Appreciating Anthony Powell

Professor Peter Reuter is admired around the world for his knowledge of drug policy, but he offers another highly valuable resource to those who know him. He is an extraordinarily voracious book reader and has a preternatural ability to match people to book recommendations. He assigned me Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, and I am in his debt for this perfect choice.

In one respect, reading Powell is awkward. People who ask me what I am reading these days express sympathy when I answer their question the same as I did one or two months ago: “No time for reading, eh? That’s too bad”. When Powell’s novels were coming out individually over the decades, it would have been sensible to say that I just finished At Lady Molly’s and am now enjoying Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, but few people remember the titles of the individual books, so I am left saying “Yes, I am still reading a Dance to the Music of Time”.

Powell is the un-Hemingway in style, and some of his sentences put more weight on the English language than semi-colons and serial commas can reasonably be expected to bear. Sometimes the result is tortured prose such as the following sentence, which requires so much work to digest that it takes the reader out of the story (perhaps even with a bit of irritation).

There was no doubt something to be said for this point of view; and her letter, painfully formulated, had made no secret of a sense of resignation, on her own part, to the inevitable: conveying by its spirit, rather than actual words, the hope that at least I, for one, as an old, if not particularly close, friend, might be expected to recognise the realities of the situation, and behave accordingly.

But more often his poetic, multi-beat sentences serve him well, and deliver emotional impact beyond what simpler text would provide. For example, on the page after the above sentence, the narrator writes of his young man’s crush on a woman named Barbara:

I felt that, if we could avoid seeing each other for long enough, any questions of sentiment — so often deprecated by Barbara herself — could be allowed quietly to subside, and take their place in those niches of memory especially reserved for abortive emotional entanglements of that particular kind.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. 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, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Appreciating Anthony Powell”

  1. I read the first three books (the series is published in groups of 3 by U Chicago press, I think), and thought it was fantastic. Then took a little break. Your post reminded me that it’s time to get going on the next set. (Perhaps the kind of thing to be picked up at Borders on discount…)

  2. What I like about Powell is his set-pieces — the chapters that focus on a single event: Millie Andriadis’s party or Mrs. Foxe’s party for Moreland or the Seven Deadly Sins dinner party. Outside the Dance, he has something similar even in Venusberg — a diplomatic dinner party if I remember correctly. There’s something Proustian about these episodes — think of the soiree chez la princesse de Guermantes in Sodome et Gomorrhe.

  3. Jim — yes, that is the very word, “set-pieces” they seem like a stand alone play or something from a Visconti movie.
    BTW: I have been told that he was actually miming aspects of Proust consciously, kind of an English version of rememberance of things passed.

  4. Have never read Powell, but just transcribed a quote from Stephen Fry’s “The Dongle of Donald Trefusis” (episode 1):

    “I once attended a meeting, I think of the Shirley society at St Catherine’s college where Anthony Powell, the novelist gave a talk. Someone asked him – perhaps it was me – if there was a difference in our generation of students compared to his 1930’s generation.

    `Well there is something missing with you undergraduates today. I would call it – lightness of touch.’ And if we were grave, how much graver are students a quarter of a century further on. ..”

  5. This is a great book, taken together. I’ve read it through three times, and look forward to doing it again.

    There’s no missing the debt to Proust, or Powell’s acknowledgement of it (toward the end of the war “movement”, Powell/Jenkins finds himself at the real beach town that stands behind Balbec). There isn’t the same emphasis on interiority, but I find the social consciousness much more appealing than in Proust.

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