I began reading Anthony Powell’s sumptuous 12-novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time in 2015 and have just closed the covers on its final volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies. Semi-autobiographical and covering Britain’s major social upheavals from the Great War to the swinging ‘60s, Powell’s Dance… rarely fails to entertain if (like me) you prefer to observe history through the minutiae of social interaction and the ebb and flow of artistic movements, rather than the watermarked bloodletting beloved of Tory educators. A significant bonus to fans of the former approach is the number of artists and writers Powell encountered during his long and interesting life, and how many of them he teased into fully formed characters in his novel series.
First things first: Powell’s narrative technique won’t be for everyone. His often long and clause-cluttered sentences are likely to grate with contemporary readers whose Twitter diet has encouraged them to be wary of intellectual vagaries and – god forbid – literary pretension. Powell was lucky enough to exist at a time before adverbs and double-negatives were banned; when readers had more time to dwell and puzzle by the fireside, and had the patience (or captive status) required to wait for a chain of thought to develop, graze against them, and then glide down to a soot-stained carpet to join other carefully crafted gems underfoot.
In other words, don’t expect to be bowled over, harangued or challenged to a dance-off if you choose to read these books. Powell doesn’t do punch lines. He’s not looking for a fight. He ends most of his reflections with a wry observation on the bittersweet nature of life, because in the end a little knowing mirth is the best we can hope for. How can I be so sure? Because almost from the start of Dance… it becomes chillingly apparent that – just like us – Powell’s darlings of the ‘20s and ‘30s think they are simply the most delicious and important things in the world, and all their art and lifestyle choices are dashingly original, whereas Powell knows they and their ideas are infinitely replaceable – as it is with this generation, and the last and the next. Which is not to say he doesn’t credit – and occasionally celebrate – the spontaneous humanity of the peers he was born with and the life he was born into.
Here’s an example of the type of sentence Powell uses to frame his gentle intimacies. His narrator, Nick Jenkins, is asked in A Buyer’s Market if he served in the 1914-18 war; service for which he was too young.
‘I thought that enquiry rather unnecessary, not by then aware that, as one grows older, the physical appearance of those younger than oneself offers only a vague indication of their precise age.’
Age is a preoccupation of Powell’s, as might be expected in a work set over several decades. However, he only rarely gravitates towards the melancholy. Here, in Books Do Furnish a Room he speaks of how middle age leads to a reassessment of the casual relationships of youth.
‘…friends, if required at all in the manner of the past, must largely be reassembled at about this milestone [turning 40]. The changeover might improve consistency, even quality, but certainly lost in intimacy; anyway that peculiar kind of intimacy that is consoling when you are young, though probably too vulnerable to withstand the ever increasing self-regard of later years.’
A Soldier’s Art also puts plainly how the relentless years impact friendship, something most of us can recognise.
‘Friendship, popularly represented as something simple and straightforward – in contrast with love – is perhaps no less complicated, requiring equally mysterious nourishment; like love, too, bearing also within its embryo inherent seeds of dissolution, something more fundamentally destructive, perhaps, than the mere passing of time.’
Powell’s understated style is as much a reflection of the type of discourse permitted or preferred in his own time as it is of his stylistic choices as a writer. People were getting up to the same type of mischief in the last century as they are today, but it was spoken of in coded language. So when Jenkins is told in A Question of Upbringing that an old school friend is an alcoholic, the purveyor of the news chooses to deliver their update thus:
‘I hear he is drinking just a tiny bit too much nowadays.’
Powell is unusual by today’s standards in using a reliable narrator who exists largely at the periphery of the action. Nick Jenkins is a reasonably successful writer who enjoys a long and stable marriage with the mischievous Isobel, but he is never one to compete with the larger personalities that surround him: he simply allows them to get on with it, for better or worse; giving then enough rope to fly their flag or hang themselves. Here, in the manner of Wilson in TV’s Dad’s Army, he rolls his eyes at a comrade in The Soldier’s Art:
‘Diplock had brought all his own notable powers of confusion to bear, darkening the waters around him like a cuttlefish.’
Ironically, given Powell based many of his characters on real people, it could be that the author – as biographer – is far less reliable than his narrator. Certainly Powell’s character X. Trapnel (accepted to be the cult writer Julian Maclaren-Ross) would agree. You sense that in relaying Trapnel’s thoughts here, Powell – with typically understated humour – may be poking fun at himself and his grand quest for truth, rather than justifying his own choice of genre.
