The Magazine

Anthony Powell's Century

Britain's novelist of manners turns 100.

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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ON APRIL 29, 1951, Kingsley Amis complained in a note to Philip Larkin about a slew of mediocre new novels he had been reading. He singled out Anthony Powell's A Question of Upbringing for especial contempt. "The most inconclusive book I have ever read," Amis called it. "The sort of book where you wonder whether someone has torn the last quarter out. It travels imperceptibly on its way, steadily losing direction, shedding feeling and discarding tension."

Amis seems not to have realized that he was reading only the tiniest opening installment of A Dance to the Music of Time, an eventual million-word monument to 20th-century London high society that would follow several hundred voyeuristic, miserly, sporting, autodidactic, Stalinist, rapacious, sluttish, alcoholic, ingenious, saintly, pedantic, and sadistic characters across two world wars and the collapse of the British Empire, from public-school playing fields to balls to country house weekends to Soho whorehouses to Singaporean prisoner-of-war camps to corporate boardrooms and to hippie communes, running from August 1914 to the autumn of 1971.

By the third volume of an eventual twelve, Amis was among the cycle's most ardent champions. In 1960 Amis described himself as "longing" for the publication of the fifth volume. A bit later he admitted that "I would rather read Mr. Powell than any English novelist now writing."

Amis's experience is not atypical. Even Powell's biographer Michael Barber, who has been obsessed for decades with A Dance to the Music of Time, writes of his first attempt to penetrate it: "Forty years on I can still recall my disappointment with the story." Powell, whose name rhymes with "Lowell" rather than "bowel" and who died at 94 in 2000, would have turned 100 this December 21. He reaches his centenary with his reputation coming to a kind of equilibrium. The cycle has gone in and out of vogue (and come in and out of print) every decade or so since its completion in 1975. And each time this happens, another name gets added to the list of those who consider A Dance to the Music of Time "the greatest modern novel in English since Ulysses" (Clive James), or even the greatest novel written in English in the 20th century, period.

These encomiums are due, whether the praisers admit it or not, to Powell's having written a novel in the traditional social-comic vein of Jane Austen. Or perhaps Fielding and Thackeray would be the better comparisons, since V.S. Pritchett, Powell's most clear-eyed critic, used to say that Powell was "the first to revive the masculine traditions of English social comedy."

Powell did not write this way because he was an old incorrigible--although, certainly, one feels a pleasant giddiness to read someone who died five years ago describing, first-hand, people born when Palmerston was prime minister. Powell's tastes in literature were decidedly modernist when he and the century were in their twenties. He was at Eton with Cyril Connolly and George Orwell. He annoyed (and was, in turn, annoyed by) Graham Greene. For a while in the 1930s he was considered the English novelist who had learned the most from Ernest Hemingway. But spending the entire Second World War in the army must have changed him as a writer. In A Question of Upbringing, his first novel in more than a decade, he tacked directly against what he called the "pedantic and technique-bound" style of Joyce and other modernist writers, and even against much of what he himself had written up to that point. It is not surprising that Amis was at a loss for what to make of it.

A Dance to the Music of Time begins at Eton (which is never named), where the teenage narrator Nicholas Jenkins shares rooms with two friends. One (Stringham) is a charming aristocrat, wise, but given to longueurs and lacking a sense of direction. The other (Templer) is the son of a tycoon, rich, fun-loving, but not exactly presentable in Stringham's company as life wears on. Through his two friends, Nick will meet much of the London that matters by the time he signs off in his late sixties. In a sense, life is just a matter of Eton ramifying endlessly. "Even now," he later writes of Stringham and Templer, "it seems to me that I spent a large proportion of my life in their close company, although the time that we were all three together was less than eighteen months."