty…. (p. 84)

This representation of the shifts and changes in our consciousness of reality as both we and society change with the passage of time is made possible by the scope of The Music of Time and by the controlled variety of circumstances through which the dancers to this music move. But these conditions only make the effect possible; the effect itself has to be realized in the action of the novel or in Jenkins' comments on the action, and it may be that Powell's comparative lack of popularity is a consequence of the quietness with which Jenkins presents the action and comments on it. He never stops to point out to the reader the comic significance of such things as General Conyers' remark to the theosophist Trelawney, with his solemn superiority to Time and Space, "Off you go now—at the double," or to explain to him what he is to deduce from the many marriages of Casanova's Chinese Restaurant. He clearly has an instinctive dislike of what Henry James called "the platitude of statement," and it is only when the significant action is an event in Nicholas Jenkins' consciousness that something of what Powell is driving at becomes overt. (pp. 84-5)

Powell is a man for whom "in human life, the individual ultimately dominates every situation, however disordered, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse," and constitutes the operative center of energy and value in society, however complex the organization and immediately irresistible the conventions of society may be. Powell's awareness of society's power is very acute, but he never fails to suggest that it is both energized and used by the egos of individuals. (p. 85)

Powell, an expert on the rituals of British upper-middle-class life, is fascinated by the essential independence of those who sustain these rituals with such skillful concern for their own egos. (p. 87)

Of all the characters in The Music of Time Nicholas Jenkins is the most subtly and fully developed, but he is no more significant than a number of others. (p. 89)

Powell's sense of character is like his sense of time. Even Jenkins is almost always revealed to us by implication…. (p. 90)

Thus Jenkins' thoughts—and he is a thoughtful man—always effective and often brilliant as comments on experience in general, are always dramatic revelations of character. (p. 91)

[In] Powell's novels passages of speculation are always dramatic displays of the speculating character's motives for action as well as acute general comments on the life about him….

Powell's conception of [both the...

(The entire section is 1636 words.)

James Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anyone wanting to give a general idea of Anthony Powell's novels will find himself talking pretty soon about an easily recognised prose style and a steady concern with the well-born, well-off and well-educated. As it happens, the writing changes sharply between the early books and [A Dance to the Music of Time (ADTTMOT)]; for that matter, there are changes within ADTTMOT. But a distinctive polish, restraint and wit do run through all, and touches of learning are fairly regular. As to class, a few books may glance at lowish, or even low, life but this is not typical…. (p. 1)

One further common quality needs to be mentioned early: a constant aim to be readable, to entertain, for the most part wonderfully realised. To draw the three elements together, one can say that much of this readability in ADTTMOT and in several of the earlier books comes from the elegantly deadpan treatment of liberated upper-class behaviour, and especially sexual behaviour: the lowdown on high life in charming undemonstrative prose.

If Powell's work went only this far it would be slight: no more than a slick and funny exposé of the privileged. That is not how it turns out. Certainly the novels occupy themselves at some length with shallow, possibly effete, lives and skilfully create the right drifting, inconstant, often anarchic tone of the society they inhabit. What seems to give the books their substance is this unflurried willingness to see high life as it is and accept its rough edges; while suggesting in a moderate, not too convinced manner that it is better on the whole to do things in a humane, temperate way free from self-obsession and from cruelty…. Tolerance, humanity, decency attend Powell's heroes and narrators and come through to the reader as the qualities most worth bothering about. (pp. 1-2)

One feels … a plea throughout Powell's books for the natural warmth and vitality of life to be allowed their expression. Bores and monsters get in the way. It is this belief which gives the platform on which Powell's humour, elegance and épatant disclosures rest, and which provide the books with the solid ground to support their charm. A reservation must be made here too, though. In many ways, Powell, like the narrator of ADTTMOT, has a classical mind and terms like warmth and vitality may sound purple; after all, the standard description of his style is cool. In addition, a conservative, if not Conservative, rationality pervades the books…. Yet, for all their attention to control, and their regard for decorum and what is proper … the books see further. (pp. 2-3)

The distinction of Powell's novels is that they engagingly look at surfaces and, at the same time, suggest that this is by no means enough. They will continually disturb the surface to show us much more. In their quiet way they direct us towards a good, practical, unextreme general philosophy of life. Where very specific admirable behaviour is implied by the irony the books are less assured: Nicholas Jenkins's radiantly unexceptionable marriage comes to seem freakish, given the surrounding sexual restlessness; what St John Clarke, during his Marxist days, would have called bourgeois. The assertions which really count in the book, though, are made through an overall generosity of outlook and a consistent advocacy of sound sense.

