An Omnivorous Curiosity

Anthony Powell, the author of A Dance to the Music of Time, also wrote one of the great literary memoirs of the twentieth century

By Christopher Hitchens

To get one question out of the way before we begin:

At one of these public interrogations (I am not sure which college) a professor prefixed a question by saying—rather archly—that he was uncertain how to pronounce my name. As an inspiration of the moment I replied that like the Boston family of Lowell I rhymed it with Noël rather than towel.

Here Anthony Powell was describing an incident on his tour of New England in the early 1960s, and he gave some tincture of both period and place. In Boston,

The restaurant of our hotel ... was called The Hungry Pilgrim. Outside stood an examplar of esurient puritanism dressed in a black-and-white Cromwellian costume with hair in a pigtail, which was a shade anachronistic and had not yet become at all chic for men. From time to time, looking as if he had just landed from The Mayflower and was in urgent need of a square meal, this gaunt figure would ring a bell. In general, however, Boston, a city of considerable charm, suggests a date later than the 17th century ... Boston does not disappoint. Even on the briefest visit one can detect layer upon layer of the Bostonianism celebrated in such a long American literary tradition. When I was there in 1961 Little, Brown's, with much other entertaining, gave me luncheon at that haunt of ancient peace, shrine of Boston brahminism, the Somerset Club. The party included Edwin O'Connor, an American novelist I had already come across in England.
The Somerset Club is deservedly famous. I doubt if any club in London could equal—certainly none surpass—the inspissated and enveloping club atmosphere of The Somerset. Ancient armchairs and sofas underpropped one or two equally antiquated members, ossified into states of Emersonian catalepsy in which shadow and sunlight were not only the same, but had long freed them from shame or fame. It was comforting to see so splendid a haunt from the past surviving intact in a widely disintegrating world.

And it is cheering to think of Powell, the pre-eminent novelist of English traits, discoursing there so happily with the author of The Last Hurrah.

Some of the supposed difficulty or intractability of Anthony Powell is on show in these passages—a slight fussiness about etiquette and detail, and an almost affected pleasure in the antique or the nearly expired. Moreover, why say "esurient" when "hungry-looking" would do, or "inspissated" instead of "stifling"? Perhaps because "esurient" may also suggest "greedy" or even "voracious," and because "inspissated" denotes an atmosphere or an element that has been thickened or congealed by evaporation—the perfect term for clubland's residuum. In the context of commercialized puritanism in one case and brahminism in the other, we find an author who would rather be thought puritanical—or even stuffy—than use a lazy or obvious word. Look again, and you will see an observant prefiguration of the "theme" kitsch that we now all take for granted. Look one last time, and muse on the implications of "Emersonian catalepsy." Look up the whole excerpt, and you will find that O'Connor told Powell a very amusing story about Evelyn Waugh, which story Powell subsequently tracked to its principals before finding it to be quite untrue but well worth repeating.

This is all part of the task for which I happily volunteer: recommending the reading of Anthony Powell. I say "happily" because I have never induced anyone to try him and been subsequently cursed for my pains. Indeed, I have been thanked in almost broken tones. Yet those of us who till this vineyard, on either side of the broad Atlantic, occasionally adopt a pre-emptively defensive posture all the same. When Powell died, in March of last year, at the age of ninety-four, the New York Times Book Review devoted a "Bookend" column to the obsequy, written by Ferdinand Mount, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement and Powell's nephew by marriage. (A revision of his piece serves as the foreword to this edition of the memoirs.) Not even Mount, though writing at such a moment, felt that he could avoid a long, throat-clearing refutation of charges of snobbery, elitism, and suchlike. "As a matter of fact," he asserted of his uncle-in-law, "his fiction was extraordinarily democratic."

Oh, dear. I agree with this claim, but without feeling the slightest need to advance or defend it. (Can there be "undemocratic fiction"—the only discovery that would necessitate or imply its counterpoint?) Powell's fiction is "democratic" because it is realistic and humane and somewhat given to the absurd. If you like, it also shows an acute awareness of a stable and long-settled society in transition. It confronts sex and death and unfairness, and brushes against love, poverty, and war.

