Influenced by Proust, Anthony Powell shared more than a mere interest in memory with the French literary master
I should like to dedicate this essay to the memory of Frank Kermode who died recently, aged 90. Forty years back, Frank hired me to teach English and American literature at UCL, where he was Lord Northcliffe Professor. Admirer of Shakespeare, the Authorised Version of the Bible, Wallace Stevens and Muriel Spark, Frank was one of the last century’s great critics. Unlike many who confine themselves to polemic, he was also an unmissable writer. After a couple of years, I left his department to join an honourable, but altogether dysfunctional, administration: the Conservative government between 1972 and 1974. This was an era when a Secretary of State instructed us how to shave in the dark. It has been well chronicled recently by Dominic Sandbrook. Leaving Frank for Ted Heath seems at this distance rather like, were one a girl, leaving Barnby, say, or Hugh Moreland for Widmerpool. Indeed may I also recommend, to the dedicated Widmerpudlians of the AP Society, Philip Ziegler’s Edward Heath, one of the great biographies of our time. They will find much there to delight them. Ted was a good man as Widmerpool is not. But there is overlap in mannerisms and manners.
One of Frank’s most impressive books is called The Sense of An Ending. I want to talk about some of the ways Anthony Powell steered A Dance to the Music of Time, our supreme roman-fleuve, to the sea; glancing over his shoulder, as it were, at another modern master, Marcel Proust. And I want to do so not least because, in my experience, there are quite a few readers of Dance, fervent fans even, who do not get on as well as they would like with Hearing Secret Harmonies, the twelfth and last novel of the sequence; or, more accurately, the twelfth and last book of the novel. When you grill them, the objection seems to be that an egotist like Widmerpool, each of whose appearances in the proceeding books is governed by the will to power, or the quest for status, authority, and the like, turns himself, unconvincingly in this view, into a 1970s hippie. I have also heard the charge that Powell, who published Harmonies in his seventieth year, was the wrong type, the wrong kind of author to tackle the Abbie Hoffman or Charles Manson or sex, drugs and rock’n’roll era of the previous decade: the years, to adapt Powell’s admirer Philip Larkin, between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. On the contrary, I believe that from our perspective, 40 years on, Powell was absolutely the right author for a time when, as his own story was being brought to its close, an exuberant and anarchic irrationality seized Western culture. Dropping out or doing one’s own thing became a social and political imperative. To a classical imagination like Powell’s there was nothing surprising, nor unprecedented, in the young dropping out while the old were dropping dead. The music of time always depends on changes of tempo.
Before he embarked on Dance, Anthony Powell was a novelist and professional writer. He had published five novels and written reviews and film scripts as well as journalism and an historical study. His career was interrupted, like so many others, by six years of war. During the quarter century or so of Dance‘s composition, he continued to earn his living as an editor and reviewer. He was known to his friends as Tony. His narrator also bears a conventionally abbreviated Christian name and a Welsh surname: Nick Jenkins. Powell was always a transparent commentator on his own life and work. In Faces in my Time, third of his four volumes of memoirs, he describes the gestation of his novel. He talks about weighing the pros and cons of organising a continuum of characters, instead of laying them off at the end of each novel; a bad idea given the likelihood, as he puts it, of their continuing to hang around the stage door in search of re-employment. He also concludes that “the first person narrative was preferable in dodging the artificiality of the ‘invented hero’, who speaks for the author”. This internal debate was transformed by an epiphany, a donné, a bit of luck. A magical mystery moment was given to a mind not much interested in religion (though Powell knew the King James Bible very well and liked English hymns sung by Welsh voices) but always intrigued by myth, coincidence, superstition, the occult — all the sediment cultures accumulate for people to wade through while they conduct their lives. Here, in Dance, is the world of Dr Trelawney, Mrs Erdleigh and Scorpio Murtlock. Powell’s own pentecostal moment occurred in the Wallace Collection: “At a fairly early stage in tackling this matter — that is, a long sequence of novels with recurring characters — I found myself … in front of Nicolas Poussin’s picture there given the title of A Dance to the Music of Time. An almost hypnotic spell seems cast by this masterpiece on the beholder. I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be.”