What, then, is Powell's stature? It can be unfair and dangerous to blame novelists for what they have left out: the critical focus has slipped on to infinity. All the same, one does feel conscious of large gaps in Powell's work…. [While] Powell believes in and extols feelings he is not good at igniting them on the page so that the reader feels the heat; it does happen, but the moments are exceptional. The books fall particularly short on the emotional lives of women, and a disproportionate number of his females seem brassy, shallow, restless. When, during the later books of ADTTMOT, he attempts something more in Pamela Flitton he resorts to overcolouring. Yet Ortrud Mavrin, portrayed by Powell with such delightful warmth in what was only his second novel, [Venusberg (V)], showed a genuine understanding of women, and it is hard to know why he discarded it.

Possibly related to his failure to involve us in feelings is an inability, or disinclination, to deal with action as if it were taking place while we watch; the reader tends to view from afar, with the aid of first-class field-glasses, it is true, and an amusing commentary, but we are at times conscious of the distance. In Powell's work there is a general flight from immediacy, and notably in ADTTMOT where the narrative method is allowed to fuzz incident and situation. Often this is essential to Powell's intent, but the lack of definition and energy which can result is a disturbing weakness, just the same. (pp. 3-4)

What Powell has is a powerful sense of life through character, caricature and period; fine humour and invention; a largely humane point of view; and unequalled competence at setting down the ways of a small, deeply interesting class of English society. Technically, he has remarkably extended what can be done through the first-person narrative; and he has the control to mix comfortably within one volume very different modes of novel writing: naturalism, fantasy, comedy, farce, occasional tragedy. (pp. 4-5)

[Afternoon Men (AM)] is a book of continuously mannered style whose entertaining surface is broken now and then by the brief but clear sight of some enormously important theme; it is the early form of a method which Powell will follow throughout his work. Like leaping fish, big topics may glint for a second in AM before sinking again beneath the sea of inarticulate if not opaque dialogue. Fotheringham's insight that 'there must be something beyond this sex business' is central to the novel. But it must be spoken by a lightweight, hilariously disorganised character so that the book's sustained tone of farce and inconsequence will not be ruptured by prêchi-prêcha.

Yet the theme is constantly present and AM's apparent shallowness may at any time be touched by sadness and, to risk a more ponderous term, significance. The novel shows a group of mainly young people at a fairly undistinguished level of London society between the wars. (p. 9)

Consistently Powell avoids neatness, symmetry and well-fashioned motivation because these would clamp on to his glimpse of this social group an inappropriate system and order.

Many chapters end in farce or banality, particularly chapters where some deep, possibly poignant, matter has been hinted at. The technique is deliberate and, for the most part, highly effective. Powell is, of course, writing here and in most of his work about a group which conceals, plays down and even avoids feelings. But feelings cannot be entirely excluded from life, nor are they from the novel. (p. 15)

A discussion of style in AM must be mainly to do with dialogue. Powell abandons the heavy reliance on speech after this novel and in ADTTMOT conversation is comparatively sparing. AM's dialogue is almost always laconic and, by intent, generally trite and laborious. Through it Powell conveys much of his amused criticism of this aimless and silly group…. [Sluggish] formula conversations excellently catch the pattern of such lives….

