Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Widmerpools and the fall of Anthony Powell

I'm on the 11th of the twelve books in The Dance to the Music of Time. I picked it up as soon as I finished Proust.

Powell was a lot better than he gets credit for. That said, something goes wrong in the final season of the novel. (Dance is a novel made up of twelve volumes which are further organized into four seasons of three books each.) It's brilliant up until the end of book 9, The Military Philosophers. Book 10, Books Do Furnish a Room, falls off the standard Powell had maintained to that point but not so much that you don't hope Powell can pull it back together. Book 11, Temporary Kings, proves that hope groundless but remains a pleasant read even if not up to Powell's earlier standards. And then, disaster; Book 12, Hearing Secret Harmonies, is just awful.

An acquaintance of mine who has taught courses on, published articles and supervised theses written about Powell and Dance is of the opinion that Powell "went crazy" just before writing the final volume. Part of his anger is simply disappointment and part of it no doubt stems from having invested some of his academic career in what seemed a promising work only to have it not pay off.

It could be argued that it doesn't matter that much that the series lets down towards the end. As with Proust, you don't have to read the whole work to get a lot of good reading. You can stop after Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (my favourite) or The Military Philosophers and have a pretty satisfactory experience. Powell had also done very valuable work in influencing Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin and English anti-modernism generally, which alone is enough for us to remain forever grateful to him.

I suspect Powell's reputation would stand far higher today of he had managed, like Proust, to die before finishing. If he had left nothing but a sketch of the final two or three books, thereby inadvertently creating conceptual art, we would no doubt convince ourselves that a satisfying conclusion was possible (something that I think does happen with Proust) much the way we can look at a faded picture or listen to a beat up Edison cylinder and imagine how good it would be if only we had "the real thing".

So what goes wrong? There are a number of things.

1. The Lemon Girl has long been of the opinion that Pamela Widmerpool is one of the big problems with the later novels. I think that is right. She is a very real character. So real that all Powell's contemporaries had no trouble identifying Barbara Skelton as the model for Pamela Widmerpool. Ms. Skelton herself saw the similarity and took it with far more good humour than anyone familiar only with the character based on her would guess. The point of all that seeming digression being that, whatever is wrong with Pamela Widmerpool it isn't that she isn't a convincing character.

What I think is wrong with her is that Barbara/Pamela, however intriguing she might have been in real life, wasn't a good model for a character in a novel. And I think I know why because I was once in a long relationship with a fantastically promiscuous, careless and often cruel woman not unlike Pamela Widmerpool. Several times I've thought of using her in fiction—on the grounds that after all the suffering the bitch put me through, I should be able to make a little art and maybe money out of her with an easy conscience. I've always ended up giving up and this because a character like hers can't really go anywhere. She just is what she is and that is the end of the story. Any redemption would require her to betray her very being and to have her face some sort of downfall would be devoid of feeling because no one could feel much fear or pity at the fate of such a woman.

2. Which brings to Kenneth Widmerpool, whom Pamela marries. Widmerpool is unquestionably the greatest strength of the novel. Take him out of it and it would be a vastly diminished; so much so as to be not worth reading. That is quite a trick in that he is never a likeable character. But Widmerpool loses his "charm" towards the end.

I put the word in scare quotes because Widmerpool is not easy to like. From the beginning, one of the defining characteristics of Widmerpool is precisely that he isn't liked. And I think most people know someone like him at school—a boy or girl who is disliked for not-very-good reasons and yet somehow seems to be shaped by this unwarranted dislike into becoming genuinely difficult to like. (In Widmerpool's case, he came to school with the "wrong" type of overcoat.) And it is a lingering sense that maybe he might redeem himself that comes from this makes Widmerpool so intriguing. Right up until the war's end, you hope that he might change. After that there is no hope.

At which point, Powell saddles him with Barbara Skelton/Pamela.

3.  A related problem with the final volume is that it ends in 1971. Why is that a problem? Because it was written in 1975. Compare that with the opening volume, published in 1951 and concerned with an era some thirty years previous and you'll begin to see the problem. Powell simply didn't have enough distance and time to adequately assess the 1960s before writing about it.

He, like some lame NPR documentary on the 1960s, gets bogged down with a lot of stuff that seemed important at the time but proved to be much less so in the long run. In retrospect, the perspective we see in Mad Men—mostly focused on the world of business and family rather than rock and roll, drugs and the counterculture—gives a much better account of what the 1960s were really about than Powell's to-much-caught-up-with-the-fads-of-the-era account.

4. That feeds into the final, and I think most important, problem with the series. Powell simply never had an adequate philosophical framework to build the novel around. This seems quite forgivable to me: after all who could? Proust didn't either and anyone who really believes that time is in any sense regained is just shallow. The notion, entertained by both Powell and Proust, that a novelist has something useful to say about life in general as opposed to one particular era they happened to experience is about as perfect an example of hubris as you will ever find. Widmerpool's end is unsatisfying because too much depends on it.

What could he have done? The Dance, like British literature generally, struggles as soon as it begins to deal with events after the close of the second world war. British writers had grown up in a powerful and influential nation that dominated the English speaking world culturally, especially in high culture. This was suddenly all over. The election of the Labour Crapweasels after the war was an act of desecration of a once great culture comparable to what would have happened to Mother Theresa's legacy had her successors offered one of her hospices for use a season of Jersey Shore.

Writers who lived through this transition tended either to become bitter (Graham Greene, John le Carré,  Harold Pinter) or a comic to the point of being a little surreal (Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Tom Stoppard). Powell attempts to be cool and objective and does a better job than anyone else I can think of in doing so but bits off a big chunk in doing so. The problem isn't that he wasn't capable of it but that he should have focused much more time and effort on it. That falling of a great nation should have been the central theme. I think he might have done a much better job of it had he focused the final three novels on the period from 1945-1963 and wrapped the story up around something tragicomic like the Profumo Affair instead of trying to say something about the 1960s too.


  1. Oh, Dance to the Music of Time immediately after In Search of Lost Time. No big deal right? You must read really quickly!

    1. It's not as impressive as my bald statement makes it sound. I started Proust last November and finished it in July. I started reading Dance again early in August and took it with me for three weeks' vacation in the woods.