While the dance or merry-go-round of life, seen through allegories of the seasons, or human attributes and ambitions, or toys from the attic of myth, like Phoebus’s chariot, is all a-quiver in the Poussin, there was also a precedent, again French, for “dodging the artificiality of the invented ‘hero’ who speaks for the author.”
Powell never blurs or hurries over his admiration for Proust. In more than one essay, he describes Proust as the greatest French novelist. His true Penelope was never Flaubert. A whole section of his book Miscellaneous Verdicts, Writing on Writers 1946-1989, is entitled “Proust and Proustian Matters”. Even more compelling, the narrator of Dance, Nick Jenkins himself, brings his “onlie begetter” on stage. In The Military Philosophers, third book of the wartime trilogy, Jenkins has escaped working under Widmerpool. Promoted acting major, he finds himself shepherding diverse, fractious and exiled military allies through northern France during the autumn after D-Day. He comes close to tears when he discovers that a seemingly nondescript seaside town, bourn of worrying chores for a staff officer told to find appropriate billets for tired men and status-conscious officers, has turned out to be Cabourg. Cabourg is Proust’s Balbec: the Normandy resort of the Narrator’s family holidays. Here is the passage:
Cobb was making notes in a little book. Marinko gazed out of the window, overcome with Slav melancholy, or, more specifically — being of the party that supported the Resistance groups of Mihcilovic — dejection at the course British policy appeared to be taking in that connexion.
“Just spell out the name of that place we stopped over last night, Major Jenkins,” said Cobb.
As I uttered the last letter, scales fell from my eyes. Everything was transformed. It all came back-like the tea-soaked madeleine itself — in a torrent of memory … Cabourg … We had just driven out of Cabourg … out of Proust’s Balbec. Only a few minutes before, I had been standing on the esplanade along which, wearing her polo cap and accompanied by the little band of girls he had supposed the mistresses of professional bicyclists, Albertine had strolled into Marcel’s life. Through the high windows of the Grand Hotel’s dining room — conveying for those without the sensation of staring into an aquarium — was to be seen Saint-Loup, at the same table Bloch, mendaciously claiming acquaintance with the Swanns. A little further along the promenade was the Casino, its walls still displaying tattered play-bills, just like the one Charlus, wearing his black straw hat, had pretended to examine, after an attempt at long range to assess the Narrator’s physical attractions and possibilities. Here Elstir had painted; Prince Odoacer played golf. Where was the little railway line that had carried them all to the Verdurins’ villa? Perhaps it ran in another direction to that we were taking; more probably it was no more.
“And the name of the brigadier at the Battle Clearance Group?” asked Cobb. “The tall one who took us round those captured guns?” He wrote down the name and closed the notebook. “You told me, Major Jenkins, that at the beginning of the war you yourself saw a Royal Engineer colonel wearing a double-breasted service-dress tunic. You can assure me of that?”
“I can, Sir and, on making enquiries, was told that it was permitted by regulations, provided no objection was taken by regimental or higher authority.”
Moments of rapture alternating with moments of utter banality make Anthony Powell (and Proust also, come to that) the compelling life artist he is. Colonel Cobb is a walk-on only. The social realism, social comedy drawing is what we expect from Dance. Cobb is an American and himself an ironist; here he is mobbing up British insistence on proper form. But does not the prose lift into poetry when Nick finds out where he is?