‘People think that because a novel is invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be true, since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist himself lays it down… The biographer, even at his highest and best can be only tentative, empirical. The autobiographer, for his part, is imprisoned by his own egotism. He must always be suspect. In contrast with the other two, the novelist is god…’
Jenkins’ role may be that of observer and recorder, but that doesn’t mean he operates in a purely administrative capacity. Nick can be as dry as the desert sometimes, but the people he socialises with, or who are forced upon him by circumstances, are often vivid to behold. Occasionally the unexpected paths their lives take, whether based on fact or invention, are truly heartbreaking.
In an astonishing section of The Soldier’s Art an estranged husband and wife are killed on the same night in separate London locations during a World War II air raid. The writing is beautifully understated. Powell lets the reader decide whether the wandering wife’s sudden malaise midway through a fancy meal, sat beside her lover, is due to guilt; a premonition of her own doom; or telepathic realisation that her husband is about to be killed nearby. Nick/Powell first tells us of the husband’s death. Once news of the wife’s death is revealed, the reader wonders whether she has rushed out to join her ill-fated spouse just before the blast. Weeds of hope spring eternal in the rubble. Did they meet their end together, in an impossibly romantic way? Were they reconciled through death? No, Nick informs us – the wife had returned to her lonely lodgings, which also happened to be bombed that night.
So what are we left with after 12 modest masterpieces? If you’re looking for clever plotlines and seismic twists in the novels that make up A Dance to the Music of Time you will by now have realised that disappointment lies ahead. Instead, should you choose to explore them, I would suggest ripping up the grammar book and concentrating instead on Powell’s rich vocabulary – by which I mean a cast of characters that are unique and inspiring (in one way or another), and yet mirrored in the people each of us engage with on a daily basis. Here are a few of my favourites. If you choose to track them down please send them my regards – saying goodbye has been tough.
Lindsay Bagshaw [based on an amalgam of journalist friends?] – literary editor
Bagshaw is the kind of high-minded but disorganised editor you can imagine working on underground literary magazines to this day. Here’s a snippet from Books Do Furnish a Room, the title of that novel coming from a Bagshaw quote which may or may not have been used as a diversionary tactic when a husband discovered the old goat making advances on his wife in the drawing room.
‘Like almost all persons whose life is largely spun out in saloon bars, Bagshaw acknowledged strong ritualistic responses to given pubs. Each drinking house possessed its special, almost magical endowment to give meaning to whatever was said or done within its individual premises. Indeed Bagshaw himself was so wholeheartedly committed to the mystique of the pub that no night of his life was complete without a final pint of beer in one of them.’
Ralph Barnby [based on Adrian Daintrey?] – painter/wartime camouflage expert
A romancer of women par excellence, Barnby is associated with a left-leaning subset of London society that includes the enigmatic Gypsy Jones and Mr Deacon. Barnby’s artistic skills are called upon during wartime service when he is given a role camouflaging planes.
Mr Deacon – painter
An artist of the previous generation whose canvases fall in and out of fashion, much as Powell’s novels have over the years. In his dotage Mr Deacon runs an antiques shop that doubles as a refuge for lost souls. Long after his demise a smart London gallery holds a retrospective of his work, which is praised by a prominent young critic. Nick believes this ‘…would have delighted Mr Deacon [who] had once remarked that youth was the only valid criterion in any field.’
Matilda Donners – actor and muse
Hugh Moreland’s vivacious wife ultimately leaves him for kinky businessman Sir Magnus Donners. Like several of Powell’s female characters, she is a child of her time (i.e. liberated in the aftermath of World War I). Matilda is humorous, free-spirited and independent – in Powell’s words, ‘mistress of her own life’.
Erridge (Earl of Warminster) [based on George Orwell?] – socialist idealist
Sickly, uncomfortable with his wealth, and unable to keep his stately home in order, Erridge prefers to spend his resources in support of the underground literature distributed by Gypsy Jones and Mr Deacon. Almost inevitably, he follows the call to war-torn Spain in the 1930s.
Uncle Giles – Nick’s unreliable relative
The ultimate eccentric uncle; moves from boarding house to cheap hotel to boarding house depending on the state of his affairs and investments. A confirmed bachelor, Uncle Giles only seems likely to be tamed by the mystical powers of Mrs Erdleigh, who takes pleasure in reading his Tarot cards.
Gypsy Jones – socialist worker
Sexually liberated long before it became fashionable, Gypsy’s no-nonsense manner and hardcore politics make her a fearsome presence on the page.
Hugh Moreland [based on Constant Lambert?] – composer
Moreland is perhaps the most sympathetic of Nick’s friends. Highly-strung, melancholy and regularly hilarious, Moreland was clearly a big deal in his time. Yet even at the grand receptions at which his musical talent is celebrated, he seems to realise that his art will be quickly forgotten after his demise.
From Moreland we get much reflection on marriage and relationships. In Temporary Kings, his days with Matilda long over, he tells Nick that marital discord ‘vibrates on an axis of envy rather than jealousy.’
