More than 20 years ago, I visited the English novelist Anthony Powell at his home in Somerset, where I was shown around his unostentatiously splendid Regency house, introduced to his assortment of cats, and taken outside to a grotto whose walls were papered with hundreds of magazine and newspaper clippings culled from a half-century’s assiduous attention to the passing scene. Powell, despite the somewhat chilly exactitude of his prose, had an air of almost radiant cheeriness about him, and he made quite a few memorable remarks. On the subject of his late friend, Evelyn Waugh: “You know, he was afflicted with awfulness, which he inherited from his grandfather. It tends to skip a generation, you know.” On the subject of his cats: “People who prefer dogs are essentially interested in power.” And on the subject of how it felt to have perhaps the most cultish readership of English novelists, especially when he had had such wicked fun with cults in his series A Dance to the Music of Time : “You know, I get the most interesting letters about my novels from a man who drives a taxi in Seattle. He devours everything I write about a world that’s as far away from the state of Washington as Mars. Odd, isn’t it?”
Yes and no. Like the many thousands of Powell aficionados-surely they include taxi-drivers in Bombay and Tokyo, as well-I inhabit a world that is some distance from the English bohemian and upper-class society whose vicissitudes from the First World War to the late 60’s Powell chronicled in microscopic detail. And yet when I read of his death last week at the age of 94, I felt both an acute sadness for his passing and an immense gratitude. I’ve re-read the 12 volumes of the Music of Time series twice in the last quarter
century, and each time I have been astonished by the same revelation: Powell, writing about life as he knew it, was also writing about my life as I would come to know it. In the person of his boundlessly observant narrator, Nick Jenkins, he gave me-as I dare say he gave to all other partners-in-Powell out there-the greatest gift a novelist can give to a reader: an alter-ego.
My plunge into Powell began nearly 40 years ago, when I had just left college and was about to embark on my first Jenkinsian adventures. A novel under review in The New Yorker caught my eye; I did not know then that its author’s name was pronounced to rhyme with “toll,” not “towel.” Everything about the title- Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant , the fifth novel in the series-was wonderfully odd: its conjunction of the legendary lover with a dining establishment that serves dishes of bamboo shoots and fried rice, its hint of glamour mingling with seediness. It was a title that somehow promised everything I was looking for-new degrees of intimacy with people who stayed up late.
By that point in the series-the mid-1930’s-Nick Jenkins was farther along than I was, having become engaged to the aristocratic Lady Isobel Tolland, and having published two novels, about whose reception he was, with characteristic self-effacement, mute. And although his practical foothold was still tenuous (he had a job writing scripts for a low-level film company), his way of taking in the world around him was, in its cinematic eye for the telling detail and its tragicomic sense of the mythic possibilities of everyday life, exactly how I wanted to get to know the world stretched before me. With the novel’s opening paragraph, I was hooked: “Crossing the road by the bombed-out public house on the corner and pondering the mystery which dominates vistas framed by a ruined door, I felt for some reason glad the place had not yet been rebuilt. A direct hit had excised even the ground floor, so that the basement was revealed as a sunken garden, or site of archaeological excavation long abandoned, where great sprays of willow herb and ragwort flowered through cracked paving stones; only a few broken milk bottles and a laceless boot recalling contemporary life…. Beyond [was] a triumphal arch erected laboriously by dwarfs, or the gateway to some unknown, forbidden domain, the lair of sorcerers.”
The voice of a street singer warbling “Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar” takes Nick back to the pre-war days when he became best friends with Hugh Moreland, a composer of high talent, humor and melancholy. It is a friendship that leads Nick into the vortex of romantic discord among his bohemian pals and the shadow of impending catastrophe announced by the Spanish Civil War, the death of a friend’s baby, another friend’s suicide, and the wholly unjust news that Nick’s rich brother-in-law, the Earl of Warminster, has been named the beneficiary of a large legacy left by the late St. John Clarke, an Edwardian-turned-left-wing novelist. If there was a certain grim fatalism to all this, it was greatly leavened by Nick’s ability to see the gathering gloom as analogous to an amusement-park ride that he and Moreland had once taken at a seaside fun fair-“sweeping with frenzied speed into inky depths, turning blind corners from which black, gibbering bogeys leapt to attack, rushing headlong towards iron-studded doors, threatened by imminent collision….”
I immediately bought the four earlier titles in the series, which came in slim paperbacks of scarcely more than 200 pages each. In the first one, A Question of Upbringing , I was introduced to the series’ great bogeyman-an ungainly, doggedly ambitious schoolboy named Kenneth Widmerpool. The beating heart of The Music of Time is Widmerpool’s implacable drive for wealth and influence, heedless of the humiliations (mostly sexual) that befall him and the humiliations that he inflicts on others. Having made his unforgettable acquaintance-as well as that of the series’ huge cast of only slightly less fabulous egotists and victims-I went out into the world alerted to what Powell regarded as life’s not always clear but always present danger: people to whom power is everything and imagination nothing.
Commentators have viewed Widmerpool’s blind careerism as an allegory for the decline of Britain in the 20th century. But as I followed the series to its delicately macabre conclusion, I came to regard the novels as a vast tapestry that was unfolding in tandem with my own decline, as it were. It’s all there: the competition between work and domesticity; the ever-widening circles of new acquaintances and the shrinking of old ones; the mystery of romantic attachments and their more mysterious break-ups; the boredom of war (spent, as in Nick’s case, far from combat); and the myriad effluvia that have entered one’s senses- The Music of Time teems with references to ideas thought, books read, paintings seen, songs heard. Nick, picking his way through the fabric of his times, became an instructive, amusing and comforting guide through one’s own life.
After finishing the last book, Hearing Secret Harmonies , I walked slowly to the Powell shelf in my library and slid the volume into its waiting place at the end of the row, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before I’d pick up A Question of Upbringing and begin the whole dance all over again.