Infants of the Spring
Devotees of Anthony Powell’s witty and astringent prose style will enjoy Infants of the Spring, the first volume of his autobiography. It begins in the dim past of the twelfth century, with tales of an eccentric forebear named Rhys ap Gruffydd, and ends with Powell at age twenty, having come down from Oxford, “enveloped in a fog of naïvety” and about to “dive headfirst into the opaque waters of London life.” Much of course is chronicled in between, as Powell, taking his guiding epigraph from Joseph Conrad’s Chance, manages both charmingly and informatively “to keep the ball rolling,” as does Conrad’s narrator with the nonchalant Marlow. This idea of casually, entertainingly maintaining the conversation, keeping the air filled with inquiry, with analysis of as much as possible of what happened—in an attempt to discover the remarkable—is Powell’s purpose. Thus, the overall title for the volumes of his autobiography will be To Keep the Ball Rolling.
Readers not devoted to Powell (or unless avid genealogists) will not get much beyond his first twenty or thirty pages. Anyone seeking Powell’s usual immediacy of drama, wit, and quirky character will have to wade at first through some stretched points and anecdotes which Powell finds of high interest. But to fans of his novels, his research into the dim past of his family will be heavy going. Only a Powell admirer or an Anglophile can justify it perhaps as being a lambently appropriate approach to the roots of one who would later create the magnificent twelve-volume fiction, A Dance to the Music of Time.
Powell was the only child of a professional soldier and an aristocratic beauty who played the banjo for charity benefits. Frequent changes of military station moved the family around a great deal. On his father’s side, young Powell’s roots grew out of the country of the Welsh Border; on his mother’s side they were of the wolds and fens of Lincolnshire. This mix of bloods and traditions produced an array of stories on both family sides about eccentric and dissipated forebears. Powell grew up hearing the stories and participating in them with strange uncles, aunts, and countless cousins. Powell tells of one old gentleman who loved to take visitors on long walking talks, occasionally accenting his tales by thrusting his cane between his listener’s striding shins. As the person fell, the old man would calmly catch him, laugh, and continue with his discourse. Certainly, this battiness of background contributed much to the creative imagination which went into A Dance to the Music of Time.
There are brilliant examples of Powell’s uncanny exactness of rendering an event or a character here. In Chapter I, “From Whence Clear Memory,” he mentions that his first recollection at age two was of snow descending in small flakes outside a hotel window. Then he mentions how, at age six, he was stimulated by a long beam of sunlight filled with dust particles slanting through an upper window on a staircase in his home. With a precision impressive because it defies both time and the ineffability of the moment, he writes that he had been conscious of “. . . approaching the brink of some discovery; an awareness that nearly became manifest, then suddenly withdrew. Now the truth came flooding in with the dust infested sunlight. The revelation of self-identity was inescapable. There was no doubt about it. I was me.” For those who would get to know Powell better in Infants of the Spring, that is unfortunately one of the very few genuine insights to himself Powell provides. Most often he is the narrator-observer, overshadowed by persons around him, realizing himself only through the light they reflect around themselves and him. Because of this “Nick Jenkins” sort of reticence, one learns a great deal about Powell’s contemporaries, and very little, actually, about him and his immediate family. Possibly such discretion, such self-effacement, is natural and even fruitful in a writer whose major role has been to chronicle faithfully and wrily his age, to report the glory and twilight of a unique kingdom and era. One has the feeling that Powell indeed feels Conrad’s Marlow correct when he says of that other “Powell” that he was not exactly remarkable. Powell does not seem to be intentionally holding back—he is too honest a writer for that. Rather, he seems to feel uninteresting by himself. What fascinates him is England, the time, the other people. What interests Powell most, then, in keeping this particular ball rolling, is observing and reporting with stunning accuracy the doings and ideas of others who were around him. They, he reveals to us and to himself, are remarkable people.
Powell’s judgment is apt. He knew an astonishing number of movers and shakers, and early spotted greatness in many of them. Though this volume ends with his youthful leavetaking of Oxford, Powell has not limited himself, along the way, from moving ahead in time to share with us stories about the careers and ends, brilliant and otherwise, of many of his school chums. Typical is the quietly unathletic boy with spectacles he remembers as having been the butt of cruel jokes, who is recalled as having become a major general in what Powell calls “the Hitler war.” There are friends who are brilliant in youth only to become lost in lassitude as adults. There are scandals and heroisms. Through it all, Powell’s craftsmanship depicts his time in terms definitively, essentially upper-crust British. Sociologists and historians will find here a rich lode of ore for their particular smelters. Powell is depicting richly, from the inside, a rare world, superbly conscious of itself as important but fleeting. He describes it as a world most beautiful, perhaps, in its stiff-upper-lip resistance to the inevitable crumbling of its idols. Sheer fatigue of blood and brain would do many of Powell’s old-family-scion friends in; two great world wars would get many; loss of empire would throw many into irreversible spins; ennui, the dissolution of class structure, and the post-World War II utter absence of grandeur would betray nearly all. Through it all, history, the very music of time, would dance them all to its own increasingly depressing tune.
In Powell’s memoirs of his school friends, and of their various lives and productivities, there is always a stringently contained but nevertheless affecting sense of the beautiful, tragic, or tragicomic futility of it all. It is all very sophisticated, even wise, but very Britanically elevated and brittle, or aloof, even superior in tone. Very likely, it is the sense of futility, the consistent assurances of the twentieth century that fate has her way despite our best efforts, which causes this defensive intellectuality. In Powell’s hands the device is natural; it is a stance which works. What else can a man of intellect, breeding, taste do? He will not grovel; he will not condescend; he cannot descend; he wishes not to withdraw, for therein lies illness. The creative alternative is to see the world and life as an interesting adventure, if melancholy. There resides part of Powell’s artistic salvation: his sophisticated sense of adventure, his cerebral curiosity as to what will next come along. Joined impressively to this is his sense of discipline and his extreme devotion to craft. His tone seems to suggest that though the times may be more tragic than comic, more reprehensible than admirable, with more of the crass than class, it is what we have. It is happening, and there is the treasure of honor to be grasped in reporting it all...
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