BOOK OF THE WEEK
ANTHONY POWELL: DANCING TO THE MUSIC OF TIME
by Hilary Spurling (Hamish Hamilton £25)
Life DOES begin at 50: Anthony Powell had no money, few lovers and chronic indigestion… then he wrote A Dance To The Music of Time and found happiness, wealth and fame
Anyone feeling gloomy in their early 50s, worried they’ve been leading rather a futile life for half a century, should read this biography.
The first half of Anthony Powell’s life contained vast troughs of futility, boredom and banality.
It was not till his late 40s that he wrote the first volume of what was to become his 12-volume masterpiece A Dance To The Music Of Time — the vast, sweeping comedy of human manners that brought him fame as ‘the English Proust’.
From then on, for a quarter of a century, he produced a volume nearly every two years, immortalising himself as the definer of an epoch, while also becoming famous and rich enough to go on cruises.
It turned out that those years of banality were vital for gathering the material he would need to write his convincing recreation of a life where mundane, eccentric, mean or plain bonkers characters appear in narrator Nick Jenkins’s childhood and then reappear several decades later, just as acquaintances do in real life.
Powell’s friends used to spot themselves in his novels and complain that he hadn’t drawn them quite right. But no one admitted to being Widmerpool, the power-obsessed dullard who keeps reappearing throughout the novel’s 12 volumes.
In this expertly written biography, Hilary Spurling creates a tapestry of Powell’s own life, flecking it with the myriad characters he quietly saved up as material.
Widmerpool, she suggests, was an amalgam of many people, including a boy with whom Powell was at Eton, who was teased for wearing the wrong kind of overcoat; the pompous lieutenant for whom Powell worked at the Joint Intelligence Committee during the war, who left him with a humiliating sense of failure; a career-obsessed genealogist he came across in a library; Frank Longford; and Edward Heath.
The early years of Powell’s life were almost comically dreary. Born in 1905, the only child of an acutely shy mother and an Army colonel who was ‘an abominable parent’, Powell grew up in ‘almost monastic seclusion’, the silence broken only by his father’s occasional fits of maniacal fury.
He was sent off, aged ten, to boarding school, where (this being 1915) the boys were drilled as replacements for their dead elders. He spent his teen years in ‘the worst house’ at Eton, although the school, Spurling writes, ‘offered the full range of human behaviour in embryo to the attentive observer’.
From this time on, Powell was subconsciously absorbing the ways humans act, think and manipulate each other.
Oxford was a disappointment — and by this time I was thinking: ‘Oh, good — more disappointment, so more material for Powell’s later well-honed cynicism.’
He was dismayed by his fellow undergraduates’ relentless snobbery, and saw his time there as an ‘interminable stretch to be got through before life itself could begin’. Life itself turned out to be even worse. Powell was ‘basically ineligible’: no prospects, no connections, nothing to inherit.
Spurling’s portrayal of the dingy, mice-infested publishing house in Covent Garden where Powell got a lowly, badly paid job is glorious in its dismalness.
Gerald Duckworth, who ran the firm, disliked books and those who wrote them. He drank a bottle of claret at lunch every day, and was hopeless at spotting new talent, turning down quite a few 20th-century classics, including Evelyn Waugh’s Decline And Fall.
Things got so grim in the firm by 1931 that the accountant locked himself in the lavatory, ‘cursing and howling like an animal’. It took an hour to rescue him and cart him off in an ambulance. Powell needed the money so stayed on even when his salary was halved. Bring on the gloom! In spite of all this, he became great friends with some of the top writers of his day, among them the Sitwells, Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, Cyril Connolly, Graham Greene and George Orwell.
Powell could be gloriously rude about his friends. He managed to demolish both Orwell and Connolly in one sentence: ‘One lean and ugly, the other fat and ugly, one phonily abstemious, the other phonily self-indulgent.’
But the flow of conversation between these kindred spirits kept them all from total despair. Waugh dedicated Decline And Fall to Powell, with the words, ‘For Tony, who rescued the author from worse than death’.
Best of all, after a few brief affairs, Powell met and fell in love with Violet Pakenham, sister of Frank, later Lord Longford.
Powell’s innate gloom notwithstanding, he and Violet had a long, happy and talkative marriage — though their wedding was marred by everyone still being drunk from a party the night before.
Violet had two miscarriages before eventually giving birth to two sons. The war brought months of separation (‘I hardly exist without you,’ Powell wrote to Violet) when he was sent on a dull War Intelligence course in Matlock, where he suffered from bad dreams and indigestion.
He was genuinely depressed after the war, waking every morning wishing he were dead. By this time, I was thinking: ‘Well, get on with your masterpiece, then!’
It took another six years for that to happen — and Tony was still being supported financially by his father well into his late 40s.
When the first volume of the Dance exploded onto the literary scene, it was the talk of the town. By autumn 1957, Spurling tells us, ‘nothing provoked more violent argument than the Suez crisis and the novels of Anthony Powell’.
Later, his friends Philip Larkin and Muggeridge would slam the whole series of novels in their reviews, turning against Powell in (perhaps) fits of jealousy.
But Powell, newly well-off and energised, became a textbook swotty novelist, at his desk like clockwork every morning in his large country house, only breaking off for Mediterranean cruises with his wife.
In his 1990s he became acutely aware of the proximity of his own death, describing it as: ‘A masked and muffled figure loitering persistently at the back of every room, as if waiting for a word at the most tactful moment.’