THE READING PUBLIC has long been divided between those who regard Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time as one of the great achievements of the post-war novel and the author as England’s answer to Proust, and those who find it a work of mind-boggling tedium and pomposity, and are unable to fight their way through to the end. Since he seems to have spent a good deal of his later life rereading Dance with evident signs of enjoyment, Powell himself must have been among its admirers; those in the opposite camp included Auberon Waugh and Cyril Connolly, but, whereas Waugh made no bones about his dislike for the work and its author. Connollv – according to his widow – would dip his toe into each new installment, make polite noises on his next visit to the Chantry, and then hurriedly move on to other things.
For my own part, I love Powell’s sprightly prewar novels, relish the descriptions of Orwell, Connolly, Bowra and the rest in the autobiographies, and am hugely entertained by the journals, in which Powell fantasises about Mrs Thatcher, records visits to the dentist and congratulates himself on the vile-sounding lunches he serves to friends like V S Naipaul and Roy Jenkins, which consist of his own home-made ‘farmhouse’ curries washed down with claret and followed by Black Forest gateau: but I am defeated by Dance, suffocated by the airless Jamesian prose and unimpressed by the famed but utterly predictable coincidences whereby the members of a restricted cast of characters bump into each other in seemingly improbable circumstances. One of the many virtues of Michael Barber’s marvellous biography is that he almost tempts me to try again. I don’t think I will, but his wit and enthusiasm, as well as his disregard for the stodgy orthodoxies of conventional literary biography, make him the ideal counsel for the defence.
Unlike so many biographers, Barber takes the trouble to build up the secondary characters: essential in this case, not only because many of them are a good deal more colourful and entertaining than the main subject of the book, but because Powell liked to see himself as an observer, noting from the wings the absurdities and aberrations of his friends in bohernia and high society, and transmogrifying them into the characters in his books. While still an undergraduate at Oxford (the historian Philip Mason recalled), Powell ‘was already playing to perfection the part for which he casts the narrator in his novels, the almost invisible man, the universal unobtrusive confidant and observer’.
Genealogy was a lifelong passion. Arthur Crook, a colleague on the Times Literary Supplement shortly after the war, remembered how Powell ‘used to glory in the fact that his favourite bedside reading was Burke and Debrett’; and, much to his credit, he was proud to be descended, however circuitously, from various Welsh princes, and liked to be thought of as a Welshman. His father ., was a footloose soldier who, to the amazement of all concerned, left large sums of money in his will, so enabling Powell and his wife Violet to spend their later years living the life of a Somerset squire. After Eton, where his housemaster was a shoe fetishist and Robert Byron remembered him, dimly, as being ‘very boring’, Powell went on to Balliol: refreshingly, Barber reminds us that most undergraduates of the time were tweeded beer-drinkers, far more concerned with rugger results than with the pranks of Brian Howard, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton and the rest, and that, being ‘neither rich nor queer’, Powell was of little interest to the ‘Brideshead set’. (Barber likes to call a spade a spade: elsewhere he refers to someone as an ‘absolute shit’, rightly no doubt, and to someone else as a ‘spruce old queen’.)
After Oxford he went to work in publishing: Duckworth allowed him to ’empty the inkpots and compose the ads and that sort of thing’, after which he took on non-fiction works by the youthful Evelyn Waugh and was duly gratified when the firm agreed to publish his own early novels. By nature a conventional, tidy figure with conservative political and social leanings, he was, Barber suggests, less thick-skinned than flamboyant contemporaries like Waugh and Betjeman, and lacked their zeal for self-promotion. Even so, he soon displayed a fascination with bohemia, striking up friendships with such raffish coves as the composer Constant Lambert and the brilliant sponger, short-story writer and sometime vacuum-cleaner salesman Julian Maclaren-Ross. Even more improbably, he lost his virginity to Nina Hamnett, the high priestess of Fitzrovia, famed for her perfect bosom and for having modelled for Modighani.
Barber covers all this with admirable panache, interlacing Powell’s own life with those of his friends, and suggesting who might or might not have been the originals of Widmerpool and Stringham in Dance. We learn about Powell’s short, unhappy stint in Hollywood; about how, during the war, he masterminded the supply of soap to the Poles; of his friendships with Malcolm Muggeridge, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, who pronounced him ‘the only Tory I have ever liked’; about life on the TLS and Punch, and his long career as a book reviewer on the Daily Telegraph, rudely broken off after Auberon Waugh launched an ad hominem assault in the pages he had graced for so long.
Writing to their mutual friend Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin famously described Powell as a ‘horse-faced dwarf’, which seems a bit harsh: he may have been a fearful snob, but Jilly Cooper remembers him as being ‘terribly nice to waiters’ – always a good sign; and what comes across most strongly from Barber’s biography is his genuine interest in the variety and oddity of human nature. Whether he managed to convey this in the pages of Dance is another matter, but reading Michael Barber’s version of events almost persuades me that he did.