Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time

by Hilary Spurling


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The author of the award-winning Matisse: A Life gives us the definitive biography of writer Anthony Powell—and takes us deep into the heart of twentieth-century London's literary life.

Insightful, lively, and enthralling, this biography is as much a brilliant tapestry of a seminal era in London’s literary life as it is a revelation of an iconic literary figure. Best known for his twelve-volume comic masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, the prolific writer and critic Anthony Powell (1905–2000) kept company between the two world wars with rowdy, hard-up writers and painters—and painters’ models—in the London where Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis loomed large. He counted Evelyn Waugh and Henry Green among his lifelong friends, and his circle included the Sitwells, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Philip Larkin, and Kingsley Amis. Drawing on letters, diaries, and interviews, Hilary Spurling—herself a longtime friend of Powell’s as well as an award-winning biographer—has produced a fresh and powerful portrait of the man and his times.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984897756
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

HILARY SPURLING is the author ofbiographies of Matisse, Pearl Buck, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Paul Scott, among others. She won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize for Ivy When Young, the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for Matisse the Master, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Burying the Bones. She was Theatre Critic and Literary Editor of the Spectator from 1964 to 1970, and has since been a regular book reviewer for the Observer and the Daily Telegraph. In 2016 she won the Biographers' Club Lifetime Achievement Award.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Anthony Powell:

Anthony Powell, in spite of his friend George Orwell’s dire warning, plunged deeper than ever before into book reviewing. He still contributed on a regular basis to the Spectator as well as to the literary pages of an ambitious publication, the New English Review, brought out by his new publisher and edited in practice by Hugh Kingsmill from the smoking room of the Authors’ Club. Kingsmill relied on Tony for the Review’s ‘Books of the Month’ feature, a knowledgeable appraisal of current publications signed Thersites, after the bloody-minded bastard in the Iliad and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. In the autumn of 1946 he also took over Malcolm’s old fiction column on the Daily Telegraph, covering four or five new titles a week.

Bulk novel reviewing, then as now, is the pits of the trade. For the next twelve months he read and reviewed twenty or more books a month, double that if you count his succinct and pithy notices in the ‘Books of the Month’ column. They ranged from a reissue of Sir Thomas Browne’s seventeenth-century Urn Burial to latest excavations in the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, from André Simon’s Concise Encyclopaedia of Wine to Plato for Pleasure and Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler. Thersites rapidly developed a personality the opposite of his namesake’s: generous, fair-minded, funny and almost heroically inclusive. Not content with covering biography and autobiography, history, politics, economics, science, sport and the arts, he included judicial round-ups of the little magazines that proliferated in Paris and London after the war from Synthèses and Poésie to Polemic, New Writing and The New Road.

In his spare time he compiled an anthology, Novels of High Society from the Victorian Age. He also dispatched once a fortnight a topical bulletin to the Luxemburger Wort covering local and national issues from London’s Victory celebrations and the royal family’s schedule to the partition of India, the opening shots of the Cold War, an absurd proposal for a Channel Tunnel, and the Labour government’s struggles with coal production, the steel industry and the national transport strike. Personal experience lay behind his account of manoeuvres by the British Communist Party to strengthen its position in UK trade unions after the war. Routine meetings of the National Union of Journalists were very nearly commandeered, even at The Daily Telegraph, by a determined communist faction narrowly defeated by Muggeridge and others, including Tony, participating for probably the first and last time in his adult life in direct political action.

All of his articles were written on the dining-room table in a house ill adapted to the conflicting needs of a newborn baby, a six-year-old schoolboy and a writer chronically short of both time and space. He learned to work to a rumbling continuo of the front door opening and shutting, the telephone ringing in the hall and feet running up and down stairs all day between the basement kitchen and the nursery on the top floor. His wife, Violet, did much of the running. In an age of transition, when domestic service was already a thing of the past but the electrical appliances that replaced it had not yet fully materialized, women like her had to learn on the job. The house that had once seemed a dream of space and convenience was turning into the opposite. It ate money, and was impossible to clean. The Powells had a daily charwoman, and generally a transitory untrained girl acting as cook, skivvy, mother’s help or nurse when the children were small. Food was still rationed, and wine for all practical purposes impossible to come by. Parts of the house seemed to be falling to pieces.

