Hilary Spurling’s new biography, “Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time” (Knopf), is a fond portrayal of the man sometimes called “the English Proust.” The comparison is both flattering and misleading. You couldn’t be more English than Powell, who kept Burke’s Landed Gentry at his bedside, but his Proustian credentials mostly consist in writing an immensely long, multivolume novel with the word “time” in the title. Called “A Dance to the Music of Time,” after a Poussin painting of the same name, it came out in twelve book-length installments between 1951 and 1975. At one point, Powell’s book actually intersects with Proust’s: toward the end of the Second World War, its narrator, a writer named Nicholas Jenkins, realizes with a start that he’s been staying in the same town where young Marcel used to spend the summer. But the connection pretty much ends there. Nick, like Marcel, is closely modelled on his author, but he’s the least Proustian and introspective of narrators, revealing next to nothing about himself. He’s more interested in observing the behavior of others—mostly bad, he discovers, especially when sex or power or money is involved. His book is much less interior than “In Search of Lost Time,” but also much funnier—at times more Wodehouse than Proust.
Loosely organized into four three-volume “movements,” “Music of Time” covers an immense span, from before the First World War to the early nineteen-seventies, and includes hundreds and hundreds of characters, largely from the English upper middle class, who come and go just as people do in life. Someone with a walk-on part in one volume may turn out to be a major figure in a later one, or the other way around, and people’s fortunes are always changing. Some of the most captivating figures in the early installments become pathetic and needy later on, while apparent losers—especially a character named Kenneth Widmerpool, one of the greatest creeps in all of literature—keep landing on their feet. Evelyn Waugh said that the effect was like watching an aquarium: “One after another various specimens swim towards us; we see them clearly, then with a barely perceptible flick of fin or a tail they are off into the murk.”
Powell’s intention was to record an epoch and a society that was disappearing even as he wrote about it, and, as the volumes began piling up, many readers, like Waugh, considered them a masterwork, capturing the tone and texture of life as they knew it. But, from the beginning, there were also dissenters, even among people close to Powell. Reviewing the seventh volume, in 1964, Malcolm Muggeridge, Powell’s then best friend, said that in time the books might wind up “a heap of dust.” Not long after Powell’s death, V. S. Naipaul, another good friend, pronounced the entire enterprise pretty much worthless. Powell himself divided his readership into “fans” and “shits,” and the split persists, though these days there aren’t quite so many of either. His novel has become an odd sort of cult work, its reputation kept alive not just by readers who have loved it—among them Christopher Hitchens, Stephen King, and Clive James, who called “Music of Time” the best modern novel since “Ulysses”—but by those who love to hate it and consider the whole thing a museum of staleness.
Spurling, who was a close friend of Powell’s, is one of the true believers. She’s also a superb biographer—best known, probably, for her magisterial two-volume life of Matisse—and the new book is everything readers have come to expect of her. It’s thorough, judicious (except for her annoying insistence on calling Powell “Tony”), and gracefully written, and it renders obsolete an earlier, chattier biography by Michael Barber. Spurling takes the greatness of “Music of Time” pretty much as a given and doesn’t spend a lot of time on literary appreciation. She is at some pains, though, to dispel the widespread notion that the books can’t be much good because their author was a toff—a snob, a name-dropper, a mossbacked Tory. He had become one, it’s true, by the end of his long life. (Powell died at ninety-four, in 2000.) But his earlier years—the period that provided the raw material for his big project—were more interesting and more complicated. Describing Powell’s rackety life back then, Spurling also deflects another frequent criticism of “Music of Time”: that the world it depicts, where almost nobody has a real job, is rarefied and inbred to an implausible degree. She suggests that England between the wars, in its cultural and artistic life, anyway, really was a small world, where everyone knew (and slept with) everyone else. Powell was writing about the circle he lived in, where high society and bohemia overlapped, and he caught it at a moment of tremendous upheaval. Almost none of the characters in “Music of Time” are well off. A lot of them are genteel but shabby, as Powell himself was for decades.
