Magazine article The Spectator

'Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time', by Hilary Spurling - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time', by Hilary Spurling - Review

Article excerpt

Hilary Spurling impressively captures the essence and the spirit of Anthony Powell, his writing and his era, says Philip Hensher

Great novelists come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they all share is a status of half-belonging. If they had no foot in the world at all, they could hardly understand it; if they completely belonged, they could hardly understand what was distinctive. One of the pleasures of this excellent biography is fully appreciating the peculiar, liminal, not-quite-successful position Powell wrote from, and described with great exactness. In half a dozen social and professional milieux, he was a tolerated, perhaps useful minor presence, like a spare man at dinner. From the standpoint of a rather failed editor, screenwriter, soldier, socialite, he stood by and watched the world. In each case, one suspects, the subjects hardly realised they were being observed.

This is the fourth major biography by Hilary Spurling, after her full-scale lives of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Paul Scott and Henri Matisse. It is the first, perhaps, with no major surprise to spring on the reader. (What the great Compton-Burnett biography had to reveal came as news to people who had known the novelist for many decades.) Powell told his own story twice, in his novel sequence ADance to the Music of Time, published from 1951 to 1975, and four volumes of richly enjoyable memoirs, published between 1976 and 1982. There is a gentlemanly reticence about private matters in both novel and memoir -- the sentence in which Nick Jenkins, the narrator of the novel, informs the reader that he has married Isobel Tolland is, to fashionable sensibilities, indecently clipped. Nevertheless, what we have in both is a detailed and largely truthful account of events. Powell made sure there would not be much for a biographer to discover.

Powell came from a line of soldier gentry. The unusual fact of his childhood is that his mother was very much older than his father, and they moved around various London addresses when he was a small child. (When, much later, he moved to a house in the country, he found the sight of fields and woods from his study window disturbing.) At Eton he made friends with Henry Yorke, later the novelist Henry Green, but otherwise did not shine at sport or intellectual pursuits. After Oxford, he took a job at a dim publisher called Duckworths and went to smart parties; he was not much of a success. 'Ah, you're buying experience, young man,' a hostess remarked with evident relief at having placed him. The women of his generation made it disarmingly frank that a boy with a very moderate salary and without real prospects was of no interest to them. He made his way slowly -- evidently agreeable company, he befriended the Sitwells, had an affair with Nina Hamnett, and maintained friendships with Evelyn Waugh and Constant Lambert.

The five novels he wrote in the 1930s fell under the shadow of Waugh and even of Henry Green; they are extraordinarily dry, and met with only very moderate success, though their brilliance has never been in doubt. The last of them, indeed, was published days before the war broke out and was a minor casualty of the conflict. Powell had a mixed war, though relations between him and the army never broke down as spectacularly as they did in the case of Evelyn Waugh -- in person, he was always much more emollient, though perhaps not very competent. He was personally selected by a former flatmate of his friend Alick Dru, Lt-Col Denis Capel-Dunn, secretary to the Joint Intelligence Committee, to act as his sole assistant. Powell lasted nine weeks working for this 'squat figure in a sodden British Warm... famed for his forcefulness with subordinates... manipulation of equals and ingratiation of superiors, particularly those of ministerial rank'. By the time Capel-Dunn sacked Powell, refusing a request to stay on long enough to be promoted to major ('My nerves wouldn't stand it,' Capel-Dunn said), Powell had taken the opportunity to observe a singular type at close quarters. …

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