‘Anthony Powell’ Captures the Rich, Long Life of the Man Behind an Epic Series

Posted November 19, 2018 5:49 p.m. EST

By the time of his death in 2000, Anthony Powell’s era had slipped past. His Oxbridge courtliness had come to seem, rather than dignified, a bit pompous.

As his 12-volume series of novels, “A Dance to the Music of Time” — a postwar landmark, a comedy of manners published between 1951 and 1975 — gave way to innumerable volumes of letters and diaries and other books, critics agreed that he should have parked the bus sooner.

“He had somehow come to stand for everything dull, conventional and socially exclusive to a younger generation who had never read him,” Hilary Spurling writes in her sensitive and sharply written new biography, “Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time.”

By the 1970s, it had become nearly open season on Powell. (He insisted his last name be pronounced “Pole,” another irritation to some.) Friends like Malcolm Muggeridge and V.S. Naipaul attacked his work in print. Powell was a prolific critic, and even his book reviews came under duress. Auberon Waugh, the son of his friend Evelyn Waugh, asked in his Private Eye column in 1980, “Has Anthony Powell had a stroke or was he always like that?”

In 2018, Powell isn’t entirely in need of rescuing. “A Dance to the Music of Time,” inspired by a 17th-century painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin, maintains much of its irony, wit and resonance. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked the series as the 43rd-greatest English-language novel of the 20th century, between James Dickey’s “Deliverance” and Aldous Huxley’s “Point Counter Point.”

The novels in the series — many have excellent titles, such as “A Question of Upbringing” (1951), “Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant” (1960) and “Books Do Furnish a Room” (1971) — can be picked off individually, by the way.

Yet Spurling’s book is a necessary corrective. She is the author of five previous biographies, including a two-volume life of Matisse, and she knew Powell when she was quite young and he quite old.

He chose her for this project. They’re a good match. Without fawning, she warms Powell up. She places his work in social and intellectual perspective, and briskly lays bare a life rich with friendship and incident.

Powell was born in London in 1905. His father served in the military and the family moved often. His mother, who had an interest in the occult, was a defeated and recessive figure. Powell was an only child. One of the family’s houses had, in a phrase that is telling about his solitary youth, “a small donkey called Jock ridden without enthusiasm by Tony.”

Powell’s father was a splenetic figure, given to outbursts of rage. Powell pushed himself in the other direction, toward watchfulness, dryness, a coolness of temperament. “Nobody could get the wrong impression of you,” a friend wrote him later in life, “because you don’t give anything to go on!”

He attended Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. At Oxford he found, he felt, the family he previously lacked. Naipaul once wrote about Powell’s genius for friendship, his ability to collect people, and we see the seeds of this at Oxford, where he was a close companion of, among others, Henry Yorke, soon to become better known under his pen name, Henry Green.

There are intimate portraits in this biography of Powell’s friendships with Waugh, Muggeridge, Naipaul, George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin, Cyril Connolly, the composer Constant Lambert, Kingsley Amis, Alison Lurie and others.

Powell was tall and strikingly handsome. When young, he resembled David Bowie by way of Alistair Cooke. Spurling tracks his adventurous romances, including the fact that, while at Oxford, he lost his virginity in Paris to a hooker named Lulu. He worked in publishing for several years, found a bohemian milieu in London, and in 1934 married Violet Pakenham, a famous and vivacious beauty and the daughter of a belted earl. She later assisted him in the composition of the “Dance” books, and wrote many books herself, including biographies and memoirs. Her own work seems ripe for re-investigation.

Powell published several well-received early novels before World War II swamped their lives. Some of this biography’s strongest chapters detail their peripatetic war years. Violet had a miscarriage before giving birth to two sons.

Powell served as a platoon commander in the 53rd Welsh Division and also as a lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. He saw the war from high positions and low ones, experiences that added greatly to the verisimilitude of several crucial books in the “Dance” series.

Depression haunted Powell for much of his life. It hit especially hard after the war. “He had been 33 years old when the war started,” Spurling writes. “Now he was approaching his 40th birthday, and had lost what should have been the most productive years of his life.”

Inspired by Proust’s intimate epic, “In Search of Lost Time,” and drawing on his own past and friendships, Powell began composing his “Dance” series. For nearly a quarter of a century, he produced roughly a book every two years, charting the twisting fortunes of England’s upper classes.

Evelyn Waugh captured the essence of Powell’s art in these novels when he wrote: “Less original novelists tenaciously follow their protagonists. In the ‘Music of Time’ we watch through the glass of a tank; one after another various specimens swim towards us; we see them clearly, then with a barely perceptible flick of fin or tail, they are off into the murk. That is how our encounters occur in real life. Friends and acquaintances approach or recede year by year.”

Powell became famous. He and Violet bought a large, quirky pile in Somerset known as Chantry. Powell liked to write in the morning, 300 words a day, and clear paths and haul rocks in the afternoon. One of his more interesting contributions to the house was a now-famous collage in its boiler room, an artwork, some suggested, that resembled the teeming interior of his mind.

He kept a hand in London literary life. He was a lead critic for The Daily Telegraph for more than 25 years. For several years he was literary editor of Punch. He helped many young writers at the start of their careers.

Powell didn’t begrudge the time he spent writing criticism. He saw his reviews as an education undertaken in public. Without them, he said, he would “go bankrupt from buying books, or mad from having nothing to read.”

He died at 94, his life nearly coeval with the 20th century. Spurling, writing with style and spark, pulls Powell down from his chilly pinnacle. It’s a pleasure to meet him all over again.

Publication Notes:

‘Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time’

By Hilary Spurling

Illustrated. 453 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.