Into the vortex of Widmerpool

“Everyone has their Widmerpool . . . Who is your Widmerpool? — awesomely, whose Widmerpool are you?”

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Anthony Powell: Inspired by Proust (©martyn goddard/rex/shutterstock)

“But surely you have some bent? An ambition to do well at something?” That is Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, asking narrator Nick Jenkins what he is going to do with his life. They are both 18, in France for a summer between school (implicitly Eton) and university (Oxford). Nick suggests he might one day like “to write”, an idea that has crossed his mind only that moment.

“To write?” said Widmerpool. “But that is hardly a profession. Unless you mean you want to be a journalist . . . It is precarious . . . there is certainly not much social position attached: unless, for example, you become editor of The Times, or something of that sort. I should think it over very carefully before you commit yourself.”

A Question of Upbringing is the first of the 12 novels of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series which follows Jenkins, Widmerpool, their boarding house contemporaries Peter Templer and Charles Stringham, and a chorus-line of dons, painters, editors, mess-mates, clairvoyants, lords, ladies, liggers and Dicky Umfravilles as they make their way in the worlds of art, books and politics.

Widmerpool, as he promised that summer at La Grenadiére, is the most ambitious of them all. We see the pouchy, persecuted young Widmerpool, humiliated by having ripe bananas thrown in his face and sugar castors emptied over his head, as he becomes a stickling martinet, increasingly powerful and power-crazed. In book after book he appears: at the Ritz; behind a grate halfway up the stairs at a country-house party; in uniform during the Phoney War; picking at cold tongue and mineral water in restaurants as he fretfully nurses his digestion.

Nick does become a writer and Widmerpool never gets any closer to understanding why. “Who exactly buys ‘art books’? . . . It doesn’t sound to me a very serious job . . . You should look for something more promising.”

Widmerpool makes alliances — broken when it is to his advantage — but never friends. “Who was that awful man?” asks the composer Hugh Moreland, when Widmerpool drives him and Jenkins home one night. To Bob Duport, a rotter in his own way, Widmerpool is an “absolute bugger . . . a hundred per cent bastard.” The worse Widmerpool is, the more disloyal, devious, single-minded, charmless, the more irresistible he becomes. “We haven’t had Widmerpool for a few hundred pages,” you find yourself thinking, “we must be due him any moment now, popping little pills against his gastric troubles.”

Powell was as surprised as anyone, writes Hilary Spurling in Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time, her masterly new biography of the author, “when Widmerpool showed signs of taking on a momentum of his own . . . acquiring in the end, like Shakespeare’s Falstaff or Dickens’s Mr Micawber, an identity beyond his fictional origins, becoming even for people who had never read the Dance the essence of a harsh, officious and manipulative greed for power.” Spurling quotes a review by David Piper of Temporary Kings, the penultimate book in the Dance: “In him [Widmerpool] Powell has isolated — and named for ever — a recurring elemental irritant of human intercourse. Everyone has their Widmerpool . . . Who is your Widmerpool? — awesomely, whose Widmerpool are you?”

When I first tried the Dance, aged 14, I didn’t “get it”. I gave up after three books (A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, The Acceptance World) finding it improbable that these people should keep springing up in each other’s lives like so many whack-a-moles. You wouldn’t set eyes on them for ten years, then, there they were: at a Ouija board party, in a backstage dressing room, on a train. Just as pouting, sexy, strung-out, dissolute, ill-tempered as they ever were — only older. “Why, you’ve got a grey hair. Just above your ear,” Eleanor Walpole-Wilson tells Jenkins in At Lady Molly’s.

Fifteen years later, trying the books again, I’m beginning to get it. Here they all come, people I met at primary school, on holiday, in college bars, leaping up in the most unlikely places, now having found their “bent” as curators, editors, bag-carriers to cabinet ministers of the Sir Magnus Donners stripe. In 15 years’ time, I’ll be 45, and I’ll get it all the more. Perhaps at 60 I’ll fully understand.

As Spurling explains, the Dance was many years in the making. While still at Eton, Powell had read Charles Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Marcel Proust’s 12 volumes of À la Recherche du temps perdu. He was impressed not only by its scale, but by its humour. Many years later, as a professional book reviewer and literary editor, he would write a long TLS feature on Proust as “a great comic writer”. He made repeated trips to the Wallace Collection to see Nicolas Poussin’s painting A Dance to the Music of Time with its three sylphs and laurel-wreathed youth, representing the Seasons, dancing a reel to the lyre of Old Father Time.