I do not think A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is an influence on Dance exactly. That would be like saying Marcel was an influence on Nick, or on Tony, as a person. Dance is even more closely autobiographical in narrative outline than A La Recherche. It is rather that Proust, like Poussin, showed our narrator his way out of the dark wood of the middle years. Tony, and Nick, had to devise what to do after five novels, six years of war, and a study of Richard Burton in real life, a study of the 17th- century memorialist John Aubrey. Powell chooses Proust more as a companion, a Virgil for his Dante, than as a literary model. Dance is much more tightly constructed than A La Recherche. Powell’s friend and contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, thought it much funnier. Earlier in The Military Philosophers (one of the greatest books of the sequence, by the way; if, like me, you have worked in government, you will at once recognise how immaculate is Powell’s command of bureaucratic obfuscation and procrastination — he pre-dates the Sir Humphrey series by many years in this regard; the book is also, in spite of the war coming to an end, a dark one, as we lose both Templer and Stringham), Nick reads a passage from Remembrance of Things Past, as he calls it, which describes Prince Odoacer at the Princesse de Guermantes’s party. He does so because the Prince, Gogo to his pals, is a great-uncle of the Dance character Prince Theodoric. What is going on, however, is a skilful and subtle literary joke: Dante joshing Virgil as they proceed through the middle of the way. There is no Prince Odoacer in A La Recherche and Nick is reading a passage invented by his creator. Both Powell and Proust were accomplished parodists. Proust published many parodies of the Duc de Saint-Simon, his Virgil, so to say, or one of his Virgils, Ruskin being another. AP anoraks will recall that Dogdene, the Sleafords’ country mansion and Molly Jeavons’s home during her first marriage, scene too of Widmerpool’s most spectacular sexual humiliation, was visited and written up by Pepys. Nick enjoys reading the Diarist’s account of toying wantonly there, in a painted closet, with “a great black maid”. It is doubtless not lost on Nick that Pepys’s physical resemblance to Widmerpool does not mean he shares Widmerpool’s lack of success with women. The Proust parody, or rather the Scott-Moncrieff parody, is pretty good; the Pepys is perfect.
In spite of being asthmatic, a mummy’s boy and, in time, Dreyfusard, Proust loved his spell of military training. Saint-Loup, who falls in the Great War, is, with Swann, the most sympathetic of A La Recherche‘s huge cast of characters. Brought up at Stonehurst, near Aldershot, only child of a professional officer and his wife, companion of their household’s domestics, Nick is more ambiguous about the army. He is fascinated by Vigny’s Servitude et Grandeur Militaire, the soldier’s art, and by the prima donna-ish behaviour of all generals. Most of the second war, which he strove so hard to serve in, proved frustrating for him. Among Powell’s many gifts, one he shares with film-makers Antonioni and Rohmer, is an ability to render the state of boredom in a sad or comic but utterly unboring way. Castlemallock, in Northern Ireland, is where most of The Valley of Bones is set. It is Nick’s slough of despond. (Bunyan is an influence, by the way, especially towards the end of Dance.) The Irish have no charm for Nick, unlike the Welsh of his regiment and his ancestry. Nick’s aristocratic in-laws are Tollands, wholly English. Tony’s are Pakenhams, Anglo-Irish. No point in being a novelist if you cannot shade reality or move the furniture around. Proust plays similar games. Swann is described as looking not unlike a portrait by Tissot of his real life-prototype, Charles Haas. Both writers love painting. They use works of art to lend features to their characters. Stringham looks like the (wrongly identified) Alexander in the National Gallery’s great Veronese. (Incidentally, how well the perfectly cast Paul Rhys played him in the underrated, slightly too short, Channel 4 soapification of Dance.) Jean Templer, later Duport, later Flores, looks like a young and virginal saint in a Flemish or German Old Master drawing when Nick first meets her after leaving school.
Five or six years later, married now to Bob Duport but not yet Jenkins’s mistress, she has turned into a memory of Rubens’s second wife or her sister, in his painting Le Chapeau de Paille. Odette, whose affair with Swann takes place around the time of the Narrator’s birth — structural genius, that — is a Botticelli. Nearly 50 years later, in Le Temps Retrouvé, which my Penguin edition calls Finding Time Again, Odette still looks like a Botticelli. Alas, she has become a crashing bore. One of my regrets in life is never telling Tony of a camp parlour game invented by two dons when I was teaching at an American university in the 1960s. You had to render Proustian themes to the tune of “Colonel Bogey”; David Lean’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai was not so long out. The first one was the best. “Swann’s Way/A book by Marcel Proust/Tells how/Its hero took to roost/Racy/Odette de Crécy/Who to his friends could/Not be in-/Troduced”. In a pictorial context, Violet Powell’s illustrated guide to Dance is almost as indispensable as Hilary Spurling’s great Reader’s Guide. Let us make it a mission of the AP Society to get both back into print very soon.