Frequently, too, he can use monosyllabic, repetitious conversation to say far more than appears, a skill crucial in realistic fiction…. (p. 16)

It would be untrue to say that all the writing of AM is pared down and simple. Once or twice Powell turns to a very complicated, parenthetic style, rich in multisyllable words; in fact, a style which foreshadows the prose of ADTTMOT. (p. 17)

AM remains a book of remarkable qualities, despite signs of immaturity…. Above all, the novel is very funny, combining understated wit, farce and what might be called comedy of mannerisms. It also sounds a gentle but clearly heard note of sadness that things should be as they are. (pp. 17-18)

Like AM, Powell's second novel Venusberg (1932), also moves in something of an ironic, deflationary circle, its end similar in mood to its opening. Although V, too, is almost continuously funny, the flavour has become more subtle; and the novel's world is wider and harsher, its personnel socially more various, their lives less confined and less protected.

In a superficial sense the book may be seen as a love story. More conventionally plotted than AM, it contains no elaborate comic set-pieces and skilfully uses several minor characters in linking roles….

The book's irony is remarkably complicated, beginning with the basic agonies of those who yearn only for the lover they cannot have, and developing towards vast strokes of luck—good or bad, depending on who you are—in the conclusion. (p. 19)

The point Powell is making does not become entirely clear. One must beware of … imposing weightily obtuse interpretations on a book where charm and delicacy of touch are so important. (p. 20)

Perhaps V can be criticised for overdoing the irony and becoming a little glib. It is worrying to see the regularity with which incident is shaped towards wryness; at times this seems as much a simplification as would be thraldom to romantic cliché. (pp. 20-1)

Unemphatic, oblique, deadpan, the narrative method of V looks forward to the way in which Powell will present ADTTMOT. Rarely does he seem interested in describing incident with force and immediacy; it is the results which concern him. (p. 22)

[In] a book whose theme is that we are creatures of circumstance there would be little place for a hero bursting with decisiveness. Lushington, on the whole, is someone to whom things happen, not who makes them happen; a character type common enough in twentieth-century fiction.

He is also, of course, an ironic observer and listener, something like Jenkins in ADTTMOT. Passive qualities are implied. Frequently there is not even need for Powell to describe Lushington's reactions: we sense them because we know what sophisticated and worldly values he stands for…. This is an admirably subtle technique but does require a central character here, as in [What's Become of Waring (WBOW)] and, above all, in ADTTMOT, with spectacular powers of self-effacement. Some readers find such shadowiness a let-down, particularly as it affects Jenkins.

Yet it is crucial to Powell's ironic campaign: an energetically intrusive central figure, seeking to set people and things to rights, would suggest more moral certainty than Powell wants to show. We are going to find throughout his novels a fascinating variety in his ways of presenting the narrative, and a thorough look at these methods will help us understand his aim, I think. (p. 24)

In general Powell keeps the style of V rigorously simple, sometimes to the point of flatness….

Overall … the prose is a controlled, sensitive instrument capable of holding tragedy and farce in a single grip. (p. 25)

Bare survival is a theme of both AM and V: Atwater will keep going through mere habit, Lushington through a patched-up unecstatic love affair. From a View to a Death [FAVTAD] (1933) concerns itself with durability in a more positive, though not exactly more pleasant, sense. Having shown social hierarchies shifting or already flat in the earlier books, Powell here demonstrates that there are also instances when those with position can look after themselves very capably, even when backed by little money. (p. 27)

Zouch is not … central to FAVTAD as Atwater and Lushington are to the previous books, not the 'eye'. He represents only a partial turn towards the dynamic hero. Powell shifts the narrative between several groups of characters and Zouch and his viewpoint disappear for sizeable stretches. It is this loosening of allegiance to one character which enables Powell to make Zouch a more complicated hero than either of his predecessors, and to excite contradictory reactions to him in the reader: the kind of indecisive response that tallies with our judgement of some people in real life. (p. 28)

Style has become less mannered [in FAVTAD] than in the first two books, a more straightforward instrument for telling a story: brisk, occasionally witty, still off-hand and anti-dramatic. As in AM there is some excellent terse conversation, but in this later book Powell manages now and then to touch surface ridiculousness with menace or sadness…. Overall FAVTAD reveals a growing range of accomplishment but lacks—deliberately avoids for the sake of other intentions—the charm and carefully maintained single flavour of AM and V. (p. 32)

