ANTHONY POWELL, ANTI-COMMUNIST
11:00 PM, Feb 18, 1996 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
The intellectual phenomenon called "anti-anti-communism" ought to be dead by now, along with the system that the anti-Communists successfully dele- gitimized even as the anti-anti- Communists were doing their worst to delegitimize them. But an essay in the December 18 issue of the New Yorker demonstrates that anti-anti-communism is unfortunately alive, though not very well. The occasion for the essay by the British critic Jeremy Treglown was the release, by the University of Chicago Press, of a new edition of Dance to the Music of Time. That is the collective name for Anthony Powell's 12-novel cycle about the writer Nick Jenkins and his life among the U's in Britain.
Treglown admires Dance to the Music of Time, and he should, because it is one of the great works of contemporary literature. He remarks on Powell's " comi-tragic diagnosis of English upper-middle-class life from the First World War through the sixties." The novels, he says, are "a satirical elegy for an era marked by the Second World War, about which Powell's historical sense is at its clearest and his social sympathies are broadest." And yet Treglown fails to mention, let alone imply, anything about what Powell's "historical sense" tells us and where the novelist's "social sympathies" lie. Dance to the Music of Time is a portrait of an England that, sadly, will never return, an England peopled by upper-middle-class solipsists and their louche hangers- on. Powell devotes a good deal of time in the book to skewering those of his countrymen who indulged in the most destructive passion of our time: the passion for Communist ideology and the Soviet Union.
Take, for example, his memorable character Kenneth Widmerpool -- intellectual crook, fellow-traveler, Soviet agent. Powell describes Widmerpool, the socialist M. P., as accommodating about Stalin's Moscow trials. Later, Widmerpool laments the Poles" pigheadedness over the Katyn Forest massacre, which he attributes "almost certainly, from what we know of [the Russians], to the consequences of administrative inadequacy, rather than willful indifference to human life and the dictates of compassion." Widmerpool's wife, the ineffable Pamela Flitton, says her husband regularly passed information on to the Russians. There are questions in parliament about Widmerpool's " business" activities in Stalinist Eastern Europe. Treglown describes Widmerpool, Labour party left-winger, as a man who "rises irresistibly in politics." But what "politics," what political party? He doesn't say.
But Widmerpool is far from the only character in the cycle with fashionably S talinist politics. There's Dr. Belkin, part of a Stalinist espionage ring, who later defects an d exposes Widmerpool as a Soviet agent, and his fellow spy Leon-Joseph Ferrand- Seneschal, man of the Left.
The servants of Stalin are not the only Communists to make their appearance in Dance to the Music of Time. It is enough merely to be an intellectual, it seems. Like J. G. Quiggin, Commmunist writer, defender of Stalin's purges, essayist on artistic decadence in a capitalist society. And Howard Craggs, left-wing publisher and fellow-traveler of long-standing. Not to mention Gypsy Jones, CP member, described as "resembling Soviet posters celebrating the Five- Year Plan." And Professor Sillery, admirer of Stalin, probable CP member and Labour peer. The arts, too, are represented, by Daniel McN. Token house, " Social Realist" painter, publisher, Communist, whose house in Venice is used for years as a postbox for passing secret information to the Kremlin.
In listing this cast of characters (with the help of Hilary Spurling's superb guidebook to Dance to the Music Time to the exclusions be giving the impression that Dance to the Music Time is little more than a crude expose of British left-wing opportunists and a few Soviet spies. That would be to do Powell an injustice. His work is no more political than, say, Balzac's or Dickens's, both of whom were deeply influenced by the political ideas of their day and yet transcended the narroxbounds of ideology.
Indeed, the Dance sequence is Powell's version of the human comedy; Widmerpool is to Powell as Vautrin was to Balzac -- a criminal mastermind, but in this case less interested in pulling the financial strings than in secretly aiding a totalitarian dictatorship.
What is so instructive, and infuriating, about Treglown's essay is his unwillingness to say anything about Powell's anti-Communist ideas -- as though such an admission would sully the name and reputation of a writer he admires. But it would be incredible, would it not, for a critic to discuss George Orwell purely as a literary critic and ignore Orwell the anti-Communist polemicist? Or to write about Tolstoy only as a military strategist?
In the 1960s in London, Powell and I were members of a Tuesday luncheon club created out of thin air in the 1960s by Robert Conquest, peerless scholar of the Stalin purges, and the late Kingsley Amis. We lunched weekly at a Charlotte St. restaurant called Bertorelli's and we prided ourselves on our politics, defined by the name of the club, The Reactionaries. Powell was a frequent attendee, enthusiastically participating in conversations about fellow-travelers, whether Tory or Labour, and other wafflers, or about some new Soviet trespass on human rights.
Now in his 90s, Powell deserves his due as a writer of enduring greatness. He does not deserve to have his passion for freedom and his enduring opposition to totalitarianism ignored by a supposedly admiring critic.
Arnold Beichman is a fellow of the Hoover Institution and the author of Anti-American Myths: Causes and Consequences, among other books.