Powell was in his forties when he published the first volume of his own Dance in 1951. He was already the author of five stand-alone novels, husband to Lady Violet Pakenham, daughter of the fifth Earl of Longford, and father to two sons, Tristram and John. In the war he had been a fire-watcher and desk-wallah. To his regret, he never saw action. The title of the first volume — A Question of Upbringing — came, Spurling tells us, from a stomach-lurching incident when an acquaintance offered Powell a ride home one night. Powell watched as three larger cars sped towards them abreast on the Great West Road. The driver was determined not to give way, muttering to himself: “This is just going to be a question of upbringing.”

What makes Spurling’s Life such a pleasure is that it reads like a novel. Her style is so easy, so effortless, so chit-chatting, that reading “just a few pages” while you’ve five minutes to spare means pans boiling dry, tea brewed to tar, and a bath that has burst its banks. Powell is quite a different beast to her previous subject, the bombastic, priapic, unpredictable Henri Matisse. To his contemporaries, Spurling writes, Powell could seem “cold, critical, aloof”. He was an only child who as a teenager developed a passion for antiquarian book catalogues. When Nick Jenkins, Powell’s double in the Dance, has his fortune read by Mrs Erdleigh, she describes him as caught halfway between “dissipation and diffidence”. Of the Seven Deadly Sins, writes Spurling, the one that was the most attractive to Powell was Sloth. When it comes to the great set-piece of The Kindly Ones, the reenactment of the Seven Sins in Sir Magnus Donners’s dining room, it falls to Jenkins to play Sloth, slumped across a pile of cushions.

Widmerpool, humourless, insensible to fun, perplexed by parlour games, turns up just as Sir Magnus is photographing his guests dressed up as their chosen Sins. “You seem all to have behaved in an extraordinary manner,” he chides. “There is a side of Magnus of which I cannot altogether approve, his taste for buffoonery of that kind.” To Widmerpool, dinner party games are buffoonery. The arts — buffoonery. Journalism — buffoonery. Writing novels — definitely buffoonery.

Powell felt he had to apologise for Jenkins, the neutral foil for the extraordinary carry-on around him. “I know Jenkins is awful,” he said, “but I think he’s more to be pitied than blamed.” Sometimes Powell is in danger of becoming the Jenkins in his own life story as his friends and contemporaries — George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Malcolm Muggeridge, Evelyn Waugh, Constant Lambert — steal the scenes and take all the best lines. “If editors, or people of that sort,” Orwell told Powell, “tell you to alter things, or put you to a lot of trouble, always put them to trouble in return. It discourages them from making themselves awkward in the future.”

Spurling teases fact from fiction. The model for Jean Duport, “that grave, gothic beauty” whom Jenkins meets when she is the schoolgirl sister of Peter Templer, and with whom he has a love affair when she is in her twenties and married to the execrable Duport, was a woman called Juliet O’Rourke. Juliet was married when she took up with Powell, writing him love notes from Harrods and arranging to meet him at friends’ addresses. Jean does this, too, answering the front door with nothing on in one memorable scene in The Acceptance World. This earned the book a ban from the Irish censor for obscenity.

The composer Constant Lambert, Powell’s closest friend, became the fictional Hugh Moreland, fond of sweeping, gloomy pronouncements: “Is it surprising one is always cuckolded by middle-brows?”

The real world and the Dance world were never very far apart. Even the author confused the two. Powell once lunched with Alan Bishop, a man he’d met in the Westminster parish record office, and wrote to his wife after: “I think he’s really a character out one of my books who wants to be put back.” Spurling includes mischievous throwaways that sound like excursions from the Dance. Following Powell to Venice for a literary conference, we learn: “When Alan Pryce-Jones left his bathing-suit behind at a party, it was returned to him in Harry’s Bar by Lady Diana Cooper.” We also hear from the publisher Dennis Cohen who discovers that his fiancée Irene Hodgkins, a friend of Powell’s, has run off with the painter Tristram Hillier: “At Victoria I lost my umbrella, at Toulon my fiancée, at Monte Carlo my money, and on the return journey my ticket.” That’s pure Peter Templer.

What of Widmerpool? Was there ever an original? Spurling writes of “many contributions feeding into Kenneth Widmerpool like tribute streams into a river”. Powell himself was born in a redbrick mansion block near Westminster Cathedral, the neighbourhood where Widmerpool lives with his mother. Henry Yorke, Powell’s friend at prep school and Eton, later the novelist Henry Green, once wore the “wrong kind of overcoat”, which was Widmerpool’s first crime as new boy. Gerald Duckworth, a publisher “close to detesting books with all his heart”, certainly contributed to Widmerpool’s dislike of literature: “It doesn’t do to read too much . . . no good clogging your mind with a lot of trash from modern novels.” He is glorious and ghastly in equal measure.

Spurling’s biography — witty, spirited, richly crowded with incident and character and a joy to read — has left me, however, with a worrying question. I suspect who my Widmerpool is. But whose Widmerpool am I?