Dancing around Anthony Powell

A Dance to the Music of Time is, alternatively, a masterpiece (to be ranked, according to Tariq Ali of all people, alongside the works of Stendahl, Balzac and Proust) or an inconsequential snob’s chronicle. It is a Marmite of a novel sequence. Powell himself (no relation) divided his readers into ‘fans’ and ‘shits’, which seems rather extreme. It also leaves readers, like myself, who admire some of the 12 novels but not others, in undefined limbo. I would call myself a ‘fant’ – more fan than shit.  

I have been reading Hilary Spurling’s biography of Anthony Powell, published last year. I had hoped, apart from general entertainment, to have some specific questions answered. How did Powell plan his sequence of novels, and when? Why did he appear to change from an easy-going Bohemian into a cantankerous snob? I received the entertainment from Spurling’s book, but no answers to these questions, and scarcely a hint that the questions existed.

For those who have not read Dance, it tells the story of changing times seen through the eyes of an unobtrusive narrator, Nick Jenkins. The times run from the early 1920s to the late 1960s. The world observed by Jenkins, after Eton and Oxford, is centred on London culture – literary, artistic, musical and social. This world, like every other, was punctured by World War II, but resumed after it in a somewhat changed form. It has always been assumed, and Spurling’s book confirms it, that Dance is largely autobiography rendered as fiction, although no less imaginative for that.

I first read the 12 novels in the early 1970s and re-read them in 2011. Last year, I watched the magnificent TV adaptation from the late 1990s. Each time, my impressions have been the same. The first six novels, up to the outbreak of war, are generally superb, although inconsistent. The next three, set in the war, are different in tone (as they need to be), but also superb. They belong with Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour and Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War as an outstanding trilogy of war trilogies (all right, technically a quartet).

But then we get to the final three novels, and they are a disaster. Powell has killed off too many of his main characters by now, possibly because this is where Dance was originally intended to end. It is difficult, so late in the sequence, to introduce a raft of new characters and give them the same depth, or to maintain the meandering continuity that is the essence of the sequence. A new and somewhat pathological obsession with voyeurism, necrophilia and new age mysticism does not help. Possibly Powell (or his publisher) feared irrelevance in the new world of the late ’50s and ’60s and decided to inject some thrills.

The immediate post-war novel, Books Do Furnish a Room, is poor. The next, Temporary Kings, set in the late 1950s, is dreadful. The final one, Hearing Secret Harmonies, set in the late 1960s, is little better. These, of course, are subjective opinions, but I am sure there are others who share them. How is it possible for a novelist to plan a sequence of novels of such breathtaking scope, and then write them with such vast discrepancies in quality? Why, specifically, should the last two novels be so bad?

These are some of the questions I had hoped Hilary Spurling might answer, but she does not. She treats the sequence as a single work that one either adores or doesn’t. There is little discrimination between the constituent parts. Nor does she discuss the change in how Dance will be absorbed. Original readers would have read the novels as they were published, at intervals of two years. Readers coming to them since 1975 will mostly have read them in quick succession. To them, the novels will seem more like one novel in 12 instalments. The inconsistencies in quality will seem more glaringly obvious.

Powell started writing the first novel, A Question of Upbringing, in 1948. At that stage it was intended, according to Spurling, to become the first part of “at least a trilogy”. By 1956, when Powell was writing the fourth novel, “what was originally planned as three volumes or a little over had grown to eight or nine.” In early 1962, when Powell was beginning the seventh novel, “he finally made up his mind to allocate three books to the Second World War, and complete the entire sequence in twelve volumes.” Apart from mentions of two scrap-books of scribbles and ideas, these scattered references are the only information Spurling imparts of how Dance was conceived and planned. This is a huge disappointment.

The first ten novels occupy roughly 25 years of real time, from 1922 to 1947. They are not written entirely in sequence, but the intensity of the timeline remains one of Dance’s most striking and significant features. However, there is then a gap of ten years until the eleventh novel, and of another ten years until the twelfth. This is a remarkable change to the structure of the sequence, yet Spurling does not comment on it, let alone explain it.

I think these gaps in timeline explain a great deal about why the last two novels are so unsatisfactory. They are also the only ones to be set at a time that lay far in the future when Dance was conceived. They are also the only ones to be set at a time when the author, and his narrator, were no longer young men and, from what one knows of Powell’s own life, unlikely to have been in sympathy with what became the spirit of the times. I wish that Powell’s biographer had discussed these issues.

I also wish that she had addressed the issue of Powell’s personality. In old age, his reputation was one of a rude, irritable snob. Spurling does not deny this viewpoint, other than to say it was not how he appeared to those he knew and liked. In fact, she provides ammunition for the critics. “He made no attempt to hide his irritation with journalists’ often banal and endlessly repeated questions… Interviewers, already irritated by the way he looked or talked, naturally took offence at his brusque manner, and resented his perfunctory or unhelpful answers.” I remember reading of an incident when Powell – who insisted that his name should be pronounced Po-well (‘o’ as in ‘no’), not Pow-ell (‘ow’ as in ‘now’) – met a delivery man at his door who said he had a package for Mr Pow-ell, to which the author replied “no one of that name here”, before shutting the door in his face.

Yet Anthony Powell had clearly been at ease in the cultural demi-monde of inter-war London, had lived and worked amongst it and had embraced its Bohemianism. He was accepted in that world, with its wealth of social, political and sexual contradictions. He could not conceivably have written the first half of Dance otherwise. So what changed, and why? No answers from the biographer. Again, not even the question.

Hilary Spurling’s biography is an absorbing read for anyone interested in its subject matter. However, at its end, one is little the wiser about Anthony Powell than one is about Nick Jenkins at the end of Dance. Coming from someone who knew Powell well, had agreed to write his authorised biography before he died, had every opportunity to ask him pertinent questions while he was alive, and who then had free access to his family, his surviving friends and his papers, this is a great disappointment. There are also some horrendous mistakes. Powell could not have “refused the knighthood offered him at this point [1975] by the Thatcher government”. Nor “in 1988 [did] the Heath government [make] him … Companion of Honour.”

The enigmas and the unanswered questions remain. What a wasted opportunity.