Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1643
In Faces in My Time (1980), the third volume of his memoirs, Anthony Powell writes, “Possibly even as far back as undergraduate days I had been interested in John Aubrey (1626-1697), antiquary, biographer, folklorist, above all writer in whom a new sort of sensibility is apparent, the appreciation of the oddness of the individual human being.” Powell adds that “Aubrey’s real originality in this respect is often dismissed as trivial observation, dilettantism, idle gossip.”
What Powell says of Aubrey illuminates his own work as a novelist, memoirist, and reviewer. He too has been charged with triviality, dismissed as a chronicler of upper-class manners. He too finds inexhaustible interest in the distinctive shape of individual lives. (A great reader of biographies, memoirs, and diaries, Powell says of Siegfried Sassoon that “Sassoon’s weakness as a diarist is in not being able to convey in a couple of words individual character—for instance giving no picture of strange personalities like Roderick Meiklejohn . . . or Christopher Millard, the bookseller.”) This is the basis for his whole approach to literature—an outlook that differs radically from the currently prevailing dogmas. That alone is sufficient reason to pick up his collection Under Review: Further Writings on Writers, 1946-1991.
Under Review is a companion volume to Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers, 1946-1989, published in Great Britain in 1990 and in the United States two years later (see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1993). Divided into four sections—“The Nineties: Forerunners and By-Products,” “Bloomsbury and Non-Bloomsbury,” “Some Novels and Novelists,” and “The Europeans”—most of the pieces in Under Review are reviews of biographies (letters are also well represented); a typical piece concisely recounts the subject’s life (often with a bit of genealogy), assesses his or her writings, and comments on the quality of the biographer’s (or editor’s) work. In addition to writers, a handful of artists and other figures are included, all with literary affiliations (Aubrey Beardsley, for example).
Appreciation of the oddness of the individual human being entails recognition that people differ enormously from one another. This principle is widely proclaimed in the 1990’s under the banner of “diversity,” but those who preach it most vigorously often fall spectacularly short of practicing it. In a piece on D. H. Lawrence, Powell observes that Lawrence “was temperamentally unable to understand that different people by their nature may require to live different lives; and accordingly, to find their expression in different forms of art.”
In contrast, Powell as reviewer regards his subjects rather as an anthropologist regards the profusion of human cultures: delighting in their variety. (That does not mean abandoning judgment—Powell’s own scale of values will be apparent to anyone who reads these reviews—but it does require understanding people and books on their terms.) Elsewhere Powell has suggested that “within the bounds of allowing freedom for severe criticism—certainly never to be averted if needed—there is much to be said for Rilke’s opinion that all works of art should be approached in a spirit of sympathy.” In Under Review he says that critics should be “known by what they praise, much more than by what they attack.” Attack is easy; “it is far more difficult to give the right reason why a book is good.”
Equipped with this outlook, Powell is an exceptionally perceptive critic. He notes that Arnold Bennett “possessed the necessary gift in a literary critic of grasping that a book can be good in parts.” Powell himself is not reluctant to praise the great achievements of a writer of the stature of Lawrence, for example, or James Joyce, yet he does not hesitate to identify significant flaws or endemic weaknesses: “Though gifted poet and short-story writer, Lawrence’s novels, notwithstanding brilliant passages, are marred by turgidity, ranting, sheer lack of reality, but he was scarcely capable of writing a dull letter.” By the same token, Powell offers shrewd appreciations of Sheridan Le Fanu, Compton Mackenzie, Ronald Firbank, and a host of other minor writers, never inflating their achievements yet always alert to what they distinctively accomplished. Again, the criticism is rooted in Powell’s interest in unique expressions of individuality.
Lack of this curiosity is a grievous handicap, not only for a critic but also for a creative writer. Powell says of Virginia Woolf that “in the last resort she is not sufficiently interested in other people.” That diagnosis is applied to several other writers in the course of Under Review, always with emphasis on the damaging effects of such self-absorption. Conversely, Powell rates the Satyricon of Petronius very high; “here, probably for the first time, is the pure, imaginative vision of the novelist, directed towards the life around him that may have seemed grotesque enough, but was all the same accepted—and in many ways not all that different from our own day.”
