A sickly child, christened at haste, Anthony Powell was (so he tells us at the start of his memoirs) only meant to survive for a mere two days in the cold London mid-winter of 1905. Instead he lived, and it is now the tenth anniversary of his death in 2000 at the age of ninety-four. Powell died at The Chantry, a south-facing, Doric-columned house in Somerset built during the Regency, which had been his home for almost half a century. As such a noble passing appears conveniently to imply, Powell was a lover of British history and especially of genealogy, fascinated by the means through which the past conditions human beings in ways that are apparently beyond their control. Besides his one obviously outstanding achievement, the twelve-volume novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), and his two plays and innumerable amusing and often deft reviews, Powell wrote various works of important non-fiction, including several on the seventeenth-century antiquary John Aubrey (a writer upon whose chronicle of an age his own finest work is in certain ways modelled) and his own remarkable series of memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling. Time and memory were his subjects to such an extent that is hard to conceive of another major modern British writer so concerned with the stuffing of the past in the making of who we are. Probably, we would have to return to Wordsworth to find a writer similarly obsessed with memory, but he is one in Powell’s words, “hard to imagine in the flesh,” by whom he seemed not much to be taken.

Reviewing Stephen Gill’s great biography of the poet in the Daily Telegraph in 1989, Powell is pretty dismissive. Greatly amused by the idea of an unknown child born out of wedlock during a youthful visit to revolutionary France, he bothers with the business of the poet’s actual life’s work only to remind us that Wordsworth never in fact saw the Highland lass who is the subject of his important poem, “The Solitary Reaper.” This is the comic punch-line to the review and it serves to puncture Wordsworth’s seriousness. To the modern literary historian, Powell remains squarely in the tradition of the English comic writer; jokes in Wordsworth are thin on the ground. But, I wonder, are their accounts of youth and memory really so different? On the face of it certainly, they are. Wordsworth is notoriously high-minded about the matter of childhood and, although there is never much room for the unsettling arrival of sexuality as such, he appears to pave the way for the ideas of psychoanalysis. Powell was no Freudian, nor was he a theorist, but many of his greatest creations are literary characters who are conditioned by urges and drives deep within them that lie beyond conscious control. Indeed, this is often the machine of his comedy. Individuals, he seems to tell us all too often, forge pathways through life in the belief that they are dictating destiny by force of will, only later to discover that life is haphazard and made from the odd coincidence of chance meetings and a powerful past that has always already made them what they are. “Genealogical investigation,” he maintains, “teaches us much about the vicissitudes of life; the vast extent of human oddness.” Perhaps Powell thought of the past in a longer sweep than either the Romantics or his continental contemporaries such as Proust. The oddness and insufferableness of people lies not, he seems to say, in the immediate past of memory but deeply lodged in history. These are pretty profound thoughts and they are worth some reflection.

One way of explaining the disparagement of Wordsworth, a writer with whom, as I say, he shares many concerns, is to say that for Powell the past was a way of accounting for human oddness, thereby gently to expose it to comedy. In this sense, comedy is significant and serious in its way. The anecdote is fundamental to his technique both in the memoirs and also in Dance. It accounts for life as it is remembered in strange, apparently inconsequential ways that only take on significance once they are pieced together into a textured fabric. Such a technique also ensures that there is plenty to laugh at in the past’s apparent randomness as we recall it because it resists being dragged into a psychoanalyst’s narrative that grandly explains who we are. Powell’s anecdotes burn in dark comedy on the page but – to paraphrase Henry James on the English – they deliberately conceal the act of thinking too roundly about the self. Memory is fallible, open to mistakes. And so is life. Of his narrator in Dance, Nicholas Jenkins, Powell tells us in an essay on the work, “He can confuse dates.” But does this getting things wrong matter? Mistakes are after all a condition of existence.

