Comparisons between works of art, Adorno maintained in Minima Moralia, are inevitably at once refused and demanded by them. That they may simply be incongruous he disregarded. Cases where parallels are as close as those between Proust and Powell lend ‘the compulsion to evaluate’ he thought so generally inescapable a particular force, requiring especial care. We are dealing with two great writers, one universally, the other marginally, acknowledged as such. Yet in at least a couple of respects that have traditionally been held central to the art of the novel, construction of plot and depiction of character, Powell unquestionably ranks far above Proust. How much does such an advantage matter? Novels that scant or defy plot have a long and distinguished history – Sterne in the 18th century, Goncharov in the 19th, Rilke in the early 20th, dozens thereafter. Starting later, effectively in the interwar period, major work dispensing with characters became a regular feature of the literary landscape, from The Trial to La Nausée onwards: Beckett, Borges, Gracq, Calvino and others. Proust, however, disavowed neither, innovating rather than abolishing them, as he saw it. As a claimant to both, he is subject to comparative judgment of what he made of them.
There his aura has been protected by the differing fortunes of plot and character in the history of modern criticism. For Russian Formalism, the most original school of literary theory of the past century, whose influence has also lasted longest, the action of any novel combined a story – fabula – and a plot, or syuzhet, study of whose variant relations in due course produced a technical discipline, narratology. Where did character fit into this structure? It was reduced to a set of functions supporting the narrative, on the model of Propp’s taxonomy of folk tales, precursor of Lévi-Strauss’s treatment of myths. Much intellectual water has flowed under the bridge since the time of the Formalists, but the theoretical hierarchy they introduced has remained; its most popular subsequent device perhaps Greimas’s ‘semiotic square’, in which characters become so many ‘actants’ occupying six invariant positions in any given tale. ‘For a long time now,’ Alex Woloch writes in The One v. the Many, ‘characterisation has been the bête noire of narratology, provoking either cursory dismissal, lingering uncertainty or vociferous argument.’ Continuing poststructuralist and ongoing scientistic trends in literary theory, sworn foes otherwise, are both averse to it: for the first, tainted with the delusion of identity, for the second, recalcitrant to the progress of computability (when it comes to questions of evaluation, often also two sides of the same coin, equally petrified by it). Since Proust’s handling of narrative, where he was a pioneer in the creative loosening of corsets, whatever the shortcomings of his execution of it, was superior to his treatment of character, where the rigidity of his preconceptions undermined what he took to be his discoveries, it is not illogical that he should in general have enjoyed a critical free pass where he was weakest.
Scholarship is one thing, readership another. Contrast in the reception of the two writers is not confined to the volume of academic literature about them, where the legendary overproduction of writing by the French about their national icons – there are three thousand books on de Gaulle, five times as many as on Churchill – needs to be taken into account. A more significant index is translation. On the centenary of Du côté de chez Swann, a colloquium could discuss translations of Proust into well over a dozen languages.To date, the 12 volumes of A Dance have appeared only in French and Spanish, though a German version will be completed this year; Italian and Finnish petered out after the fourth, Swedish after the second, Portuguese the first (Italian later picking up randomly again from the seventh to ninth). Rendering works the size and complexity of A la recherche and A Dance into another language is an expensive business, incurring costs requiring commensurate sales. Literary laurels and commercial success, though today ever less independent of each other, remain distinct. The thumbs-up of the market is clear: Proust’s popularity is much greater.
At first sight, this may seem strange, given that Proust is in so many respects the less accessible of the two writers. But there is a sense in which the scale of his audience derives from the ambiguity of his achievement. For some of the limitations of his art, viewed intellectually or aesthetically, are also, looked at sociologically, among its attractions. Though set in a highly specialised and now distant milieu, A la recherche offers scenes of it reducible to readily available registers: satire of manners and ontology of passions, the one figuring as mask of the other. The satire requires no great depth of sophistication to grasp, answering to standard expectations of what an aristocracy past its prime would be like – pretension, snobbery, egoism, hypocrisy. Behind this local diorama of frivolity and falsehood, however, lie ostensible truths of universal scope: laws of the heart and mind operative everywhere, abstract and absolute, secrets brought at last to light by art, unmediated access to which readers anywhere on earth can gain.
Proust was not, of course, the first novelist to issue such existential edicts, even if no one before had ever done so at such length. What sets his apart is a more general feature of his writing, which accounts for much of its appeal: modal reliance on hyperbole. The rule of his imaginary is exaggeration. Characters balloon into caricatures; psychological insight escalates to ontological lemma; metaphor – or more typically simile – lifts the banalities of everyday sense-data into a stratospheric poetry of colour and light. Detesting what he called realism, Proust wanted to outbid it, and in doing so won part of his acclaim. Larger than life is, after all, a term of praise. Hyperbole – the briefest glance around the society of the spectacle is a sufficient reminder – pays. So too, sex. Malcolm Bowie’s ‘enveloping category of categories’, ‘recklessly exceeding the requirements of the plot’, is another reason for the allure of A la recherche. Novels governed by the dynamics of desire, naturally, pre-existed Proust – Laclos and Balzac each wrote a masterpiece. But no one had ever produced such saturated sexualisation of an entire fictional world, sensational not only in degree but in kind, as the most forbidden forms of desire – between men, between women, pleasure in inflicting cruelty, pleasure in receiving it – become as it were the ground-bass of all conventional forms. Much has been normalised since, but the frissons of that erotic expansion have not lost their zing at the till.
Finally, there is Proust’s romanticism. Formed in the 19th century, drawing inspiration in different ways from Chateaubriand and Nerval, he was at home in the dramatic afflatus of the high romantic tradition, and its characteristic tropes – enchanted childhoods, nature dazes, unhappy loves, tormented souls, vanities of the world, consolations of art – of which so many would become, in degraded form, staples of the culture industry in the next century. Fond memory belonging to that repertoire, Proust gave his touch of magic to it: the madeleine (in due course convertible into an item for comestible tourism), along with the hyphenation of Illiers and Combray in the spirit of Disney, how-to kitsch and the rest of the postmodern paraphernalia around his name, to which Proustian scholars delight to allude with a complaisant wink.So too in moral sensibility, he gave his own expression to the inseparable couplet of the cynical and sentimental, perhaps the most common of all legacies of romanticism, from bohemian garrets to Hollywood studios.
In reproducing so many of these, Proust ensured that they would enter into his posthumous reception. But, of course, the heights of his art transcended them. The weaknesses of A la recherche that have supplied so many of its popular attractions were also among the prices of its greatness. Had Proust been less indifferent in his fiction to the existence of others, the scruples of the intellect, the flux of history, he could not have created the vaulting interior universe of sensuous perception and emotion, a subjectivity unbound and hitherto unimaginable, of A la recherche. Nor the language in which he created that universe, soaring above the restrictions of what it contained and, resisting all impatient access, leaving the intractable mark of genius on it, in more, and more unforgettable, images than any other novel ever written. Proust aimed at the sublime. His addiction to hyperbole could become a lame – on occasion even an absurd – striving for it: few passages in Western literature court ridicule with such success as the anthropomorphic apostrophe to hawthorn blossom in the second volume of A la recherche. But that at his finest – depicting and confronting death – he achieved the sublime, no reader of the passages describing the last days of his grandmother, or the final pages of the last volume, could doubt. That art could redeem death was its formal conclusion. Yet he could also concede that art was not itself immortal: it might survive a century or two, but along with the human race it would perish in the end, with the cooling of the earth. The ability to contemplate both ideas ‘in a single encompassing gaze’, as Bowie rightly observed, was the mark of a disinterested vision that ‘only great artists can achieve’.
