O, How the Wheel Becomes It! Critical Context - Essay

Anthony Powell

Critical Context

Published after the completion of his grand twelve-volume novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, and in the same year as the final volume in his four-volume set of memoirs collectively titled To Keep the Ball Rolling (1976-1982), the thin little satire O, How the Wheel Becomes It! is like a playful bit of self-indulgence for Powell. It is not a work that will add substantially to his reputation, but that is not important, for Powell’s reputation is already assured. It is not a work that is likely to find a wide readership, for it purposely limits itself to satirizing a relatively small group of so-called literary figures.

Being a member of such a group of literary figures himself, however, Powell does not present here a bitter and biting satire, but rather one that is primarily bemused and indulgent. Although Shadbold is pompous and even unscrupulous in his efforts to suppress his old friend’s reputation, not much is at stake. The possible revival of interest in one novel written by a minor writer of the 1920’s is hardly the stuff of vital interest. Instead, the novel is a bit of play on the part of Powell—a gentle jab at all the third-raters in the literary world who create nothing themselves but sustain themselves on the creation of others.

Although Anthony Powell has never gained the critical acclaim and popular readership of such contemporaries as George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, his efforts are considerably more important than those of the object of his satire, G. F. H. Shadbold. Powell has said that his long work A Dance to the Music of Time resulted from his decision after World War II to write a “really large work about all the things I was interested in—the whole of one’s life in fact.” Although O, How the Wheel Becomes It! is not a work that falls within that grand scope, it is a genuine bit of fun about something that interests Powell as a literary man: the literary life itself. It is Powell’s joke at his own kind, a fine bit of fun by a writer who has earned the right to indulge himself this way.