Culture Watch

Ask at the house

The twelfth vo1ume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, appearing this month, brings to a close one of the most ambitious and consistently entertaining undertakings in late twentieth-century English fiction. The book, set in the sixties, is called HEARING SECRET HARMONIES (Little, Brown, $7.95), and extends to a half-century the period chronicled in the work as a whole. My curiosity about how the chronicler would treat the most recent past began, rather improbably, ten or a dozen years ago, at a college fraternity house, in the company of Powell himself. The occasion was an evening meeting of an undergraduate seminar on Keats, Tennyson, and others, led by the then college president. On campus to answer questions about one of his books (assigned reading in a largish literature class), Powell was invited to drop by the seminar, and I went along as guide.
The seminar leader, a good president (left his faculty completely alone), was slightly disheveled as an English professor, and the “kids,” for their part, spaced out over the rug and up the walls, were into Romantic Poetry mainly as a possible secret trove of Zen. Amid a haze of like/y’know and other random sound, the group arrived at an imprecise appreciation of Keats and Tennyson for having known all along, no Dr. Suzuki to help, that up and down are one. The visiting novelist, registering the participational ethos goodhumoredly from a club chair, exercised his right of silence.
“Our Zennyson night” was the way he subsequently referred to the evening in conversation and a postcard, and the phrase was an act of kindness (some people would have been on about the decline of culture the instant they were out the door). Other remarks, however, made clear that the author hadn’t missed the scene’s essentials—grown-ups on the prowl for “new roles,” students abhorring the complex and hailing the obscure, leaders turning followers, children turning sages . . . The question came. Assuming that Nick and Isobel Jenkins, assorted Duports, Quiggins, Jeavonses, and other Powellian dancers survived into the sixties (at the time of the writer’s visit his tale was just edging past World War II), how would these people behave? Would America somehow figure in the equation? Did the author have a firm fix on our period?
Very firm, to judge from Hearing Secret Harmonies. The book is rich in authentic period furnishings—happenings, stink bombs, dopeheads. English trippers at American universities, campus uprisings, with-it academic administrators, even a dropout mage named Scorpio Murtlock, all Manson-menace and medallions. It locates a symbol for the age (Lord Widmerpool—“call me Ken”—who else? While serving as a kids-loving red-brick vice chancellor, Widmerpool transforms his official residence into a commune). And in the end it offers firm judgments.
I’m an admirer of Anthony Powell’s judgments, which places me, among Powelldolaters, a shade far out. His less eccentric fans usually hail him for wit and characters, beings whose names chime on from book to book—Stringham, Gwatkin, Chips Lovell, Mrs. Erdleigh, Uncle Giles, many another— so that past high amusements never seem gone for good. (Hearing Secret Harmonies provides, in addition to the chimes, several cameo turns by old charmers on their way out, the most winning of whom is Sunny Farebrother: “a downy old bird” nearly eighty, Sunny is seen in a subway train smiling to himself, returning from Jimmy Stripling’s cremation at Kensal Green.)
Also much esteemed by fans is this author’s way with social history—which is, I admit, utterly painless. A thousand changes are unobtrusively noticed— naughty words entering respectability; family places dwindling into girls’ schools and African embassies; Georgian seascapes and Hellenic figures knocked down for nothing a generation ago, in seedy galleries, lifting off, in the sixties, toward pricey-chic. (Some of the most knowing talk of pictures and painters to be found in Mod. Eng. Fic. is distributed through the four movements of this series.) What is more, whenever the novelist decides he wants to be obtrusive about a development in manners, he invariably sweetens the data with jokes. Shaped clothes, for instance, enter the chronicle as follows:
[Chandler] looked down critically at what he was wearing.
