Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1876
In 1976, Anthony Powell, author of the highly acclaimed twelve-volume series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), published Infants of the Spring, the first of the four volumes which make up his memoirs. The second, Messengers of Day, appeared in 1978, followed by Faces in My Time in 1980 and The Strangers All Are Gone in 1982. Together they make up To Keep the Ball Rolling, which in turn was published in an abridged one-volume edition in 1983.
Powell took the title for Infants of the Spring from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“The canker galls the infants of the spring”). Born in London in 1905, Powell was descended from an old Welsh family. Avowing an avid interest in genealogy, he explained that what attracted him to a study of his family was “the vast extent of human oddness.” In both Powell’s novels and his memoirs, it is most often human eccentricities which capture the writer’s attention and the reader’s interest. His father, one of those human oddities, was a professional soldier, and many of the experiences of Powell’s childhood were later transformed into his portrayal of the childhood of Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator in The Kindly Ones (1962), the sixth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time.
His family’s middle-class aspirations and expectations for an only son made a private education mandatory, and Powell entered Eton College, the exclusive public school, in 1919. Disliking cricket and most other sports, Powell instead joined the Eton Society of Arts, a student group presided over by the future aesthetes Brian Howard and Harold Acton, and including the future novelist Henry (Green) Yorke. Also at Eton during those years were Cyril Connolly, the essayist and editor, and Eric Blair (George Orwell).
In 1923, Powell entered the University of Oxford, where he became a student at Balliol College, with its “arrogant brilliance.” Powell admired his college’s tradition of tolerance, a quality often expressed in his writings and his own temperament. Yet he was not as challenged at Balliol as he had been at Eton; his time at Oxford was seemingly less memorable, although during those years his friendship with Connolly grew and he became acquainted with Evelyn Waugh. His descriptions of those who crossed his path at Eton and Balliol make up a considerable part of Infants of the Spring.
The second volume of Powell’s memoirs, Messengers of Day (a title taken from Julius Caesar), begins in 1926. Not yet twenty-one years old, Powell went to London to learn the publishing business at the firm of Gerald Duckworth and Company. His first months in London were socially difficult and dreary, but that changed with the reappearance of Evelyn Waugh, at that time writing Decline and Fall (1928). Waugh’s London connections opened many doors, and he became a continuing character in Messengers of Day. The discussion of Waugh and his life— anecdotal, with occasional and often coincidental meetings during the many years before Waugh’s death in the 1960’s—is typical of Powell’s memoirs. Through Waugh and others, Powell joined the London social scene, with its continuous round of parties and debutante dances. A socially acceptable, Oxford-educated young man, even if he had little money, was always welcome. He also came to know many members of London’s artistic and intellectual community, and Powell, ever the observer, made much use of those experiences in his later novels, particularly in A Buyer’s Market (1952), the second volume in A Dance to the Music of Time.
In Messengers of Day, Powell discusses various literary figures who influenced him during the late 1920’s: E.E. Cummings and to a lesser degree Ernest Hemingway, but not, he claims, James Joyce, although Powell smuggled the forbidden Ulysses (1922) from France in 1927. He also discovered Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), about which his fictional alter ego, Nicholas Jenkins, would later write. Many critics have also noticed a connection to Marcel Proust, whose works Powell first read while at Oxford. According to Powell, everyone he knew was writing a novel at that time, and he was no exception, with his first novel, Afternoon Men, appearing in 1931. Somewhat to his surprise, it was received by the critics as a bitter satire, although he saw it rather as an “urban pastoral.”
Shortly after the publication of Venusberg in 1932, Powell reduced his hours at Duckworth’s, hoping, after the publication of two novels, to branch out into journalism. A third novel, From a View to a Death, appeared in 1933. As the second volume of his memoirs ends, Powell’s publishing career has waned, but his three novels, although unrewarding financially, have been satisfactorily reviewed by the critics.
Faces in My Time (a title taken from King Lear) covers the years from 1934 to the early 1950’s. This was perhaps the most significant period of Powell’s life—it brought marriage and war—and proved to be seminal in the development of his later multivolume novel. Powell’s fourth novel, Agents and Patients, published in 1936, continued the trend of his earlier novels by being more representative of the 1920’s than of the politicized 1930’s. In 1934, Powell met his future wife, Violet Packenham, daughter of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, the Earl of Longford.
