Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Anthony Powell, Time Lord

HAVING REREAD SOME of the twentieth-century English novel sequences, and having read Olivia Manning’s two trilogies for the first, belated time and realized she was great, I was determined not to go back to Anthony Powell. I thought my opinion of A Dance to the Music of Time was fully formed and would need no alteration: the sequence, as I recalled, was absorbing almost throughout, but at the end it went off precipitately. And even early on, there was evidence that its signature technique of teasing out the subtleties of any social incident, however minor, was too often strained beyond the limit. For half the time, the incident would be worth the trouble he took to reflect upon it; but for the other half, the effect of prosing away for pages about the repercussions of some minor accident suffered by an even more minor character would be, if not perhaps a fuss about nothing, certainly an endless palaver about not enough. And the clear prose could get into a tangle over the course of a long sentence.

All this I thought I remembered well. Also I had lost somewhere, in a move from a previous house, my precious set of the twelve Penguin volumes with the cover drawings by Osbert Lancaster. In yet another house there sat an American four-volume hardback edition, but the Americans had, in their usual way, overdone the reverence, so that any of the four compilations was too bulky to take on a train, thus defeating one of the chief pleasures that Powell offers: to read, while traveling in a second-class carriage, about the kind of people who used to travel in first.

No, let Powell rest in the memory. But what happened next you can guess. For once I got to Hugh’s bookstall early enough in the day to catch the first wave of books, and there among them, spine upward, were all twelve volumes of the Mandarin paperback edition of The Music of Time with the cover illustrations by Mark Boxer. Like all Boxer’s friends I had missed him fiercely since his premature death. He had once illustrated several books of mine, with results I had better not praise, although I was very proud to have his collaboration; and for Powell he was ideal, since Powell was minutely versed in social notation, and Boxer had the same fine focus. In fact Boxer was fully as good as Osbert Lancaster, who had been Powell’s close friend. (It was because the Penguin editors stupidly wanted to ditch Lancaster’s cover illustrations for the next reprint that Powell had left Penguin, his sardonic upper lip curled in contempt.) Mark Boxer, having been born much later than Powell and Lancaster, did not share their store of prewar experience, but he knew how to imagine himself into the past, and I think anyone who loves the books can see that those Mandarin volumes look as good as they read well.

And they do read well, as I soon found out all over again; because when I got them home I started reading them one after the other. In the last years of his life I knew Powell well enough to be sure he would have approved of how I relished the actual physical experience of consuming his little books like plates of sweets and grapes as I sat on my garden terrace while the heat gradually went out of a long summer. As an Australian I never love England more than at such times: they remind me of home, but are so much less fierce that they also remind me I was right to come away. Powell inspires you to reflections like that. He’s good on the significance of the passing moment, his key message being that it doesn’t really pass, but is incorporated into the texture of your reflections just as thoroughly as the ecstasies and disasters, and perhaps even more so.

This latest rereading of Powell soon put my admiration for the newfound Olivia Manning in its right context. She is great, but Powell’s scope is even greater. The way the characters go on meeting one another through time, and the way that those who endure are always exchanging information about those who will not, is just like life. He is sometimes accused of overdoing the device of coincidence, but life does too; and in that regard he has given us, in what might be called the Powell Moment, a measure of consolation for those unsettling occasions when coincidence seems to threaten us with a visitation from the supernatural. Once, many years ago in Florence, I found myself, after dinner with friends, composing in my head a speech in denigration of the prose style of Bernard Levin, at that time Britain’s most famous newspaper columnist. I had never met him, but I had seen him on television; and I suppose I might have been a little jealous of the fortune he got paid. The next morning I was crossing the Santa Trinita bridge when I realized that the diminutive figure striding briskly toward me on the same pavement was Bernard Levin. Such moments, in my experience, can be quite frightening, because they so sharply evoke chance and chaos. Powell’s triumph of intuition was to realize, and illustrate, that there are patterns in the chaos; and he thought of all this long before Lorenz and others did the scientific work that established chaos theory. So from that aspect, A Dance to the Music of Time is an intellectual feat.

But it’s more than that: it’s consistently absorbing. Nothing so extended has ever generated such a thirst in the reader for wanting to know what happens next. Will Charles Stringham give way to his alcoholic propensities? Is the beautiful but bitchy Pamela Flitton insane? What will happen to Widmerpool after he marries her? On the level of everyday life among the upper classes the sequence is unbeatable; and always on the understanding that those classes have now been joined by the new people of the literary world and the media in general, so that the old edifice is inevitably crumbling, merely in order that it might become more accommodating.

