Anthony Powell was the most European of 20th-century British novelists. We need to dispense with the blinkered view that his A Dance to the Music of Time is a novel sequence that can be enjoyed only by English "toffs" or readers of the Daily Telegraph. It's a prejudice that has dogged Powell for far too long.
What is on offer in the 12 novels that constitute the Dance (published between 1951 and 1975) is not the nuances of class snobbery, but a reflection of the social history of five crucial decades of the last century, beginning with the end of the first world war and ending with the turbulence of the 60s. There is nothing quite like it in English letters. Some years ago I encountered one of our leading literary critics at a party and the following conversation took place:
"What do you think of the Dance?"
"Oh, you've read it?"
"Yes, I have."
"Well, I didn't like it. You obviously did?"
"I did. Why didn't you?"
A closed world it is not. The sequence contains the most entertaining accounts of bohemian life in London from 1920-58, decades during which Powell not only mingled with that world, but also often enjoyed it more than coming-out parties in Belgravia. One of his jottings in A Writer's Notebook (published posthumously in 2001) is apposite: "You can't be a creative artist if you are in any restrictive sense an intellectual snob."
Unlike most of his peers, Powell was steeped in continental European culture. His knowledge of that culture - not just his admiration for Proust, which is well known, also for Stendhal, Balzac and Musil - affected his work in numerous ways.
His fondness for Stendhal shows us that, despite his own conservative views, Powell could appreciate the work of a writer whose worldview was far removed from his own. The work of Stendhal that Powell liked the most was The Life of Henry Brulard, a thinly disguised autobiography and a savage reflection on the "ultras" of French conservatism.
The supporters of the ancien regime and its successors have betrayed every single ideal. His favourite year, Stendhal informs the reader, is not 1789, the beginning of the revolution, but 1793, the year Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded.
The Dance is comparable to Proust and to Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities - literary projects that, while different in style, content and preoccupations (Proust and ambivalent sexuality, Musil's Kakania), are analogous in terms of scale and ambition. The writers also emerged from parallel worlds. Musil, for example, fought in the first world war.
Powell was too young, having been born in 1905, but was still haunted by the memories of that war - he came from a military family and later participated in the second world war.
A passage in The Military Philosophers (1968), volume nine of the Dance, has the uniformed narrator passing through Normandy when suddenly:
"Just spell out the name of that place we stopped over last night, Major Jenkins," said Cobb.
As I uttered the last letter, scales fell from my eyes. Everything was transformed. It all came back, like the tea-soaked madeleine itself, in a torrent of memory. Cabourg - we had just driven out of Cabourg, out of Proust's Balbec. Only a few minutes before, I'd been standing on the esplanade along which, wearing her polo cap and accompanied by the little band of girls he had supposed the mistresses of professional bicyclists, Albertine had strolled into Marcel's life.
Through the high windows of the Grand Hotel's dining room, conveying to those without the sensation of staring into an aquarium, was to be seen Saint-Loup, at the same table Bloc, mendaciously claiming acquaintance with the Swanns.
Earlier there is an entertaining scene under the table during a bombing raid, where the narrator finds himself sheltering with General Liddiment, who asks, "What do you think of Trollope?" - to which the reply comes: "Not very much." A literary discussion ensues, throughout which he's holding a copy of Swann's Way (volume one of Proust's In Search of Lost Time) that he was reading before the bombs fell.
There is also a parallel in the development of the writing styles of Musil and Powell. The Austrian's early short stories are brisk and entertaining, but different from The Man Without Qualities. Powell's early novels are witty, and in his first fiction, Afternoon Men (1931), one can see the seeds of the Dance. (The dialogue between Atwater and Lola at a sordid, bohemian party is reminiscent of conversations with Gypsy in the masterwork, and the style has the kind of minimalism that was later made a craft by Beckett and Pinter.) The break comes not so much in subject matter, but in the writing style, which had become much more reflective.
No doubt Powell's immersion in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and the impact of working on a book on the 17th- century writer John Aubrey, had s omething to do with it. We await Hilary Spurling's biography to be further educated.
By the time he came to write the Dance, Powell's style had become almost antique, baroque - and that lifted the comedy to a much higher level than one finds in the early novels. He was lucky. He was a survivor. His European counterparts could not finish their work. Proust died at 51. Most of In Search of Lost Time was published posthumously, the author's proof-reading and rewrites incomplete. Musil's The Man Without Qualities remained an unfinished masterpiece.