In 1936, Powell attempted to become a film scriptwriter, and he humorously describes his brief career at one of the London-based American companies, Warner Bros. Powell later transferred his London experiences to Hollywood, where he was no more successful, and he finally returned to England. Back in London and unemployed, Powell began writing book reviews for the British press and working on his fifth novel, What’s Become of Waring, published in 1939. Rereading that novel later, he noted its reflection of that eve-of-war era “by a sense of nervous tension that seems to underlie a superficially lighthearted tone of voice.” Even before the outbreak of World War II, Powell concluded that, given the climate of the times, it was impossible for him to write another novel. Instead he began a study of John Aubrey, the seventeenth century antiquary and author of Brief Lives (1813).
When war came, Powell, although overage, was able to get a posting as a second lieutenant in his father’s old unit. In 1941, he was transferred to the Intelligence Training Centre at Cambridge and then posted to London, where he served for most of the remainder of the war as liaison to several of the governments-in-exile from German-occupied countries. During the war years Powell met old friends and acquaintances, made new ones, and then later used those characters and incidents in the composition of his multivolume novel. The end of the war found Powell’s wife pregnant with their second child, while Powell returned to reviewing, which he describes in a chapter titled “Upper Grub Street,” and to his study of Aubrey, which was published after much delay in 1948.
The Strangers All Are Gone (“Come, let’s away; the strangers all are gone,” Romeo and Juliet), the final volume of Powell’s memoirs, carries the story to the end of the 1970’s. The technique continues to be ironic and anecdotal, but the chronological narrative becomes more diffuse. In what was perhaps a defense against his critics, Powell wrote,I have chosen to make a kind of album of odds and ends in themselves at times trivial enough. In the course of my own reading I have often found the trivial to be more acceptable, even more instructive in the long run, than some attempts at being profound.
The volume continues his short descriptions of the faces he has known in a way that echoes John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. In the early 1950’s Powell, through an inheritance, was able to purchase The Chantry, a nineteenth century country house in the west of England, and he recites tales about life at The Chantry in his usual fashion.
In 1953, Malcolm Muggeridge, Powell’s longtime friend and then editor of Punch, asked Powell to become the literary editor of the magazine. He accepted, no easy task given Muggeridge’s strong personality and outspoken political opinions. Powell left Punch around 1960 and became involved in the obscenity trial of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). Powell, who had doubts about the novel on literary grounds, was asked to be a witness for the defense but was never called to testify. He is more enthusiastic about the memoirs of Casanova, which he discusses along with Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the anonymous My Secret Life in a chapter titled “Fit for Eros.”
In the early 1960’s, his first novel, Afternoon Men, was produced on the London stage. Fascinated with the process, even though the play ran for only a short time, Powell notes the differences between a novel and a play; in the latter the actor can and will give his or her own interpretation of the character, while in a novel the writer is more in control. The reviews were mixed, and Powell expressed the traditional complaint of the playwright: Drama critics have too much influence. Nevertheless, he went on to write two plays, though neither was ever produced.
As the various volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time regularly appeared, Powell’s fame increased and he traveled abroad to various literary gatherings. He visited the Unites States in 1961 for the first time since his brief Hollywood sojourn, and in 1964 Powell was invited to Japan to help commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Powell records many humorous anecdotes about his visit, especially concerning the differences between East and West, and he reveals himself to be a rather traditional Englishman who, at least in his memoir, judges others by his own standards. He also participated in a writers’ conference in Venice, some of which he recorded in Temporary Kings (1973). He writes amusingly of still another conference, in Bulgaria, in the company of C.P. Snow. At the conclusion, Snow told Powell, “You were a great success. . . . There was an argument as to whether you looked like a professor or a soldier.” Powell then fell silent, seeming to ponder the strangeness of the personality with which he had lived so long. He adds, “I had often wondered about it myself.”
At the end of his memoirs, in a chapter titled “Grave Goods,” Powell attempted a summary of his life and work. Perhaps it might better be said that Powell alludes to and then escapes from any precise summary. He asks, “But if the consolation for life is art, what may the artist expect from life?” He then turns to Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance artist and historian who recounted the time when the Medicis of Florence ordered Michelangelo to build a snowman in the palace courtyard. Powell notes that the result was undoubtedly the finest snowman in history. Furthermore, he observes, “If you want something done get the best executant available to do it; that minor jobs are often worth taking on; that duration in time should not necessarily be the criterion in producing a work of art.” The reader is left to wonder if Powell, then well into his eighth decade, is alluding to his own literary career—that of the detached and ironic observer of a particular segment of British society during the twentieth century.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119
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