Establishing a Character: Powell Gives a Clinic

Amidst all the meaty, important, political posts by other RBCers, I am afraid this one is solely intended to share some very fine writing by Anthony Powell (Yes, I am *still* reading Dance to the Music of Time...)

In the sixth novel, the protagonist’s father is limned in a few priceless sentences that are evocative and funny at the same time. It takes more than a little skill for a writer to create such a vivid image of a character and to establish an emotional tone around him using so few words:

He used to read in the evenings, never with much enjoyment or concentration. “I like to rest my mind after work”, he would say. “I don’t like books that make me think”. That was perfectly true. In due course, as he grew older, my father became increasingly committed to this exclusion of what made him think, so that finally he disliked not only books, but also people – even places – that threatened to induce this disturbing mental effect.

He hid in his heart a hatred of constituted authority. He did his best to conceal this antipathy, because the one thing he hated, more than constituted authority itself, was to hear constituted authority questioned by anyone but himself.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

7 thoughts on “Establishing a Character: Powell Gives a Clinic”

  1. “He hid in his heart a hatred …”
    I don’t find this almost Anglo-Saxon alliteration works; it comes across as accidental, therefore an error of style.

  2. Hi James, thanks for pointing that out. I am not certain but I doubt it’s accidental — Powell uses alliterative phrases throughout the books. Not to say that means you have to like it….de gustibus and all that.

    You take me out of my province with one aspect of your comment: If I may ask, what is particularly Anglo-Saxon about alliteration?

  3. It’s the chief sound element of Anglo-Saxon poetry in much the way that end rhyme is the most noticeable sound element of English poetry.

  4. SFIK alliteration is a stock feature of Anglo-Saxon poetry:
    Example from The Battle of Maldon, lines 312-3:
    “Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
    mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað. ”

    “Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant,
    our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less.”

    The alliteration is initial h in 312 and m in 313.

  5. In a recent New York Review of Books review of “The Original of Laura,” Nabokov’s last novel, John Lanchester writes, ”The most enduring reason for reading Nabokov is that his work is so full of sensual detail and those sensual details so precisely and vividly evoked, that his writing becomes, in the words of Martin Amis, “the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer.” I feel this is true of Powell too. “A Dance to the Music of Time” is as close as we come to Proust in English.

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