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Anthony Powell's Memoir

When I was young, Anthony Powell (rhymes with 'Noel,' not 'towel') appeared to be a somewhat less funny, more ambitious Evelyn Waugh. The earlier volumes of his twelve-volume roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, appearing in paper, I went through them briskly and noted, for example, the similarity of those doomed aristocrats, Sebastian Flyte and Charles Stringham. But I stopped short of the three novels (Nos. 7-9) that constitute a war trilogy within the longer work, because, in the immortal words of Roger DeBris, the war was "too depressing!" It wasn't until the University of Chicago edition of Dance appeared in the 90s that I gave Powell another go. By then, I'd been through Proust twice, but the principal new resource that I brought to Powell's novel was simply age. Unlike Waugh's earlier novels, which make an immediate appeal to bright young things at any time, Powell's require a few more annual rings. Interestingly, Powell personally seemed to retain the outlook of early middle age throughout a very long life. 

To Keep the Ball Rolling (Chicago, 2001) is an abridgment of Powell's four-volume memoir, originally published between 1976 and 1982. As such, it preserves the best anecdotes from the originals, even if these were second-hand - such as, for example, the very good story of Ernest Hemingway's challenging Lord Christopher Thynne, by all appearances a 98-pound weakling, to race a few lengths in Cyril Connolly's pool - unaware that Lord Christopher was a champion swimmer.

Hemingway's defeat was so unexpected, so overwhelming, that the writer confined himself to his bedroom for the next twenty-four hours.

Autobiographical material is sparse; rather than invoke the emotions caused by life's ups and downs, Powell prefers to share the wisdom that he has drawn from them. A striking example of Powell's reticence is his account of marrying Lady Violet Pakenham (aunt  of Mrs Harold Pinter - Lady Antonia Fraser). Powell has absolutely nothing to say about his feelings for Lady Violet. The fact that he married her very shortly after meeting her, and remained married to her for more than fifty years (sixty five by the time he died, at 94), speaks, he appears to think. for itself. He writes a great deal more about the writers that he knew in a long literary life, from Henry Green (whom he met at prep school, before Eton), to Alison Lurie (first encountered in Ithaca, New York). He even writes about writing, although in the form of experience, not advice. About writerly advice, Powell is characteristically droll:

I once discussed newspaper interviewers with [critic Richard] Price, remarking on the sameness of their questions whatever the writer was being interviewed, particularly the invariable enquiries about routine: 'Do you write with a pen or a typewriter, do you sit down at 9 o'clock every morning, etc?' Price replied, 'All people have a fantasy they could write a novel if only they knew the trick. They think that cunning interrogation might take a novelist off guard - cause revelation of the secret - a particular sort of pen, brand of typewriter, format of paper. Once that is accidentally divulged, the interviewer, all shrewd readers of the article, will themselves be able to become novelists.' On this matter of interviews a military parallel strikes me. In the army it is not uncommon for a soldier to keep certain items of kit purely for the eye of the inspecting officer. Small odds and ends that are a trouble to clean or to assemble are stowed away for daily use, an unsullied example presented. That is rather like what writers usually hand out at interviews.

Powell knew whereof he spoke, both as former military man and as writer. The son of a career Army officer, Powell was determined to serve in the Second World War even though he was rather too old, at 34, to start out in the ordinary course. Readers of A Dance to the Music of Time will already be familiar with the three stages of his war, the first, with the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland, followed by a training course as Oxford, and, finally, an intriguing post with Military Intelligence (Liaison), a unit overseeing and coordinating the  military attachés in exile of countries occupied by the Nazis. Although he does not seem to have stood in the line of fire, Powell leaves little doubt that he would have handled himself well in combat. Of his experience in the Territorials, he writes,

The requirements of a Company Commander are simple in the sense that they demand almost every good quality a man can possess: energy; initiative; conscientiousness about detail; capacity to delegate authority; instinct for retaining the liking and confidence of subordinates, while at the same time making them work hard, and never develop the least doubt about who is in command; all these combined with a sound grasp of handling weapons, and practical application of the theory of small scale tactics.

About his brief and inglorious posting to the War Cabinet, drafting updates and memoranda for a hierarchy of joint-staff councils, atop which presided the Prime Minister (whom Powell does not, rather curiously, name, whether out of understatement in the face of so well-known a fact or of tacit disapproval for the ebullient Churchill it is impossible to say), Powell is modest but acerbic.

I was confronted with a set of circumstances which have cropped up more than once in my life ..., that is to say someone going out of their way to involve me in undertakings of their own, then, that accomplished, showing an extraordinary unwillingness to concede a minimum of initiatory instruction in what was required; indeed almost displaying satisfaction in consequent shortcomings.

Wisdom, however, prevails as usual, for Powell immediately adds,

As remarked earlier, perhaps no job is done well unless done instinctively.

So much then, for the 'simplicity' of a Company Commander's job.

Powell was certainly an instinctive writer. Twelve years separate the publication of his last youthful novel, What's Become of Waring (1939) and the opening volume of Dance, A Question of Upbringing (1951), and in this time his style deepened and darkened, taking on the syntactic complexity that, along with the sheer length of Dance, justifies the comparisons of Powell and Proust. Seasoned by a somewhat ironic preference for double negatives, Powell's prose must be read carefully, word for word; skimming is bound produce contrary conclusions. But as with Proust and Henry James, Powell's distinctive cadences will quickly become familiar to the attentive reader. Writing of Malcolm Muggeridge's transformation, from an editorial whiz into a television personality, Powell indulges in the hilarious conceit of imagining Muggeridge as a mock trinity, worth quoting at length.  