In all these respects, Powell offers a counterpoint. His world is not so immediately available across languages, because it is so much less abstract: not a set of universal propositions with a light topping of satire, but the representation of a particular society over time through a large number of carefully delineated individuals. He was very conscious of just how distinctive was the class structure and culture of the England he portrayed, and the specific problems these presented the novelist. While in the Ritz, the narrator of A Dance muses:
Waiting for someone in a public place develops a sense of individual loneliness, so amongst all this pale pink and sage green furniture, under decorations of rich cream and dull gold, I felt myself cut off from the rest of the world. I began to brood on the complexity of writing a novel about English life, a subject difficult enough to handle with authenticity even of a crudely naturalistic sort, even more to convey the inner truth of the things observed.
Remarking in an interview that ‘Russians and Americans’ and ‘to a certain extent the French’ could simply ‘throw somebody onto the canvas’, and ‘everybody knows what they were talking about’, Powell spelled out the problem as he saw it: in England, ‘people have to be described much more, you do get these extraordinary variations.’ The variations – a point underlined by the difference between the narrator and the acquaintance he is failing to meet, of the same age, university and profession as himself, which sets him thinking – are products not just of temperament, but of backgrounds, some understanding of which is essential for a sense of Powell’s achievement.
The opening pages of A la recherche and of A Dance illustrate the questions of access each pose a first-time reader neither French nor English. Both start with a famous paragraph of notable beauty: depicting insomnia in Proust, snow descending on fire in Powell. The first-person singular occurs 15 times in Proust; in Powell, not once. All readers, anywhere, possess an ‘I’ and have experienced sleep or lack of it. No language besides English possesses a one-word equivalent of the kippers, cast on flames, that billow smoke into the wind as the ‘grey, undecided’ snowflakes drift down on them. In Proust the novel proceeds for the next forty pages to describe a scene from the narrator’s childhood, peopled by his family. Every reader was once a child. In Powell, it moves to scenes in a boarding school, an institution few anywhere have ever attended, and of a kind that exists in no other country. In Proust, it is the syntax that tests the reader’s curiosity and intelligence. In Powell, the society. A glance at what translators have made of his titles suggests how difficult that can be: A Buyer’s Market reduced in French to the slop of Les Mouvements du coeur, The Kindly Ones to the bathos of Les Braves Gens. That last word in A Question of Upbringing? The renditions in Italian, Spanish, French, ‘classe’, ‘formación’, ‘éducation’ – the connotation escapes them all.
A further hurdle to reception at large is a question of style. Where Proust employs hyperbole, Powell characteristically chooses litotes, which has no comparable continuum of use across different cultural registers. No blockbuster can afford understatement. In The Acceptance World, the narrator connects the two impediments, a complicated class structure and a preference for low-decibel forms of expression, directly: ‘Intricacies of social life make English habits unyielding to simplification, while understatement and irony – in which all classes of this island converse – upset the normal emphasis of reported speech.’ Though litotes is as distinctive a feature of Powell’s own writing, if not as pervasive, as hyperbole is of Proust’s, he was aware of its dangers. After further thoughts on the question, the narrator’s meditation ends: ‘Understatement, too, had its own banality; for, skirting cheap romanticism, it could also encourage evasion of unpalatable facts.’ No sense of the risks of overstatement is to be found in Proust.
Sex? A Dance gives full measure to the place of desire in human life. Powell credited James with ‘forcing, almost single-handed, the English novel into the status of a work of art’, but remarked that there he fell short; even The Golden Bowl was limited by a ‘chronically inadequate understanding of sexual passion as an element in human motive’. No reader is likely to tax Powell’s Dance with that limitation. Reversing national stereotypes, Isabelle Joyau, its French critic, notwithstanding her admiration for it, purses her lips at ‘the abyss of carnality’ portrayed in the ‘sexual shuttles’ of its characters. Such a view conspicuously misses its mark, relationships in A Dance ranging far beyond mere physical coupling. The erotic is an element in human motive, not its invariable dominant: there is none of the overdrive of A la recherche. Nor can it be understood simply as concupiscence. Based as it was on a lifelong fascination with others, Powell’s grasp of the attachments between people was incomparably wider and deeper than Proust’s fixation on the mechanisms and manias of jealousy. ‘Few subjects are more fascinating than other people’s sexual habits from the outside; the tangled threads of appetite, tenderness, convenience or some hope of gain.’ The apposition defines the sentimental world of A Dance. It withholds the crowd appeal of the cattleya.
Then, too, there is Powell’s consistent critique of romanticism. In a TLS editorial of 1951 – at the time, naturally, unsigned – on the occasion of a new edition of Mario Praz’s Romantic Agony, after remarking that the antithesis of the classical and the romantic, however inexact and often expelled from critical vocabulary, always tended to return, he offered his own provisional descriptions of the terms: ‘A certain directness of approach to life and tradition – whatever the immediate technique – surely suggests classicism; while romanticism could perhaps be described as dealing in terms of “what life might be”.’ Tiresome and misleading as the couplet became when employed to excess, it remained of use. If it had been largely abandoned by literary criticism, he observed some years later, that was because ‘we have all become so hopelessly steeped in romanticism that it is hard for anyone to imagine any other point of view’: newspapers, films, posters, feuilletons had made its ‘pervasive and protean’ appeal ‘part of our daily lives’. Formed at the moment of an intransigent modernism for which romanticism was anathema, never altogether losing his admiration for the ‘luminous brutal prose, blocked-in with a painter’s eye’ of Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, Powell identified self-pity and sentimentality as besetting weaknesses of romanticism – traits he detected in many well-regarded writers: Wilde, Ford, Greene, West, even Joyce.
How did he square this dislike with his admiration for Proust? He often remarked – it was one of his most characteristic sayings – that with any writer of significance, even the greatest, you always had to put up with something. In the case of Proust, he wrote late on, alongside brilliant set pieces you had passages of an overpowering artificiality; dreadful longueurs in Albertine disparue; generalisations that often didn’t make sense; virtually no difference in social scenes of 1900 and 1920. But ‘the dazzling side of the novel makes up for a certain amount of dullish, even silly stuff.’ There was nothing unusual in that. But how was his work to be classified? It had to be granted that there were strong romantic elements in Proust; his attitudes to love and friendship, art and history, not to speak of duchesses, spoke of them. But in the ruthless consistency of its philosophy, structure and development in handling these ingredients, A la recherche as a whole was essentially classical.It might be asked whether here the limits of a dichotomy to which Powell, with all due qualifications, typically held weren’t reached. That he himself could not always sustain it can be seen in his debt to Fitzgerald, no Chateaubriand, but one who all the same approached everything in ‘a spirit of pure romanticism’. In his own work, here is the way he finesses the purest romantic epiphany:
Would it be too explicit, too exaggerated, to say that when I set eyes on Isobel Tolland, I knew at once I should marry her? Something like that is the truth; certainly nearer the truth than merely to record those vague, inchoate sentiments of interest of which I was so immediately conscious. It was as if I had known her for many years already; enjoyed happiness with her and suffered sadness. I was conscious of that, as of another life, nostalgically remembered. Then, at that moment, to be compelled to go through all the paraphernalia of introduction, of ‘getting to know’ one another by means of the normal formalities of social life, seemed hardly worthwhile. We knew one another already; the future was determinate.
