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,...
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