Until about a decade ago it seemed as though every figure in literary history was owed a doorstop-sized account of his life. The trade of literary biography boomed, publishers still doled out advances, and universities even set up “life writing” courses, as though a dearth of trained practitioners was a risk. Then it began to fall away. Most of the great writers had been done, and publishers started to recognize that there was a limited market for books on the lives of authors who were themselves no longer widely read. Soon the trade pivoted away from cradle-to-grave biographies and salvaged what it could with that apologetic and beseeching genre “how a dead author you have never heard of may help you improve your life.”
Both Anthony Powell and Hilary Spurling might have been reasonably expected to suffer from this change. The novelist died in 2000 at the age of 94. In his sequence A Dance to the Music of Time he left perhaps the greatest panoptic description of British life in the mid 20th century. Across its twelve volumes flit not just people of all backgrounds and classes but some of the most memorable characters in 20th-century fiction. These include Powell’s most celebrated creation, Kenneth Widmerpool — a man whom even many people who have never read Powell recognize as that type of person who keeps inexorably falling upwards.
Producing a volume every two years from the 1950s onwards, Powell spent the main years of his creative life on the Dance sequence. The five pre-war novels and the two post-Dance novels are of interest. But there is no point pretending that Powell’s reputation rests on anything other than the Dance.
For any biographer the difficulty is that Powell not only lived a fairly sedentary life but that the central pillar of his work was (among other things) a chronicle of his times. Anybody wishing to know what Powell saw and learned in his century can head there. Worse — from the point of view of the biographer — is that having completed the Dance sequence with Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975), Powell did it all again. In 1976 he released the first of four volumes of memoirs, also published every two years. If the first volume of these (collectively titled To Keep the Ball Rolling) suffers from a misapprehension that the author’s Welsh ancestry is as interesting to others as it is to him, then the sequence is also indispensable for its precision portraits of Powell’s friends and contemporaries. Few people have ever written more perceptively or movingly about Powell’s school contemporary and unlikely friend George Orwell. And Orwell is just one among many in the literary and artistic milieu Powell resurrects in these pages. Again — what is there for a biographer to do other than quote?
Finally there is the problem of what Powell did late in life. In the 1990s he was not restrained from releasing three volumes of journals. These (covering the years 1982–92) had a seriously deleterious effect on his reputation. By then his friend and contemporary Evelyn Waugh had been dead for three decades. Orwell had been dead for almost five. Powell was already a survivor. The Journals made him seem a fossil.
Readers of the Dance will know its cross-section of human life and be aware that the author’s narrator-representative (Nicholas Jenkins) expresses no especial fondness for the upper classes, nor disdain for the lower. But the character that emerges from the Journals is unappealing to say the least. A typical entry can quite happily mention little other than the vintage he and Lady Violet had with their dinner. There are some tinder-dry verdicts on classics reread. Even his descriptions of friends such as V. S. Naipaul visiting the Chantry (the beautiful mini country house in Somerset purchased by the Powells in the 1950s) tend to contain little beyond descriptions of arrivals and departures. The author of the Dance is reduced to marking time.
The most serious charge to stick was that of snobbery, most of which had to do with Powell’s undoubted fascination with heredity (both his own and that of others). And there was something odd about this. On one famous occasion, not recounted by Spurling, Powell claimed to have worked out some grand ancestral lineage for Margaret Thatcher. Twenty years ago, discussing this aspect of the novelist with the late critic John Bayley, I was gifted the charming excuse that nothing would be thought to be sinister if Powell’s hobby had been motorcars: Powell’s hobby merely happened to have been Burke’s Peerage.
A fascination with lineage and heredity is of more use for a novelist, of course. To be generous in his defense, Powell’s true interest seemed to have slightly less to do with class veneration than with getting the best ringside seat possible for watching DNA play itself out. Specifically, for studying how elastic human beings’ efforts to escape from their genes might be. Early in the Dance a schoolboy throws a banana across a room and mistakenly but memorably hits Widmerpool in the face. Years later the narrator and Widmerpool are both at a dinner where one of the other guests turns out to be the sister of that culprit. Jenkins finds himself momentarily wondering whether some aspect of heredity will now direct the sister to start throwing bananas at Widmerpool.
What interested Powell was simply, as he once put it, “human beings behaving.” His solitary rearing, by a distant military father and a much older mother who was terrified of other people, created a boy of striking detachment. In his own words, his was “the unhappy gift of seeing oneself in some sort of perspective.” Some readers have difficulty with the apparent bloodlessness of Powell and his emissary-narrator. Yet the critical, coldly aloof eye was the one that made him a novelist. As so often, the negatives were also the blessings: A warmer observer might have observed — and cared to chronicle — far less.
