Anthony Powell

In his 12-volume masterpiece, "A Dance to the Music of Time," he manipulated hundreds of characters through seven decades, creating a social history of the 20th century.


John Perry
April 15, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

"Only a novel can imply certain truths. Biography and autobiography are forced to attempt exact definition. In doing so truth goes astray." -- Anthony Powell, "Hearing Secret Harmonies" (Vol. 12 of "A Dance to the Music of Time")

When the English novelist and critic Anthony Powell died March 28, at 94, the literary world lost one of its greatest figures.

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A reserved man with a dislike of bad manners and personal publicity, but a keen interest in gossip, he continued working almost until the end, publishing three acerbic volumes of journals covering 1982-1992, the last of which appeared in 1997.

He produced plays, literary criticism, biography and 50 years' worth of book reviews for the Daily Telegraph, but will be best remembered for a sequence of 12 novels written between 1950 and 1975, the roman-fleuve "A Dance to the Music of Time."

Powell was the last surviving member of that prolific, gifted generation of English writers who came out of Oxford in the mid-1920s. Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Henry Green, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Howard Acton, George Orwell and Powell himself were all born between 1903 and 1906, and all attended the university, with the exception of Orwell, who was a schoolboy at Eton with Powell, Acton and Connolly.

Members of an exceptionally witty and amusing group whose friendships and rivalries provided material for their books, they were undoubtedly among the brighter cliques of their century -- though not necessarily eternally relevant. And they certainly weren't the only game in town. It is Powell's ability to create a universal fiction out of the dynamics, interactions and interrelations of his own relatively narrow upper-class set that accounts for the breadth of the books' appeal.

Given that Powell's life is so entwined with that of the "Dance's" narrator, Nick Jenkins, and his view that fiction evokes a higher truth than biography, the truest picture can be drawn by selecting a few favorite episodes from the work and allowing them to speak.

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Though the books aren't strictly autobiographical, Jenkins' career runs exceedingly close to Powell's own. Both are soldier's sons, Eton and Oxford men who find lowly employment in the publishing world. In the '30s, both publish minor novels and briefly find lucrative but uncongenial work scriptwriting "quota-quickies" (for every foot of U.S. film shown, a proportionate amount of British film had to appear: The Hollywood studios worked around this by churning out locally made second features). Both men marry into large, titled English families, enlist in their father's regiments when WWII is declared, rise to the rank of major and move to the Intelligence Corps, where they perform liaison work with exiled Free French, Polish, Czech and Belgian military attachis.

Powell's art lies in the deftness with which he turns raw experience into fiction, a process elucidated in the final volume by his character X. Trapnel, a down-at-heel novelist (based on the underrated, underread, amphetamine-gobbling late 1940s Fitzrovian, Julian Maclaren-Ross).

People think that because a novel's invented, it isn't true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel's invented, it's true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they can't include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist lays it down. His decision is binding.

This is a key to Powell's work. His rare sense of balance and delicacy of touch allow him to manipulate a cast of 500 through seven decades, creating a web of shifting relationships impossible in any "factual" literary form -- and a 20th century social history, more rigorous, multilayered and infinitely more entertaining than any academic publication.

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Recurring patterns are a central device. Like the dance depicted in Nicholas Poussin's allegorical painting, which inspired and lent its name to the novels, the sequence is circular in structure, its four trilogies corresponding loosely to the seasons (or four aspects of the human condition -- pleasure, riches, poverty, work -- take your pick). Subtle variations on repeating patterns lie at the core of Powell's elegantly simple method. The progress (or degeneration) of English life and manners is viewed through the eyes of a single character, Nick Jenkins, an observer who rarely usurps the foreground but whose career allows him to witness the great events of the century and the backwaters of haut-Bohemia.

Powell deplored the habit (popular among British and American readers) of identifying "real-life" models for his characters, regarding it as a gross simplification of the novelist's art. He always denied that the "Dance" was a roman ` clef, yet his denials could be amusingly ambivalent when a palpable hit was scored -- especially if the I.D. followed one of the faint trails he occasionally left, like crossword clues, in his memoirs.

The composer Hugh Moreland is plainly modeled on Powell's close friend Constant Lambert (commissioned by Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev to write for the Ballet Russes at the age of 20, and father of the Who's late manager, Kit Lambert). The Anglo/Frenchman Alick Dru (a cousin of Waugh's and another prodigy, who taught himself Danish in order to translate Kierkegaard's Journals) provided the basis for the philosophical, existentialist, military-intelligence liaison officer, David Pennistone. Powell notes that Dru would have enjoyed Delmore Schwartz's dictum "Existentialism means no one can take a bath for you."

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The hunt for models takes its strangest turn with the series' central character, Kenneth Widmerpool. One of the great grotesques of English literature, there seems no shortage of people eager to propose themselves as the "true Ken."