The lyrical high ends like this:
But what – it may reasonably be asked – what about the fact that only a short time before I had been desperately in love with Jean Duport; was still, indeed, not sure I had been wholly cured? Were the delights and agonies of all that to be tied up with a ribbon, and thrown into a drawer to be forgotten? What about the girls with whom I seemed to stand nightly in cinema queues? What, indeed?
‘Aren’t we going to be told who everyone is?’ said Susan, looking around the room and smiling.
Effects like these have little in common with the ways of Swann or the beaches of Balbec; let alone celluloid derivatives.
Lastly, and in many ways most significantly for reception at large, there is a difference of generic weighting. In the fictional worlds of A la recherche and A Dance, as in that of Cao’s The Dream of the Red Chamber, there is much that is comic. But the place of laughter in them is not the same. Many of Proust’s social scenes, when not overdone, are famously entertaining; taking up close to a third of the novel, they are integral to its greatness, which without them would necessarily be a lesser, more monotone affair. The form of the comic thread that runs through it is satire, which is always an attack – derision of a particular target, in this case snobbery, hypocrisy, pretension. In the enclosed world of the Jia-Zhen compound in Cao’s novel, delightful comic elements abound; but more delicate in dialogue and situation, these take the form of wit. In Powell’s work, by contrast, though there is both mockery and wit, it is comedy in a larger sense, neither instrumental nor incidental – of characters and careers, actions and emotions – that prevails.
Here, certainly, lies a good part of the reason for the restricted circulation of A Dance. It is a rule of cultural geography, Franco Moretti wrote in Distant Reading, that ‘relatively speaking, comedies do not travel well.’ He was concerned with the cinema, but the two explanations he gave apply a fortiori to literature. One was what he termed the inertia of language: jokes are predictably weakened, puns disabled by translation. The other was ‘the fact that laughter arises out of unspoken assumptions that are buried very deep in a culture’s history: and if these are not your assumptions, the automatic component so essential to laughter disappears.’ Remarking that ‘we usually associate the national spirit with the sublime’ – unknown soldiers, torn flags and the rest – Moretti observes that what makes a nation laugh is more distinctive than what makes it cry, where ‘the same sublime objects reappear relentlessly from one culture to another.’ Comedy differentiates. ‘All sublime nations resemble each other, we might paraphrase Anna Karenina, but when they start laughing, they all do so in their own unique way.’
The general truth of this contrast requires some qualification and unpacking. Though they can of course overlap, satire and wit are to be distinguished from comedy, tragedy from the sublime; while all these can mingle in differing measures in a single work. With this proviso, A la recherche, A Dance and The Dream of the Red Chamber offer variations on the argument. Proust’s work, constructed in the register of the sublime, suffers little in universal appeal from its satirical aspect, since the target is so standard and generic – what hierarchical society has ever lacked snobbery or hypocrisy? Cao’s is ultimately a tragedy, as his first modern critic, Wang Guowei, understood, even if we don’t possess the exact version Cao made of its ending.But the place of wit within it is not at all like the pockets of comic relief in Shakespearean tragedy. It is far larger and more defining. In David Hawkes’s translation of The Dream, an achievement surpassing Scott Moncrieff’s or later English versions of Proust in the art of delivering one cultural world – a much stranger one – into another, not only is the wit no barrier to an Anglophone reader, it is inseparable from the character-space of the novel, and its captivation. There, as its bearers, young women occupy a position in the narrative with which A Dance cannot compete, let alone A la recherche. Like Proust, Cao was much seized of flowers, scarcely fewer varieties than Proust’s 270 appearing in The Dream, and the title of Proust’s second volume – A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs – could all but perfectly fit the first 62 chapters of his novel. But to move from the band at Balbec to the verse-cappers of the Daguanyuan, the garden within the clan compound, is to cast lucozade away for wine, so enormously superior are Cao’s powers of female characterisation to the vapid surrogates of Proust’s imaginary. In The Dream, where flowers have a more pregnant metaphorical force, comedy and tragedy are of equal access. What doesn’t travel, at least beyond East Asia, is the escape hatch of religion at the end: redemption through ascesis rather than art, as in Proust, but beyond adepts of the cult of either, to no more effect.
Powell’s work fits Moretti’s rule best. It is consistently the funniest English narrative of the last century; the proportion of comedy in it is far larger, and far more entangled in a specific society with an unusually complex class stratification, and a specific language with an exceptionally wide range in styles of speech. Here customs form barriers higher than any tariff. But A Dance is not, of course, simply or as such a comic novel. Years ago Hilary Spurling described it best, in terms Cao would have grasped immediately. ‘The whole sequence unfolds in both real and fictional time like a Chinese scroll painting, a vast canvas streaked with violence and perturbation, suffused with humour, at once passionate and dispassionate, lyrical and absurd, almost disintegrating at points into gloom and chaos, rising at others to fierce, complex, brilliantly coloured climaxes.’ Powell’s work is not tragic, and does not aim at the sublime, though in it what is comic brushes both. Powell once described the torrential quotation from Burton with which it ends, encompassing all three, as ‘a wonderful epitome of what life is like’. Such inclusiveness is not the least reason for the anomalous status of A Dance, viewed comparatively.
The international reception, or lack of it, of a work of fiction is one thing, its native standing another. By definition, traits that risk seeming intractably English should present little difficulty in England. At home, however, opinion divides quite sharply, admiration and aversion often appearing in equal supply. There are reasons for resistance to Powell’s writing that are themselves specifically English. An introduction to them is offered by the critic who in his own day could be accounted Powell’s leading champion. In a front-page spread in the TLS, John Bayley hailed him under the banner of ‘A Family and Its Fictions’. There was a conflict in Powell, he explained, between the Gothic and Gallic sides of his imagination, which lent much of the richness to his work – provided the former, with its better indigenous pedigree, had the last word. A figure like Widmerpool might have something in common with denizens of Balzac or Gide, but was reassuringly overlaid with the homely watermarks of Billy Bunter and Colonel von Stumm: ‘Mr Powell has contrived to capture the powers of infantilism which underlie the most mesmerising feats of fictional creation,’ powers at risk where French influences intruded on ‘the more natural climate of Gothic and Dickensian fantasy’ in which the author’s best self flourished.
Indeed, Bayley maintained, the very technique and tone of A Dance was ‘determined by a family framework’, in which ‘other people exist, and become people, because they have joined the family circle in some capacity’, for ‘the possibilities of character are based on the family’ alone. ‘Family orthodoxy’ was the secret of Powell’s narrative success, ‘bedtimes tales’ nestling snugly within it. Alas, however, its final volume raised the dark question of ‘how much the family can absorb, and is absorbing, to survive; how different will be the counter-family if it takes over, how ready to replace authority with tyranny and substitute gross caprice for the freedoms and flexibilities of custom’. Still, newcomers to the series could be counted on to long for revelations of what might next befall its characters ‘with the same eagerness with which transatlantic readers waited at the pierhead to get news of Little Nell’.
