(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

At the beginning of Infants of the Spring Powell quotes Joseph Conrad: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.”

To Keep the Ball Rolling was the overall title Powell chose for his memoirs, and some reviewers have indeed complained that the four volumes are in many ways unremarkable. Some argued that Powell was unwilling or unable to portray the deepest human emotions, that his female characters were generally underdeveloped, that, like his fictional alter ego, Nicholas Jenkins, Powell was overly passive and reflective, and that he refused to grapple with serious issues such as good and evil. Yet reviewers of his memoirs have also praised his wit, his ironic detachment, and his elegant literary style.

To Keep the Ball Rolling is a sequence of memoirs, not an autobiography. The four volumes are less about Powell the individual than about what he observed in the world outside himself. The writer’s ego and personality are of less importance than the lives and activities of others; his interest in family genealogy stemmed from a desire not to discover who he was but to explore and comment upon the rest of humanity, the close study of which Friedrich Nietzsche described as fundamentally comic. In this sense, Powell might be seen as a post-Freudian, in that he only incidentally analyzes the inner human being. Many critics have also noted similarities between Powell and Marcel Proust; both wrote long novels, both were concerned with the essence of time, and both discussed societies and social classes undergoing a process of disintegration. Powell’s sensitivity, however, is more external than internal—unlike Proust’s.

Other reviewers of his memoirs praise Powell for his ironic common sense. To these critics, his so-called passivity is actually a kind of comic acceptance of the uniqueness of individual human beings. As a conservative Englishman, he was not one to urge change on society, much less advocate a particular ideology or worldview. His mission, if any, was to deflate the pretensions of human beings: not only those of the many characters who populate his writings but also his own—and those of the reader.

Some complain that for all Powell’s discussion of the many authors in his memoirs, he tells the reader little about writing. He wittily describes writers and their personalities but generally not their works, and he is no more forthcoming about himself as a writer. His explanation for choosing to write a multivolume novel—so he would not be restricted by the usual eighty-thousand-word novel and so he would not need to invent new characters for each book—seems both...

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