The great solvent, of course, is World War II, and I now see that nobody ever wrote about it better. Powell spent most of the war as an intelligence officer in London, dealing with representatives of the European countries occupied by the Nazis. He was, therefore, plugged into the future, but he doesn’t make a thing of his own role; whereas his friend and rival Evelyn Waugh made much more of his own role than had any relation to fact. Powell was a modest man, although he could be very jealous of his reputation. He would turn on his famous sneer if you raised even the slightest point about a possible fault in any sentence he had ever written. I quickly learned to keep my reservations to myself. Michael Frayn was only one of the fans who thought the last volume of the sequence, Hearing Secret Harmonies, was a muffed picture of the so-called Youth Culture, about which Powell knew very little, because he was by then too old to get out amongst it and sample the flavor. But I noticed that Frayn used the soft pedal when he put the opinion in print. The man who wasn’t afraid to mock Powell’s occasional deficiencies was the late Auberon Waugh, Evelyn Waugh’s son: but “Bron” (as everyone called him) overdid it absurdly. He forgot to mention that the whole sequence is an almost unbroken stretch of genius.

New readers should be warned, however, that there is the occasional dull stretch. At the opening of volume 6 (The Kindly Ones) there is far too much about servants, ghosts, and the occult. Defending himself against charges that he was too interested in Burke’s Peerage, Powell once said that he would have been equally interested in a book called Burke’s Workers. But the truth was that the toffs, or would-be toffs, were what he was best at. And no writer dedicated to showing life as it is should give even fleeting acknowledgment to the occult. The real reason why Scorpio Murtlock, the sinister, hippie-ish cult leader in the last volume, is such an unlikely figure is that Powell gives him a measure of the telepathic power that he claims, whereas in fact the typical counterculture hero was a fake. Evelyn Waugh would not have been fooled for a minute. Nor, probably, would Olivia Manning.

But the really serious fault in Powell’s masterpiece is the absence of Americans. In those volumes set in the years between the wars, this absence is already glaring: Mrs. Simpson is allowed to make a fleeting, nameless appearance, but really the rich women of America had for a long time been making inroads into British high society. And in wartime, in Powell’s nostalgically remembered London full of foreign uniforms, the absence of American uniforms threatens to turn the whole thing into a fantasy. The shift of power in the direction of the Americans was, after all, a talking point even at the time. Powell’s disinclination to even mention it gives the effect of a protective mechanism, a consolation for loss. Powell had a firm understanding of politics: he knew that things would never be the same again. Perhaps he wrote the whole majestic sequence in order to palliate his regret. Like the ruins of an abbey, there is something forlorn about its beauty, an air of desolation that make you glad you have paid the visit, but just as glad not to be staying long. Even its laughter tastes of salt tears.

Though Powell sometimes piled on the subtlety to the point of flirting with the evanescent, he made every other writer purporting to deal with the sweep of British society look crass. This especially applied to C. P. Snow. Snow’s novels about the corridors of power (the completed sequence of eleven volumes was called Strangers and Brothers) got their grip on the public in the 1950s, a decade before Powell’s voice became the established tone in which to talk about the Establishment. (Significantly, the word “Establishment,” with its overtones of time-tested authority, came into wide use only as Britain’s role as an international administrative system was wound up.) When I was still a student at Sydney University in the late 1950s, to know about Snow’s novels was a mark of sophistication. I tried to read them then, and found them so traumatically boring that I can’t see myself giving them another try even now. (Part Two: A Decision Is Taken. Chapter One: The Lighting of a Cigarette. It’s all like that.) Snow’s narrator, Lewis Eliot, talks with the infallibly misplaced emphasis of Powell’s Widmerpool. Snow never quite realized that his own pomp and success added up to a comic turn. He was like a walking illustration by Osbert Lancaster, whose name, to me, is still very much alive. All this being said, however, I have noticed that the Penguin volumes of Snow’s novels keep cropping up in clusters on Hugh’s bookstall. I can just see the moment—though I slightly dread it—when I start assembling a set. But even if they turn out to be more substantial than I once thought, I doubt that those Snow novels that have the academic cloisters for an ambience will be up to the mark later set by David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, or even by Tom Sharpe. The academic novel is a genre, and a genre needs to be entertaining. Did Snow ever really entertain anyone? Well, I suppose Sir Walter Scott did, and he wasn’t very funny either.