Take a literary Dance lesson

A Writer's Notebook
December 8, 2000

When Anthony Powell died earlier this year, aged 94, the obituaries were appropriately reverential but obliquely or directly conveyed the sense that this was a literary figure from the distant past. Powell, in the new century, is out of fashion (however much his fans, of whom I am one, cry otherwise); but that is not at all the same thing as saying he is out of date. He wrote about a highly integrated society, the English upper and upper-middle classes, in which everyone was interested in everyone else, an interest fuelled by an extraordinary intimacy. Other writers, working within a landscape more superficially rooted - and more superficially surveyed - not only go out of fashion; they disappear.

Powell will never disappear. This is not merely because he was prolific: five novels before the second world war; a million words or so in the 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time , published between 1951 and 1975; four volumes of autobiography, three of journals; two books about John Aubrey; plays; reviews in profusion: even this list is incomplete. We go to him for many reasons, above all for his consummate ability to charge every scene and every character with significance, a significance that is usually not immediately apparent but that will eventually be revealed through the writer's mastery of the evolving Dance. Other great writers, of course, have similar strengths of evocation, based on a genius for observation. But Powell, to a much greater extent than, say, Proust (whom he admired), is also subtly, mordantly, drily, wonderfully funny.

There are some signs of this wit in A Writer's Notebook . It consists of some 1,500 jottings, ranging from a single word ("henchman": what can that have meant?) to longer entries, though never more than 14 to 16 lines. Powell himself, whose short introduction must have been one of the last, if not the last thing he wrote, is unable to say exactly when he began the Notebook . Aficionados of his own spirit of genealogical antiquarianism will enjoy the fact that he dates it to about 1930 because of an early reference to a name used in his first novel, Afternoon Men , published a year later by Duckworth, where he had been working. The Notebook itself appears also to have been a physical relic of those publishing days, a dummy of blank pages of the kind produced by printers when estimating books for publishers. There are no dates or other annotations, no firm evidence of the span of years covered. It seems likely that the entries tail away in the 1970s, the decade in which Hearing Secret Harmonies , the last volume of Dance, was published, and the last pages are mostly quotations from other writers.

Why should we care? This is not a book that will bring new readers to his work; it will be useful, to a very limited extent, to literary critics and historians; it will be most enjoyed by those already in the writer's thrall.

The critics will note the other writers mentioned, if not as influences, at least as figures in the Powellian consciousness, above all Shakespeare, "my companion", as Powell says, "his point of view ever more congenial". There is La Rochefoucauld, suitably wry: "Pity is the intelligent anticipation of our own troubles to come." And G. K. Chesterton and Belloc ("writers who really count"), as well as the great 19th-century figures: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Stendhal. His own generation is ignored, as, largely, are figures from outside literary history, except for a walk-on part for Napoleon, suggesting that soldiering was for the under-30s (Powell was nearly 34 when the second world war began).

We find here the origins of almost all the titles in the Dance sequence, though not usually with commentary. Unused suggestions abound. Whatever became not just of Waring, but of Man Traps for Womanisers , a possible volume of short stories? There are place names, including the Casanova, which became Casanova's Chinese Restaurant in Dance, and - with greater frequency - characters, minor and major: Tisbister, unless it is a misprint, was to become the fashionable portrait painter Horace Isbister; Blackhead, the arch-civil servant in The Military Philosophers ; Members, first noted at one of Sillery's tea parties and still having his early promise remembered in Hearing Secret Harmonies . Some names - to my knowledge, but I welcome correction - did not make it into the oeuvre: Hector Mattlebury, Fosdick, Puckering. But reassuringly there is Widmerpool, a fictional character of such presence that one feels he would not have allowed himself to be left out, first mentioned in a list of names with The Wise Child .

Alarmingly, there is the shocking suggestion that "Widmerpool dies in a hijacked plane", as well as other red herrings of plot: "possibly" in the end Erridge marries Gypsy Jones (he did not and we still do not know - at least I do not - whether they even had an affair). Such things are high drama for Powell fans, but others will have to satisfy themselves with some wonderful word pictures and bon mots , for the extent of whose subsequent use we are in need of the remarkable skills of a Hilary Spurling, whose Handbook to Dance is an indispensable reference. In the Notebook we find a man half killing a wasp and watching it "thoughtfully"; love "like a fearful din in your ears"; or a woman writing "in a large untidy hand like that of a vicious child". There is the memorably insignificant: "I shouldn't think a woman could ever forget a man with breath like his." The unanalysably funny, overheard in a pub: "'I worry too much.' Shakespeare's dying words." And the profound, always beautifully understated:

"Self-control is so rare as to be very little understood." The whole took me straight back to the workmen around the brazier at the beginning of A Question of Upbringing , their strange movements heralding the beginning of the Dance... If you do not get to read this Notebook , do read the novels.

Jamie Camplin is publishing director, Thames and Hudson. He commissioned The Album of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time , edited by Violet Powell (1987).

A Writer's Notebook

Author - Anthony Powell
ISBN - 0 434 00915 6
Publisher - Heinemann
Price - £14.99
Pages - 176

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