MY OLD TEACHER, F.R. Leavis, would spend critical time only on novelists who reach the level of "significant fiction"; and the "insignificant" category turned out to include Trollope and even Thackeray. Recently I've rejected that criterion, and preferred a vertical slicing of writers into different kinds or qualities of significance, instead of his horizontal slicing between adequate and inadequate quantity . But Anthony Powell reawakens the old idea in me; his is such a clear case of insufficiency - of a lack of intensity of being.
This book is not a novel but an autobiography - but much more about other people than about himself - so like his novels. So the same reaction seems appropriate. He spends some pages instructing us in the differences between art and life, but I remain unconvinced that that matters, as far as my interest in Anthony Powell goes. He was an intelligent bystander in the literary England of the '20s and '30s, which was an interesting case of the kind of dandyism which can come to power when a society losses faith in his models of mature manhood, as England did after 1918. That is what he wrote his novels about, and that is what he writes his autobiography about. Powell saw everything that was going on, in the sense that he was more centrally placed than most other observers, in terms of temperament. He was as passionately curious about the scene as, say, Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly; but his vision suffered, and suffers, fewer of the limitations and distortions caused by self-dramatization.
Powell plays no role - except that of rolelessness; the epigraph to this book, taken from Conrad, says, "In a general way it's very difficult to become remarkable. People won't take sufficient notice of one, don't you know." That's his message: he's not remarkable; but who is, except the pitiful or odious exhibitionist?
It may seem a mere paradox to talk of his dramatizing himself as undramatic, for his is not a case of tense and mysterious anonymity, like early Hemingway. But I think there is a good likelihood that some of the energy missing from his experience went into damping down his capacity for experience. For if, when we compare him with Waugh and Connolly, his vision is unblinkered, it is also comparatively dim. And one can see why.
His father was an intelligent but eccentric soldier, who became very cantankerous as he grew older; and his mother spent her energies soothing her husband. Anthony, an only child, developed defensive habits of aloofness. He quotes from the reports of his housemaster at Eton, who commented on how this aloofness grew, year by year. And his time at Oxford he describes as a period of intellectual recession and melancholy.
Socially, however, he was active. He spent a lot of time with eccentric and colorful friends like Maurice Bowra, the don who became Warden of Wadham, the Hubert Duggan and Robert Byron and other figures from the world of Evelyn Waugh. To be with them was to be aloof from his father's world, while he was also aloof from them, in the sense of being average and anonymous.
The keynote of that world was bad behavior: outrageousness of some kind - dandified, roguish, brutal, or whatever. But of course there were well-behaved people in that world - they were perhaps its social cement - and Powell was one of them. "Well-behaved" is in fact one of his categories in this book, and a very characteristic one.
The trouble is that that category is interesting only as a polar opposite to "badly behaved," and Powell is always defusing that polarity.He will not allow us any real outrage at the bad boys - will not allow that they were bad. It comes as a shock to hear , for instance, Bowra and a rival salon-holder: "Bowra always referring to Kolkhorst as 'Kunthorse'; Kolkhorst, to 'that fly in the ointment on the seats of the mighty.'"
And it is clear that it was just that element of violence which attracted Powell to them. But he admits to nothing comparable in himself. His own tone is this, about another friend: "He was one of the nicest of men, in certain moods content to live in a quiet even humdrum existence; at other times behaving with a minimum of discretion, altogether disregarding the traditional recommendation that, if you can't be good, be careful."
One is tempted to suggest that Powell's whole career has been conducted according to that traditional recommendation. He has been the English Proust, in the sense that Lovat Fraser was the English Bakst. (Fraser was an important influence on, and clue to, the development of Powell's generation of aesthetes.) He describes his enthusiasm for Fraser's 1920 designs for The Beggar's Opera : "The implications of irony, disillusionment, cruelty, that add force to Bakst's Russian Ballet decor, for instance, are toned down to what is at times no more than a good-natured cynicism." It is Fraser (and John Gay, the 18th century author of The Beggar's Opera ) that Powell set out to emulate. But he was too careful (careful to be average) to succeed. His energies went into self-preservation - which may have been the right choice from every point of view but the critic's.
Readers should be warned that what was written as the first two chapters of this book are printed as the last two. A warning is needed because, though the author added a sentence to say that his essay in genealogy and family history is an appendix, he did not say this was a last minute change, or make the necessary adjustments, so that in the first pages people are named as if we were familiar with them, and then introduced at the end of the book. This is merely a failure in publication manners, but it matters more here than it would in another book. Powell offers clarity, proportion, amenity, the virtues of the party-giver; his publisher has made him look gauche, distrait, distraught.
Who should be recommended to read this? Of course lovers of Powell; beyond them, I'd say it all depends on how interested you already are in English dandyism. He won't get you interested. He has told us so often that there is nothing remarkable about him that it has started to be true.