Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 04 Nov 2018

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling

Anthony Powell, who published five now largely forgotten novels between 1931 and 1939 (and a sixth in 1983), was a quintessentially upper class Englishman. He married into the Longford family and thanks to several inheritances managed to acquire The Chantry, a beautiful Regency country house a few miles from Frome in Somerset. If his reputation rested on the half-a-dozen stand-alone novels he published, one can be almost certain he would be a forgotten literary figure.

But some time in the late-1940s, Powell conceived of writing a new kind of novel, one that would unfold as slowly and as mysteriously as a long poem, that would be in multiple volumes (initially he didn’t know how many), and would take Proust as its model. Over the course of almost exactly twenty-five years, from 1951 to 1975, the twelve novels that make up Anthony Powell’s novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time were published – four in the 1950s; five in the 1960s; and the final three in the 1970s.

At last, Hilary Spurling’s long-awaited biography of Powell, Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time has been published in paperback and I have just finished reading it.

Spurling knew Powell and has previously produced what many regard as one of the biggest contributions to Powell scholarship, Invitation to the Dance, a handbook to the sequence.

Inspired by Poussin’s classical painting whose title Powell borrowed for the series, every book is narrated by a rather colourless, laconic figure, Nicholas Jenkins, a sort of Powell alter-ego, who in memory drifts back and forth over a fifty year period, recalling the unfolding events, the stately sequence of appearing and disappearing characters and the themes and ideas – friendship, adultery, imagination and creativity, power and political will, wealth and impoverishment, love, war, decline, mortality – that almost like musical figures are heard, then disappear only to be echoed many pages or even volumes later.

The very opening page of the first volume in the series, A Question of Upbringing, which covers Jenkins’ early years at public school as a boarder, and in which some of the first characters appear who will thread their way through the sequence, in fact sets out Powell’s intentions quite clearly and establishes what will become his narrator’s familiar methods. Jenkins is watching workmen in dank, wintry weather huddle around a street brazier and says:

“For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world – legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea – scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outwards like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.”

Indeed, it is that particular voice with its long unwinding stately sentences – always somehow slightly archaic in construction – that most characterises Dance and which many readers find themselves addicted to. Evelyn Waugh (a friend) said that ‘other less original novelists tenaciously follow their protagonists’, but that in Powell’s sequence ‘the life of the series is generated within it’. This is an accurate description: reading the sequence does feel as if life is being generated in all its lived and living texture before your eyes.

I realise that this is a biography that is only likely to interest Anthony Powell die-hards, but if you have read any of the novels, or perhaps followed the TV dramatisation from twenty years ago, then you may want to know whether Spurling’s huge biography helps reveal the man and further illuminate what became the central task of his life.

Curiously, the answer is yes and no.

I quickly grew tired of the welter of upper crust names and families and relations that teem through its pages (especially concerning Powell’s earlier years) and found myself little more than skim-reading some parts of the book. If I’m perfectly honest, the biography only really becomes gripping when Spurling reaches the late-40s and Powell begins to falter his way towards a conception of the series of novels that would make up the entirety of what remained of his writing life. (Although other books were published after Dance was completed, these were several volumes of memoirs and collections from his journals.) The other curious thing – but probably well judged by Spurling – is that after the roughly 100 or so pages covering the Dance years up to 1975, the remainder of Powell’s life is swiftly dispatched in a fifteen-page postscript (he died in 2000 aged 94).

The book does a marvellous job of locating Powell in his time, his class and his circle, and this is vital to an understanding of the man because although troubled by depression, anxiety and insomnia he was innately gregarious and moved in literary, artistic, bohemian and media London as familiarly as a fish moves in water. But he was also, from his earliest years, essentially an observer and a collector – he was always watching the world unfold around him. Proust may well have been his literary inspiration but the seventeenth century antiquary John Aubrey of Brief Lives fame – about whom Powell wrote his first book – profoundly informed his curious, forgiving outlook.

Civilised, laconic, graceful, reserved, humane, utterly without malice, constantly intrigued by life and its vagaries – Powell was all these things, but his gradual metamorphosis into the writer who would produce one of the greatest literary achievements of the twentieth century remains, even in Spurling’s account, an enigma. And in this respect, her biography, great as it is, can be said to offer both too much and too little. There is – at least in its earlier stages – too much pedestrian information; and in its latter stages, not enough of the kind of information we really hunger for – how, to put it crudely, Anthony Powell became Nicholas Jenkins and turned his life into great literature. The alchemy of creation. Even Powell thought it ‘too complicated to explain’, and maybe we just have to accept that he was right and Spurling’s account is as close as we are ever likely to get.

This is a biography that has its dull patches; a skim-read here and there doesn’t seem unjustified. And yet, if you love Anthony Powell and if you are intrigued by the greatest English novel sequence that has ever been written, you will want to read it. Some of Powell’s voice has rubbed off on her prose, as well as the gentle, warm, affectionate and humane outlook of the man himself.


Alun Severn

October 2018