Widmerpool is the bore who won't quit. He opens the novel sequence, running in the mist, practicing for teams for which he is never selected. And at the very end, at his death, some 70 years later, he's again running in the mist, still aiming beyond his reach. His last recorded words -- "I'm leading, I'm leading now" -- are both bathetic and tragic.

When he first looms out of the mists of school, he's the boy whose many peculiarities find expression in an overcoat of legendary oddness. His name is already synonymous with monstrous items of clothing -- "I'm afraid I'm wearing rather Widmerpool socks today" or "I've bought a wonderfully Widmerpool tie."

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In typically elliptical Powellian fashion, nobody can quite remember exactly what was wrong with the legendary overcoat. Widmerpool is neither bullied nor ragged, but he's defined and placed, his character and role established through a series of reported reactions to a half-remembered item of clothing.

So many disagreeable qualities converge in the person of Kenneth Widmerpool, lesser hands would have made him a buffoon. But Powell never dismisses him. Pompous, self-obsessed, delighted in his own progress, by turns obsequious and groveling, Powell clearly shows his virtues, his ambition and toughness -- admired by his colleagues even when they hate him. Highly successful in the war, grotesque, sexually complex, serially cuckolded, but never insignificant.

Unlike most of his generation, Powell was excellent on women. Public school-educated English authors are famously incompetent at creating credible female characters, but Powell was an exception. The "Dance" contains a score of memorable women, most notably the archetypally disruptive and almost mystically oversexed Pamela Flitton (later, almost inevitably, Lady Pamela Widmerpool). A celebrated beauty, indifferent to money or property, whose sole treasured material possession is her sketch by Modigliani, Pamela is as irresistible to the reader as she is to most of the men and many of the women she encounters.

Powell's material is so well organized that the 6-year-old "monster" bridesmaid who disrupts a wedding reappears volumes later as the wartime femme fatale. Wife (of sorts) to Kenneth Widmerpool, lover (and destroyer) of X. Trapnel and many others, Pamela eventually makes her exit, gratifying the necrophiliac urges of an American academic, professor Russell Gwinnet. Taking to her bed awaiting him, she times a suicidal overdose of morphia precisely so as to satisfy his taste. Or to allow herself one last triumphal seduction, even in death.

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Nick Jenkins' affair with Jean Templer is less torrid but exquisitely handled. A recent TV adaptation of the "Dance" understandably made much of a scene in which Jean opens her apartment door naked, but the novels trace the growth of love with far greater refinement. Jean is first glimpsed as a girl of 19, attractive but intimidatingly adult to the 19-year-old undergraduate Jenkins, who "decides" he is in love. Of this stage Powell writes:

Being in love is a complicated matter; although anyone prepared to pretend that love is a simple, straightforward business is always in a strong position for making conquests. In general, things are apt to turn out unsatisfactorily for at least one of the parties concerned ... persistent enthusiasts have usually brought their own meaning of the word to something far different from what it conveys to most people in early life.

Jean drifts out of Nick's range, though never out of the picture, for nearly 10 years, until a chance meeting at the Ritz reintroduces her, married to a bore from whom she's recently separated.

The chance meeting develops into an impromptu weekend at her brother's house, where the relationship finally ignites. The description of the first kiss, in a car gliding along the Great West Road under cold, glittering stars, the mundane buildings transformed by a heavy snowfall, is beautiful -- a moment one might wish on any of one's friends. "Although not simultaneous in taking effect ... the process of love is rarely unilateral. When the moment comes, a secret attachment is often returned with interest."

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The lovers derive equal pleasure from a meal, talking in a cafe or playing Russian billiards: The lineaments of gratified desire are evoked more keenly for the lack of any literal description of sex. Jenkins' ruminations on the nature of attraction take place outside of linear time: The relationship is patently authentic and the pacing satisfyingly, like that of a real affair.

Later, after they split up, Nick discovers that even as they were lovers she was starting an affair with Jimmy Stripling, a crude motor-racing enthusiast for whom Nick had nothing but contempt. He realizes that despite the closest imaginable relationship with Jean, he never fully knew her.

Fifteen years later he meets her again, now the wife of a personable South American dictator ("looks like Valentino on an off day," remarks her ex-husband) who, in a typical Powellian touch, we have seen in passing, many books earlier, as a young man dining at the Ritz amid a large family group. Jean is now a sleek, thoroughly modern grande dame, barely recognizable and almost as frightening in her friendly remoteness as she had seemed to the young Nick the first time they met.

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How could this chic South American lady have shared with me embraces passionate and polymorphous? Had she really used those words, those very unexpected expressions, she was accustomed to cry out aloud at the moment of achievement? Once I had thought life unthinkable without her. How could that have been, when she was now only just short of a perfect stranger?

As with Widmerpool, the characters are complex, their relationships circular and ultimately unfathomable.