In his inaugural lecture in this series, Tariq Ali did a fine job trouncing the cliché, the inaccurate received wisdom, that Dance is about upper-class people or a confined world. This is as silly and partial a viewpoint as describing Powell’s friend and school contemporary, George Orwell, as a science fiction writer or a writer of animal tales. Powell himself uses Proust slyly for the same deconstructive purpose. Again in The Military Philosophers, Nick has dealings with Lieutenant Kernéval, a Free Frenchman based with de Gaulle in London. Nick is amazed at the lack of interest Kernéval showed when they passed through Cabourg, with all its associations with Proust. “‘Doesn’t he always write about society people?’ was Kernéval’s chilly comment.” Nick runs into him again the following year, after the great Service for Victory at St Paul’s.
We climbed the stairs. I told him this was probably the last time we should meet officially.
“You know that French writer you spoke about? Something to do with a plage in Normandie?”
“That’s the one. I’ve been into it about him. He’s not taught in the schools.”
Kernéval looked severe. He implied that the standards of literature must be kept high.
The magnetic poles of sex and love, now pushing towards each other, now pulling each other apart, condition of fiction as of life, are confronted head-on by our good companions Proust and Powell. Half a century after the Lady Chatterley trial, it is right to give three cheers for the end of literary censorship, but an embarrassed cough when one thinks of the colossal difficulty of writing about sex without obliquity, without what T.S. Eliot called an objective correlative (the birds and the bees, if you like). Hence the triumph of my late and much missed best friend Auberon Waugh’s Bad Sex Award. Proust is a genius, right up there, in my view, with Dickens or Wagner or Victor Hugo. Only a genius could have supplied us, in an account of a teenage boy masturbating in the little upstairs room “that smelt of orris root”, with the kind of romantic writing we associate in our literature with early Wordsworth, or with the aesthetic precision in prose we associate, as Marcel himself did, with Ruskin. Twice in the novel the Narrator is voyeur in respect of Charlus. He witnesses a sordid scene of buggery between the Baron and the tailor Jupien in the courtyard shop of the Duc de Guermantes’s town house. M de Charlus has come to visit the Duke’s aunt, Mme de Villeparisis; the Narrator and his family live in the same Guermantes complex. There follows soon after an astonishing and lyrical prose hymn to nature, a Beethoven-like Ode to Joy. In the last book, Finding Time Again, he happens upon the male brothel which Charlus has bought for Jupien. He watches a sordid and this time horrifying scene. The Baron, old now, is being flogged by one of Jupien’s young men, many of whom are on leave from the involuntary horrors of the Western Front. Now the dénouement is horror-comical. It is well-rendered in a recent film, Time Regained. John Malkovich is surprisingly, and effectively, cast as Charlus. (He also played Valmont in a film version of Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, another AP bible.) In the Proust film, after what we would no doubt think of as a gay Max Mosley scene, the young men line up to receive their tips from Charlus in the most servile way. “Merci, M le Baron“; “Vous êtes trop gentil, M le Baron“; “Grand honneur, M le Baron” and so on. Charlus complains to Jupien, in the book as in the film, that the present batch are insufficiently severe. Les sensations seem to get less fortes as we age.
Yet Proust the genius did flunk a test which Powell the supreme craftsman passes triumphantly. The Narrator’s affair with Albertine is the great weakness of A La Recherche. It does not terribly matter because Un Amour de Swann is the Platonic ideal of Mills and Boon: romantic, erotic, heterosexual, nail-biting as in Odette’s affair with Forcheville and Swann looking up at her window. Above all, it is resolved; not happily, not exactly unhappily, but in the ordinary human, untidy way.
(A wonderfully comic moment in my own life occurred when my close friend, the art critic David Sylvester, who died in 2004, made a Proustian crack. David and his companion Sarah Whitfield had spent many years on the definitive study and catalogue raisonné of the Belgian master René Magritte. “To think that I have wasted years of my life on a painter who was not my type,” David muttered, straight-faced.)