Violet kept house efficiently and without agitation, but at times even she longed to get away from Chester Gate and its problems. What always changed her mind was Regent’s Park itself: ‘the wave of scent from flowering trees and shrubs that rolled over one . . . on a spring evening made the idea of living anywhere else unbearable’. The neighbourhood, like many others in London, had not yet entirely lost the character of a village community. People met and gossiped in the butcher’s or the baker’s on Albany Street, and their children played in the sandpit on Park Square. One was a striking red-haired infant the same age as John called Jane Asher, the grand-daughter of Mrs Meyrick, who had kept the most notorious of all 1920s nightclubs at number 43, Jermyn Street. ‘That little girl will get off with man, woman or child,’ Violet said of an older, even more eye-catching nymphet, who left for Hollywood ten years later to make her name as Joan Collins. Everyone knew everyone else. A bust of John Nash stood outside a small house on Chester Terrace belonging to the new Duke of Wellington, who had been Tony’s fellow student Gerry Wellesley on the Cambridge Intelligence course. Christopher and Elizabeth Glenconner, living a few doors along, became lifelong friends.

Books for review continued to arrive by every post. They piled up all over the house in tottering stacks for removal and recycling (all freelance authors traditionally boosted their meagre incomes by selling surplus review copies to the second-hand bookseller Thomas Gaston in Chancery Lane). Tony even brought parcels of books for review with him on family holidays, generally visits to relations or summer house-swaps. In August 1946, they borrowed a house belonging to Tony’s Aunt Katherine, or Kitten, at Plas Canol near Barmouth, overlooking Cardigan Bay in South Wales. ‘Having a real Aberbananer time here with Evans the Horse etc,’ he wrote on a ribald postcard to Basil Hambrough: ‘The weather here is filthy and there is nothing to drink.’

Overwork and exhaustion compounded Tony’s long-standing depression. He had received a horrifying letter from John Heygate in Ireland, struggling to drag himself back from the suicidal depression that had taken him to the verge of madness (‘I just wanted you to know that Maltravers the extrovert and exhibitionist has come up against it, and himself needs a Chipchase’). Tony described his own condition to Dru who, as a good Frenchman, diagnosed a liver complaint and prescribed a strict detox diet with no alcohol. Frank Pakenham put the problem down to lack of religious feeling, and also appealed to Dru (‘I am very worried about my brother-in-law’), urging him as a fellow Roman Catholic to rope in the Church since nothing else seemed to have done any good. In the end the patient himself consulted a doctor, who assured him that despair was a perfectly normal response to demobilization. ‘I don’t know when I have felt so gloomy with less reason than during 1946,’ Tony wrote dismally to Muggeridge at the end of the year.

The winter of 1946/7 was the harshest Britain had known for three centuries. The grimy London fog was so dense that one of the guests at the Powells’ Christmas party took fifty minutes to come by taxi from a house seven minutes’ walk away. Snow lay thick on the ground until the middle of March. The gas pressure at Chester Gate fell so low as to be virtually useless, and shortage of coal shut down the power stations causing frequent electricity cuts. Tony explained to his continental readers in Luxemburg that cold weather had never been taken seriously in England where almost nobody had central heating, still less double glazing, and water pipes traditionally ran up the outside of house walls so that they froze and burst in sub-zero temperatures. The Powells’ pipes were no exception. Buckets of water had to be fetched from the pub opposite, and the Glenconners up the road provided hot baths. Tony spent hours every morning laying, lighting and tending coal fires. Tristram caught chickenpox, followed by German measles. Violet caught them from him and was seriously ill, having already been prostrated for two weeks with flu. The cleaner went down with flu too. Malcolm sent a ham from America for Christmas, sending another when Tony ate his way through the first for supper night after night.

Orwell was back in London that winter, looking more haggard than ever as tuberculosis tightened its grip. Animal Farm had made no great impression as yet on the general public, still inclined to accept at face value the official view of Stalin as Britain’s friendly, helpful Uncle Joe. Tony watched grimly as the USSR systematically extinguished any hope still entertained by exiled East European governments of the democratic freedom guaranteed by the Allies. Appalled by Poland’s rigged general election in January 1947, he confidently predicted in the Luxemburger Wort that the British government would never recognize the fraudulent new communist regime. When he was proved wrong, he let rip in the New English Review against the terror tactics employed by Poland’s rulers, ‘a gang of Russian-nominated and controlled politicians backed by their murderous secret police’. He thought of old friends like Josef Kalla, and his colleague Miroslav who had been among the most active anti-communists in the Czech embassy (‘poor old Miroslav . . . probably hanging by his thumbs at the moment’). Tony understood better than most the political passion behind the furious imaginative energy of Animal Farm, and he knew what courage it had taken to write. It made ‘a permanent dent in the whole Marxist structure,’ he wrote looking back thirty years later: ‘especially courageous on the part of a writer, himself of the Left, laying his professional reputation open to smear and boycott, which those he so devastatingly exposed hastened to set about’.

Tony was the only other novelist George knew well and they talked about books, their own and other people’s, continuing the conversation by post when he left again for Jura in spring.

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