A dark moment in the first volume of his memoirs recalls his time at preparatory school when another boy, wrongly and indeed inexplicably accused of stealing a postal order, is viciously beaten to the point of his wetting himself before the audience of the whole school, who are then told not to speak to him until further notice. The anecdote ends with the revelation of the headmaster’s error and his absence of contrition. “Of course the licking doesn’t matter in the least,” he observes before the reassembled multitude, “What’s important is that there remains not the smallest imputation of dishonesty.” Such a statement is clearly not in the least performative of what it presumes to achieve. You can’t just take injustice back and the suggestion of moral superiority only serves to make it all even worse. But Powell doesn’t hammer this home. The statement is left as an uneasy climax, somewhere between comedy and horror. There is the imputation of the dark ways of the past, beyond which perhaps we have moved. Or at least there would be were it not for something in Powell’s introduction to the anecdote that unsettles us still further. Of course, school in those days was horrible; this much we all already know from countless other authors. And yet it is the job of the writer not to leave an account hanging without flesh on the bones. “I do not wish to appear less competent than my contemporaries in making creep the flesh of the epicure of sadomasochist school-reminiscence,” he writes. “A single small side-dish will suffice in adding to this generously laid out feast.” Sordid as the gustatory metaphor deliberately is, the past remains with us, he implies: we want to hear these things because, of course, the record of human experience belongs to us all, and comedy is its best avowal of distance.

Certainly, an implied sense of distance is one thing that might strike the reader in Powell’s incredibly arch sentence. Many readers of Dance have complained that Jenkins – an alter ego for Powell – remains very far removed from the emotional heart of a work that purports to be all about individual memory. The novel is a pilgrim’s progress in which the reader often feels the pilgrim to be oddly absent in acute psychological terms. And it clearly isn’t a work about the deep angst of time passing, nor the inability of the individual to cope with the vicissitudes of life in the most challenging of centuries. Death is treated often as though it is a mere happening or even an inconvenience to the greater matter of life’s gradual advancement. We shall return to this in later parts of this essay as we move to think more clearly about the development of that work. For the moment, it worth pausing to consider what I insist is a quintessential element of Powell’s literary style, something in which his seriousness inheres alongside his comedy. The immediate sentence that I have in mind comes at the start of another of his reviews, this time of Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Mediaeval Mercenary (1980), again from a review in the Daily Telegraph. It would be too much to say that Powell sees in the former member of Monty Python a kindred spirit but the juxtaposition is enticing as an example of seriousness and comedy combined in the work of a distinguished member of that group attempting successfully to move into scholarly writing. And Powell certainly takes Jones seriously. His opening to the review is a beautiful example of the balance that I have been alluding to so far between comic sinking and high-minded thought:

There is perhaps no more time-honored quotation in the language than “He was a verray parfit, gentil knight” – particularly old favourite for striking the deeper note in obituaries while remaining the right side of pomposity.

Here, Powell invokes the past, reminding us of a phrase in Chaucer that bespeaks the aims of chivalry, even as he is aware of the ease by which they might be compromised in the world of the fourteenth century. Much has been lost he seems to say, between the time of perfect gentleness when this phrase was conceived, and our own fallen time, in which imperfect people might be praised as such. And yet what was there to begin with if not already a sense of pomposity that we invoke now? The phrase as a paean has its value – these qualities of knightliness aren’t without their uses – and yet they run pretty quickly and easily into comedy, so much so in fact that merely to repeat the phrase is to be quaintly arch and hence rather comic.

What then does the insistent past tell us if not something of the value of received manners in revealing a sense of our own stance to other people? Of course, it is ludicrous to deny that social mores don’t hamper our ability for self-expression. Obviously, there is potential liberation to be found in talking about other people, as we would really like them to exist in the public consciousness. But it is also a compromise to have them exist merely upon our own terms. Phrases that talk of perfection and gentility are clearly promoting illusion and the white lie. But they also speak of collective aspiration and this is important. Gentle comedy inheres when we admire someone in spite of, and indeed because of human faults, because it is this that lends him his humanity. This, ultimately, is the humane seriousness of Powell that I want to go on to explore in further issues of this magazine.

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