Journals (1982-1986) by Anthony Powell - review by Nicholas Shakespeare

Nicholas Shakespeare

Diarist who Makes your Hair Stand on End

Journals (1982-1986)


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About himself, Anthony Powell never revealed an awful lot in his fortnightly reviews for the Telegraph, which he sustained with great distinction over fifty years. He was not averse to giving others a pasting (for example to Geoffrey Grigson, ‘most other reviewers lacking the guts to do so’), but generally you learnt little of what he thought about contemporary fiction , or the private details – so vital to an understanding of a novelist’s craft – of his own humdrum existence.For the first time, he has decided to publish a diary, the years in question (1982-86) covering more or les the ground from where his memoirs left off. While he appreciates the pitfalls (‘that difficult art form’, he calls diary writing), Powell is unhampered by the sad fact that he has reached an age where nothing happens to him. Excursions to London form the chief excitement, this period being characterised by visits to a dentist employed on the reconstruction of his lower jaw. He sits for a portrait, dines with old friends, meets a few important new people, such as Mrs Thatcher (‘She had no small talk, I could think of nothing to say’), and celebrates the launch of two books. Charitably, he furnishes us with the guest lists for these occasions, including refusals, the texts of a couple of speeches he makes, and, where possible, the vintages he has consumed together with a brief description.

After an enjoyable luncheon at his club he might, before returning to the country, call in at Hatchard’s or pause at the London Library to investigate a genealogical link to a sixteenth-century Powell. Only occasionally is he importuned by the world beyond this goat path, as in his comical description of meeting outside the Travellers’ a prostitute whom he mistakes for a prim young foreigner needing help with an address. When she points down the steps where she intends to offer a slice of life in the raw, he writes stiffly: ‘I said I had a date already.’

At his best, Powell is an elegant and shrewd observer of the human condition, if not always of his own. He writes amusingly about Mrs Thatcher, finding her ‘very attractive physically’. (A good Powell novel might dissect her effect on kindred spirits.) He is funny, too, about the idiosyncrasies of friends like Kingsley Amis and V S Naipaul, the latter heard yelling across a supermarket to Miriam Gross: ‘Let’s hope the Blacks don’t move in.’ And he is never less than sure-footed when his literary curiosity is roused. The points he makes about Hardy, Maugham, Tolstoy and Shakespeare are unfailingly sharp.

He moves on shakier pins through the world of Young People, whom he finds devitalised – he has not heard, for instance, of the ubiquitous Jeremy Beadle and he knows ‘little or nothing of Time 0ut.’ Like his fictional character Moreland, for whom the immediate past tends to dissolve into an intense recollection of the pre-war years, Powell’s stride is at its briskest when rounding up the usual suspects, i.e. Orwell, Connolly, Waugh, Greene, etc, etc. The material is achingly familiar, but for its author this is no problem. As he writes after another unsatisfactory interview: ‘I have ceased to bother whether l have said it all before.’

Apart from these little outings, the Journals chronicle life at The Chantry, his establishment near Frome. Powell would appear to divide the world beating a path to his door into Fans (the word ‘fan’ is mentioned on almost every page) and Shits. Fans are those who have read and admired his novels – to the exclusion of all else in the case of Miss Nancy Cutbirth of the AP society, Kalamazoo – and are currently embarked on a bibliography, a biography, a thesis or – best of all – a twelve-part adaptation of his work for television. Shits are those journalists and bearded photographers who arrive, late, to interview him about it. He holds journalists in the same contempt as reviewers (‘stupid, incompetent, often envious, rarely grasping the point of any given book’). Always reluctant to agree to an interview, he grants nevertheless about fifty in this period.

Sitting for his Royal Academy portrait, Powell admits ‘one never knows what one looks like’. I wonder, indeed, if he can realise what a dash he cuts in these pages. Rodrigo Moynighan, the artist, tells Powell he always gives the sitter the characteristics he is experiencing at the time. In his pen portraits, the same rings true of Powell. Quick to diagnose ‘shattering egotism’ or ‘uncontrollable vanity’ in Penelope Betjeman, Isherwood, Grigson, Quennell, Larkin et al, he is slothful to detect in himself symptoms that look perilously the same. The portrait that emerges, most unfairly to those who have had the fortune to meet him. is of a writer tormented by grudges, churlishness and conceit.

Powell is not normally a writer to stand one’s hair on end, but he does so here when contemplating his fellow practitioners. His publishers categorise him as ‘probably the greatest living English writer’, which makes him sound like a lager. But just look how actively he clears the ground of rivals past and present. The effect is not unlike napalm:

Graham Greene: ‘Absurdly overrated.’
Laurie Lee: ‘Utterly unreadable.’
Evelyn Waugh: ‘Unnourishing feeling in most of his books.’
Rushdie: ‘Characteristic of particular sort of bad writing.’
J B Priestley: ‘Totally uninteresting.’
Garcia Marquez: ‘Rot.’
Auden: ‘Overrated.’
Henry Green: ‘Not all that intelligent.’
Nabokov: ‘Appallingly third-rate tinsel stuff’
Borges: ‘I find difficulty in reading his works.’
Flaubert: ‘Does rather pile on agony at the end.

After which one awaits with unusual interest Powell’s idea for a ‘novel in the form of letters, beginning by an author replying more or less formally to a fan-letter…’

It is a failing among famous writers to believe that because they are famous everything they write is of consequence and interest. For those who are concerned whether Cicero might have been a member of Pratt’s or at what point circumcision became popular among the upper classes, this book will be a source of enduring fascination. These are the issues, after all, on which a substantial part of the Powell mechanism ticks. But is this what he really thinks? Are these his most intimate feelings? Doesn’t he have doubts ever about his abilities as a writer or human being? A diary is conventionally a repository of introspection and qualms, but this diarist appears to have inherited from his father ‘a conviction of his own absolute rightness in everything’. Sadly, the Journals stop short of the period that might provide illumination.

I was on a camel, slightly south of Zagora, when Powell resigned from the Telegraph as the result of a notice I had commissioned of his collected book reviews. Yielding to a desire held since childhood to sleep in the desert, I set off confident everything had been left well in hand. One Tremendous Fan was to be deployed in the daily paper, while another had written a lavish interview for the Sunday paper, of which at that time I was Literary Editor. There was the question of the Sunday notice. My solution was to give it to our new lead reviewer, beginning work that week. Initially reluctant, Auberon Waugh agreed.

I had departed for Morocco by the time the fateful piece arrived. It was a few days later, while I lay under the stars, that the shit hit the fan. Powell, Waugh rudely asserted among other things, couldn’t write for toffee. Promptly Powell resigned from the sister paper.

I tremendously regretted the incident, and continue to do so, but for five years I have been curious to know this: what manner of man is it who can dish out pasting over the course of a half-century and be affected so inordinately by adverse criticism? I am now less curious.

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