Dancing to the Music of Time

One of the more surprising reappearances of the past twelve months or so is the novelist Anthony Powell (1905-2000).  anthony_powell_Etonian, mildly conservative, author of some rather awkward memoirs, friend of Waugh, Amis, Larkin, Powell’s greatest claim to fame was his twelve volume series, A Dance to the Music of Time.  I confess that I am a fan, but I have met relatively few who shared this view.  And even in his lifetime, and certainly after, Powell suffered the dismissal even of close friends.  Malcolm Muggeridge turned on him; Auberon Waugh used the pages of the Telegraph, to which Powell had long been a reviews editor, to attack him; V. S. Naipaul, whom Powell had supported, dimissed him after his death.

Until 2017, those who admired Powell’s work had three resources – the Anthony Powell Society website, Michael Barber’s workmanlike biography and Hilary Spurling’s invaluable guide.[1]  But the tide was heavily against a long novel, which took for granted it seemed so much of its background: Powell ‘describes Eton and Oxford without ever going to the bother of identifying them by name’ as Christopher Hitchens wrote in a sharp review.[2]

Now we have the long awaited life by Hilary Spurling, Powell’s own choice, and one of the most gifted biographers.

From Left: Hilary Spurling and her book Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time.

And the London Review of Books published a long and detailed comparison of Powell and Proust by the long-time editor of New Left Review, Perry Anderson.  (It was Perry Anderson who introduced Tariq Ali to Powell, as he laughed his way from London to Mexico reading Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant on a longhaul flight.[3])

marc boxer2
Book cover by the inimitable Mark Boxer

Perhaps as a result of the biography and Anderson’s article, or some mystical Zeitgeist, I find acquaintances in the virtual world of literary social media, and several physically in the United States, turning to Powell for the first time.  (Powell himself had a brief and rather hapless time in Hollywood in 1937, but did not make America a significant part of his fictional geography).

It is at first sight strange that someone who was, indubitably, in later life easily placed on the reactionary right, who wrote of Etonians and business men and glamour, whom even the more conservative writers like Waugh and Naipaul (not a shining example of tolerance himself) had turned against, should be defended by the likes of Tariq Ali and Perry Anderson.  And why now?  It seems difficult to believe that the revival of Powell, who was the master of the inevitable coincidence, is solely fortuitous.

Of course style endures – and Powell had it in abundance.  Powell simply is one of the funniest writers of the twentieth century.[4]  His wit was subtler than Evelyn Waugh’s – as a reviewer of one of the superb pre-Dance novels noted, his aim was accurate and he left a neater hole.

For the Dance itself, the easy line is that Powell was the English Proust.  Powell at times seemed to encourage the comparison, and except perhaps for the books he published after the series (O, How the Wheel Becomes It! (1983) and The Fisher King (1986)) he tended to base his characters closely – sometimes perilously closely – on people he had known.[5]  So the Dance is a roman-à-clef and thereby again Proustian.  But as Anderson says, Powell does something different and more than Proust.

Spurling’s biography is indispensable and frequently moving.  She evokes superbly the tenuousness of Powell’s early life, his depression, and above all the infinite significance of his marriage to Violet Pakenham.  And she hints at what Anderson brings home more clearly, which is that Powell, far more than Waugh, Amis and Larkin and many others of that ilk, was fundamentally a European writer.  Proust is in some ways a distraction; Powell looked to Stendhal, Balzac, Zola and the Russians as well, and also, memorably, Alfred de Vigny.  For Anderson, Powell is ‘the least English of writers, the most English of writers.’  The fact that Spurling had also produced the definitive biography of Matisse makes her all the more appropriate as Powell’s biographer.

What has always given critics difficulty is Powell’s later work.  Take Widmerpool, whose appalling thirst for power combined with utter ruthlessness and absence of charm has made him Powell’s most famous character.  At the end of the sequence, Widmerpool, who we see first lumbering through the mist at school, is seen on a ritual morning run as part of a peculiar quasi-religious sect, shouting ‘I’m running, I’m running, I’ve got to keep it up’; he dies shortly afterwards.  Powell’s last two novels outside the sequence are, to my mind, fairly openly mythological.[6]

But this should have come as no surprise.  Powell’s own youth was ghost-haunted.  His demi-monde was full of seers, busted mystics, and broken down dreamers, who saw their diminished futures often too sharply to keep a hold on reality.  The novels are full of alcoholics, depressives and addicts, composers, painters and writers – if, as Tariq Ali, noted creativity sustained the Dance, it often broke the dancers.

This driving sense of the mystical, of the forces beyond us, of the Furies that lie in wait, of the unpredictable force of love and the ineluctable games of time occupy an intellectual ground far sharper than anything else that was being produced by Powell’s sometime friends.  If Hearing Secret Harmonies is in some ways an unsatisfactory novel, it is perhaps in part because it starts to move towards a mysticism, in its most obvious form perverted by power, sex and drugs.  But to read this as Powell sinking into a reactionary conservatism seems to me to do damage to the profound sense throughout the series that the gap between our self-knowledge and capacity to survive is fragile at best.

