The Strangers All Are Gone
The Strangers All Are Gone is the fourth and final volume of Anthony Powell’s memoirs, collectively entitled To Keep the Ball Rolling. This fourth volume, like its predecessors—Infants of the Spring (1976), Messengers of Day (1978), and Faces in My Time (1980)—draws its title from William Shakespeare. Irritatingly, the American edition has omitted the epigraph, in this case from Romeo and Juliet, act 1, scene 5, lines spoken by Juliet’s nurse: “Anon, anon!/ Come, let’s away; the strangers all are gone.” The series title is taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel Chance (1913):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.”
Powell began his memoirs after completion of his twelve-volume roman-fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, the last book of which appeared in 1975. The Strangers All Are Gone covers the period from the immediate postwar years (thus overlapping slightly with Faces in My Time) to the early 1980’s, with an emphasis on the 1950’s and the 1960’s.
At the outset, Powell distinguishes this concluding volume from its predecessors:Hitherto a comparatively sustained chronological narrative has been achieved, but the last twenty or thirty years are not always tractable to continuity of design. As one picks one’s way between the trees of Dante’s dark wood of middle life its configuration becomes ever less discernible.
Instead of continuing the chronological approach of the previous volumes, Powell explains, he has compiled “a kind of album of odds and ends in themselves at times trivial enough.” He follows this disarming admission, however, with a characteristic throwaway line: “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.”
This wickedly underplayed defense of the “trivial” points to the heart of Powell’s great achievements as a writer while at the same time suggesting his liabilities. Powell is simply one of the finest writers of his time—not only in Great Britain but also in the English-speaking world. The failure of the critical establishment to recognize his stature is a complex affair, to a certain extent, extraliterary (witness the charge that Powell’s art is “elitist”), but it surely can be attributed in part to his refusal to pay obeisance to the gods of high seriousness.
To say that there is a deeper purpose to Powell’s comic vision is not to underestimate the pleasure of laughter for its own sake or the gift required to evoke it in others. In Faces in My Time, Powell observed that John Aubrey, the seventeenth century antiquary and biographer (himself subject of a biography by Powell, John Aubrey and His Friends, 1948), was awriter in whom a new sort of sensibility is apparent, the appreciation of the oddness of the individual human being. Aubrey’s real originality in this respect is often dismissed as trivial observation, dilettantism, idle gossip, by those who have skimmed through his writings superficially.
The same may be said of Powell. His memoirs, like his fiction, evince...
(The entire section is 1437 words.)