‘This little number? It’s from the Boutique of the Impenitent Bachelor—Vests & Transvests, we regular customers call the firm. The colour’s named Pale Galilean. To tell the truth I can hardly sit down in these trousers.’
‘Our brother-in-law, Dicky Umfraville, always refers to his tailor as Armpits & Crotch.’
But, as I say, the delight of A Dance runs deepest for me in the author’s stream of judgment—or in what might be called his standards. (These include approval of people who know more than they speak, who improve the hour by saying amusing things, who are selfas opposed to school-cultivated, who do not believe that they are necessarily morally superb, who relish informality and the end of pomp but haven’t allowed either to obliterate respect for fairness, law, property, or the past.) In applying these standards he arrives, Peoplewise, at estimates of others’ worth that seem incontrovertibly right— and rightest and best is the final estimate of Lord Ken. Temporary Kings, the penultimate volume, made evident that Widmerpool was infecting those around him with a new virulence—an appetite for wild confrontation, humiliation, smashup. In Hearing Secret Harmonies, the man whirs like a band saw, tearing the world to shreds:
I take pride in ridiculing what is—or rather was—absurdly called honour, respectability, law, order, obedience, custom, rule, hierarchy, precept, regulation, all that is insidiously imposed by the morally, ideologically, and spiritually naked, and politically bankrupt, on those they have oppressed and do oppress. I am grateful . . . [for the] opportunity to express . . . the wrongness of the way we live, the wrongness of marriage, the wrongness of money, the wrongness of education, the wrongness of government, the wrongness of the manner we treat kids like these.
Widmerpool’s madness is rooted in a delusion of moral superiority, which is to say, in humbug that was a sixties’ staple—witness any mass meeting of the period, in any college chapel, wherein it was determined that our country’s foreign policy should be changed. The author’s clarity about this is assured; and the punishment he decrees is swift, fierce, and—right.
The back-yard acres of The Chantry near Frome, Anthony Powell’s Somerset house, are a splendid tramping ground— wetland, stream, bulrushes, overgrown paths. One midsummer noon while I was visiting, the owner, clad in boots and walking stick and light mac, leading a band of improbables including a former Red Army officer named Tibor as well as myself, fetched up on trespassers—four or five bejeaned figures in their twenties, lads and lasses picnicbent, crashing through the bush, falling down, shouting Shit. The owner’s position was quickly conveyed in a tone severe yet not castigatory, bespeaking awareness that asking permission had gone out, that hanging a man for breaking a branch had no merit, that it was a healthy thing for neighborhood youngsters to be aware of charming local picnic sites and to use them . . . Nevertheless, the trespassers must understand that in future they would have to ask permission at the house, was that understood? And if it were inconvenient to have them then, perhaps another time. Nevertheless—the message underlined—nevertheless, you will need always to ask at the house: this is understood? The picnickers, impressed (I thought) by someone standing up for his rights without shrillness, embarrassment. or threat, hauled ass, and a minute later, parting a hedgerow with his stick, our host brought us out onto lawn.
Could those teen-aged Suzukians back at the sixties frat have been headed off thus—by humorous selfrespect, steadiness of focus, unequivocality? Ask at the house—the Palace of Art, dummy—for permission to redecorate Keats as Zen; leave quietly if refused?
Doubted. But still . . .
The philosophical generalization in A Dance to the Music of Time is of about middling range—God, the gap, and the problem of evil go undiscussed—and the social knowledge has sharp class limits. But a wonderfully alert, poised, and loving imagination appears throughout, clarity unsmutched by meanness, and I know of nobody now writing fiction in English with a surer eye for the personal defect that’s fated to become a public problem. How very many fireside-pipe nights these dozen volumes have brightened!