Dickensian fantasy indeed, at full bore. Family life plays scarcely any role in A Dance, outside the Tolland clan and glimpses of the Foxe household. Aside from the infant Pamela’s moment at the font, children are completely absent. Powell never showed any particular liking for Dickens, finding much of Our Mutual Friend – though he admired the beginning – ‘unremitting rubbish’. While acknowledging Dickens’s gifts and position in folk memory, he wrote more warmly and less cursorily about Surtees. Abhorring sentimentality, any figure further from his sensibility than the byword for it out of The Old Curiosity Shop could hardly be imagined. His literary preferences were the virtual antithesis of Bayley’s. Tolstoy, Bayley’s prime object of worship, produced two of the world’s greatest novels, yet in their basic lack of subtlety they resembled ‘magazine stories of genius’, unfolding like the movies into which they were so successfully made, his characters ‘always to be easily understood in popular terms’.
Bayley loved A Dance. ‘I could read whatever Powell writes from here to eternity,’ he once said. But what his attempt to domesticate him for native consumption shows is one of the reasons Powell is not comfort food for British palates. Powell despised what Bayley prized, and his compatriots wallowed in. English writers could rarely stick to the point, he wrote, or look straight at what was in front of them, ‘one eye always swivelling in the direction of fantasy’. What Powell valued was what, choosing his last word with care, Bayley tacitly deprecated as – the polite cough is audible – ‘the Gallic pattern of psychological attribution’. Nothing so forbidding as analysis. Formed in the ‘hard, cold-blooded, almost mathematical pleasure I take in writing’, to which his narrator confesses, Powell’s generalising, analytical turn of mind was foreign to the traditions of the English novel. Empirically grounded it remained, but alien to local habits all the same. The imagination at work in A Dance has an unsettling intellectual edge. It was no accident that Powell’s first critical project, when he was in his twenties, was a book on Stendhal, at a time when no Anglophone study yet existed.
There was a further element in this distance from any standard Englishry. Powell’s literary culture was unusually wide. In this country, it is difficult to think of any contemporary novelist who matched it. Proust wrote with feeling about the predecessors he valued – Chateaubriand, Nerval, Baudelaire – and in a coruscating polemic against Sainte-Beuve, exposed as oblivious to the outstanding writers of his period, left a lasting manifesto of critical method. He was no provincial, admiring Goethe and George Eliot along with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But most of what he wrote on literary matters he left unpublished, and his range was essentially French. As a critic, he is remembered today principally for his dismissal of Sainte-Beuve’s aberration in talking about the life of a writer as if it bore on his work, the occasion of his famous pronouncement: ‘a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.’No doubt in part moved by an understandable fear of exposure of his own life to any too inquisitive gaze, Proust was quite unable to live up to his own dictum, proceeding immediately to treat Balzac in much the fashion for which he reproached Sainte-Beuve – plunging right away into castigation of the mercenary vulgarity of Balzac’s correspondence, where ‘there is no call to differentiate between his letters and his novels.’ In effect, the distinction on which he legitimately insisted could never be a scission such as the mystique of the author to which he aspired would make of it.
Coming later, Powell had access to a landscape of fiction which, for those willing to scan it, had widened considerably after the First World War, and after the Second he reviewed books for a living, a job he enjoyed so much he continued long after it ceased to be an economic necessity. Contributions to the Spectator, Punch, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph – his successive standbys – were journalism. They paid little heed to Proust’s broadside against Sainte-Beuve. For Powell, biographical information about a writer was usually of pertinent interest. Most of his pieces were short, and often their subjects a matter of chance. But the three books he collected out of forty years of this kind of writing amount to more than a thousand pages, not counting the extensive entries on related matters in his Journals. From them emerges a mind of notable learning and decided outlook, as well as a partial explanation of his off-track position in English letters. Strikingly, his retrospect of these – extensive enough – bypasses the Georgian and Victorian novel all but completely: no Austen, no Brontës, Dickens given the merest nod, no Eliot, no Thackeray, no Meredith, no Gissing. The Edwardians fare no better, with Bloomsbury pointedly absent. To all intents and purposes, his coverage of fiction starts with James and Conrad, Hardy and Kipling as proximate backdrop to his own generation – the first and last most important for Powell, an admirer of both, though in no sense a pupil. James he found in the end too niggling and inhibited, Kipling too knowing and unctuous. Joyce was a master of words and phrases, but not, in forsaking the initial naturalism of Ulysses for a surfeit of pastiche and pedantry, of form, though he revolutionised it. Wyndham Lewis was to be respected for his lifelong crusade against romanticism, even if not himself immune to it, but – lacking in warmth – was undone by his venomous obsessions. Gerhardie – the last (quasi-) English novelist Powell wrote seriously about – provided a critical link to Russian literature. Polite about contemporaries like Waugh and Greene in public, he was less so in private.
Significantly, Powell’s coverage of the European novel starts much earlier: there are tributes to the delicacy and economy of Constant, the irony and generosity of Stendhal, the colossal vitality of Balzac, the comic wildness of Gogol, the inextinguishable energy of Dostoevsky. Alert to less familiar writers of the 19th century, he found Galdós a ‘startling discovery’, superior in wit and psychological subtlety to Balzac or Dickens; saw in Nievo a portrait of Italy at the time of Napoleon to counter Stendhal’s. Along the way, he could be as astringent about such a venerated totem as Flaubert as Nicholas Jenkins is about Trollope: monotonous predictability of plot and characterisation; Bel Ami vastly superior to L’Education sentimentale; a touch of the mountebank. In the 20th century, he pioneered admiration for Svevo in England, and was first off the mark in hailing Musil, whose appearance he greeted with delight. Among postwar writers, he commended Moravia and Malaparte, and was respectful of Aldanov and Malraux. Critical of Sartre and Mann, cool about Camus and Pasternak, he warmed to Queneau.
These were the novels of others. It is in his own that the effect of Powell’s personal culture becomes salient. More real persons are referred to in A la recherche than there are characters: on a rough count, about double the number, close to seven hundred. Proust was the first writer to multiply references on such a scale. This was his most direct legacy to A Dance, where they become a leading feature too. Powell’s handling of them, however, differs. The ratio of the real to the fictive is less: characters outnumber references, if not by much. Their distribution is also distinct. In Proust, artists of one kind or another – principally writers, painters and sculptors, musicians, in that order – comprise about half the roll call, the rest made up of rulers, princelings, politicians, generals, diplomats and the like; in Powell, two-thirds. Within these, Proust was more parochial: 90 per cent of his writers and two-thirds of his painters were French; in Powell, close to half his writers and three-quarters of his painters aren’t English.