To Keep the Ball Rolling (which is an abridgment of Infants of the Spring, Messengers of Day, Faces in My Time, and The Strangers All Are Gone, originally published as four separate volumes) is democratic in that it shows a great and omnivorous curiosity about the lives and motives of others. And if one chooses to read these memoirs from the standpoint of the New—or, indeed, the old—Criticism, they may stand as a Bildungs-memoir or palimpsest of Powell's celebrated twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time. For example, as a small boy Powell was taken to watch the funeral of King Edward VII, in 1910 (an experience shared by many London children), and he knew enough about the need to please adults to claim that he had seen Caesar, the late King's dog, which had padded along behind the royal coffin and thus became, as Powell dryly recorded, "a great tear-jerker." From this distillation of childhood half memory he intuited the following:

I must, however, have glimpsed for a moment the officer of 2nd Life Guards commanding the escort riding a short way behind the gun-carriage. This was the 5th Earl of Longford, later killed at Gallipoli; father of my future wife. We possess a photograph which includes my father-in-law, as well as my father: Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Longford on his charger just behind Caesar's kilted attendant; Captain Powell among the group of regular army adjutants standing at attention with drawn swords.

Powell's novels appear to depend much on delicate threads of coincidence, and some readers have claimed to find the coincidences too dependent on the inbreeding of class. However, probably many English people could have discovered their future fathers-in-law in an early group shot, even if that shot was not taken at a royal interment. More indicative as a childhood memory is this one. The author reckoned that he was no more than six.

After the park and the street the interior of the building seemed very silent. A long beam of sunlight, in which small particles of dust swam about, all at once slanted through an upper window on the staircase, and struck the opaque glass panels of the door. On several occasions recently I had been conscious of approaching the brink of some discovery; an awareness that nearly became manifest, then suddenly withdrew. Now the truth came flooding in with the dust infested sunlight. The revelation of self-identity was inescapable. There was no doubt about it. I was me.
From Atlantic Unbound:

Crosscurrents: "Master of Reveries" (September 7, 2000)
Why Proust? And why now? By Sven Birkerts

This passage helps to introduce the oft attempted comparison between Powell and Proust. There is, first and most obviously, that ability to evoke childhood which is, alas, lost to so many of us but still, somehow, recognizable when well done. Then occurs a possibly related thought: Does this capacity, in its literary expression, bear any relation to the existence of a secure and well-ordered society—the sort of predictable structure and placement that a curious and intelligent child could begin to puzzle out for himself? And then a succeeding thought: May not a self-awareness acquired so early be invaluable in both noticing and delineating the character of others?

Powell showed great familiarity with the work of Proust while avoiding much direct reference to him. The allusions are mostly oblique, as in this very laconic reflection on the art of memoir.

One of the most peculiar aspects of autobiography is the way in which some authors are acceptable in their sexual and suchlike intimacies (Proust masturbating in the lavatory), others are without great interest in these rôles, at worst only embarrassing. At first sight, the simple answer seems to be that some write 'well', others less well; but in the field of self-revelation the altogether uninstructed can produce a masterpiece of apt expression; the seasoned writer, at times a cliché. I can find no literary explanation other than that only certain personalities are appropriate to dissection; others not.
From the archives:

"Evelyn Waugh: The Best and the Worst" (October 1954)
"There are few contemporary writers of the first rank whose imagination runs to such appalling and macabre inventions as Waugh's does; and there is none who carries audacity to such lengths in using the atrocious as the material of farce." By Charles J. Rolo

The words "others not" are quite superfluous to that sentence, and indeed to that passage; nonetheless, they form a coda that I would not be without. Like Proust, Powell was not exactly pithy (I can't offhand recall any "quotations" from Powell, as one can from his great contemporaries Wodehouse and Waugh), but I hope I have conveyed something of the worthwhileness of hearing him out. One learns to trust certain raconteurs, even if they appear at first to be long of wind.

And Powell could be terse when he chose. During the early Nazi bombardment of Britain he was in uniform and received the news that his frail wife, after at least one miscarriage, had given birth to a son: "I found that becoming a father had a profound effect upon the manner in which one looked at the world." That's all he wrote about that. The clear implication is that those who understand will understand already, and those who do not either never will or will find out in their own good time. No waste of words.

This tone or style is often described as "typically English," and though Powell was proudly and decidedly Welsh (and stressed the Welsh pronunciation of his family name), it is no more possible to picture him as, say, Russian than it is to imagine Proust's hailing from Barcelona. Just like Nicholas Jenkins, the first-person narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell was born into the British military caste, educated at Eton and Oxford, "launched" in the world of literary London in the 1920s and 1930s, and gravely inconvenienced but also much matured by wartime; he attained seniority and status just as the old and solid Britain and its empire were undergoing deliquescence. Every page of both fiction and memoir bears the impress of these facts in one form or another.