Before his death, Powell assigned the task of chronicling his own life to Hilary Spurling, and for a time the task appeared to have hung around her neck. The author of several biographies (not least a miraculous two-volume life of Henri Matisse), Spurling was also the author of the glossary companion Invitation to the Dance (1977). Given that the Dance novels themselves run to around a million words and orbit around 500 characters, such a work was helpful. But it was also significant, for when it emerged, just after the Dance had closed, it embedded the notion that Powell’s work was deserving of such a key. Raucously enjoyable though his novels are, it is hard to imagine anybody feeling the need to compile a similar volume on the characters in Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion sequence. Or C. P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers novels.
Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be some delay in producing the official biography. Certainly the reputational fall-off that affects most long-lived artists after their death did not spare Powell. Within a year of his death, a slim Writer’s Notebook was released but did nothing to improve or diminish his reputation. Since then there has been one breezy, unofficial life (by Michael Barber) and a small, limited-edition volume of his letter exchange with a New York bookseller in the 1950s. But otherwise nothing. For almost two decades since his death, the reputation of Anthony Powell has relied on the Dance novels’ remaining in print and some ongoing attention brought by the fact that in 1997 the public television broadcaster Channel 4 finally managed to produce a long-awaited dramatization of the sequence. That production, which featured Sir John Gielgud, Alan Bennett, and Simon Russell Beale, among others, is now available in numerous formats. For Powellians it has been a considerable help in keeping their man alive. Still, the adaptation almost completely misses the main atmosphere of the Dance. For Channel 4 truncated all twelve novels into only seven hours of television. Anyone who thinks that is sufficient might reflect that one of the most acclaimed television adaptations of all time, of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, got eleven hours for just one novel.
The central point that viewers, rather than readers, of the Dance miss is something that younger readers may find to be a form of “préja-vu.” Certainly that was this writer’s experience. Older readers may read him and think “How like life,” but having done the reading and living the other way around, I have repeatedly found myself thinking “How like Powell.” The specific quality — summed up by the Nicolas Poussin painting that gave Powell his title — is the mysterious, haphazard, yet orderly nature of the whole affair. You start off in a certain place, with a family and a group of friends, and over the decades that follow people fall in and out of the sequence. In time, the order of the dance seems increasingly hard to predict. Yet it is not chaos. Though people fall and rise back to the surface, escape, return, or are ripped away from the fray, there is not only this unpredictability. There is also the occasional moment when you find yourself wondering whether the whole thing isn’t choreographed. Powell’s depiction of life is of a grand procession through disorder, from underneath which strains of some deeper harmony on occasion break through. The best that the television adaptation can do is to show surprising reconnections between friends who haven’t met for some hours. Yet it is a gateway: an introduction and a calling card.
If there was some reason to fear for Spurling’s official life it was not just that it needed to repair and resuscitate her subject’s reputation. It was also the risk that the estate-sanctioned biography might be one of those overlong official tomes, specifically one that got bogged down in which historical figures contributed which characteristics to characters in the Dance: the “clef” to the “roman.” Wisely, Spurling avoids any such thing, and her life of Powell positively zips along.
She recounts how Powell’s Eton classmates provided him with the skeleton of a family he otherwise barely had. At first theirs seemed a lucky generation. Powell himself (born in 1905) once described the age gap that they then saw. “Men and women grown up before 1914 were not only older, they were altogether set apart; and thus they remained throughout life. You never caught up with them.” After a disappointing spell at Oxford, Powell entered the lowest rungs of the publishing world. His boss, Gerald Duckworth, disliked books and their authors, indeed held the latter to be “a natural enemy against whom the publisher must hold himself arrayed for battle.” Traveling on the Continent in the early 1930s, Powell attended a cabaret of stick-thin girls in Berlin that left him and his companion “ashamed,” “depressed, and sober.”
His appetite for observing all aspects of life continued in London. But it always had a purpose. From an early stage, perhaps to console himself amid the tedium of office life, he stored things away as though he harbored a plan. In the early 1930s he spotted a blond girl on crutches on Shaftesbury Avenue singing with the voice of an opera star. Thirty years later she would appear halfway through the Dance. Strange characters whom a historian would ignore — mystics, frauds, drunks, failures — find their place: always captured, sometimes vindicated, never judged.
Powell’s relations with girls were fairly disastrous until he met one of the grandly scioned Pakenham clan and persuaded her to marry him despite his lack of money and prospects. The night before their wedding the couple threw a party at which “gin was poured like water” by two inexperienced maids lent by the Lady Violet’s grandmother. The next day’s service sustained an inevitable battering. The painter Henry Lamb arrived still badly inebriated. A hung-over John Heygate kept disrupting proceedings by moving back and forth across the aisle. And the composer Constant Lambert, who had arranged the music for the service and was the closest of all Powell’s friends, was too hung over to make the church.