It is not necessary to regard ADTTMOT as a kind of Decline and Fall of the English upper classes—as some do—to see these first three novels as early and variously emphatic treatments of disintegration, with FAVTAD the grimmest in tone and the most effectively ominous. The qualities which Powell prizes—tolerance, humanity, decency—have gone on leave for this novel, and he is showing us the dispiriting result. (p. 33)

As if to compensate for the sombreness of FAVTAD Powell gives each of his next two novels, Agents and Patients [AAP] (1936) and What's Become of Waring (1939), a light, almost inconsequential surface. These last novels before ADTTMOT treat segments of English upper-middle-class and middle-class life with Powell's familiar wit and precision. AAP is often very funny; and WBOW has for at least three-quarters of the book a passably suspenseful and intricately shaped plot, something unique in Powell's novels….

As the title suggests, AAP is concerned, beneath its humour and extravagances, with freedom. (p. 34)

Powell may mean that we are all prisoners of our personalities and will stay so, regardless of efforts to change….

It is a harsh message and may reach out towards Wesleyan predestination. In its brighter, more mannered way the book is as pessimistic as FAVTAD. (p. 35)

WBOW is a very capable lightweight exercise and represents a pause in Powell's progress: it contains few of those deeper implications which can be felt now and then in the earlier novels and throughout ADTTMOT. (p. 37)

Near the start of [A Question of Upbringing (AQOU)] we get an explicit account of what Powell means by his overall title A Dance to the Music of Time.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outwards like the Seasons, 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.

Life, then, has shape, method, pattern: it would be hard to imagine music or dance without. There is order. What sort? Not only are the dancers unable to control the melody but they may lack power over the steps they perform. (That late 'perhaps' is sizeable.) In Powell's title 'dance' does not evoke primarily rhythm, harmony, gaiety. Instead the word is at least ironic and possibly derisive, echoing the use in a phrase like 'led a dance'. The intricacy of the measure is sad and demeaning, not elaborately beautiful, since those engaged have no choice but to take part, and their responses are like those of a complicated machine. Their lives have some kind of meaning—are only 'seemingly meaningless'—but they do not know what and do not consciously express it. We hear of life as a 'ritual dance' in [A Buyer's Market (ABM)]. Ritual is metaphor so this, too, suggests underlying meaning. Yet it is the other, less heartening aspects of ritual which sound most strongly here, and once more the intent is ironic: people behave as if they can play fresh, original parts in life, whereas really the lines have been laid down from far back, and all the moves are inflexibly formalised, limited and repetitive. Life has some system but it is hard to find comfort in the fact. Patterns exist but they may be utterly destructive of those which people would wish for themselves. The human will can look very feeble. The contrast between how people might want to behave—or might have been expected to in view of upbringing and background—and the actual performance imposed as time calls the tune is a main theme. (pp. 77-8)

[We find] the insistent suggestion that people's lives may be linked in strange, unpredictable, often perverse fashion. Time will secure these couplings, and break them. ('Partners disappear, only to reappear again.') Sometimes the results will be intriguing, sometimes droll, sometimes devastatingly harsh. This provides the 'meaning' of the dance: we shape and condition each other's lives in ways which may seem at the same time spectacularly random and ferociously intense. (p. 78)

Presumably … we are all as unreliable as Powell's narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, at reading the signs of how people will develop and how they will impinge on each other. This is an extension of Powell's view, and an important one: at least some indications of the future are available to us…. But we are often too blind, prejudiced, insensitive or ignorant to take it in; only hindsight makes things clear…. [Here] and there time will take on for a brief while characteristics of fate or chance or destiny: god-like qualities. That is probably as much as we can say. The degrees of contrariness, inevitablity, coincidence and determinism with which time works out its designs in ADTTMOT are so enormously and fascinatingly varied that it becomes dangerous to speculate beyond what we are directly told. Time rules.