Allusions are the light infantry of reference, quotations the cavalry. Proust cites some thirty authors, 90 per cent French; Powell around 45, of whom three-quarters are English. Within his national literature, Proust draws on a limited number of sources: eight writers, headed by Hugo, Racine and Saint-Simon, supply nearly half of his quotations, and no one figures whose name is at all out of the way – most are standard classroom material. Within his, Powell quotes much more evenly across a far wider range, stretching to some writers even the best equipped might be tested by: Preston, Peele, Ingelow, De Tabley (one the most enjoyable passages in A Dance). The part played by quotation in the two works is also – this is the really critical difference – quite distinct. In Proust, they have two main functions: satirical, in which they figure as the small change of fashionable causerie, where regular misattributions – by Bloch, Mme de Cambremer, the duc et duchesse de Guermantes – show up the ignorance of the smart, or would-be smart, world; or self-corroboratory, as when the narrator invokes Baudelaire to touch up his already lyrical description of the sea, or Chateaubriand to back up his theory of involuntary memory.
In A Dance, quotation is not an instrument of satire. It is either a playful note in high-spirited intellectual dialogue, of a kind that Proust’s narcissism does not permit, or a poignant signal of what is to come, or has just come – in other words, not mere decor or self-justification but inseparable from the action. In both registers, Powell makes much more intensive use than Proust of poetry, and in doing so – unlike in his own writings on the novel – draws extensively on (often little-known) Victorian, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline writers, and French lines whose spirit is not to be found in A la recherche. Not long before being brigaded, rather rebelliously, to the last great set-piece social occasion on the eve of the war that will be a watershed for the narrator and his friends, Moreland is recalled reciting Rimbaud:
A tout asservie
J’ai perdu ma vie
Then, on emerging from the dinner at Stourwater, and the disastrous tableau vivant that follows it, Baudelaire:
‘Eldorado banal de tous les vieux garçons,’ said Moreland.
‘But that was Cythera,’ said Isobel, ‘the island of love. Do you think love flourishes at Stourwater?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Moreland, ‘love means such different things to different people.’
The atmospheric air pocket is characteristic: a diminuendo not cancelling but intensifying, by contrast, what precedes it. In the same way, when Stringham bids farewell to the narrator, en route to his end in Malaya, after quoting with approval a passage from what in context is an ominous Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, in the same breath he casually remarks that Browning ‘always gives the impression of writing about people who are wearing very expensive fancy-dress’.
Three years later, as British tanks roll towards Zutphen, it is Spenser on Sidney, Rochester and his lubricious drinking cup, that drift across the map room. Between Potsdam and Hiroshima, on encountering Widmerpool, who is fresh from intriguing in the bunker of the Cabinet Office and now engaged to Pamela Flitton, the narrator’s reaction is to recall a Scottish poet, not exactly a household name:
Some lines of John Davidson suddenly came into my head:
‘And so they wait, while empires sprung
Of hatred thunder past above,
Deep in the earth for ever young
Tannhäuser and the Queen of Love’
On reflection, the situation was not a very close parallel, because it was most unlikely Pamela had ever visited Widmerpool’s underground office. On the other hand, she herself could easily be envisaged as one of the myriad incarnations of Venus, even if Widmerpool was not much of a Tannhäuser. At least he seemed in a similar way to have stumbled on the secret entrance to the court of the Paphian goddess in the Hollow Hill where his own duties were diurnally enacted.
At the Victory Service in St Paul’s soon afterwards, one of the pivots of A Dance, the narrator’s mixed feelings about a ceremony he finds in many ways more lowering than elevating – his thoughts wandering among the hymns and monuments from war to death to sex to politics – find expression in a free association of floating quotations: The Ingoldsby Legends, Canon Twells and Captain Newton, Blake, Cowley, Pope, Edgar Allen Poe succeeding one another, without any straining for effect. At the funeral of a brother-in-law some months later, Herbert and Raleigh – in opposite registers, disinflationary and grandiloquent – come to mind with equally natural ease. The erudition informs, but never clutters the action; distinct from the intellectuality of A Dance but related to it, another stumbling block to English habits of reading. Powell was well aware of this, reflecting on ‘the ingrained philistinism, illiteracy, humourlessness, fear and hatred of literary references’ of most reviewers. In this national culture, there was a time when any unfamiliar word, let alone allusion, could arouse resentment, as if intrinsically an affectation or display of superiority. Today, an instant’s tap or click can unfold any term or quotation. Whether the habits they form encourage a more carefree curiosity, elation rather than indignation at encountering something new, remains to be seen.
Concluding her biography, Hilary Spurling laments that ‘by the time I reached London in the early 1960s, it was already becoming almost a badge of political correctness in literary circles to disparage the Dance,’ while since then ‘the popular myth of Powell as an arch-Tory and snob’s snob’ has been virtually impossible to dislodge. Avoiding the subject of his politics, the one major weakness of her book, is not going to dispel this. No one could doubt Powell was conservative. The relevant questions, which bear on his reception in England, are: how important were politics to him, and what kind of conservative was he? Here, too, comparison is illuminating. Claiming he got on as easily with a dustman as a duke, Proust was in practice a social climber absorbed by the world of titles, whose contact with those in overalls was little more than sexual. He could muse (at least, his French editors surmise towards the end of the First World War, as unrest was growing) that it was ‘an important social question’ whether the hungry poor watching the wealthy dine behind the great glass windows of the hotel in Balbec might not one day break in and make an end of them. But social hierarchy was not to be tampered with: democracy would in all probability not abolish but secretly accentuate it. The innate respect of the nobility for those who were clever but not well-born, ‘made revolutions so unjust’. Indeed the revolutionary spirit itself sprang from ‘an embittered love of the nobility’.
A Dreyfusard at the turn of the century, after initially joining with Daniel Halévy to secure Anatole France’s support of Zola, Proust never published a line of his own in support of Dreyfus, and later deplored the vote of the Chamber affirming Dreyfus’s innocence as unnecessarily divisive. On the other hand, he sprang into print to attack measures against the Church, and – when the Bloc des Gauches won the elections of 1906 – fulminated against ‘the ‘infamy’ of the ‘Combiste horde’ and its ‘immoral and absurd triumph’ at the polls. These, however, were passing moods; in general, his interest in politics was tepid, save on one score. Indignant that Tolstoy should have criticised the celebration of the Franco-Russian Alliance, a fatal slipway to 1914, Proust explained that while socialism might be altruistic among those of the rich willing to advocate it, for the poor to do so was egoistic, whereas patriotism subordinated egoism to altruism in both classes, uniting them when necessary for the moral duty of war. Like most of his contemporaries across Europe, he never doubted the justice of the cause of his own nation in the First World War, bringing down on him savage words from a youthful Beckett.But though an unthinking patriot, by the standards of the time he was a humane one, who criticised indiscriminate denunciations of German culture during the war, and opposed triumphalist bids to proclaim the hegemony of French letters after it. His outlook was, as Jean-Yves Tadié accurately describes it, a liberal conservatism of a largely unpolitical stamp. ‘La politique au fond m’est égale.’