Powell also excelled at depicting conflict within organizations, be they army, civil service or publishing. No serious war historian should overlook the 1944 scene in "The Military Philosophers" where Jenkins conducts a party around Field Marshall Montgomery's Tactical HQ on the Dutch/German border. The thumbnail sketch of "Monty" is priceless. In fact Powell is good on all ranks above and including general, a skittish class of men who, he feels, are best handled with the sort of care usually lavished on elderly ladies.

A secure position in the post-war world of letters allowed Powell scope for multiple in-jokes. Volumes 10 and 12 -- "Books Do Furnish a Room" and "Hearing Secret Harmonies" -- are littered with splendid fictional titles. Professor Gwinnet, finest flower of American academe, as prolix as he is gifted, is working on "The Gothic Symbolism of Mortality in the Texture of Jacobean Stagecraft" until he chucks higher education to become a water-skiing instructor.

A compilation of Soviet realist poetry, "The Pistons of Our Locomotives Sing the Songs of Our Workers," is considered likely to sell more copies retitled "Engine Melody" -- though the [Communist] Party will subsidize its publication, as with Vernon Gainsborough's searching work, "Bronstein: Marxist or Mystagogue?"

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Widmerpool knocks out snappily titled magazine pieces like "Assumptions of Autarchy v. Dynamics of Adjustment," while Hugh Moreland considers the merits of leaving music and launching a literary career with "A Hundred Disagreeable Sexual Experiences" by the author of "Seated One Day at an Organ."

Paintings figure large throughout the sequence. Characters are often likened to faces familiar from paintings in the National Portrait Gallery (of which Powell was a trustee), though humor is seldom far away. Barnby's portrait of the model Conchita is compared by Hugh Moreland to the traditional pavement artist's representation of a loaf of bread, captioned "Easy to Draw, but Hard to Get."

Art provides useful analogies when comparing the lives and work of Powell and Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was fascinated by the interface of the "modern" and "savage" worlds; Powell's specialty was the overlap and interplay between the worlds of power and the arts. Powell's work is comedy, albeit comedy of an exceptionally dry type. Waugh's concise prose, supreme technical expertise and cold eye produced the more savage satire, but his characters tend to be one-dimensional; the bad are all bad while the good are faultless. Waugh is a caricaturist, while Powell's style is more that of a painter building up layers of glazes.

By the age of 45, Waugh had lost all sympathy with the world. In "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold" he noted his own "strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and Jazz -- everything, in fact, that had happened in his own lifetime."

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By contrast, Powell at 70 could master the idioms of a traveling hippie caravan, circa 1971, without once being wrong-footed. In "Hearing Secret Harmonies," he catches the attitudes, rhythms of speech and conventions of cool of an exclusive and deliberately provocative clique 50 years his junior, with the same laconic accuracy and insight he applied to his Etonian coevals of 1920.

One of Powell's most quotable maxims holds that nothing dates individuals more precisely than the standards against which they choose to rebel. In "Harmonies," the charismatic cult leader, Scorpio Murtlock, claims to be a reincarnation of a figure from a distant epoch of the "Dance," the magical practitioner Dr. Trelawney. Post-war children who lived the vagabond life in the early 1970s will be reminded of the hypnotic, revolving-eyed acid charlatans who frequently claimed direct descent from Aleister Crowley, as they led the weak and gullible into the wilderness of fifth-rate occultism and sexual personality cults.

By purest chance -- the sort of coincidence that drives Powell's work -- I knew a relatively benign acid cult that occupied a farmhouse commune, during the years in which the final volume was being written. Last summer, visiting the place to see what had become of it, I discovered the farmhouse lay just two-and-a-half miles from the Chantry -- Powell's Somerset home since 1952.

Powell doesn't just get the dropouts right, he even manages to describe their various methods of reintegration, as one by one they abandon ego loss and drop back into more lucrative occupations. But one character keeps clumsily moving forward. Ken, now Lord Widmerpool, abjures the realm of the Great and the Good to obey the Will of "Scorp" Murtlock and embrace the cult of "Harmony."

Widmerpool represents Powell's approach: the symmetry of the dance to the music of time, the complexity and completeness of character, only possible because of the massive canvas that Powell sets himself to cover. His admiration for Proust and the similarly huge "A la recherche du temps perdu" is clearly and poignantly expressed in the section where, during the war, he stays the night as accompanying officer to foreign military attachis on a tour of the D-Day beaches and wakes to the realization that he is in Cabourg -- Proust's Balbec -- now deserted in the wake of the battle. It's a passage of great emotion; Powell in his novel is telling a deep truth about himself.

But Powell was, indubitably, more fun than Proust, and at least as true to human nature. His books, indeed, do furnish a room and more than a room; they describe a whole period and its inhabitants with more truth and more detail than any "factual" account could ever do. When future generations wish to understand the texture of 20th century English life, their best source will be Powell, and "A Dance to the Music of Time."


John Perry

John Perry is an English musician and author. A founding member of the Only Ones, he has played with Robert Palmer, Robert Hunter, Evan Dando, The Sisters of Mercy, Marianne Faithfull, Michael Nyman and Johnny Thunders.

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