Only too aware of all this, Powell was determined to finish his work. He understood the dangers of going on for too long. His own political sympathies had always been on the right, but many of his artist and writer chums (such as his close friend Orwell) tended to veer towards the left. By the time he concluded the Dance with Hearing Secret Harmonies, his world had changed. The book is dedicated to Robert Conquest. Charlotte Street in the late 60s was no longer a bohemian haunt. Bertorelli had become the regular meeting place of a virulently anti-left cold war group of writers who, like Conquest, supported the US in Indochina. This new context, in my view, adversely affected the tone and structure of the last novel.
When did I first Dance? It was 1980 or 81. I was travelling with Perry Anderson from London to Mexico (an 11-hour hop) to attend a conference. He was sitting next to me rereading Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, the fifth book in the series. At one point his laughter became so infectious that an American passenger came up and said:
"Hey, guy, what's that you're reading? It must be really funny."
My friend held up the book and said, "It certainly is", then carried on. My own reading matter was dull, which made me envious. Several months later, back in Britain, I bought the whole collection with Mark Boxer's wonderful covers and read the entire work.
One sometimes hears people saying how they started off with the first published volume, A Question of Upbringing, and stopped there, because they had no idea how the narrative could go on and become what it became. They didn't like the opening and never read the rest. I loved the first one, but it was useful to have them stacked up on the bedside table, so that the reading
could be systematic and continuous. That's how they should be read.
Coincidence plays an important part in the characters' many encounters. I can't remember how many times since I've read the book that I've run into someone not seen for years and muttered inwardly, "It's the Dance." Yet, structured as art, the coincidences build up into a greater patterning.
What, then, is the central theme of the series? Creativity - the act of production. Of literature, of books, of paintings, of music; that is what most of the central characters are engaged in for the whole of their lives. Moreland composes, Barnby paints, X Trapnel writes, Quiggin, Members and Maclintick criticise and the narrator publishes books and then becomes a writer. What excites the novelist is music and painting, literature and criticism. It's this creativity, together with the comedy of everyday life, that sustains the Dance
The sequence is also remarkable for its astonishing characterisations. To Charlus in the Proust epic, and Diotima and Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, must be added Widmerpool and Pamela Flitton from the Dance. The late Lord Longford often claimed that Widmerpool was based on him. And there's an entry in one of the journals where Powell is at a college reunion at Oxford and runs into Denis Healey. The former Labour deputy leader greets him like a long-lost friend, and inquires: "I've always wanted to ask you this: Did you base Widmerpool on Edward Heath?"
The genealogy of fictional characters can become an obsession, like train-spotting, and should be firmly resisted. Powell has written that no character in fiction is ever based on any single person; they are always composites. As we know from George Painter's excellent biography of Proust, a lot of the "vices" that the author ascribes to Charlus are actually based on himself; and the person from whom he borrowed most for Charlus, an aristocratic popinjay named Montesquieu, certainly understood what was going on: "Perhaps," he once remarked, "I should now change my name to Montproust."
Widmerpool is, in many ways, a more inspired creation than Charlus. After all, thrusting mediocrity rises to the surface in almost every sphere (the current Labour cabinet is an excellent example). This is another reason to regret the transformation of Widmerpool in the last volume, where he is taken out of his character, transformed into a sub-Dickensian grotesque and killed. A Writer's Notebook reveals that Powell had another ending in mind: Widmerpool disappearing into the mist from whence he had emerged, much more in keeping with the dance of life and death.
In his literature, his memoirs and the journals, Powell can be witty, waspish, patronising and even vicious, but he is not malicious. He writes about many people generously - too generously. So what can one say about the remarks that have been made about him, in the eight years since his death? VS Naipaul was regarded as a friend. The Powell journals are full of him. Too full. Naipaul's latest book, probably his worst, contains an essay on Powell, in which he claims that he had never read the Dance novels all those years that he was a close friend of Anthony and Violet Powell, visiting them regularly and often playing the court jester by mouthing remarks about race and class that were being discouraged in polite society. He writes that when he did read them after Powell's death (why on earth did he bother now?), he was struck by the fact that he didn't like them, that they were overrated, that there was no narrative worth speaking of, and so on. This was then illustrated by tittle-tattle picked up from X and Y who also disliked the novels and the man, despite claiming friendship. All this is a bit of a mystery. Or is it? In Books Do Furnish a Room (1971), the novelist X Trapnel, besotted with Lady Pamela and dominated by her, is slowly losing it:
In the street his incoherent, distracted state of mind was much more apparent. He was certainly in a bad way. All the talk about writing, its flow not greatly different from the termination of any evening in his company, was just a question of putting off the evil hour of having to face his own personal problems.
Or to put it another way, as the great 18th-century Chinese novelist Cao Xueqin wrote: "Truth becomes fiction, when the fiction's true / Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real."
Saturday January 26, 2008The Guardian
Tariq Ali gave the inaugural Anthony Powell Memorial Lecture at the Wallace Collection.