Powell’s conservatism was much more political, and more radical. It took some time to crystallise, early attitudes not to be collapsed into later views. His first published pieces of writing date from 1924, his second year in Oxford. Among them was a review of a biography of the pre-revolutionary Marat, in which after remarking that the leaders of revolutions could all but universally be classified as ‘unqualified scoundrels or tiresome and ill-informed pedants’, he went on to observe that ‘a hereditary monarchy by the law of averages produces a certain number of good rulers, but a democratic upheaval ensures only that the reins of government are given over into the hands of the morally and intellectually deficient.’ Not that unusual a flourish for English undergraduates at the time. A decade later, looking back on his days at Eton, he could write of his house there: ‘There had been a period in the immediate past, happily drawing to a close at the time of my arrival, when the non-Aryan proportion in its membership had seemed to many unnecessarily high.’ Michael Barber, Powell’s earlier biographer, who first pointed out these passages, sensibly did not make too much of them. Like offhand dismissals of democracy, casual expressions of antisemitism were comme il faut in the upper classes of the period, a lightly worn prejudice raising few eyebrows: Graham Greene, who conceived and edited the volume of reminiscences, The Old School, in which this essay appeared, was no exception; Orwell gave voice to much the same as an informant for British security in the Cold War. Sharing the typical outlook of his cohort, there is little sign that in these years Powell was any more seriously interested in politics than Proust had been.
As the 1930s set in, and a new literary generation made itself felt, this altered. He was ‘totally out of step’ with the new mood, he told Barber forty years later: it was a moment when ‘committed writing really completely took over, and it felt quite extraordinary if you were another sort of person.’ Aversion to Auden and his fellows certainly reinforced Powell’s instinctive attachment to the social order against which they railed. Not, however, to the point of picking up any opposite banner. One his closest friends, John Heygate, was a fan of the Nazis, but leanings like this never rubbed off on him. Communism was no barrier to love; his passionate affair with Marion Coates dates from 1933-34. Two years later, he and Violet set off for a summer’s holiday in Russia. When the Spanish Civil War broke out and authors were invited to take sides on it, Powell declined to do so, making mild fun of the camps arrayed against each other: amid so many distinguished names, how could such eminences as Beverly Nichols or Godfrey Winn have been overlooked?
It was the Second World War that changed all this, permanently. Powell was ‘caught up in a tidal swell’ of patriotic feeling, Spurling writes, losing his temper with friends who weren’t rising to the occasion. The fate of the country was at stake. After the Continent had fallen to Hitler, when British isolation was broken by the German invasion of Russia, his narrator’s reaction is the opposite of Waugh’s hero Guy Crouchback, who sees only dishonour in the alliance that lies ahead: ‘An immediate, overpowering, almost mystic sense of relief took shape within me. I felt suddenly sure everything was going to be all right.’ Subsequent transfer to political duties in the War Office, involving liaison with the Polish forces in exile, brought Powell face to face with disputes over how to react to the German revelation of mass graves at Katyn. Spurling implies, though her wording is careful not to say so explicitly – Powell’s memoirs don’t make the claim – that it was his opposition to the wish of officialdom to cover up the NKVD massacre of Polish officers in the interests of the Soviet alliance that led to his dismissal from the Cabinet Office. But there is no doubting the strength of his feeling about the killings, and the regime responsible for them. As the war neared its end, he pulled off what he regarded as his major contribution to its successful conclusion, a scheme to ensure that the communist resistance in Belgium, the principal force of underground struggle against the German occupation, was neutralised before it could make a bid for power.
Out of all this, Powell emerged from the war highly politicised, as many hitherto rather unpolitical writers were on the Continent, Sartre an example from the opposite end of the spectrum; fewer in England. His first substantial piece of writing, a long essay on the diaries of the Swiss man of letters Amiel, picked out their bleak warnings of the polar night of despotism that Russia already represented in the 19th century, and the threat it posed Europe should it ever become master of the continent: ‘tyranny such as the world has never known, silent as darkness, rigid as ice, insensible as bronze, decked with an outer aimiability and glittering with the cold brilliance of snow, slavery without compensation or relief’. When Attlee quoted this strophe in a speech soon afterwards, Powell took pride in having prompted it. Whether he was right to do so or not, the passage quickly became a Cold War staple, popularised by the Reader’s Digest. But other than the defeat of Germany and Japan, peace gave him little reason for satisfaction. The mood of his narrator in St Paul’s could only be subdued, with a Yugoslav Partisan and other incongruous figures from Eastern Europe in the pews nearby, not to speak of the levelling imprint of Labour on the arrangements of the ceremony itself. The deep depression into which Powell fell after demobilisation may also have had something to do with what he felt about the state of the world once the Conservatives were unsaddled, a possibility Spurling doesn’t consider.
Recovered, he fought the good fight against CPGB infiltration of the National Union of Journalists, shoulder to shoulder with his best friend at the time, Malcolm Muggeridge, seeking to convince him of the importance of ousting Labour – whose boast of a national majority in 1945 was bogus – from control of the LCC. Talking about the Spanish Civil War, he and Orwell agreed that if the Republic had won, ‘the Reds’ would have joined the Nazi-Soviet Pact and invaded France when Hitler attacked it, as Stalin had done in Poland. Of the alternatives, little as he liked Franco, the victory of the Nationalists was preferable; if forced to choose, he would have supported them. Fascism proper, he would later decide, was essentially a movement of the left. So it is logical that in A Dance Widmerpool should first be an apologist for Hitler, and later an asset for Stalin. Congratulating Powell on ‘not only what we might call political taste, but true nobility of spirit’, his leading American admirer Nicholas Birns has described Temporary Kings, in which Widmerpool’s treason is portrayed, as ‘a major contribution to the literature of anti-communism’.
Such solemn tribute is misplaced. Powell’s fiction does not belong with 1984 or Darkness at Noon. It is of another sort altogether. Anti-communist, of course, he was. But that was a conviction, not a passion. What defined his outlook was something else, his own brand of patriotism. Anchored in his family background, this was highly distinctive. Though he found his father personally impossible, the institution he represented commanded his unswerving respect from earliest childhood: at the age of eight or nine, Jenkins can already rattle off regiments and their colours to General Conyers. Though not much enjoying service in the field, the army was in Powell’s genes, as his nephew Ferdinand Mount has written. For him, patriotism was inseparable from the military record of the country, whose defining experience as he grew up was the First World War, in which his father was a decorated officer, at a time when Britain still headed the largest empire the world had ever seen.
Imperial connections are everywhere in first nine volumes of A Dance: Egypt and South Africa, where Uncle Giles suffered disgrace; Kenya, where Umfraville disported himself and Stringham begins his fall; the Gold Coast, where Borrit worked in Intelligence; Persia, where Cutts falls for a cipher clerk; Afghanistan and Burma, where Conyers served as a subaltern; India, where Bagshaw and Trapnel serve in PR; Malaya, where Stringham is killed; China, where treaty revisions form the subject when Widmerpool first holds forth in company (the career of Powell’s father came to an unhappy end in Shanghai); even the informal empire in South America, where Brent and Duport are in oil. Powell does not insist on any of these: they are background. Nor does he include any treatment of the First World War itself. Recollection that begins with the news of Sarajevo then jumps to Versailles, with Jeavons’s wounds the only real marker of what happened between. But that the Great War formed the touchstone of Powell’s own politics is clear. Again and again, in his journals and reviews, he attacked those who either at the time or later questioned its necessity, ‘people who waffle about war being avoidable in 1914’. Such anathema to him was any reservation about the war that his literary judgments were inflected by it. The ‘antics of Bloomsbury’ during the fighting were despicable; but even the war poets did not escape his censure. It was not enough that Apollinaire was legitimately an aesthetic favourite. Heavily wounded at the front and eventually killed by Spanish flu, he had also to be contrasted with Owen and Sassoon’s ‘strong admixture of self-pity and even a kind of defeatism’. In the country’s epilogue to the war, his father served in the British campaign to crush Irish independence. Sixty years later, while conceding it was a quirk, Powell told an interviewer: ‘I have the strongest possible dislike of Ireland … That awful national egotism.’