One of Powell’s consolations through the Second World War was John Aubrey, whose Lives Powell adored.[7]  And this led him also to Robert Burton, whose Anatomy of Melancholy brings the Dance to a close:

A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears.

New books every day, pamphlets, corantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, &c.

Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters.

Today we hear of new lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, &c.

This I daily hear, and such like, both private and public news, amidst the gallantry and misery of the world; jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves….

Burton fills out the cast of characters, as Powell did in the Dance, and in the collages he created in the Somerset house, The Chantry, where he and Violet lived for nearly fifty years.  collageUnderlying this bustle lay the essential pattern, Poverty, Labour, Riches, and Pleasure or Luxury, in interminable sequence, as Poussin painted them in the magnificent painting which gives the cycle its name.[8]Poussin

Somewhere between Poussin and Burton lies what for me is one of Powell’s great themes, the idea of the promise of youth, talent, creativity, love, and the realities of age, failure, disappointment.  Although the Dance was not a political novel as such, it is a worldly novel.  Fortunes are made and lost; business is critical; one of the most disturbing figures in the series is the magnate Sir Magnus Donners.[9]  The post-war novels in the Dance cover the period where Britain sought (and arguably failed) to recover its pre-war status.[10]  Power, its illusions and its moral bankruptcy are the themes, reduced through the prism of the Dance to the horrifying discovery that Widmerpool had effectively condemned his schoolmate, the desperately talented and doomed Charles Stringham, to die in a Singapore prisoner of war camp.  Powell was no socialist, but he knew that the pursuit of money and power led to the Furies.

Great works transcend their makers.  There is always something new to find in A Dance to the Music of Time, and a new generation of readers will come to it with fresh eyes.  I do wonder though if it may contain more than a little relevance to those seeking to understand a nation that seems to have lost its way.  No-one described better than Powell the in-between times of life, and the dangers of depression and accidie which lurked therein.  Waiting, wondering, despairing, for many in the Britain, this is a dark time, when some fear that the terrible demons of self-destruction may take their final revenge.[11]  Yet there is, even in melancholy, redemptive comedy; the wheel turns, the dance goes on.  If Powell was indeed thinking of Theocritus, especially in his last and most pastoral novel in the Dance, perhaps he might have recalled the final lines, as Eucritus and Amyntas feast on the bounty of the year:

Of such quality was the drink which you then mixed for us, Nymphs, by the altar of Demeter, goddess of the threshing floor. May I plant my great winnowing shovel in her heap of grain once more, while she smiles on us with favour, holding sheaves and poppies in her hands.

[1] http://www.anthonypowell.org/home.php; Michael Barber, Anthony Powell: A Life (Duckworth 2004); Hilary Spurling, Invitation To The Dance: A Handbook to Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (Arrow 2005).

[2] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1998/05/28/powells-way/

[3] https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n14/perry-anderson/different-speeds-same-furies; https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jan/26/fiction4

[4] ‘consistently the funniest English narrative of the last century’, Perry Anderson, though he also notes that his comedy travels poorly.

[5] Spurling recounts a narrow near miss, where his CO in the war failed to recognise himself in the figure of the unctuous Captain Farebrother (‘rather well-known in the City for his charm’) and saw himself instead in the character based on his altogether more admirable adjutant.

[6] Nicholas Birns, Understanding Anthony Powell (University of South Carolina Press, 2004) offers an interesting reading which places the very early reading by the housemaster Le Bas of Andrew Lang’s Theocritus as a sort of leit-motif; Idyll 7 is a wonderful pastoral on the theme of time.  Powell was first taught Greek at Eton by Andrew Gow, who went on to write the definitive commentary on Theocritus, and hosted Powell in Cambridge during the war; Spurling p.251.

[7] His identification with Aubrey was something Powell recognised; he wrote to Violet in 1944 as the V1s were falling on London ‘I saw some stuff coming over from the vantage of one of the pepper castors [vantage points on the roof of the War Office], a thing I never expected to see when I used to walk up Whitehall in Charles II’s time.’  (Spurling p. 273).

[8] I think it is absolutely no coincidence that Poussin also fascinated Anthony Blunt.  Blunt refused to acknowledge the horrors of the Soviet regime, whilst Powell, especially through his many Polish friends, saw it all too clearly.  But both were observers, onlookers – and they had, of course, met.  Powell did not know of Blunt’s treason when he made Widmerpool a communist spy, but he did know Burgess and Maclean and disliked them both.

[9] Loosely based on Lord Beaverbrook.

[10] See now David Edgerton The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (Allen Lane, 2018).

[11] Quoted by Spurling p. 318 from Powell’s sad reflection on Dorothy Varda’s suicide.


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