Albertine may not terribly matter to us, but her failure was acknowledged by Proust himself. In the last year of his life he and André Gide would meet and discuss homosexuality. In today’s jargon, Gide was more conspicuously “out” as a writer than Proust. It seems Proust blamed himself for the “indecisiveness” (his term) which had made him (in Gide’s account) nourish the heterosexual side of his book by transposing to the shadow cast by young girls everything his own homosexuality recalled as being gracious, tender, charming; leaving only the grotesque and abject side of it to appear in the cities of the plain. Proust was ambivalent, however, even in this piece of self-criticism. He believed that what attracts us to a person is almost never beauty and has little to do with desire. He is, indeed, the great master of the mismatch between love and desire, together, of course, with the Shakespeare of the Sonnets. Individuals who take their pleasure easily with each other fail to generate the tension of true romance. Odette in old age tells the Narrator that Swann was the love of her life. One suspects that Forcheville, whom she marries after Swann’s death, may have been more to her taste. Shits, like sluts, often do rather well. The central issue though is that while the complexities of love and desire are much the same whatever your orientation, a novelist as great as Proust, and one who moreover devotes so much of his novel to the consideration of homosexuality and lesbianism, fails in purely fictional terms when he transposes the gender of his Narrator’s true love. The jealousy bits work well, not least because they do involve what Proust calls inversion. What is Albertine getting up to with her girl friends? But the character herself is in drag. In common with Françoise the cook, we don’t much care when she dies.
Anthony Powell has a delicate and delightful touch when it comes to physical love. He is better than any writer I have read at mapping the space between our interest in gossip and the love lives of our friends-only iron-clad egos like Widmerpool’s are immune — and our own experience. Nick is a late starter. His early and inept handling of Suzette (the mix-up at La Grenadière in A Question of Upbringing is both touching and funny), and of the debutante Barbara Goring, is briskly corrected when he has been seduced by the sluttish left-wing militant, Gypsy Jones. When I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1960s, a charming and talented neighbour, mother of a close friend, told me she was the model for this incident at the back of Mr Deacon’s shop. She had also been a girlfriend of Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s first book was a study of Proust. These are the kinds of life connections that give so much pleasure in Dance. The Beckett cosmology, I find, is much closer to Powell’s wintry classicism. But the young are in thrall also to spring. When Nick takes Jean Duport in his arms in the back of Templer’s car as it passes the Jantzen factory on the old Great West Road, or when she receives him naked at the door of her ground-floor flat in Rutland Gate, we enter the true acceptance world. The ideal and the real are one, however transitory this may prove to be.
“This style suits you.”
“Not too outré?”
“On the contrary.”
“Is this how you like me?”
“Just like this.”
Dialogue is the way to do it. AP should have been given a lifetime Good Sex Award.
When it comes to their sense of an ending, the two novelists differ markedly. You would expect this, given Powell’s sympathy for Proust but his quite different vision of human life. Proust is the last and possibly the greatest of the Romantic writers. Modernists claim him and there are indeed relativities, shifting perspectives. These seem trivial when set against a narrative of such acute self-consciousness, a self-consciousness he exports to consideration of others. I take Romanticism as the significant shift which occurred towards the end of the 18th century, when artists and thinkers started to examine individual sensibility as a way of asking questions about nature or society as a whole. Pinnacle of posh, the Faubourg St Germain is compelling less in its own right than for the fact that weedy, half-Jewish doctor’s son Marcel both conquers it and puts it under the eye of his own feelings at any given point rather in the way a photographer can alter the same scene by choosing a different lens. By all accounts, Proust was an inordinately charming man; more charming, I suspect, than the Narrator who can, over the lifetime we are required to spend with him, frequently become a pain in the backside. This is lifelike. We frequently become a pain in the backside to ourselves. (Powell’s friend and admirer, Kingsley Amis, in The Green Man, wrote a terrific novel about this very phenomenon.)
Nick Jenkins’s touch on the tiller of his own identity, by contrast, is much lighter, though the self-portrait is no less dimensioned. Typical of Romantic literature is the idea of becoming as distinct from being. In the New Testament, the story of the Resurrection is a romantic story; the Crucifixion a classical one. “Nothing to be done”, as the first line of Waiting for Godot has it. Proust’s coda reverses the opening chord of T.S. Eliot’s quartet East Coker. In my end is my beginning is the Proust idea. (Incidentally, Eliot was a friendly acquaintance of Powell and much admired by him; The Waste Land supplies many a tune for Dance. The novelist would have been well aware that contemporary artists and intellectuals who were also conservatives were thin on the ground.)
