Books furnished Anthony Powell’s rooms but still more his mind. Literary quotations crowded in on him. Fictional characters as well as their authors lived with him as vividly as the motley bohemocrats with whom he went to deb balls and nightclubs in the 1920s, shared flats and offices and, later, exchanged country visits. The Macbeths, he said, ‘were obviously a happily married couple’; Hamlet was ‘only too like many persons one has known’. Two idiosyncratic 17th-century works formed the bookends between which the rest of his reading and much of his personality were propped: Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Burton, the connoisseur of discontent, brooded over an encyclopaedia of human vanity culled from his immense reading. Aubrey, the insatiably curious gossip, collected stories about contemporary notables and, when he could, added his own quirky details. Powell the satirical novelist was a bit like both and, in his way, gave them new life. He wrote a biography of Aubrey, published in 1948. The titles of some of the novels in his series A Dance to the Music of Time are quotations from The Anatomy. Search on the internet for ‘books do furnish a room’ or ‘afternoon men’ and all the references are to Powell, though the phrases were originally Burton’s.
If Powell’s remaking of past high culture makes him sound improbably like T S Eliot, Hilary Spurling suggests in her absorbing biography that so it should. She quotes the writer Jocelyn Brooke: ‘The laconic, curiously empty dialogue, with its deliberate repetitions, achieves a compulsive interior rhythm which almost suggests Sweeney