X. Trapnel [based on Julian Maclaren-Ross] – subterranean writer
I’m a big fan of reading London-based stories set in and around World War II. We know all about the honourable soldier, sometimes it’s refreshing to read more about the dishonourable civilian. As with the skewed romance of Patrick Hamilton’s sublime Hangover Square, Maclaren-Ross’s short stories in Of Love and Hunger represent angst-ridden, flea-bitten, booze-sodden bedsit bliss.
The end of the affair is painful for X, but I’m convinced his silver death’s head-topped walking stick can still be heard clipping across the cobbles in old Soho.
Dr Trelawney [a more sympathetic Aleister Crawley?] – mystic/cult leader
When people think of mystics in early twentieth century history, perhaps only Rasputin and Crawley come to mind; in fact there were many such strange types roaming Europe before and after World War I, as I discovered while researching for my historical novel, Death Defiers. Trelawney is by far my favourite of those available. He pops up in around half the novels in Dance… Here, in Hearing Secret Harmonies, Nick recalls an early encounter from his faraway childhood:
‘Once a week Dr Trelawney and his neophytes would jog down the pine-bordered lane from which our Indian-type bungalow was set a short distance back…Dr Trelawney would be leading, dark locks flowing to the shoulder, biblical beard, Grecian tunic, thonged sandals…People who encountered Dr Trelawney by chance in the village post-office received an invariable greeting:
“The Essence of the All is the Godhead of the True.”
The appropriate response can rarely have been returned.
“The Vision of Visions heals the Blindness of Sight.”’
Dicky Umfraville [based on Patrick Tritton?] – nightclub owner & colonial adventurer
Umfraville is a charmer. He inhabits a nocturnal world of darkened nightclub lounges, into which he persuades a sequence of wives. His contacts span the old Empire; had you wanted to know the winner of the next horserace at Hong Kong’s Happy Valley, or which actress was about to bag a maharaja, Umfraville would have been the man to ask.
Sadly, no matter how handsome, vain and charming we are, age has its wicked way with us in the end. It is typical of Umfraville that in Temporary Kings he feels ‘…let down by the rapidity with which friends and acquaintances decay, once the process has begun.’ In them he sees his future…not that it turns out so badly for him. Aged 80 he meets Nick at a wedding, feeling the after-effects of the night before:
‘Rare for me these days. One of those hangovers like sheet lightning. Sudden flashes round the head at irregular intervals. Not at all unpleasant.’
Lady Pamela Widmerpool [based on Barbara Skelton?] – World War II driver & sexual adventurer
When we hear that wars are won and lost on the home-front, not many of us have characters like Pamela Flitton (later Widmerpool) in mind, but in being a driver for and lover to a diverse range of military attachés from Britain’s allies large and small, valuable intelligence gathering is implied, even if Pam’s moral scruples are open to debate (one lover in the secret services – a childhood friend of Nick’s – selects a suicide mission as the only way to escape the heartbreak she has coolly administered).
While capable of building wartime bridges with her erotic exploits, they seem to provide little long-term solace to the irrepressibly moody Pam. X. Trapnel and Widmerpool are little more than notches on her bedpost. When she destroys Trapnel’s final manuscript by throwing it in the Thames, the reader winces, even when the writer refuses to. Pam’s contrariness and don’t-give-a-damn attitude make her a distinctly modern role model, though whether that’s a good thing or not is a thorny question. ‘It was Death she liked,’ Nick/Powell concludes in Temporary Kings.
Lord (Kenneth) Widmerpool [an amalgam of various pompous acquaintances?] – schoolboy, businessman, peer of the realm
Perhaps the most caricatured/least nuanced of Powell’s characters, yet over time the reader accepts that Widmerpool’s Trump-like ambitions and jaw-dropping rambunctiousness can hardly be explained with subtlety. Bullied at school, this overweight, badly dressed know-it-all revenges himself on society by toadying his way to the top and then turning cult leader in the ‘60s.
Lord Widmerpool is the thundering bore that Nick never quite manages to avoid at social gatherings and – arguably – Powell displays some snobbery in dealing with a peer who happens to come from a less privileged background than him. Still, once we hear of the sinister side to Widmerpool’s dealings it is hard for us to feel any sympathy for him. Rising to a senior position in the army, he is quick to dispatch a sickly childhood enemy to the Far East, where it is pretty clear he will perish. Meanwhile a hapless drunk is removed from his unit with the same lack of sympathy others have inflicted on him in the past.
Those who feel Powell’s world favours the aristocracy and peerage will note that while his artists and writers are allowed their adventures, those who seek and find positions of influence rarely end up happy.