Vindication of the cause of the Entente remains, of course, the standard reflex of official Anglo-Saxon historiography to this day. Less common are Powell’s projections of it backwards to earlier conflicts. The Boer War? ‘Even now,’ he complained of David Garnett’s autobiography, ‘he can produce a paean of praise for the pro-Boers.’ The Crimean War? ‘“We don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo, if we do” has managed to get a bad name but was a perfectly healthy instinct, especially in insisting that the Russians shall not have Constantinople.’ The Napoleonic Wars? Whigs who opposed Pitt were ‘near-Quislings’. Or forwards, conjecturing the future fate of the Second World War. In St Paul’s:
We rose once more for another hymn, ‘Now thank we all our God’, which was, I felt pretty sure, of German origin. Whoever was responsible for choosing it had either forgotten that, or judged it peculiarly apposite for this reason. We had just prayed for the ‘United Nations’ and ‘our enemies in defeat’. In the same mood, deliberate selection of a German hymn might be intended to indicate public forgiveness and reconciliation. Quite soon, of course, people would, in any case, begin to say the war was pointless, particularly those, and their associates, moral and actual, who had chalked on walls, ‘Strike Now in the West’ or ‘Bomb Rome’.
Politically speaking, Powell had, of course, no time for socialism. But he was more consistently exercised by liberalism, to which his hostility never wavered. Personified in A Dance in the voluble posturing of the Oxford don Sillery, he regarded it as a danger to any stable social order. ‘Liberalism (to which the Labour Party also essentially belongs) is a force unconsciously seeking anarchy,’ he said. The English were all too prone to it. Looking back, a case like Shelley’s illustrated Dostoevsky’s dictum that liberalism in one generation bred nihilism in the next. If the description seems atypically extreme, the reason for it is clear. Liberals were found wanting whenever Britain was at war: who could forget Forster’s credo that he would rather betray his country than a friend? Behind Woolf or Strachey lay such as Hobson, Cobden, Hazlitt, Shelley. Campbell-Bannerman had wanted to scuttle in South Africa; Asquith had failed to prepare for the Great War and bungled conduct of it. That, historically, for every British liberal who opposed an imperialist war a hundred had typically supported it only underlines how affected Powell’s angle of vision was by a tiny scattering of literary dissent in August 1914.
If liberalism was the formula for a rootless anarchy, what were the bulwarks against it? There he held fast to the institution to which he had paid homage in his first political pronouncement at Oxford. In A Dance, the monarchy enters the narrative with the Abdication crisis, when Widmerpool, hinting at a newly gained standing in exalted circles, banks on the marriage of the king to Mrs Simpson, a sure sign this would be a bad thing. Powell had strong views about royal duty, as his opinion of dramatis personae sixty years later would show. En route to Los Angeles in 1937, he celebrated the coronation of George VI on board ship in the Caribbean with such exuberance that he woke up with the worst hangover of his life. In later years, he and his wife were faithful television viewers of Trooping the Colour and the Cenotaph ceremony. When he was made a Companion of Honour – unaware that the likes of Eric Hobsbawm, whose presence on a George Orwell fund sufficed for him to refuse to join it, would in due course receive the same bauble – he was so overcome that he listed the congratulations he received across twenty pages of his normally sharp-witted and vivid Journal: the one occasion on which he truly became the caricature Spurling deplores.
The monarchy, of course, was not in itself enough to stay the forces of disorder. By the turn of the 1960s, as the Macmillan government came under satirical bombardment, he was on the alert against talk of the Establishment, a ‘silly phrase’; those who regarded themselves as anti-Establishment often displayed ‘amusing pomposities that far outstrip anything against which they are themselves up in arms’. On the appearance of the counterculture, he observed that the Beats and hippies would have made an admirable subject for the brush of George Grosz. These were asides, while he was composing A Dance. By the time he completed the sequence, in the mid-1970s, far worse had been let loose, liberalism incubating precisely the anarchy he had foreseen, with its climax in Labour’s Winter of Discontent. By then, as he subsequently told her, Powell had decided that Thatcher was ‘the Answer’. Aside from her personal attractions – she reminded him of Io in her rapture with Zeus in Correggio’s painting, her voice too casting a certain spell – her political firmness won his unconditional admiration, even if all she could speak of at supper was public affairs. In 1990 his dismay at her fall knew no bounds. ‘Owing to the insane antics of the Tory Party Mrs Thatcher has resigned, impossible not to comment quem perdere deus vult, prius dementat,’ he noted in his diary. Three days later:
I wrote to Mrs Thatcher expressing regret at her resignation, saying that at one of the dinner parties where I met her she had spoken of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (in Russian The Devils), i.e. those that entered into the swine, which then rushed over the cliff. This seemed a perfect example of what had happened to her, the swine being her betrayers in the Tory Party.
Powell had no hesitation in describing himself as a traditional Tory. He detested, he said, wet variants like Heath. Asked if he did not think Ferdie Mount wrote very well, ‘I replied that some of his political stuff was not sufficiently High Tory for me.’ One surmises family differences over Europe. The Danish referendum of 1992 is unlikely to have pleased Mount. Powell’s reaction – readers of this paper will shudder – could not have been more cheerful: ‘I am absolutely delighted by the Danes buggering up the EC.’ Uninhibited opinions like these typified the vigour of his private outlook. They pose the question of its relation to the public art of A Dance. There, certainly, James Tucker was right to be troubled by an aspect of Powell’s depiction of Widmerpool, otherwise deemed superb (‘he grows into rottenness’), in his progress from schoolboy unpopularity to adult careerism, callousness, treachery, voyeurism and ultimate dementia: ‘It is a worrying equation which makes social ineptitude and lowish family signify latent delinquency.’ That said, it is characteristic of the sequence that there are also occasions when the narrator, quite credibly, feels sympathy, even a kind of solidarity, with Widmerpool.
‘Allowing the characters the author dislikes no marks at all is a self-defeating practice, if only too easy to fall into,’ Powell noted in his Journal (Waugh was an example). In A Dance, he avoided it. His feelings about the literary left of the 1930s were savage – and who can say he was wrong about typical stuff like ‘we must love one another or die,’ a world-class inanity intoned, with poetic justice, by Lyndon Johnson as he escalated the war in Vietnam – but in A Dance he took care to represent it in the entertaining, in neither case entirely negative, figures of Quiggin and Members, critics rather than poets, in whom traces of Connolly and Quennell are discernible, rather than Auden or Spender, whom he cordially despised. The nearest the narrator ever gets to a direct political statement expresses the core belief of Powell’s conservatism. It is characteristically low-key. At the funeral of one brother-in-law, a high-minded, eccentric pacifist of the left, soon after the death from war wounds of another, a dull if good-natured and not very successful businessman, Jenkins compares the two. The former had been in ‘a fervent anxiety to set the world right’; the latter ‘had never shown much concern with righting the world, except that in a sense his death might be regarded as stemming from an effort at least to prevent the place from getting worse’.
