Friday, 21 December 2012
Anthony Powell, who has died aged 94, is inevitably regarded as the English Proust, on the strength of the massive novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time - 12 volumes and a million words - that became his central life's work. The Proust impact was more dominant and more obvious than that of other great European novelists and assorted influences from Petronius to modern Americans. Yet he will stand as essentially a comic writer in the English tradition - comic in the least uproarious way imaginable, reflective and often melancholic, the strong social spine to his work being the one distinctively uncommon feature in a branch of writing remarkable more for eccentricity than togetherness.
In fact, Powell has a measure of both. He goes in for no deep psychological dredging, yet his novels rest on a firmer base of instinct and belief than is usual among the English comedians. He is fascinated by the play of time and chance on character, and it is by no means time and chance that always win. His narrating hero and anchorman, Nicholas Jenkins, is constantly being mildly surprised by the way things and people turn out.
The unpredictability of life, as Powell himself described, is built into his structure as an essential part of it. Coincidences, so irritating to some readers, often happen in life, so why should they be forbidden to fiction? They are not excluded from Powell's novels, nor are all manner of trivia other writers might scorn or mishandle. It was his belief that with the right cook in charge anything could go into the cauldron. A novelist never lacks material - only the capacity and energy to handle it.
Silver spoons, in the Powell kitchen, were never in short supply. The world he deals with, upper middle-class life from the 1920s onward, is his own world. The son and grandson of distinguished soldiers, he spent part of his childhood with his mother in rented accommodation in the home counties following his father, a lieutenant-colonel in the Welch regiment. He was at Eton, where he was a contemporary of Orwell and a founding member of the Eton Society of Arts, and then at Balliol College. After Oxford, he got a job with Duckworth, a small London publishing house, but left after nine years to write scripts for Warner Brothers, even paying a six-month visit to Hollywood.
His first novel, Afternoon Men, appeared in 1931 and there were several others by way of prelude, followed by a long silence through the war - he joined his father's regiment before being transferred to the Intelligence Corps - and for some years after it. Then, in 1951, came the start of The Music of Time sequence, the title deriving from Nicolas Poussin's allegorical painting. The books emerged at roughly two-yearly intervals.
The sequence, stretching across a quarter of a century from A Question of Upbringing (1951) to Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975), is more than a successful fictional marathon. It achieves a coherence, a central vitality which runs sluggishly at times but is never extinguished. His vast army of characters, clubmen all, pursue their power games through peace and war, marriage or divorce, in sickness and in health. War - as memorably described in the ninth volume, The Military Philosophers - is for Powell-people an extension of ordinary life; the flow is diverted but not stemmed, and rank is merely a crude token of what always existed in this elegantly competitive world. Some characters may only be glimpsed before disappearing from view, perhaps springing up like blades of grass in another volume years later. But nothing is lost or without its effect on the total pattern, while the allegorical master of the dance - as in the Poussin picture - smiles a shade malignly.
Other characters are as perennial as the unreliable Dicky Umfraville, often in hot - or at least very warm - water, first noted leaving school under a cloud (not actually expelled, it was insisted) and last seen masquerading as an octogenar ian drug-addict. Or the ever-indulgent Lady Molly, whose house in South Kensington, more than the Ritz, is really open to all.
With Powell's known writing method and this roving cast of hundreds there was naturally much speculation about who were the originals, in whole or more usually in part, of the characters appearing in the Dance. Sometimes the guess-who game was easy, as with the well-known Fitzrovian writer and reviewer Julian Maclaren-Ross who became the character X Trapnel. He appears as a novelist who holds forth at length about the art of the novel to the narrator Jenkins, also a novelist. He insists, and Jenkins doesn't contradict, that naturalism is only natural in the right hands and that reading novels takes almost as much talent as writing them. It can hardly be carrying presumption too far to assume that some of these ideas, as from novelist to novelist, are shared by the club's founding member, Powell himself.