Red polls, black caps, juncos, & the monsters

Out the window on my upper deck, at the suet sack in the birches, midwinter drama unfolds. The jays, vrai socking machines, are drilling for heat. Scattered in the adjacent branches, red polls and others wait respectfully, black caps dee-deeing. Each jay takes a turn, socking like a demented jackhammer— force enough, it feels, to kill a man— turning its whole being into beak, slamming, shaking, slamming in again. Widmerpoolian fury. No sadist, I think often about breaking out the scissors, opening some new rents—but won’t the jays simply rush in and bury themselves, emptying the sack by noon? Bam! Bam!
On the snow below, out the other window, the juncos arrive, fine fellows. Heedless as ever of the vulgar jay spectacle upstairs, they’re all patience, elegant and unassuming. Style is the junco number, style meaning simple beauty and absence of presumption. They don’t hurry. They cock their heads at sunglitter in a pair of skis stuck where they shouldn’t be in the snow by somebody— myself—worried, hearing the phone ring, about not getting inside in time. Juncos don’t worry, don’t hurry. They know they’re loved, that there’ll be heat and food enough always for their kind— and so there will be for them, as I’ve resolved times beyond numbering. Straightforward birds; creatures to trust.

Tennyson, Anyone?

You are an intelligent young TV producer for a midwestern ETV station, fond of poetry, eager to widen its audience, convinced that your medium can be helpful toward that end, determined to prove the point. What to do? A Nebraska Educational Television producer came up, this season, with a series called Anyone for Tennyson? featuring The First Poetry Quartet (the star is Claire Bloom), reading works by Masefield, Tennyson, Dickinson, and others. TV critics, decently sympathetic with the noncommercial, puffed the programs as breakthroughs. In truth —I say this with no pleasure—the programs are awful, yet another affliction visited upon the box in the name of high culture.
One problem is excessive literalness about backgrounds. (Audio deals up a poem about the sea or sailors: video must then show boats and waves.) Another problem is how to “frame” recitation. In the Emily Dickinson program, three of the Quartet—playing the parts of the poet’s sisters and the Reverend Higginson— sit at tea, saying the loved one’s poems to each other. (“And then she wrote . . .”) Recitation I. At intervals we segue to the poet, quite alive upstairs in her room, being struck with “Because I could not stop for Death.” or whatever, while gazing out her window. Recitation II. The poet darts downstairs into the parlor to lay a new creation on the folks. Recitation III. The pretense throughout is that talking poetry comes naturally in western Mass., but the strongest suggestion is that Amherst, perhaps a boring spot at all hours, must have been absolutely hopeless late afternoons.
Alternatives? An hour about Dorothy Wordsworth, William Wordsworth, and Coleridge reading to each other, stealing from each other’s journals, criticizing each other. A sequence of Hardy poems, performed as comments on a stylized silent film dramatization of a common event—a love affair, for example. Frost’s duologues quickly, subtly performed. On the teaching side, new animation techniques for translating verbal weight and rhythm into wittily instructive visual images. Numberless possibilities, in other words, and Nebraska is plenty clever enough to explore them. (It was this same station that struck off, at practically no cost, the logo for which NBC paid $600,000.) The only rule that needs observing is that it’s better to give your heart to a poem, to the job of finding the perfect setting for a single piece, than to try to serve the art in general; poetry is particular.

Unified man

The light and color in Fairfield Porter’s best pictures are sumptuous, and in person he was a splendidly youthful, fresh-skinned man (in his sixties, at the very end, he was regularly taken for half his age), and concerning his generosity I can testify firsthand—in a word, nothing about this artist suggested a pinched or wary character. But the first thing to be said of him is that he was the least wasteful human being I’ve known. At the superficial level Fairfield’s conservationism was a matter of ecological preoccupations; activist protests at nuclear plant installations; the habit of using his two feet, never the car, when grocery shopping; lack of interest in clothes, household effects, boughten posh; irritation at persons like myself who sometimes teased him as a Tory, claiming that his anti-growth dogmas were undemocratic in effect.
At another level was his feeling for a family past, a desire to keep his father, long gone, with him over the full length of his journey. The elder Porter, a Chicago architect who made a fortune young, lived for a time amid the suburban opulence of the day. (Fairfield once told me with a grin that he’d been unimpressed as a boy, on his first trip abroad with his Dad, by the Europe of palaces, great houses, Old Masters, and the rest. “I thought they were just imitating Chicago, my father’s friends’ places.”) At length Papa Porter bought an island on the Maine coast (his son Eliot, the photographer, made the dot famous in a picture book), built a house, and spent years creating, with local craftsmen, a system of “natural walks” weaving out to the coast, then back up into the pines, along edges of meadow and garden, deep into the woods to a tennis court, suddenly opening onto a striking view of Mt. Desert. Three or four months a year Fairfield lived with his wife, Ann, and their several children in his father’s island house (the family wintered in Southampton. Long Island)—lived in it, swam half a mile a day with his dog from point to dock, and painted pictures of the interior, porches, and views almost obsessively. Throwing up his hands he explained: “He’s here in the room—my father. I like it. When I’m painting he’s very close by.”
Finally there was a feeling about light—too beautiful a stuff to take for granted. The sense communicated by the best Porter pictures is that only a spendthrift eye would fail to value all the turnings and enfoldments. givings and holdings back, of light itself. Collect light, that was the imperativeburnish it, puzzle over it, preserve it.
Out of touch for a stretch, I called the Long Island house late last summer and found the family hadn’t left for Maine. Fairfield had been finishing several large pictures, he said. (One that I’ve since seen is a remarkable cityscape, Manhattan, looking north across Union Square up Park Avenue South, a monumental act of purification . . . saving the city for art.) We had coffee one morning in his Southampton barn studio which had just been completely stripped, everything off to the gallery, decks cleared. Fairfield seemed unusually cheerful, had the air of a man who had just done the happiest duty. He spoke again about not getting off to Maine. “I wanted to finish the large ones so we stayed and I finished. I feel very pleased, actually.” No time at all afterward I read in the paper that, walking his dog on a fall morning, he’d had a seizure, fatal within the hour.

Ground floor

For the permanent amateur, wedded to measureless insecurity, any confirmation is glory, but some confirmations are more glorious than others. My touchstone moment in this line occurred two or three years ago as I was reading a notice of one of Fairfield Porter’s New York shows. Singled out for special regard by the Times’s perspicacious James Mellow was a picture on loan called Windows—ours. There had been a dozen lovely canvases in Fairfield’s studio that afternoon, four or five within one’s means (assuming a deftness with debt), when it dawned that yes, that one, that is the perfect one, that’s it unquestionably, that’s the one we’d like. Reading the newspaper praise I felt exhilarated—and absurdly grateful. (What grander fantasy identity than that of Discriminating Collector?) It was unimaginable, just then, that my possessive glance in the direction of Windows, en route to the drinks cabinet, would ever touch the edge of sadness.