OF ANTHONY POWELL's massive yet intricate 12 volumes, entitled A Dance to the Music of Time after Nicolas Poussin's painting in the Wallace Collection, Evelyn Waugh wrote to the author: "I feel each volume of the series is like a great sustaining slice of Melton Pie. I can go on eating it with the recurring seasons until I drop."
For people unfamiliar with this cold meat pie I should explain that it is a specialty of the fox-hunting land of Leicestershire, a typically indigenous product. The analogy is apt, for most of the characters in Powell's roman fleuve are so idiosyncratically British that it might be difficult for foreigners to appreciate the extreme subtlety of his observation, lapped in a lambent humor lightly individual. In a work so large, as Evelyn Waugh also wrote, "no reader can enjoy all parts equally," but Powell has given an immense amount to pick and choose from, and his fans never tire of discussing their preferences. Such as a character as his Widmerpool, for instance, continues to obsess one, but so does -- well, the variety seems endless. I can think of no approximate parallels in Italy, possibly a few in America and France.
Readers of his autobiographical series will be able to trace the origins of some of his characters, a veritable goldmine for future thesis-writers. In his third volume, Faces in My Time, he introduces us to more friends and acquaintances in the course of his literary career and service as a military intelligence officer during the last world war, explaining how some of these contributed to his fictional narrative. Certain figures, like Constant Lambert and his own brother-in-law Herny Lamb, recur as in his novels, and we are delighted to meet them again. How refreshing it is to read of his marriage that "after nearer fifty than forty years" he as "never wished to be married to another woman." Lady Violet, his wife, shares the literary talents of the prodigious Pakenham family to an exceptional degree.
Powell's happy marriage, however, may account for the scarcity of feminine faces among the heterogeneous males in this book. Apparently he is one of the last of our polite authors, far too polite to unbutton himself or others in public. If Powell does not lay his inner soul, he allows us glimpses through the interstices of his social contacts. Never sensational, he keeps his cool, to borrow a colloquialism. His tone is that of civilized conversation, gathering momentum her and there in a comical anecdote, one of the funniest concerning Queen Victoria's first cousin, the venerable Duke of Cambridge. Hearing of an outbreak of venereal disease at Sandhurst, "he set off for the Royal Military College at once, en civil, carrying as ever a rolled umbrella, to deliver a rebuke. When the cadets were all assembled, the Duke of Cambridge waved the umbrella above his head. He thundered: 'I hear you boys have been putting your private parts where I wouldn't put this umbrella!'"
Since we were contemporaries at Eton and Oxford I have known a stable proportion of the personalities in these pages and can vouch for the accuracy of Powell's portrayals. As a schoolboy he had a neat gift for drawing, with a predilection for military uniforms which must have sharpened his eye for effective detail. Thus he notices: "There was something incongruous about the two badges in Field-Marshal Montgomery's beret, the battle-dress cut from smooth service-dress khaki cloth. Montgomery's personality was not well adapted to military chic . . . Yet the badges, the service-dress cloth, seemed to suggest in Montgomery a yearning for military panache that some hiatus in taste precluded." And he praises Sir Osbert Lancaster as "one of the few cartoonists who can handle military uniforms at once satirically and correctly." Rather surprisingly he detected in F. Scott Fitzgerald "a school-masterly streak . . . qualities that might have offered a brilliant career as a teacher or lecturer at school or univeristy."
"Faint projections" of the oddities he encountered in the War Office may be found in his novel The Military Philosophers, and a preponderant section of Faces in My Time is devoted to his military experiences, for Powell is always capable of extracting the least obvious whimsicality from his environment. Who but he would discover a votary of Kierkegaard in the War Office? Alexander Dru, his fellow liaison officer with the Polish authorities in London had studied Danish in order to translate Kierkegaard's Journals, "pioneering that philosopher's recognition in English."
The gallant Poles were stimulating to work with and Powell recalls with horror the atrocious massacre of their officers by the Russians at Katyn. It was in the War Office, (CONTINUED ON PAGE 7) (continued from page 3) while handling liaison with the Czech and Belgian forces, that he met such exotics as the thinly disguised originals for his novel's Colonel Hlava and Major Kucherman. We are reminded of how the Czechs "would literally sentimentalize about their 'Big Brother', and were genuinely taken by surprise at the treatment they received when the Red Army marched into Prague." Powell evokes the intellectual strain of solving their problems after sleepless nights caused by the flying bombs of the Blitz.
Half stunned he returned to civilian life under the bleak reign of self-righteous austerity. Before embarking on his masterpiece he reviewed books for various newspapers and devoted much time to his scholarly study of John Aubrey and His Friends. Even as a reviewer he had curious experiences, as in the case of Sartre's The Reprieve, which led to a legal action with grotesque undercurrents: Powell was sued for libel by a diplomat named Ashton-Gwatkin, who sounds like one of his own inventions. Powell's meditations on the craft of fiction as exemplified in his opus fill the last rich pages of Faces in My Time, and for writers as well as faithful admirers these pages will prove the most interesting in a book as sustaining as a Melton pie.