Powell (who pronounced his name like “pole,” not like “trowel”) had a miserable, Victorian childhood. His father, Philip, was an army officer fantastically ill suited for the job. He was sour, depressive, stingy, a grudge-holder, given to rages in which he practically foamed at the mouth. Powell’s mother, the former Maud Wells-Dymoke, was fifteen years Philip’s senior. She followed him to a posting in South Africa when Philip was just nineteen, and they secretly married two years later, in 1904. Maud hated regimental life and became morbidly shy, cutting herself off even from friends. After Powell was born, in 1905, the family moved from post to post, living in hotels and rented lodgings. As Spurling says, Powell’s boyhood world was “sadly underpopulated,” and he “grew up in extreme, inward-looking, almost monastic seclusion.”
At ten and a half, he was sent away to school at the New Beacon, an institution that rivalled Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall in its grimness. The food was so bad that the students sneaked into a nearby farmer’s field and ate raw turnips. The headmaster flogged them for imaginary offenses, and tied their legs together so that they couldn’t flee when he hurled cricket balls at them. Powell said of his time there, “I should be unwilling to live five minutes of it again.” He was happier at Eton, which he entered in the summer of 1919. For one thing, he had the good fortune to be assigned to a housemaster, Arthur Goodhart, who was a lax disciplinarian and who thought that music was more important than sports. (That wasn’t his only eccentricity: Goodhart was obsessed with women’s footwear and hoarded shoe catalogues.) Also, for some reason, in the years after the First World War, Eton harbored an unusual number of boys who were, like Powell, bookish and sensitive, and they formed something like an arts community. Among his contemporaries there were Eric Blair, later to become George Orwell and a devoted, if unlikely, friend of Powell’s; Henry Yorke, who became known as the novelist Henry Green; the aesthetes Brian Howard and Harold Acton; the critics Alan Pryce-Jones and Cyril Connolly; and the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis. In 1965, Powell told The New Yorker that everyone at his school was writing novels back then—it was “an ordinary thing to do.”
Henry Green actually published a schoolboy novel. (“Blindness,” his precocious first book, begun at Eton, came out in 1926.) He and Powell had become friends at the New Beacon, and they remained close when they both went to Oxford, sharing literary enthusiasms and even rooming together for a while. Neither of them liked the place much. Powell came to the conclusion that at university the only thing that mattered was money. Green, the son of a wealthy industrialist, had plenty, but was bored even so, and before dropping out he spent most of his time playing billiards and going to the movies. Powell, by his own account listless and depressed, fumbled his way to a third-class degree and found himself with few prospects. He had no connections, no inheritance, no strings to pull. He was also shy, repressed, and a little odd-looking—short, with a big, squarish head. (Philip Larkin, another supposed friend, called him “a horse-faced dwarf.”) Powell’s father finally found him a job at Gerald Duckworth & Co., a publishing house whose owner, Gerald Duckworth, was Virginia Woolf’s half brother, the one who molested her. Why Duckworth went into publishing is a mystery. He hated everything about books, especially the people who wrote them.
Powell stayed at Duckworth’s, as an all-purpose dogsbody, for ten mostly unhappy years. He made a few literary friends, notably Evelyn Waugh and the Sitwells, but he later said the real value of the job was that reading so many bad submissions every week taught him how not to write. Though his salary (subsidized by his father) was next to nothing, Powell tried for a while to fit in with the débutante set, but he quickly found himself more at home in London’s artsy circles, where he got to know a lot of painters and musicians. His closest friend for a long time was the composer Constant Lambert, who introduced him to the dance world and to people like Frederick Ashton and Margot Fonteyn, one of Lambert’s many girlfriends. A sexual late bloomer, Powell made up for lost time by embarking on a series of affairs, mostly with older women, starting with Nina Hamnett, an artist and artist’s model who was famously generous with her company. (Men seemed to like sex, she once told a friend, so she just let them “get on with it.”) Powell claimed that he preferred girls “who looked as if they’d slept under a bush for a week.” But he remained socially ambitious. It was said of him later that what he wanted most in life was a wife with a title and a house with a circular drive. He acquired the first in 1934, when, after only three weeks’ acquaintance, he became engaged to Violet Pakenham, the flirty, horsey, party-going daughter of an earl. Before marrying her, he had to break up with two other women, including a friend of Violet’s with whom he shared a farewell quickie in the back of a Dublin shop.
