The Right Set

Anthony Powell Journals 1982-1986 Heinemann 20 pounds sterling 305 pp

I HAVE A CONSCIENCE about the author of Dance to the Music of Time. Many years ago, while still at university, I found myself for the first and last time in my life, on the college library committee, whose job it was to decide how to dispose of the annual library budget. The don who chaired the meeting of the committee proposed that the college purchase the whole series of Dance to the Music of Time. I had made two unsuccessful attempts to get my teeth into the work and resented the disappointment I felt at not having been able to enjoy it so I opposed the proposal emphatically and the other committee members not having an opinion, the proposal was dropped. Quite recently I took up the work again and discovered some of the charm which so many other readers have felt.

The charm is a very English charm. I cannot imagine Powell (pronounced as in polo not as in Enoch) making much sense to someone who has not at least experience of English culture. Powell is civilized, severe and the master of the understatement. The personality of the writer of these journals is the same as the narrator of the novels. The humour is very dry, the judgements severe, one almost hear the "tst" "tst" as he observes the quantites of onion sauce consumed by Philip Larkin and his girl friend, or the poor quality of claret served at one of the numerous literary luncheons he attends.

My first thought was that this book could only interest those already familiar with Powell's novels but as I went on reading I felt inclined to revise that view; these observations taken from "a day in the life" of a successful elderly English novelist could even be an appetizer before savouring the novels themselves (I think the metaphors are apt: Powell is something of a gourmet, references to food and wine consumed and judgement thereon occur at regular intervals in these journals). More likely I think is that whoever does enjoy these journals will enjoy the novels and vice-versa, they are written in the same style, in the same way and the beg the same questions.

The writer, happily describing his day-to-day business with publishers and authors and interviewers from the media, jolts us from time to time with opinions that hint at a more radical position than his mostly benign patter would indicate: he declines to present Vidia Naipaul with the Jerusalem Prize among other reasons because "I am not too keen on exchanging courtesies with the terrorist Begin". Other comments are mystifying: he is told by Duncan Followell of Time Out that "Time Out was a Left paper, intended to take the place of now intellectually collapsed New Statesman." Can this be how the paper really sees itself, or is this something said for the benefit of an "old fogey"? Powell's next comment on the journalist suggests that in his quiet way he has "sussed out" (to use their language) the Time Out people: "Fallowell seeemed reasonably intelligent, greatly pleased with himself, perhaps fairly well off." Here is the master of understatement: the force of the word "greatly" is strengthened by comparison with the less emphatic adverbs he uses to describe the man's intelligence and wealth. Another suprizing revelation under the same entry in Powell's journal: "the editor or literary editor of Time Out is a fan of mine". Those who are familiar with both the magazine concerned and Powell's novels will understand how peculiar this is. It is not unfair to say that the magazine is working hard and successfully to undermine the values, notably the formality, style, etiquette, wit, moderation which Powell represents. But then, this book is full of teasing observations of this kind. It begs many questions but offers no answers. Powell is not a philosopher or if he is, we should have to say that his philosophy is not to philosophize.

When someone writers a journal, whether with an eye to publication or not, it may well be that he or she feels it unecessary to explain, still less give excuses for opinions, stances or more grandly for the whole course of a life. But the questions posed in this book, or rather by this book, since the writer does not pose them directly at all, indeed seems unaware that there are such questions to be posed, relate not to just one writer but an entire generation. Here is a novelist, in the evening of his life, with a very successful career behind him, who writes a journal which hints but never states, that he does see what the disinterested observor can hardly fail to see, namely that for better or worse the attitudes and behaviour upon which his observations rest are worth defending more candidly and more explicitly if they are worth defending at all. And Powell surely believes they are worth defending, unless his entire life was a self-deception and his novels written with no other aim but to make enough money for him to quaff good claret. In the years to come it is difficult to imagine that many people will read Dance to the Music of Time at all, not because of a simple change in fashion, but because the kind of references and behaviour taken for granted will have totally disappeared. The frame of reference will have been dismantled, is being dismantled.

This is why there is more than a little truth in the literary revisionism which in the US especially has led to a rejection of the Western literary corpus as a whole and in principle. Western art is not "eternal": it draws its life from an understanding of the world which belongs to a complex cultural interraction, and ultimately not only cultural but racial too. If we compare Powell to a French writer of comparible talent and similar political views, say Jean Dutourd, we see all the weakness of the English reluctance to philosophize. Dutourd knows that the world he loves is disappearing and his novels bear witness to that knowledge. By constrast, Anthony Powell sounds like a first class passanger chatting in the bar of The Titanic. The English relucatance to speak out is exemplified in these journals. It is can be deference to good taste but in times of danger a vice. The English never seem to have the necessary understanding of power to become involved in intrigues. They only gossip. A man like Anthony Powell should have become editor of Time Out-that he left it to others whose agenda is subversive of his world, is at least partly his fault and that of many like him. This is a writer who helps us to remind us of the special qualities of Englishness but who is too polite for the times to defend them effectively. As he says somewhere in the book, "one doesn't want to be associated with anything fascist of course." Indeed one doesn't, that would be letting the show down, bad taste, foreign. Come to think of it, I do not have such a bad conscience about that library committee meeting after all.

Richard Harney

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