Of course classical themes like change, decay, madness and old age, observed against the awful social and political failure that was the First World War, are present in Le Temps Retrouvé. The old social order has dissolved. The gratin, the nouveau riche and the demi-monde are now interchangeable. Madame Verdurin is now the Princesse de Guermantes and Odette is her cousin-in-law the Duc de Guermantes’s mistress. The world of Françoise the cook remains the same. “Inversion” is still a great social leveller. Jupien’s niece is adopted by Charlus and married into the Cambremer family. Our own sub-Proustian soap, Downton Abbey, showed promise in this regard when Thomas the valet made a pass at a visiting duke. The theme was not developed. But in Proust temporal erosion is but dust compared to the lilt of art, the Narrator’s recognition of his destiny as a novelist. The Romantics substitute art for religion. In his synopsis, using an image that anticipates Giacometti, Proust writes: “I imagine men as perched on stilts, representing the length of time they have lived.” Proust was no more religious than Anthony Powell. His faith was architectural-aesthetic; it had to do with the great French cathedrals. But Le Temps Retrouvé is, psychologically and artistically, suffused by resurrection even though, even perhaps because, the story is a double-take on the romantic idea of becoming. The novel about becoming a novelist has, after all, been written. Its author is about to die.
T.S. Eliot’s “In my beginning is my end” is where the contrast throws light on Anthony Powell. Recollecting the genesis of Dance in his autobiography, he writes: “Certain technical matters had to be settled at once for early establishment of a sufficiently broad base at the start from which a complex narrative might arise, fan out; be sustained over a period of years.” So to understand the end of the dance, we have to go back to the beginning.
In the first book, A Question of Upbringing, we meet four young men. They are at that awkward age between adolescence and manhood. They are mature, but not men. They are inmates of the same house at their boarding school which is precisely described — the most accurate rendering of the famous school in literature — but never named. Three are friends who mess together; that is, share a tea-time meal with companions of their choice. The fourth boy is a bit older, not part of the mess. He is first seen by the narrator emerging out of the Thames Valley mist, earnestly training for sports at which he will never shine. He is unattractive, has no sense of humour and while too senior to be bullied is somewhat a figure of fun. The three friends are not snobbish exactly. They are more interested in the fact that one of them has just lost his virginity on a supposed trip to the dentist in London. But they live in an age — we are in the early 1920s-acutely aware of social nuance. Jenkins’s and Templer’s folk are professionals, military and financial respectively. Stringham’s are rackety and posh, also divorced. There is something subtly off-key about Widmerpool. He has already passed into mythic legend by wearing the wrong kind of coat. Colonel Cobb would have been riveted.
Once again, anyone hearing this introduction who had not read the novels might well think they were in for social comedy, very English social comedy at that. But look how things will fan out, to use Powell’s phrase, for these four young men; look how the Fates, as in ancient epic or tragedy, will reel them in. Jenkins’s most significant love affair, before his marriage, will be with Templer’s sister. Widmerpool’s success in business will cease to make him a figure of fun for Templer; he finds employment for the sister’s estranged husband, thereby bringing the couple together again and wrecking Jenkins’s romance. Indirectly, through Templer’s first wife, who has left him for a left-wing intellectual met by Nick at university, Jenkins encounters the girl he at once knows he will marry. He is the only one of the four who will have a long, stable and happy marriage with children: the emotional base for his creativity. Stringham is a figure of classic melancholy; very attractive, endlessly entertaining. He can mime Widmerpool perfectly. He dislikes, and sees through, school, university, his family, work, marriage, life. He becomes an alcoholic and then a recovering alcoholic, no less an affliction. But he is also the tragic hero of Dance. He enlists in the ranks for the war and finds himself a mess waiter in Jenkins’s and Widmerpool’s regiment. The latter avoids embarrassment by arranging for him to be shipped to Singapore and therefore, indirectly, to a Japanese war camp and his death. “Awfully chic”, as he puts it, “to be killed.”