“So, Diane tells me you work in the realm of the explainable.”
Before the Second World War, while still working at Duckworth’s, Powell published five novels, amusing but mostly unmemorable. The best is probably the first, “Afternoon Men,” an odd but original amalgam of Waugh, Green, and—unlikely though it sounds—Hemingway. (It contains lines like “They ate. The food was good.”) During the war, Powell was too depressed to write. He spent six years in the army, mostly behind a desk, and didn’t begin “Music of Time” until 1948, when he had begun to wonder whether he would ever write fiction again. He supported himself by reviewing books, sometimes four or five a week. But once he got going on the series, which at one point he imagined might even run to fifteen volumes, he ransacked his whole life for it: Eton, Oxford, parents, publishers, painters and musicians, deb parties, country-house weekends, love affairs, marriage, and, in marvellous detail, service in the war. Though often compared unfavorably with Waugh’s great “Sword of Honour” trilogy, Powell’s three wartime volumes are among his best, showing us not just the random destructiveness of the Blitz but also a side of military life we seldom hear about, one of bureaucracy and paper-pushing, backstabbing and angling for preferment—like working for a corporation, only more boring and with bosses who are more inept.
Spurling isn’t obsessive about pointing out all the parallels between fiction and reality, but her book quickly makes it apparent that, in one way or another, almost everything that takes place in the novel actually happened to Powell. She even slips in a scoop of sorts: that, during the war, Violet had an affair with a man unnamed here but said by a friend to have been “the love of her life,” and that Powell’s pain, when he found out, accounts for Nick Jenkins’s chief vulnerability—his fits of sexual jealousy. Almost all the characters in “Music of Time” are based on people Powell knew. Some are composites; others, like Hugh Moreland, a stand-in for Constant Lambert, are barely disguised. Pamela Flitton, a heartless beauty who drives men crazy with desire, is so clearly modelled on Barbara Skelton (or Helter-Skelter, as she was sometimes known)—a moody and temperamental wife of both Cyril Connolly and George Weidenfeld, as well as the girlfriend of Egypt’s King Farouk, among many others—that Skelton immediately recognized herself, and jokingly threatened to sue. The great exception is Widmerpool, the most fascinating specimen in the aquarium, who is mostly invented and all by himself makes “Music of Time” worth reading.
When we first see Widmerpool, at school, he’s large, awkward, and bespectacled, a figure of fun. But he keeps turning up in Jenkins’s life, somehow becoming more successful and more full of himself at every turn, first as a businessman, then as a soldier, then as a Member of Parliament and a peer of the realm. He’s pompous, humorless, ruthless, a toady and a bully both, unreasonably convinced of his own brilliance—one of those insufferable people who thrive in life because they don’t know or care what others think of them. Spurling says that Widmerpool was probably inspired in part by Denis Capel-Dunn, an army officer under whom Powell briefly served before getting sacked. But Capel-Dunn was mostly just dull and officious. Powell transforms him into a monster of ambition and obliviousness, and for good measure throws in a hint of sexual kinkiness. Widmerpool could almost be Donald Trump, except that he suddenly veers left politically (and, it’s rumored, helps engineer the escape to Russia of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean). You cringe whenever he turns up on the page and then immediately long for him to appear again.