We may see how in one of the books' chief relationships; the one between three characters we meet first as school-boys in AQOU, four if we include Nicholas. They are Kenneth Widmerpool, Peter Templer and Charles Stringham…. Widmerpool [becomes] fixed in the minds of his contemporaries as a freak, to be treated with amusement or contempt. Against Stringham and Templer he seems particularly blighted. Although these two are graphically differentiated they have in common an aura of unquestioned superiority over Widmerpool…. The reader who takes the narrator's impressions for truth would foresee Stringham and Templer moving easily towards success in later life, while Widmerpool flounders in hard-working mediocrity, at best.

Fiction tends to avoid the predictable and the reversal of these expectations is total. Widmerpool eventually achieves such power that he may certainly be accused of causing Stringham's death; and is possibly also implicated—a far more sombre matter—in the death of Templer. Long before this Jenkins has been forced to see that his school verdict on Widmerpool was faulty. (pp. 78-80)

Powell … is telling us that in the affairs of Widmerpool, Stringham and Templer—and to a much smaller degree Jenkins—time has applied coincidence according to a flagrant and...

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William B. Hill, S.J.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The pace of Anthony Powell's very graceful novels in A Dance to the Music of Time is almost imperceptible; by contrast, his autobiography, Infants of the Spring, is a kaleidoscope of jumbled figures, piled together, emerging like members of a very large cast taking individual bows…. (p. 278)

The book goes only to the end of Powell's Oxford days, though there are many flashes forward. It can be tedious and trying—especially the genealogical Appendix—but it can also be sprightly and amusing. It will have its strongest appeal for those who already know the time and the literary figures in it. (pp. 278-79)

William B. Hill, S. J., in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), December, 1977.

John Bayley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is one of Anthony Powell's most disarming characteristics that his anecdotes exist for themselves, at most illustrating some nuance in the custom and fashion of an epoch: 'the period flavour of the incident must excuse its triviality,' as he remarks in his leisurely way, or 'social hairs are the most enjoyable ones to split.' His fiction draws its subtle contentment from highlighting such trivialities, as in their different style do his current series of memoirs, [Messengers of Day]….

Fascinating in themselves, Powell's memoirs suggest that, in shaping social acquaintance and episode for the uses of fiction, he never goes beyond the anecdotal, resisting any temptation to concoct figures at all 'representational'. Where most novelists who use real-life models elevate them vertically, as it were, into more than life-sized archetypes (Charlus, Natasha, old Karamazov), Powell manipulates his on the lateral plane, into a world of art in anecdote on the same scale as in life. Thus Constant Lambert moves sideways into Moreland, Aleister Crowley into Trelawney, an acquaintance called Basil Hambrough into Dicky Umfraville. One trouble with Widmerpool is that he is really a minor character whom the reader is apt to interpret as a major one—even one with 'representational' significance—and in the concluding volumes [of A Dance to the Music of Time] this may possibly occur with the connivance and encouragement of the author.

Powell's art depends on his own idiosyncratic shaping of the fact that life is lived mostly in the minor key, and this logically extends even into the artistic tastes of characters and narrator. Thus there are enthusiasts for Tourneur or Modigliani, never for Shakespeare or Cézanne; painter and composer characters are in some none the less colourful way not very good; quoted verses by de Tabley have more resonance than anything by Yeats or Tennyson could have. This helps to give the whole series its superlative coherence in terms of form, and in a chapter in Messengers of Day called 'Set Books', Powell throws light by commenting on his lukewarmness about Tolstoy, his admiration for The Sun also Rises and A Hero of Our Time, his preference for L'Education Sentimentale over Madame Bovary.

John Bayley, "The Artist as Raconteur," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Bayley), May 11, 1978, p. 615.

Hilary Spurling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them' is a favourite saying of X. Trapnel's, and one perhaps specially appropriate to the work in which he figures. For one could hardly find a work of fiction which more clearly demonstrates what Trapnel himself calls 'the heresy of naturalism' than this sequence of novels in which, for the reader, the deepest satisfaction comes less from character and incident than from the structure that supports them both: a structure so contrived that, as it flows, straggles or jerks itself along, by turns farcical and grim, sombre, tumultuous, absurd, reaching out through almost infinite varieties of egotism to embrace the furthest shores of crankiness and melancholia, it...

(The entire section is 1285 words.)