In the beginning (such my own experience of the demiurge) was the sceptical wit mocking all, and the wit was with Muggeridge and the wit was Muggeridge. This First Muggeridge - never wholly exorcised by undergoing long terms of banishment from the Celestial City of the personality - would sometimes support, sometimes obstruct, what then seemed his sole fellow, Second Muggeridge. Second Muggeridge, serious, ambitious, domestic (in fits and starts when not led away by First Muggeridge's insatiable leaning towards licence), with a strain of Lawrentian mysticism (albeit D. H. Lawrence himself always coming in for Muggeridgian obloquy), had a spell-weaving strain and violent political or moral animosities (animosity rather than allegiance being essential expression of Second Muggeridge's teachings), both forms of vituperation in the main aimed at winning a preponderant influence in public affairs. Third Muggeridge - doubtless always present in the spirit even when in the past invisible (as best faultily transmitted) to the eye of sinful man - was effectively made flesh during the later Punch period; a time when Second Muggeridge had initially seemed to be gaining in stature at the expense of First Muggeridge. 
In due course, more than ever after Punch had been left behind, Third Muggeridge became manifest at full strength, hot-gospelling, near-messianic, promulgating an ineluctable choice between Salvation and Perdition. He who was not with Third Muggeridge was against him, including First and Second Muggeridge. In this conflict without quarter First Muggeridge, who treated life as a jest - now so to speak a thief crucified between two Christs - came off worst (anyway for the moment, alternative avatars always possible), ending as a mere shadow of his former self. The inner tensions of this trio of Muggeridgian personalities coursed like electricity through the Punch office during the last days of the Muggeridge reign at Bouverie Street. Indeed latterly I could sense an immediate buzzing in my own nerves on crossing the threshold of the Editor's door, so galvanic were they.

The reader new to Powell will inevitably register his Latinate, somewhat telegraphic avoidance of the word 'being' in the clauses 'such my own experience...' and 'alternative avatars always possible.'

Anthony Powell was a gentleman by birth who did not fail to recognize gentlemen from lesser backgrounds, but his career illustrates the extent to which, for most of the last century, well-born men ran even those parts of British life most welcoming to merit. Many readers will find it very easy to dismiss Powell as an amusing snob, with his gilt-edged education and his marriage into the family of the Earls of Longford, his regency villa, The Chantry, in Wiltshire, his rather effortless assumption of officer rank in middle age, and his ability to live nicely through periods of low income. This would be a mistake. Certainly Dance to the Music of Time stands for the proposition that the world at the top is small enough for the same faces to recur in the various phases of one's life - a compactness not unknown in the United States but unfamiliar to most Americans. But while Powell never seems to be anything but a product of the English gentry, his curiosity about people seems to have known few bounds. Snobs are only interested, as a rule, in their superiors, but Powell pays no more attention to his than he does to any other group - rather less, if anything. (The Queen comes in for a brief two-liner that burnishes her reputation for good sense.) If Powell has a failing, it is that his almost unreflective adoption of his father's military stoicism and its attendant reticence. The reader is far more likely to complain that Powell does not share enough of his own life, rather than to charge him with jiggling his glittering prizes in the reader's face. 

Powell is both friendly and perceptive about Americans, whom he got to know earlier than most English people might, thanks to all the sons of transatlantic marriages peopling the Eton and Oxford of his day. A trip to Hollywood in the mid-30s, the literary highlight of which was a long lunch with F. Scott Fitzgerald, failed to open any career opportunities, just as well for Powell. After the war, he made several trips to this country, mostly to New England, where, among other things, his son John attended Cornell. The Cornell connection arose from his friendship with Fitzgerald's biographer, Arthur Mizener, who once replied to one of Powell's letters with the following comment: "I quite see the logic of what you say, but cannot agree, because if I agreed I should cease to be an American."

These words much impressed me, confirming as they did what I had long suspected, that the concept of 'being an American' inseparably combined a sense of nationality with a kind of metaphysical creed. This is something of which a European visitor to the U S is often subtly aware, and should always bear in mind. 

Would that more Americans bore it in mind. 

I wondered how Powell would bring his memoir to a close. My hopes for something more than an elegiac fade-out were rewarded with a surprising disquisition on Shakespeare. Picking up an interviewer's inquiry posed earlier, in connection with Japanese festivities honoring Shakespeare's quadricentennial, Powell 'stands' his reader, as a metaphorical round of drinks at last call, to the 'literary prejudice' aroused by the question, 'What do you think of Shakespeare?' - 'bearing in mind that, even if one manages to remain the right side of sanity, Shakespeare provides possibly the easiest subject upon earth about which to become a bore.' Powell is anything but a bore, and the party is all too soon at an end. I should like to think that I'll get round to reading the unabridged version of Powell's memoir, but it's more likely that I'll use that time to reread Dance and the other novels. 

(Click here for an interesting Web site devoted to Anthony Powell. (August 2003)

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