(Continued from the February/March 2010 issue)
A recurring theme in A Dance to the Music of Time is a paradox inherent to the art of memory more generally. Lest we forget it, the novels remind us that society places vital limits on the act of recall. Early on, at a fashionable dance in the mid-1920s, Nicholas Jenkins runs unexpectedly into the sequence’s most vivid grotesque, Kenneth Widmerpool, and Powell captures wonderfully the moment when the past is remembered just a little too clearly. A social misfit of obscure origins, Widmerpool is nevertheless possessed, from their shared school days onwards, of an insatiable ambition and a will unfettered by shared niceties. By this point, he is plainly at the start of a remorseless rise that will continue throughout the novels despite its occasional checks. A previous, though uncertain intimacy has grown between the two during a summer in France unexpectedly spent together after school and, although dissipated after several years, the vestiges remain when they meet again at the ball. Widmerpool is hopelessly out of place within a polite social world that he’s desperate to foist himself onto, and in a crucial scene to which the novels will return repeatedly, he is soon to be temporarily humiliated by the woman he has his eye on when she upends a sugar bowl over his head. The moment that I’m recalling comes immediately before this, when Jenkins is amazed to encounter Widmerpool and stands before him, rather tongue-tied:
‘Do you still go down to Barnes and drive golf-balls into a net?’
He made not the smallest acknowledgement of the feat of memory on my part – with which, personally, I felt rather satisfied – that had called to mind this detail (given years before at the Leroy’s) of his athletic exercises in outer London. The illusion that egoists will be pleased, or flattered, by interest taken in their personal habits persists throughout life; whereas, in fact, persons like Widmerpool, in complete subjection to the ego, are, by nature of that infirmity, prevented from supposing that the minds of others could possibly be occupied by any subject far distant from the egoist’s own affairs.
It is a cleverly dramatised, unsettling moment. Caught out by the unexpected meeting, Jenkins remembers exactly the kind of slightly absurd and indeed overly precise detail that he very clearly shouldn’t. There is a hint of the arriviste in Widmerpool’s liking for golf in the slightly distant suburbs and it is this association, which he is desperate to leave behind, that underpins the arid response. Pregnant with connotations of his larger isolation because he plays alone, the detail also suggests an onanistic detachment from wider human congress that will become ever more central to Widmerpool’s depiction in the later novels. Jenkins’ own comment on the episode, rather archly influenced by Freud, reveals something fundamental to the logic of the work as a whole: the egoist, in caring about no one else, is ultimately self-destructive. In spite of Jenkins’ thoughtfulness, an attendant question that hangs unanswered over the work is whether the egoless narrator, observant but disengaged, is equally detached from the social world.
It is incredibly hard to feel sympathy for Widmerpool but a nagging feeling might get to the liberal reader asking if Powell isn’t just being rather cruel. Although only a tiny snippet of social exchange, as with many such encounters in Powell, there is clearly an awful lot bound up in it. And pretty obviously, there is something slightly snobbish at work here, suggesting that for all Widmerpool’s ambition, he exists on the wrong side of a class divide that he can never bridge. But if Barnes was a little déclassé in 1952, it certainly isn’t almost sixty years on and indeed this, like so many social signifiers in Powell, is likely to leave a good number of modern readers rather baffled. Gilbert Phelps remarked a quarter of a century ago that the books depend ‘on cast-marks and passwords that are sometimes meaningless outside a closed circle’ and ten years after Powell’s death, I suspect that this remains broadly the view of most literary readers today.
In academic circles, a liking for Powell is greeted with amusement at best. The suggestion that he should be taken seriously is met with general amazement; an act of fustian reaction or further reconfirmation, as though necessary, of a silly lurch into archly announced but unserious conservatism. Powell is certainly perceived as a conservative in both formal and political terms, a writer perhaps to be classified alongside Dryden and Trollope, at best of historical value, illuminating distant mores that we no longer adequately understand. John Holloway took him on such terms when he went some way to demolishing Powell’s reputation a decade after the sequence closed: ‘The style is unrelievedly flat, it is sometimes even clumsy; the characters, with few exceptions, are the same, loosely integrated and colourless, the events are trivial or simply tedious, their concatenation loose and shapeless, any overall design, direction or conviction almost ostensibly lacking.’ Outside academia, Powell has had strikingly catholic champions however. Kingsley Amis was a declared fan even though his own early work is so distant from the social matter of Dance that Powell might almost be expected to enter the stage as a figure for sarcastic send-up (as indeed he does in Larkin’s letters to Amis). Meanwhile, in an act of heterodox juxtaposition, one in which Powell might have quietly delighted, the dark, gothic Ian Rankin recently chose respectively to take a pinball machine and Dance as his luxury item and book on Desert Island Discs. In his late seventies, Powell – whose work couldn’t easily be seen to fit well with the tradition of American fiction – was awarded an Ingersoll prize in the USA, a lifetime achievement award for those whose writing has been underappreciated. Amis once wrote of the ten-year test that should be applied to novels to gauge their on-going reputation; Powell has had plenty of distinguished followers yet a decade after his death that reputation has all but vanished among my generation of readers (in their thirties).
His earliest novels, written in the 1930s, betray a debt to Evelyn Waugh and a similar sense of a frivolous, comic archaism might colour our conception of the later sequence unfairly. The passage that I cited above is exemplary of some of the best of Dance: precisely located and comically observed social interplay is held in delicate balance with profound but never entirely high-minded reflection on the larger human themes that underpin all societies. In the later novels Powell, of course, writes about the post-war period that we should care about especially because it has, in some sense, made us what we are today. And while the books censure certain common human traits throughout – pomposity, disloyalty and small-mindedness, they do gradually become more openly at odds with the moral and social vision of post-war Britain as they move into the 1960s and 70s. Widmerpool’s self-serving rise to the red benches – rhinoceros-hide barely intact from political scandal, social solecism and sexual innuendo – might speak to us today but Powell has a more directly contemporary target in mind as he sends up the whole system of ‘new man’ post-war bureaucracy, whose commitment to social reform and the Labour government had more to do with the potential for personal advancement than anything else. But there is something pretty Pyrrhic about rescuing the sequence on these historical terms alone. In any case, even if it is relatively easy to explain, say, Powell’s portrayal of the later Widmerpool in socio-historical terms, his world remains remote from the concerns of most modern fiction.
Powell has a stark moral purpose but I don’t think that this is what might restore his reputation for a new generation of readers, any more than will his oftenstunning sense of comic absurdity. It is important that Jenkins should remember trivial details about Widmerpool because it is precisely in the revelation of these that the façade is punctured. And yet it is persistently easy both to charge Powell with social snobbery on such terms and to wonder whether there isn’t something excessively cruel about the portrait that reduces its realism and hence its force. One recent celebrant of Dance, the critic Patrick Parrinder, has argued that we should read the sequence as a modern reworking of Arthurian romance, hence downplaying the realism of the work in favour of its fantastic qualities, and its obsession with mysticism and the occult. This is a clever analogy but we needn’t push it so far to see that Dance is as rich a tapestry of references to art and literature as any work of late modernity, its narrative building slowly and self-consciously out of other works from the very first page where the narrator invokes the painting by Poussin that gives the sequence its title.
I suggested earlier that Powell shares many concerns with Wordsworth and this might seem far-fetched, not least because far from making a story of his own life, Powell’s narrator hides himself behind his memory of others. But like Wordsworth, the great poet of the self, Powell certainly understood that the matter of intelligent self-consciousness is made out of an encounter with the culture of the past, and it is in this that his greatest claim to seriousness lies.