If you combine Tolstoy with PG Wodehouse, Downton Abbey (though I never watch it), a book on London by HV Morton or Ian Nairn, the Sunday colour supplements from the 1980’s and Private Eye, you might end up with Anthony Powell’s 12 volume meisterwerk, A Dance to the Music of Time.
It’s traditionally compared to Proust, whom I have not read as yet, though I get the connection. That said, it’s irredeemably English all the way through, and without being a comedy as such, is suffused with humour of the most subtle kind. The link to an appreciation by Marxist Brexiteer Tariq Ali, of all people, is actually pretty good.
The ‘Sunday colour supplement’ link is a reflection on the fact that Powell was a regular feature in the arts pages in that period. The last volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, was published in 1975, by which time his star had risen, and he died in 2000. Virtually every other week in the Sunday Times or Observer, there’d be a reference to Powell, his influence, one of his friends or a flattering profile, often pictured reclining on antique furniture in the company of his wife, the aristocratic Violet Pakenham. The papers were addicted to this sort of Bloomsbury snobbishness (see also Anita Brookner, or the dreadful Patrick Leigh Fermor correspondence with the Duchess of Devonshire), and I always found it vaguely interesting, without having read the books. I knew about the author long before I’d read anything by him.
In any event, it was a much cited appreciation from America, by the great Christopher Caldwell, that made me start the first book, A Question of Upbringing (1951), which surprised me by how readable it was, and by how gripping the story became, probably on the strength of its characterisation. The plot as such is thin, though you end up admiring Powell’s masterly interweaving over the 25 years it took him to complete it. That first step was about 6 months ago, I’ve now just finished the last volume.
Powell is like Dickens in many ways: characters have ridiculous names like Rowland Gwatkin and Erridge Warminster, the books are easily read in bite sized chunks, and it absolutely cries out to be filmed. The latter has happened, though I’ve not seen it. Powell is in all the books as the somewhat bland narrator, Nick Jenkins – probably the most normal male character in the series. All the characters have real life counterparts, acquaintances of Powell, such as the louche and doomed Julian MacLaren-Ross, who crops up as the magnetic if somewhat stupid novelist, X Trapnel, or the destructive society man-eater Barbara Skelton, as Pamela Flitton. The Bohemian undercurrents are a key feature of the novels.
Just as Tolstoy was a profound psychologist, Powell gets deep into the minds and motives of his characters, but unlike Tolstoy, does it with the lightest and non-declamatory of touches. He really does write beautiful English. Also like Tolstoy, there is a case to be made that he’s just producing a very upmarket soap opera, though that’s not a negative criticism as such.
What it’s about is hard to pin down – Nick’s traversal of much of the 20th century from the 1920’s at a thinly disguised Eton, up to the hippie era, with a merry-go-round of numerous characters who interact, drop out, reappear, marry, divorce, die and so on. It’s a novel of human behaviour and man as a social animal, good and bad. Not only does it bear Proust’s imprint (we are always told), it has itself been influential, most notably in my experience in William Boyd’s virtuoso – and very entertaining – Any Human Heart.
The key character is Kenneth Widmerpool, who is the chief beneficiary of Powell’s habit of bringing threads together by having the same people pop up improbably in all sorts of scenarios, not unlike the inane Harry Potter’s use of the magic wand. The thing about this character, as many people have observed, is that everyone knows at least one Widmerpool. I can think of several from my own life. To quote Caldwell “a fishy grotesque of undissembled careerism, the living, (heavy-) breathing antithesis of sprezzatura. When nervous, which is usually, he sweats and pants and frantically cleans his glasses”. Yet Widmerpool ostensibly succeeds, rising above the throng. Only last month he popped up in this piece in the politics website Reaction, where the author makes a valiant – if failed – effort to cast Trump as Powell’s most unappealing character.
The real comparison – a point I’ve made often on Twitter – is Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s appropriately bullying, lardy and slimy leader in Westminster, a man in theory in a senior position, but uniting his opponents in their dislike of his shrilly pompous and horribly dull speeches (1, 2, 3). He is the Widmerpool de nos jours, but in due course others will arise. They always do.
There are many fine appreciations of ADTTMOT online, try here, here, here and here, for example and it’s intriguing how much it works for Americans, though I suppose the Boston Brahmin crowd and the Democrat ‘intelligentsia’ have a lot in common with many of the cast.
So, if you’re considering embarking on the Powellian voyage, or if you’re just looking for something different to read, go for it. eBay is full of bargain copies (I got all the Mark Boxer covers). The story of Powell’s 20th century is, in its special way, always being repeated, ad infinitum.