Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1185
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 specious and superficial. Harold Acton, Powell’s contemporary at Eton, commented that Powell was the last of the polite novelists, whose forte was civilized conversation, and although Acton agreed with Powell’s descriptions of other writers, most of whom Acton knew himself, he argues that perhaps Powell’s happy marriage had aborted certain other sensitivities and perceptions.
Most critics comment upon Powell’s apparently conscious decision to distance himself from the reader. His own deeper feelings remain generally hidden, at least in the pages of his memoir. The reader senses that there is a civilized or, better yet, a classical sensibility at work, one drawn to a certain traditional society and its civilized values: the English upper-middle classes. The age of the mass man is not Powell’s, and he maintains his discreet distance from much of the modern world through his elegant sentences, his cool style, and his ironic wit.
In his memoirs, Powell states that his writings have sold as well in the United States as in England, which is interesting given their firmly British grounding. It could be argued that Powell is merely writing about the twentieth century in general, for his novels, especially A Dance to the Music of Time, are a brilliant portrayal of a broad group of generally upper-middle-class characters in a society experiencing much trauma if not disintegration—wars, economic depression, the rise of working-class politics, the general loss of community. Yet his work also very much reflects his class and his country. American readers of Powell’s works might simply be fond of things British, such as the British monarchy and thatched cottages, or it may be that the best of Powell’s writing, although rooted in a particular time and place, also transcends them. At worst, his novels could be enjoyed as the literate person’s soap opera, full of conversation and incident, in itself no mean accomplishment.
His memoirs, however, pose a different problem for the reader. His elliptical and anecdotal style often depends on the reader’s having some considerable knowledge of the numerous figures he discusses. Here even many of his fellow countrymen would be at a disadvantage at the time the volumes were published. Among the authors he discusses from the 1930’s and 1940’s, Waugh and Orwell are still widely known, and many readers will have some knowledge of writers such as Kingsley Amis and V.S. Naipaul. Still, most of the persons he briefly describes are figures who have sunk into anonymity, even for most readers in England. Because of his wit and style Powell makes many of those anecdotes interesting and amusing, but without some greater knowledge of the characters portrayed the stories often remain only partially appreciated.
Powell must have known that only a few of his readers would be able to follow him through his many stories. Some have complained that Powell’s memoirs are much inferior to his novels, that he merely repeats old tales. It is doubtful that Powell was merely lazy when he composed his memoirs. It is even less likely that Powell had exhausted his abilities as a result of his long labors on A Dance to the Music of Time. After the four volumes of To Keep the Ball Rolling had been published, he wrote other novels of wit and substance. It seems more likely that Powell’s choice of subject matter and style—his acquaintances and his brief observations of them—was a decision intentionally made. Powell was not writing his memoirs for the average reader.
Critics have often commented on the relationship between John Aubrey and Powell, noting that the latter’s memoirs are a series of “brief lives.” In his study of the seventeenth century writer, Powell praised Aubrey for his sensitivity, his descriptive anecdotes, his penetrating observations of a wide variety of individuals, his feeling that the present is rooted in the past. According to Powell, Aubrey was there to “watch and record,” and he urged the reading of Aubrey, “for there, loosely woven together, is a kind of tapestry of the good and evil; the ingenuity and the folly; the integrity and the hypocrisy; the eccentricity, the melancholy . . . of the English race.” It could well be an epitaph for Powell’s own writings.
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