If curiosity and imaginative sympathy are Powell’s great gifts as a reviewer, one is also struck by the extent of his reading. The works discussed or alluded to in Under Review cover an extremely wide range, including many that are off the beaten track of the Graduate Record Exam and The New York Review of Books. Reviewing a biography of Giacomo Casanova, a writer whom he regards as generally unappreciated and unread, Powell mentions that Casanova’s memoirs “must run to something in the neighborhood of a million words.” Later in the piece, he suggests that underestimation of Casanova is in part based on merely dipping into the memoirs: “I speak with authority, having finished a complete rereading within the last year. I cannot rec- ommend the Memoirs too strongly, but you must read them all. Their strength is in their entirety.” (Note that Powell speaks of a complete rereading.) Earlier, begin- ning a review of a biography of Vanessa Bell, he writes: “A month or two ago I read, straight off, the six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Collected Letters.” His appetite for literature is prodigious and contagious.
Indeed, when one reads Under Review it is impossible not to reflect on the stifling narrowness of the ongoing debate over the “canon,” on both sides of the fence. Powell assumes a literary culture in which people read all kinds of things. A related reflection: A reading list consisting of all the writers Powell treats would be tagged according to a current formula as “Eurocentric.” The notion that such a label says much that is useful about figures as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Arthur Waley, Lady Ottoline Morrell, James Hogg, Aldous Huxley, Michel de Montaigne, Alfred de Vigny, Gustave Flaubert, and Fyodor Dostoevski is self-evidently ludicrous, but that has not stopped it from gaining wide acceptance in the academic world.
Another quality that gives these reviews rare authority is Powell’s firsthand acquaintance with many of the writers who are his subjects. Reviewing biographies that cover some aspect of literary life in Great Britain in the twentieth century, Powell is usually in the position of reading about people he has known. Born in 1905, he is one of the last living representatives of the brilliant generation that produced George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, to name only two of Powell’s gifted contemporaries. Not at all a pedant, he nevertheless wants to set the record straight on matters both large (the character of a person, for example) and small. In the latter vein, Powell often corrects biographers’ treatment of titles, as in this comment on a biography of W. Somerset Maugham: “To find his brother the Lord Chancellor referred to here as Lord Frederick Maugham, rather than Lord Maugham, would have been painful to Maugham himself; as would the hostess Lady Juliet Duff being called Lady Duff.” Biographers, be warned!
Still, all of this misses an essential element of Powell’s work, both as a critic and as a novelist: his humor. Reviewing a biography of Firbank, Powell notes the biog- rapher’s persistent failure to recognize humor as such, adding, “She manifests an inept, not to say fatuous form of contemporary criticism to which Americans are peculiarly subject.” Indeed, the doggedly humorless American academic has become something of a stock figure in postwar British fiction. One does not want to invite such opprobrium.
Writing about humor, however, is notoriously difficult. The first thing to be said about Powell’s humor is that it is pervasive, a fundamental aspect of his outlook. Wyndham Lewis (on whom Powell writes well in Under Review) said that wherever there is objective truth there is satire; in Faces in My Time, Powell approvingly cites “Nietzsche’s conjecture that the individual when closely examined is always comic, the reason why the Greeks kept the individual out of their tragedies.” Humor, then, is not simply a kind of seasoning, sometimes pungent, sometimes delicate (though it is that too); it tells us something essential about our peculiar nature as human beings. There is something odd about us, a deep incongruity mimed by the quirks and reversals and absurdities that provoke laughter.
Many thanks are owed to the University of Chicago Press for making Miscellaneous Verdicts and Under Review available in the United States. It is too bad, especially given Powell’s scrupulous care for accuracy, that Under Review is marred by many proofreading errors, well beyond the average even for the 1990’s. Among the errors are familiar and thus readily avoidable ones (such as adding an apostrophe to Finnegans Wake; this occurs twice) but also a startling number of typos (such as “Aldos” Huxley). Still, it is wonderful to have these books at hand; as bedside reading they are hard to beat.
Sources for Further Study
Boston Globe. August 3, 1994, p. 64.
Chicago Tribune. September 25, 1994, XIV, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly. XXIV, June 26, 1994, p. 13.
The Spectator. CCLXVIII, February 29, 1992. p. 33.
The Times Literary Supplement. March 20, 1992, p. 22.
The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXI, Winter, 1995, p. SS14.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, June 26, 1994, p. 13.
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