Stringham has a niece: a poisonous, pretty child who throws up into a font at his wedding. She will turn into the man-killing vampire of the novels, Pamela Flitton. She seduces and humiliates Templer, causing him to volunteer for what turns out to be, in the context of war again, a suicide mission. She marries Widmerpool so that he can provide her with a convenient base from which to make violent sexual raids on other people’s lives, notably Jenkins’s admired writer friend X.Trapnel. She is a kindly one, a Fury. She governs much of Dance‘s mythological sub-structure. She is drawn, just a little of course, from the real-life figure of Barbara Skelton, author of a wonderfully named memoir, Tears Before Bedtime. I once asked a friend of mine, who had had an affair with Barbara Skelton, what was the secret of her appeal. “The tawny skin”, he replied, “and the cruelty.” The art of the novel, as exemplified by Dance, is to create characters at once realistic, idiosyncratic and emblematic: like Hamlet, say, or Ophelia. You grasp their narrative or structural significance. But you must also be able to recognise them should they walk into the room. In theory, it is far-fetched to marry your two gargoyles to each other. In practice, the gratification for someone who looks like Widmerpool, and is so concerned with the figure he cuts in the world, of marrying a knock-out like Pamela is altogether convincing.
On Pamela’s side, the alliance is more mysterious; convincing on that very account. “Why did she do it?” Flavia Wisebite, Stringham’s sister, Pamela’s mother, asks Nick at a wedding years after Pamela’s death; Pamela contrives to commit suicide while in bed with Trapnel’s biographer. “How could she? Find the most horrible man on earth and then marry him? She always had to have her own way. It was quite enough that everyone said that Widmerpool was awful, hideous, monstrous. She just wanted to show that she didn’t care in the least what anyone said. She was the same as a child. Absolutely wilful. Nobody could control her.” When he meets Pamela as an ATS driver in the war, Nick has a sense that she is thoroughly vicious: “using the word not so much in the moral sense but as one might speak of a horse-more specifically a mare.”
Widmerpool has been too continuously a leitmotif in Jenkins’s own story to be considered the most horrible man on earth. Like Pamela, who uses sex not for pleasure, nor for consolation, nor to connect and communicate with another, but to dominate, to impose her will, Widmerpool is throughout the sequence a forceful archetype as much as a character. Characters suffer. They learn. They attempt to reconcile the world without to the world within. Archetypes, whether heroes or anti-heroes, are not proponents of the examined life. They are forces: of their own destruction, of other people’s destiny. “That boy will be the death of me,” says Stringham of some comic blunder of Widmerpool at school. Twenty years on, he proves to be. Widmerpool exemplifies to Jenkins, the slow starter in life, the perils and attractions of taking charge of your life, of subordinating everything you do and feel to an heroic exercise of will. Powell invests too much in Widmerpool’s horror-comic potential to let him remain purely a gargoyle. Widmerpool has intellectual ability, formidable energy, application. He can forget himself sufficiently for a few moments to analyse the behaviour of others, if and only if doing so helps him get on. He is therefore effective in business during his Donners-Brebner years. In the army, he ends up as a Colonel with an OBE for his work in the Cabinet Office. He becomes a Labour MP and is one of the first to be made a Life Peer under the Tories in 1958.
By the end of the sequence, set in time some ten years later, two of the four school contemporaries are dead. Nick is a happily married man of letters in his sixties, whose wife, Isobel, has given him two children (who do not appear in the novel except as dedicatees of individual books) and also an immense cast of in-laws. These do appear. The wonderful Erridge — touch of the Longfords, both Edward and Frank; touch of George Orwell — has gone, but a niece, Fiona, daughter of Tory MP Roddy Cutts and Isobel’s sister, Susan, is pivotal for the end of Dance. She is a member of Widmerpool’s nemesis Scorpio Murtlock’s ruralist, hippy, alternative society cult. Quite a few of my own friends of that time used to travel around the countryside in horse-drawn caravans and a cloud of marijuana. They could perfectly well have camped in a field near the Chantry. Perhaps they did. I am not for a moment suggesting that these saintly figures engaged in satanic rites. But such are not unknown in the country. Quite recently, more than 40 years on, the Lord-Lieutenant of the county adjoining ours has had to tackle a worrying outbreak of witchcraft. It was a pretext, in his view, for incest and child abuse. Our perceptions may be defined by decades. As Powell was classically aware, human compulsions are not.
