Critical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

Illustration of PDF document

Download To Keep the Ball Rolling Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Although not the last of Powell’s literary works, his memoirs were published when Powell was in his seventies, after a long and productive literary career. Afternoon Men, his earliest novel, had appeared in 1931, almost half a century before the first volume of To Keep the Ball Rolling. In the many years between, Powell wrote sixteen other novels as well as two volumes about Aubrey, in addition to composing innumerable reviews and other articles for various newspapers and magazines. In one sense his memoir is similar to those of many other literary figures, coming as it did toward the end of a literary life. Less personally revealing than the remembrances of some other figures of the twentieth century, Powell’s memoirs are more traditional in form and content and perhaps more British than American in point of view.

What makes his memoirs of particular interest to many readers, however, is what they might reveal about the relationship between Powell’s life and his masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time. The multivolume novel, written over many years, is in the opinion of many literary critics one of the major fictional works of the second half of the twentieth century. It is so monumental an accomplishment that it cannot help but cast a long shadow over the four volumes of To Keep the Ball Rolling. One wonders to what degree the fictional Nicholas Jenkins is a copy of the real Anthony Powell, how closely the many characters of the novel are modeled on persons known to Powell, and who those persons are. Whatever else Powell tells about his experiences, literary and otherwise, readers of the novel want to know how near art is to life.

Some critics of To Keep the Ball Rolling have claimed that one is best advised to read A Dance to the Music of Time, that the memoirs are an unsatisfactory and faint echo of those novels. When discussing his experiences with Welsh soldiers in the early days of World War II, Powell admits that the pertinent novels of his multivolume work “throw more light on the experience than can be achieved in memoirs.” Frequently in his memoirs he refers to his colleagues and acquaintances who were later transformed into characters in the various novels in the series. Often the transformation was such that individuals assumed that they had been the model for a particular character when in fact they had not. If art imitates life, sometimes life wishes to imitate art. Powell confesses that many of his fictional characters are based on people he knew but argues, somewhat persuasively, that once invented elements come into play, the fictional persons begin to take on lives of their own; the individuals in A Dance to the Music of Time are not those whom Powell knew in the real world. Art might borrow from life, but it then becomes art. Readers of Powell’s memoirs and his many works of fiction will continue to ponder that connection between fiction and reality.