The Duke of Wellington is still tirelessly quoted as having said that the Battle of Waterloo was really won "on the playing-fields of Eton"—a tribute to the values of the rigid upper lip and all that. One of the minor delights of these memoirs is that Powell, who took a particular interest in the aristocracy, met a later Duke of Wellington while serving in the British army. Among this duke's "keenest convictions was that his ancestor had never uttered the opinion ... [and he offered] a standing remuneration of a hundred pounds to anyone who could prove its authenticity." Nor is this the only example of Powell's readiness to write against stereotype. In an early section on his first days at a boys' school he recorded, "Teaching was good, though not at all intensive. Mr Gibbs, an attractive personality, showed that it was perfectly possible for a headmaster to be also a nice man." I reeled back as I read this betrayal of the canonical tradition; no self-respecting Brit can write about his early education without at least some reference to sadism and misery, and to my knowledge no author has tried it since Byron set the standard. So one is relieved to find that at his very next school Powell was starved and browbeaten, and that by the time he was fourteen, he was able to make quite a brisk diagnosis of one of the masters, who "preferred goodlooking boys to plain ones, but not to excess, and one would suppose him a repressed bisexual." Powell continued, "A touch of kinkiness was added by a fervid preoccupation with ladies' shoes (a fancy said to presage masochism)." That's more like it.

In point of his own political outlook Powell achieved some comparable understated effects. He seems at first glance to have been an axiomatic and inflexible young Tory. He described a contemporary as "given to singing the Internationale, a tune for which tone-deafness presented no handicap." Visiting Spain in 1933, he recorded the impression that "administration was breaking down everywhere"—as if this were a law-and-order problem rather than the stirrings of a republic. He evinced no apparent interest either in the social questions or in those who were occupied with them; the radicals in his novels and in these pages are mainly clowns or hypocrites. Yet for several crucial years he was extremely close to George Orwell, whose flinty socialist principles—and persistence in trying to live up to them—might well have invited Powell's gentle ridicule but (perhaps because they were not bogus) instead won his respect. The pages recollecting his friend are of interest and some beauty.

Goodness knows what Orwell would have been like in the army. I have no doubt whatever that he would have been brave, but bravery in the army is, on the whole, an ultimate rather than immediate requirement, demanded only at the end of a long and tedious apprenticeship.

Here again, reading that deceptively dense sentence, one is reminded of what it is to be molded by a very highly evolved and somewhat stratified society. In such a system courage is neither a sufficient nor even in the strict sense a necessary condition for the high calling of arms; a force that depended on mere bravery would be merely a militant rabble—subject to mood swings, perhaps, and indubitably depriving its officer corps of opportunities for understatement. Such almost invisible writing about the most palpable of questions is a continual distinction of Powell's work and an unending reward for the reading of it.

Powell chose the hymns for Orwell's funeral, in 1950.

The Lesson was from Ecclesiastes, the grinders in the streets, the grasshopper a burden, the silver cord loosed, the wheel broken at the cistern. For some reason George Orwell's funeral service was one of the most harrowing I have ever attended.

As I say, Powell knew when and how to write sparely. He also had some sense of the gold standard as applied to people. The fact of his having helped out liturgically at the funeral of that determined atheist calls attention to what I think is the inescapable conclusion that Powell, too, had no use for religion per se. He didn't flaunt the fact, but the absence of religion as a subject—an absence also very large in his fiction—eventually obtrudes itself. Consider this statement of his cherished values.

It is better to remain calm; try to remember that all epochs have had to suffer assaults on commonsense and common decency, art and letters, honor and wit, courage and order, good manners and free speech, privacy and scholarship; even if sworn enemies of these abstractions (quite often wearing the disguise of their friends) seem unduly numerous in contemporary society.

Hard to imagine leaving "faith" out of that taxonomy unless on purpose.

Writing of a close and admired wartime friend, Alexander Dru (a relative by marriage of Evelyn Waugh's), Powell wondered (as one so often does about newly made friends) how it was that he had never met Dru before. Later on he supplied a clue by observing in passing that Dru was "a Roman Catholic of profound—though incessantly searching—belief, he was on the whole inclined to frequent Catholic circles (no doubt one of the reasons we never met)." Something more was being said here than that Powell was not himself a Catholic. As the memoirs scrolled out in four "movements"—childhood, youth, maturity, and late middle age, mirroring the subdivision of Dance into the four seasons—Powell began to strike the note of " holy." (A word search—not that he would countenance such a thing—would disclose an increasing reliance on the term.) This is interesting in two respects: Nicholas Jenkins is represented as working on a biography of Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, and Powell decided to face the problem head on in, so to speak, real life.