Powell said he couldn’t stand people who wanted to put the world to rights. In the long retrospect of A Dance, did it get significantly worse? Many critics have thought so. For Pritchett, the sequence depicted ‘a society in the process of disintegration’; for Bergonzi, ‘a shabby and dispirited society’; for Mount, ‘the shabby, uncertain, apprehensive character of British life’, ‘a background of decay and exhaustion’, ‘the worn-out quality, inescapable shabbiness of nearly all the places where the action is set’. This is surely overdone. Belgravia, Berkeley Square, Hill Street, Regent’s Park were and are not exactly down-at-heel; nor are leading characters lacking in energy or vitality, not a few at different points brimming with them. Certainly, the traditional world in which Powell grew up and in which the opening episodes of the narrative are set, when the social system of the Belle Epoque was still largely intact and the expanse of the British Empire had never been so vast, had crumbled away by the end of the sequence. It is also true, though less remarked, that the great ferment of the first quarter of the century in the arts, much of it coming from Europe, which lent a cultural excitement to the period that Powell would never forget, had petered out by the 1930s and would never be repeated. By the time he came to write A Dance, there was much for him to regret. But there is scarcely any trace of nostalgia in it.
That absence – given the social landscape that had already emerged when he started composing A Dance, let alone which surrounded him when he completed it, and his political outlook in this period – is impressive, even uncanny. What explains it? Two passages from his writing, one from The Military Philosophers and the other from the last volume of his memoirs, The Strangers All Are Gone, suggest the answer. The first is the way the Victory Service of 1945 ends. The congregation rises to sing ‘God Save the King’, whose three verses are given in full. Within a year, the second would be altered at royal command for the First General Assembly of the UN, held in London in 1946, ‘to bring it more into the spirit of the brotherhood of nations’. The narrator reflects:
There must have been advantages, moral and otherwise, in living at an outwardly less squeamish period, when high-thinking had not yet cloaked such petitions as those put forward in the second verse, incidentally much the best; when, in certain respects at least, hypocrisy had less of stranglehold on the public mind. Such a mental picture of the past was no doubt largely unhistorical, indeed totally illusory, freedom from one sort of humbug merely implying, with human beings of any epoch, thralldom to another. The past, just as the present, had to be accepted for what it thought and what it was.
The second passage will have been composed in 1981, the year before publication of the volume in which it appears, at a low point in Thatcher’s rule, when she had recoiled at the threat of a miners’ strike, before triumph in the Falklands and stockpiling of coal to crush the NUM. Powell is on tour in India, watching a temple monkey in Benares appear to read a tattered newspaper, then as if in uncontrollable exasperation cast it away and leap to the topmost ledge of the temple, to rest and regain composure:
In that parade of utter dissatisfaction with things I became aware of a strong fellow feeling. How often do the papers report some item that seems to demand just such energetic and immediate form of self-release – had one the monkey’s agility – as the only practical means of discharging inward discontents, rage, contempt, despair, at what one reads in the papers.
This is the only time, in all his writing, that Powell ever yielded to an O tempora! O mores! It is a very strong one. The passage continues:
It is better to remain calm; try to remember that all epochs have had to suffer assaults on common sense and common decency, art and letters, honour and wit, courage and order, good manners and free speech, privacy and scholarship; even if sworn enemies of these abstractions (quite often wearing the disguise of friends) seem unduly numerous in contemporary society.
This great enumeration of the values to which Powell held, complete with its typical baffle against sonority – they remain abstractions – is unique, too, in his work.
The eloquence of both passages lies in the critical tension which inoculated A Dance against the temptations of nostalgia. Asked, halfway through its composition, whether the intention was simply to record social change or also to evaluate it, he replied: ‘Certainly not the latter. I’m not trying to evaluate.’ Powell’s imagination was deeply historical, as Proust’s was not. He was also much more deeply conservative. That could easily have led to a threnody of time past, not individual as in A la recherche, but political and cultural. What checked any such move was the other side of his conservatism, conviction of the constancy of human nature, which he shared with Proust. In the tension spanning those two sides lay the difference between them, which cascades down the last page of A Dance. All epochs – the word occurs in each of the above passages – are equal in the eyes, not of Ranke’s god, but of Burton’s panoptic gaze, which encompasses the fate at once of individuals and of states, the private and the public worlds of human life. Selectively: on the one hand, ‘vows, wishes, actions … weddings, maskings, mummeries … revels … funerals, burials’, ‘one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps’; and on the other, ‘new books every day … new discoveries, expeditions’, ‘leagues’, ‘battles fought, so many men slain … strategems … treasons … enormous villainies in all kinds … new lords and officers created … great men deposed’. In sum, ‘now comical, then tragical matters’.
Powell’s sensibility, productively divided yet balanced between the historical and perennial, was remote from the right-wing cronies of his later years. In these and other matters, each dimmer, coarser and more provincial than the next, it is fitting that Muggeridge, Naipaul, Larkin should all have turned on him.The liberals he disliked were to be less disobliging, but could hardly be expected to show much enthusiasm. James Wood, castigating postwar English fiction in The Broken Estate as a house of ‘thick theories and slender fulfilments’ (few characters of any substance; childishly explicit with symbol and allegory; bossy authorial intrusion; shallow comic effects), instanced Golding, Carter, Spark, Drabble, Byatt, Murdoch, Wilson, the Amises. Powell? Unnameable: in a feat worthy of a latter-day Sainte-Beuve, beyond even deprecation. The left? One night at the turn of the 1970s, slumped in a dive on Margaret Street (Trapnel territory: the scene could have come from Books Do Furnish a Room), a swarthy cadre of the revolution, famously farouche and not known for much interest in literary matters, extremely drunk, startled the company with a sudden vehement declaration: ‘There are two kinds of art. There is good reactionary art, and bad reactionary art.’ The maxim certainly cut the Gordian knot of many a far left dispute over the relations between aesthetics and politics. Even if counterexamples – Brecht, Sartre, Garcia Márquez – could readily be mustered, its paradoxical radicalism is still perhaps worth reflecting on; capable, at least, of offering any self-respecting enragée licence to enjoy A Dance to the Music of Time with a good conscience. Brexit? Where I-Love-EU is in inverse relationship to the faintest idea about the Union, enthusiasm about Europe dispensing with the need to know anything of a solitary one of its cultures or politics, let alone have a glimmering of the labyrinths of Brussels, there can be no takers. Powell was too European for that. In France, Proust did not achieve his position as the literary equivalent of Joan of Arc until after the Third Republic of which he was a product had collapsed, Germany had occupied France, been defeated, and another historical era begun, in which his stature gained consensus from distance. Though the world that produced him and which his novels depict has largely disappeared, no comparable elapse of epoch or change of circumstance separates us from Powell. The least English of writers, the most English of writers, he continues to be immeasurable, at home and abroad.