Fiona Cutts meets Trapnell’s necrophiliac biographer at one of Murtlock’s ritual orgies and bids fair to become the respectable wife of a now respectable academic. Widmerpool’s quasi-heroic will to get on, his uncontemplated desire and pursuit of some illusory whole, has led him to embrace the counter-culture of Abbie Hoffman, Herbert Marcuse and Powell’s own fictional French guru, Léon Josef Ferrand-Seneschal. This nightmare figure not only involves Widmerpool in “liberated” sexual high jinks, but nearly gets him indicted for treason. The apostle of liberty is feeding stuff to the Soviet Union as busily as he can. If you are very blinkered, you can read the whole of Dance as a satire on the rightthinkmanship of the Left: tendence John Carey and other spiritual heirs of Quiggin. The extremity, therefore, of Widmerpool’s quest, the lengths he will go to or not stop at to realise what General Conyers (almost my favourite minor character in Dance) would have called his personal myth does have a touch of the heroic about it. Indeed, the hyper-literate Jenkins compares him mentally to Ariosto’s Orlando, Childe Roland of the Romances. Like Orlando, when he drops out, he does so with a vengeance: the reverse epitome of cool, of doing your own thing. As a fine later novelist, A.S. Byatt, put it: “The innocence of the Sixties flickers into cruelty very quickly.”
Widmerpool has always answered to the imperatives or trends of a given day. Now they will deliver him a ridiculous death. A well-known public man nearing 70, he has in Scorp Murtlock, as in Pamela, found a will stronger than his own. He dies offstage from the narrative, as Stringham and Templer have died. He is by now wholly grotesque: a diminished man in a blue nightie, participant in ritual orgies (he prefers looking) and forever tilting at the windmills of fashionable thought. The genesis of Wagner’s immense Ring was a projected opera called The Death of Siegfried. Hearing Secret Harmonies immolates the anti-hero of Dance. We may think of it as The Death of Widmerpool.
Proust and Powell both use the device of a party to bring their surviving characters on stage for the last time. In Le Temps Retrouvé, the afternoon party of the Princesse de Guermantes (Madame Verdurin to you and me and also to a confused Bloch) segues into a grotesque masked ball where old people have painted themselves up, as if old age had not already disguised them. The awful Bloch looks like an old Shylock. He is the same age as the Narrator, who is barely 50. In Harmonies, we meet Widmerpool on stage for the last time, creating acute embarrassment at a wedding. We meet the once bewitching Jean and the once loathsome Duport at a gallery exhibition one devoted to bad art. Mr Deacon has been fashionably rebranded by the young. But all this, in both novels, is administration: theatrical “business” merely compared with the realisation of manifest artistic destiny for Proust and the tragi-comic Widmerpool’s Tod for Powell. Powell also grasps that the job of the artist is to create association, generate metamorphosis, modify the world through an act of the mind. But his world, and Poussin’s, is a bleak one; even though for my time and money Powell is the greatest comedian, the funniest writer I have read. The Theatre of the Absurd was big around the time Hearing Secret Harmonies was being composed, and it shows.
Widmerpool’s death strips Jenkins, sole survivor now of those four schoolboys, of a recurring figure in his life: “one of those fabulous monsters that haunts the recesses of the individual imagination.” Life, and a novel orchestrating a life, delivers both the grotesque and the absurd. But these attributes have their heroic, and thereby their timeless, tragic aspects as well. There is not so much that is funny about Widmerpool’s end. His heart stops when he sprints into the lead on one of Murtlock’s group runs through the woods, a desperate attempt to assert himself over the young Magus. Harmonies is the most pastoral of the books, the most given to natural description, a direct reversal of the ordering of A La Recherche. The last run is more than contextually tidy; we met Widmerpool on a run at school and Nick, in his Aldershot childhood, used to observe Dr Trelawney and his robed followers running over the Surrey furze. But now the run reminds us that all we know of life is movement, striving, entropy, repetition. Our ethical imperative is to run towards the wintry silence with honour, like Stringham, not vanity, like Widmerpool. Bithel, whose life in the army Widmerpool wrecked many books ago, acts as a melancholy Loge. He delivers the news of the death. All the survivor, the writer, knows for certain is that things happen and will happen again, seasons return and the dance go on.
This is the correct version of Grey Gowrie’s text. In the print version of this article pages 68 and 69 were mistakenly transposed.