Even after reaching one's early sixties letters start to arrive from insurance firms and the like opening with the words: 'You will soon be sixty-five, etc., etc.', causing the recipient to reflect: 'Well, it's been kind to allow me to stay so long.' As the eighth decade gradually consumes itself, shadows lengthen, a masked and muffled figure loiters persistently at the back of every room as if waiting for a word at the most tactful moment; a presence more easily discernible than heretofore that exhales undoubted menace yet also extends persuasive charm of an enigmatic kind.
Death is the mother of beauty, hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment of our dreams
And our desires
Anyway that was what Wallace Stevens thought; others too. Again—as with loudly decrying the world and its ways—a tranquil approach is probably to be preferred, rather than accept too readily either Death's attractions or repulsions ... better that the dual countenances of the ubiquitous visitant should not cause too prolonged musings on either the potential relief or potential afflictions of departure. Better, certainly, not to bore other people with the subject.

Again, in this masterly harnessing of the stoic to the limpid, a brisk coda ensures against any languor or, indeed, longueur. Try reading it in combination with the arm-wavings of that other Welshman Dylan Thomas, all about rage and dying and light, and see which holds up best. And then, just as one thinks that must be the old boy's final word (the term "bore" is designedly the most annihilating in the English vernacular), there is this:

All the same the presence in the corner—whose mask and domino never quite manage to keep out of sight the ivory glint of skull and bones beneath—seems to imply, even if silently, something of that once familiar cadence, harsh authoritarian knell of the drinker's passing day ... 'Last orders, please—time, gentlemen, time', in this case the unspoken sanction: 'Last conclusions, please.'

Such a nicely subliminal evocation of The Waste Land gives a polite nod, in passing, to the faithful while helping to demonstrate that Powell himself declined their invitation.

The reflections of successful writers on other writers, and on the craft of writing, can be astonishingly banal. On the whole, Powell preferred to make very vague and general and lenient remarks about his fellow authors, especially if they were contemporary. But many readers, I suspect, would be surprised by his lack of enthusiasm for P. G. Wodehouse—a lack that, although not elaborated, is explained in part by this mild but firm judgment on Evelyn Waugh.

He really did believe in entities like a 'great nobleman', 'poor scholar', 'literary man of modest means'. Of course, in one sense, such stylized concepts may certainly exist, but at close range they usually require a good deal of modification ...
The 'high-life' of Decline and Fall is mostly depicted from imagination, hearsay, newspaper gossip-columns. Later, when Waugh himself had enjoyed a certain amount of first-hand experience of such circles, he was on the whole not much interested in their contradictions and paradoxes. He wished the beau monde to remain in the image he had formed, usually showing himself unwilling to listen, if facts were offered that seemed to militate against that image.

In Powell's understated terms, this ranks quite high on the scale of condemnation. (He was elsewhere at some pains to praise Waugh as a man, to sympathize with him in his troubles, and to defend him from some accusations of rudeness.) The position he was championing, it must be emphasized, was that of realism. Waugh may have fancied himself a Tory modernist, but Powell intuitively knew that the claim was somewhat phony. He was also implicitly defending himself as the chief claimant while indirectly rebuking the critics who lazily arraigned his work for Waugh's sins of snobbery.

In his youth Powell spent some time in the Baltic and in Finland, where his father was en poste as a military attaché. (The experience led to one of his early experimental novels, Venusberg.) I do not know whether this conditioned him to an interest in Russian writing, but in a paragraph so brief that one might almost miss it he did say roundly that for him the chief author was Dostoevski, whose "characters and situations have one of the qualities I prize highest in a novelist, the ability to be at once grotesque yet classical, funny and at the same time terrifying."

This struck me forcibly when I read it again, because these memoirs do consent, every now and then and with a certain resignation, to identify certain minor characters in Powell's Dance, the detection or unmasking of whom is a long-established parlor game in English literary circles. Yet Powell never ventured the least discussion of his most finished and fearsome cast member, the Dostoevskian Kenneth Widmerpool. There are multiple and variegated achievements in Dance, but this creation is Powell's certain ticket to literary immortality, an evil figure of fun whose crass, obtrusive, unstoppable visage we are all doomed to confront at some time or another. I apologize for quoting myself on Widmerpool, but the effort it cost me to summarize him when reviewing Dance is one I could not bear to attempt again.

The shortest way of capturing the essence of this grotesquely fascinating and repellent figure might be to say that he is a monster of arrogance and conceit, but entirely wanting in pride. Bullying to those below him, servile and fawning to those set in authority, entirely without wit or introspection, he is that type of tirelessly ambitious, sexless, and charmless mediocrity that poisons institutional life, family life, and political life. He is the perfected utilitarian and philistine.