Powell’s five pre-war novels gained him some attention, though they made nobody rich. Then, as now, reviewers too easily slipped into comparing Powell with his more famous contemporaries, though at least one made the invidious comparison with Waugh’s work, to Powell’s advantage: “Mr Waugh carries the heavier guns, but Mr Powell hits the target quite as often, and drills a neater hole.”
The war put a stop to almost everything. In what downtime he had after enlisting (he spent most of the conflict in the War Office), Powell made a study of the work of John Aubrey, about whom he subsequently wrote a useful if turgid life. Others lost far more, but from Spurling there is a clear sense that, having done his apprenticeship, Powell then lost what should have been his peak years to the war. As it was, he was lucky enough to survive not only the cataclysm but also the all-consuming cynicism that afterwards scarred some of his contemporaries. Powell saw the betrayal of the Yugoslav and Polish allies up close, and a profound depression followed. His wife and his friend Malcolm Muggeridge particularly helped him out of this gloom and encouraged him to begin composing the central work of his life.
The idea of a set of novels about “human beings behaving” made more profound sense after the war than before. The canvas on which Powell had previously been able to paint was detailed but narrow; now he was a husband, a father, and a man of some experience. The much-desired spark arrived one day as he stood before Poussin’s painting in London’s Wallace Collection. The four central dancers in Poussin’s work are enigmatic, and endless interpretations can be read into what precisely is going on. But with the putto, the hour-glass, and the clay pipe blowing bubbles, the one thing that cannot be doubted is that all of the figures are, as Powell said, “dancing to Time’s tune.”
And so Powell set into motion the great dance of his own creation. A procession filled not only with incident and tragedy but a dry and characteristic comedy of his own. It is no accident that P. G. Wodehouse was among Powell’s great admirers. Here is Widmerpool, holding forth to Jenkins in A Buyer’s Market:
“It doesn’t do to read too much,” Widmerpool said. . . . “By all means have some familiarity with the standard authors. I should never raise any objection to that. But it is no good clogging your mind with a lot of trash from modern novels.”
Nobody who has read it can ever forget the moment in The Kindly Ones when Widmerpool refers to Jenkins as “my boy.” Or the moment when Widmerpool dangles the possibility that an occasion might be found for Jenkins to be introduced to Widmerpool’s mother: a possibility that is held out as though it is not merely an honor but widely recognized as such. When Jenkins (like his creator) moves from his job in publishing to a low-grade job in a film company, he imparts the news to his friend (what else to call him?). “It may lead to something better,” says Widmerpool severely: “If you are industrious, you get on. That is true of all professions, even the humblest.” John Bayley once told me that when his wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch, was dying, the only novels he could read in his spare moments were the Dance. Principally because of how funny they are.
Plenty of plaudits came in Powell’s own day, admittedly often from the circle of friends whom he encouraged in turn. Kingsley Amis said, “I would rather read Mr. Powell than any English novelist now writing.” Naipaul was equally adulatory. Clive James once declared that the Dance was lining up to be “the greatest modern novel since Ulysses.” But Powell also had his detractors. Muggeridge ended up turning on the Dance, most likely out of creative envy. And of course there was Auberon Waugh. The episode does not appear in Spurling’s book, but in 1990 Waugh was offered a volume of Powell’s slightly sniffy criticism to review. The literary editor was away, and Waugh’s review slipped through uncensored. In it Waugh took the opportunity to launch an Exocet assault of the most studied malevolence. This included an assertion that the Dance was “an early upmarket soap opera” largely enjoyed by expatriate Australians (a classic Waugh doubles trike, intended to take out Clive James as collateral).
If there is an excuse for not mentioning this episode, it is that the entire quiet final quarter of a century of Powell’s life is dealt with by Spurling in a mere dozen pages. This last chapter includes an important summary that consists of both the author’s apologia for her subject and a touching reflection on her friend. Yet it is also the case that a quarter of a century later such literary spats no longer carry the significance in Britain or America that they did even in the ’90s. Not because writers have become nicer people, but because literature — like literary reputations — matters less than they did even then. What is the point of fighting over which novelist mattered more among his contemporaries if Netflix has become the medium of our time? Perhaps the fall-off in the trade of biography was just one symptom of a wider cultural change.
Powell’s position would likely have been up for grabs whether such a shift had occurred or not. He never did break through to the wider audience found by some of his contemporaries. His work never could be distilled into sound bites, never sought to argue specific cultural or political points, and would stand no chance in an elevator pitch. But he has his devotees for a reason, and his biographer turns out to have made the best argument possible not only for her subject but for the humane medium in which she writes about him.
“One of the most difficult things to realize when one is young,” Powell once wrote, “is that all the awful odds and ends taking place round one are, in fact, the process of living.” He remains a master explicator, not of how to change or improve a life, but of what any person — whatever his start — might reasonably expect from its course.