Powell’s other great invention is the novel’s prose style. The writing in his prewar novels is crisp, ironic, and bright almost to the point of brittleness. But the sentences in “Music of Time” are often long and labyrinthine, heavily qualified and with dangling modifiers all over the place. Here’s an extreme example, from a scene in which a woman at a dance dumps sugar on Widmerpool:
Barbara now tipped the castor so that it was poised vertically over Widmerpool’s head, holding it there like the sword of Damocles above the tyrant. However, unlike the merely minatory quiescence of that normally inactive weapon, the massive silver apex of the castor dropped from its base, as if severed by the slash of some invisible machinery, and crashed heavily to the floor: the sugar pouring out on to Widmerpool’s head in a dense and overwhelming cascade. . . . Widmerpool’s rather sparse hair had been liberally greased with a dressing—the sweetish smell of which I remembered as somewhat disagreeable when applied in France—this lubricant retaining the grains of sugar, which, as they adhered thickly to his skull, gave him the impression of having turned white with shock at a single stroke; which, judging by what could be seen of his expression, he might very well in reality have done underneath the glittering incrustations that enveloped his head and shoulders.
Neither Spurling nor anyone else has really accounted for the stylistic change. It may owe something to Powell’s lengthy immersion in seventeenth-century prose during the war years, when, unable to write fiction, he worked instead on a book about the biographer and antiquarian John Aubrey. And it may even derive a little from the classical authors Powell studied at school. The sentences sometimes read like Latin: you have to untangle all those clauses to figure out what goes with what. Writing like this, dense and layered, is the opposite of traditional English terseness and understatement. It barges ahead as if heedless of all the rules. But in its density and its slowness it adds a kind of sombre, almost Proustian counterpoint to what might otherwise be just a fleeting procession of events.
In 1952, though he was still supporting himself mostly as a book reviewer, a job no better paid then than now, Powell got the second of his wishes—the circular drive—when he bought the Chantry, a run-down country house in Somerset. The place was a fixer-upper, and Powell did much of the work himself. Violet said of their early days there that she sometimes wanted an image of the house to be engraved on her tombstone, because she “felt its inconvenience would be the direct cause of my death.” In 1959, Powell’s father, with whom he did not get along and whom he supposed to be practically bankrupt, died, leaving him a surprisingly large inheritance. The windfall made him confident of finishing “Music of Time,” which he was then almost halfway through, but it also enabled the gradual transformation of Powell from a do-it-yourselfer and Grub Street freelancer into a country squire. He went to London less, and entertained more at home, seeing mostly congenial people—fans, not shits. (Kingsley Amis said that a weekend he and his wife spent at the Chantry was the most fun he had ever had while clothed.) Powell grew a little out of touch, which probably explains why in the novel’s last three volumes his notion of young people is that they mostly run naked through the woods.
After “Music of Time,” Powell never wrote in that dense, layered style again, and Spurling essentially ends her book in 1975, with the publication of the last volume and the author at the height of his fame. The final twenty-five years of Powell’s life get only a fourteen-page postscript, which is perhaps a kindness. Powell completed two more novels after “Music of Time,” both pretty flimsy, and then, unwilling or unable to stop writing, published four volumes of autobiography, a collection of book reviews, and—his biggest mistake—three volumes of journals. The last, more than anything, helped to undermine his reputation. He emerges in the journals as almost a caricature of old-fartness: vain (devoting page after page to listing all the people who wrote him notes of congratulation after he became a Companion of Honour, in 1988); cranky; right-wing; nitpicky about other writers, including his betters (Woolf, Conrad, Lawrence, even Shakespeare and Dickens!); obsessed with genealogy, his own, especially; forever prattling about wine and recounting his many visits to the dentist.
Spurling says that he was also genial (at least to people he liked), curious, a wonderful listener, and a tireless, heroic reader, and there’s no reason to doubt her. Lots of people treasured Powell, who had become a sort of institution. Even so, it’s likely that, as often happens when we get older, he fossilized into someone his younger self would scarcely have recognized. He was probably entitled to at least some of the crankiness. As he aged, his health declined, and, reading between the lines of the journals, you feel that he had begun to internalize one of the recurring chords in “Music of Time”—a lingering sense that almost all experience is a little disappointing. It’s what his alter ego Jenkins, on that visit to Proust’s summer place, describes as “the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent.” It can never “rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.” ♦
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