Temporary king - Anthony Powell

Rather more than halfway through Hilary Spurling’s biography of Anthony Powell, at the beginning of the cold winter of 1946–7, we find Powell and his wife Violet freezing in London, grateful for the ham sent to them as a gift by their friend the writer Malcolm Muggeridge – who has gone to America on a journalistic assignment – and spending a lot of their time with their other close writer-friend, George Orwell. All three men read one another’s work as it was being written, offering judgements and encouragement. For some time, the friendship was a sort of triumvirate.

Muggeridge, who during his days as a television pundit became far more famous – in Britain, anyway – than either of the other two, is now an extinct comet, all but unheard of. Orwell’s immortality in the history of literature seems assured, though at this stage, Powell was trying to allay his disappointment over the fact that Animal Farm had “made no great impression on the general public”, as Spurling puts it. What of Powell himself, who was about to embark on his twelve-volume sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time? Muggeridge, an enthusiast for the series when it began – indeed, the midwife who got the first volume published by Heinemann – turned against it. Hilary Spurling says – rightly, no doubt – that he was envious of his friend’s talent, Mugg’s own novels being conspicuously unsuccessful. In a review which Powell understandably found offensive, Muggeridge compared Powell’s reputation with that of Stendhal, a figure neglected by his contemporaries. “We, Mr Powell’s contemporaries, have proved less recalcitrant, and done him proud. Will posterity be correspondingly less amenable? See in his meticulous reconstruction of his life and times a heap of dust? Despite a strong personal partiality, honesty compels me to admit it might”. Powell was stung, but his response was nuanced. On the one hand he created out of the Muggeridge he had befriended the rather lovable figure of Books Bagshaw – drunk, womanizer and connoisseur of left-wing politics which he did not himself espouse; and on the other hand, in old age, he lacerated the ephemerally famous television personality “Saint”. Reading Muggeridge’s My Life in Pictures, Powell concluded:
There is nothing against publishing 138 representations of oneself (Malcolm pondering his own bust counting as two) in the interests of publicity, nor spending some hours of one’s own time in prayer and meditation. What is hard on the reader is all the sanctimonious stuff about Christianity . . . being exchanged by Malcolm for his former preoccupation with the world of Power, when a book of this self-promotional kind is purely an expression of one form of power.
The man who made that judgement was the vivid author of Powell’s Journals, an altogether more sharply defined figure than the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time, who was, as Powell told Violet, supposed to be “colourless”. But was Muggeridge right about the book, which – if random investigation among my friends is any guide – is now only read by a handful of cult followers? Has Dance survived? And what of its author?

One of the jokes underlying The Canterbury Tales is that, while each of the miscellaneous pilgrims, in all their distinctiveness, comes before us with unforgettable clarity, the narrator himself, who first encounters them in the Tabard Inn at Southwark, is everlastingly shadowy, and when he attempts to tell a tale of his own, the innkeeper, Harry Bailey, rejects his effort with the words “Thy drasty ryming is not worth a turd”. Something comparable is going on in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a roman-fleuve which could not be further from autobiography, if that word is taken to mean self-revelation. Widmerpool, the thrusting bore who blunderingly exercises power over so many of the other characters; Mr Deacon, the unfashionable artist who seems like a wounded throwback to the 1890s; Mrs Erdleigh, the mystic fortune teller so many of whose prophecies come true; Gwatkin the Welsh bank manager, who fantasizes about being a great military leader: all live in our heads as clearly as do the Wife of Bath or Chaucer’s Miller. We learn the bare minimum, however, about Nick Jenkins, Powell’s narrator, beyond the outward sequence of his life, which, to judge from the author’s subsequent memoir To Keep the Ball Rolling (1976), appears to have been all but identical to Powell’s own trajectory – Eton, a spell as a publisher interrupted by dull war service, and then a jobbing life, reviewing books and writing the fiction in which he is the least defined character. A biographer of Powell might be expected to winkle out the secret life of the man, to make “Nick Jenkins”/Anthony Powell less opaque to us.

Hilary Spurling, a long-time friend of Powell, was long ago anointed by the great man to be his biographer. Feeling shy at the prospect of asking him about his private life, she wriggled out of the assignment, then regretted it. Eventually, she took up the challenge again, and she has produced a richly enjoyable book, though it is not quite what some of us were expecting. You might say that it is a biography of A Dance to the Music of Time rather than of its author. Somewhat in the manner of George Painter’s Life of Proust, it convincingly identifies the majority of the models Powell used to create Dance, while acknowledging that processes of creative transformation were always at work. Once the great sequence has been finished, however, Spurling stops, conveying the last thirty years of Powell’s life in a mere fourteen pages. Many of the friends he made during this period – and Powell was a gregarious man – receive either a passing mention or none at all.

This approach could readily be defended, the most interesting thing about an author – or an author who is any good – being the work and not the life. On the other hand, it misses some of the flavour of the man, and one senses that, for example, John Aubrey, one of Powell’s role models and the subject of one of his few works of non-fiction (described by its publisher Graham Greene as “a bloody boring book” ), would have relished some of the episodes in the life of Powell in old age, residing at the Chantry, near Frome, Somerset, and identifying with Mr Justice Shallow in Henry IV Part II. “Perhaps my favourite character in Shakespeare”, Powell wrote in his journal in 1992. Like P. G.Wodehouse (a great Powell fan), Powell read Shakespeare all the time, hypnotized by “an extraordinary grasp of what other people were like”. Spurling reminds us that Powell himself had this grasp, but she does so largely by rehashing his own memoirs, which will leave Powell addicts with a sense of déjà lu. The result is a tapestry of Powell’s contemporaries, some famous, most not. We meet the girls who were to turn into Gypsy Jones, Jean Templer and Isabel Tolland in the novel. We discover that “Mr Deacon” is based on the bookseller Christopher Sclater Millard, a late embodiment of the decadent spirit of the 1890s, with whom the adolescent Powell formed a friendship, quickly scotched by his parents (Millard lived near the Powells in St John’s Wood). Oddly enough, though, Spurling does not at this point remind us that Millard inspired A. J. A. Symons’s “experiment in biography” The Quest for Corvo (1934), which was surely the most interesting thing about him. All the details she supplies come from Powell’s first volume of memoirs, in which he dwells on the Corvo connection.

Assembling the people on whom fictional characters are based is a little like laying before the diner the bare ingredients of a dish much enjoyed in the restaurant. Here are the onions and the raw pieces of liver, and so on – fine; but the diner had come to the restaurant either to enjoy them cooked, or to meet the cook. Furthermore, either because Spurling was a close friend of Powell in later life, or because he simply was a sphinx-like figure, he remains impenetrable here.

While relying heavily on the memoirs, she almost completely neglects the three volumes of journals he published in his old age. It is probably a heresy to say so, but, much as I enjoy A Dance to the Music of Time, I enjoy these Journals even more. In fact, I think them his masterpiece, and that by missing out the “Justice Shallow” side to Powell, which comes vividly to life in their pages, Spurling actually loses something of his essence as a writer. John Betjeman said of Dance, “He never seems to laugh. He leaves that to the reader”. In the Journals, we laugh together. If the author might on occasion go too far in his gossipy malice about his friends, that is often when we laugh the loudest. If Aubrey’s Brief Lives inspired Dance, in the Journals we have a late twentieth-century Brief Lives tout court.

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