You've met him, all right. He would be recognizable in any culture. But he has never been traced to any "model," and Powell disdained to play the game anyway in this instance—for the excellent reason that Widmerpool belongs with Falstaff and Raskolnikov and Uriah Heep, and not in the pages of Who's Who.

American readers inclined to regard Powell as too insular might be surprised, and not unpleasantly, by his selection of Hollywood and American encounters: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erich von Stroheim, and Paul Robeson.

"Fitzgerald," he wrote, "—that rare phenomenon, a 'bad' writer who made himself into a 'good' writer—had lost much of his former appeal simply because he had begun to produce immeasurably better novels than his early work." The two men lunched at the MGM commissary during Powell's rather disappointing stint in Hollywood in 1937. His description of the meeting contains one of the best encapsulations of character on short acquaintance that I know of. It is rounded off, from the memoir point of view, by Powell's being acute enough to notice, from later reading, that the date of the lunch (July 20, 1937) was the day on which Fitzgerald had his fateful dinner meeting with Sheilah Graham.

Powell met Stroheim more glancingly, some years later, at a festival of Stroheim's films in London. Stroheim was evidently in a "profoundly melancholy" mood, from which he was roused only by Powell's recollection of the group of military attachés on Monteblanco maneuvers in The Merry Widow. (During the war Powell had been a liaison officer with the exiled military staffs of Hitler's victim nations.) Stroheim kindled at this compliment to his sense of detail—or sense of realism—but lapsed back into melancholy, saying, "I no longer look like the Oberleutnant I once was."

As for Robeson, Powell met him during a KGB-supervised lunch for the hack Stalin-era novelist Mikhail Sholokhov. The following vignette gives one a sense of missed opportunity.

I mentioned to Paul Robeson that I had been fortunate enough to see his Othello which he had played in London a long time before. I would have liked to discuss with him the Black WPA Macbeth watched in Los Angeles [in 1937], but new introductions had begun to take place. In fact, Robeson's Othello had been interesting rather than impressive. He had seemed to tackle the role with a sense of grievance alien to Shakespeare's selfconfident Moor. The Black WPA players had been infinitely less tense.

Again the dry sting in the tail; it would have been something to witness the scheme of this conversation as played out in a Soviet embassy drawing room. (Powell passed on a tip from Gore Vidal about attending workers'-paradise writers' conferences in the old days: "I always sit next to a man in a turban. You get photographed more.")

As for the writerly life itself, Powell gave occasional guidance throughout, much of it rather conversational but none of it trite, and some of it, it seems to me, positively lapidary. There is more than meets the eye in this memory of adolescent reading.

One day in School Library I came across a magazine (I suppose The Criterion) which contained a long account of James Joyce's Ulysses. I was very interested by what was said, but this interest seemed quite separate in itself; causing, so to speak, no conversion or repentance as to middlebrow reading matter. Such forms of intellectual double-harness are perhaps characteristic of literary self-education.

When this boy was a bit older, he applied the same pragmatism to the design of an extraordinarily ambitious literary project.

I had been turning over in my mind the possibility of writing a novel composed of a fairly large number of volumes, just how many could not be decided at the outset. A long sequence seemed to offer all sorts of advantages, among them release from the re-engagement every year or so of the same actors and extras hanging about for employment at the stagedoor of one's creative fantasy. Instead of sacking the lot at the end of a brief run—with the moral certainty that at least one or two of the more tenacious will be back again seeking a job, if not this year or next, then in a decade's time—the production itself might be extended, the actors made to work longer and harder for much the same creative remuneration spread over an extended period; instead of being butchered at regular intervals to make a publisher's holiday.
There were many objections to setting out on such a hazardous road, chiefly the possibility of collapse, imaginatively speaking; simply dying (something bound to happen sooner or later) before completing the book.

These memoirs open with a very young man who began to frequent an antiquarian bookshop run by an indigent admirer of Oscar Wilde's. They conclude in Margaret Thatcher's Britain (the closing volume was published in 1982, when the author was indeed alive to see the vindication of his project), in a long meditation on the authenticity and the sexual character of William Shakespeare. The raw material of life interested Powell, as it had to; its slow refinement into the finished product of culture and society and language absorbed him far more. The suggestion in that last excerpt, of all the world's being a stage, contains a very bold insinuation: a parallel between this diffident and subtle novelist and that inspired, panoptic but ultra-practical Elizabethan actor-manager, who was always ready to write a new scene at need, or to raise an appreciative laugh from the cheaper seats, but who was able to capture both pity and terror in a delicate verbal noose. The implication strikes me as less profane than it might once have done. Powell (even by his choice of a Bardic title for the closing volume) wisely left it latent; but as I say, he did have a sense of the gold standard.

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