Anthony Powell Biography (More)

The new biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling has been widely reviewed in the British press and several additional reviews have cited Evelyn Waugh’s friendship with Powell. Nicholas Shakespeare, writer and director of the BBC Arena documentary “The Waugh Trilogy” in the 1980s, reveiwed the book in the Daily Telegraph:

Not normally a writer to stand one’s hair on end, Powell does so when contemplating his fellow practitioners. His publishers used to categorise him as “probably the greatest living English writer”, which made him sound like a lager. But just look how actively he cleared the ground of rivals past, present and future. The effect is not unlike napalm. Gustave Flaubert: “Does rather pile on the agony at the end.” Graham Greene: “Absurdly overrated.” Evelyn Waugh: “Unnourishing feeling in most of his books.” … Powell would have purred like his cat Fum at the way Spurling has brought him to humane and generous life, made head and tail of his character and work, and begun the process of restoring Powell to the same shelf as his contemporaries like Waugh, Greene and Orwell, where he always felt he belonged anyway.

Literary critic and novelist DJ Taylor, after writing a parody of Spurling’s book (and Powell’s writing) in Private Eye, wrote a generous and favorable review in The Times. Taylor begins by summarizing Spurling’s description of the financial and social difficulties Powell faced in breaking into the London literary establishment. Although dismissed by many as a spoiled product of the upper class, attending Eton and Balliol, his family depended on his father’s modest Army officer pay. It was often difficult for Powell to keep up with his contemporaries, such as his more successful Oxford friends Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. On that subject, Taylor notes:

One could have done, too, with a more nuanced view of some of his friendships, in particular his relationship with Evelyn Waugh, who once informed a third party that Tony “feared all human contact”. (The best of the Waugh stories has Waugh jokily threatening to give his family away to the Powells — the children had to be forcibly removed from Lady Violet’s car.)

Finally, the Irish Times has issued a review by journalist Kieran Fagan which cites what has become one of the most quoted passages in the UK reviews of Spurling’s book:

Powell’s friend and fellow novelist Evelyn Waugh saw the novel sequence this way: “We watch through the glass of a tank; one after another, the various specimens swim towards us; we see them clearly, then with a barely perceptible flick of fin or a tail, they swim off into the murk. This is how our encounters occur in real life. Friends and acquaintances approach or recede year by year. Their presence has no significance. It is recorded as part of the permeating and inebriating atmosphere of the haphazard which is the essence of Mr Powell’s art.”

Spurling quotes that passage in her book (p. 366), and it has been requoted (in whole or in part) in nearly half of the reviews in the UK press. It comes from Waugh’s review in the Spectator of the 6th book in Powell’s cycle Dance to the Music of Time. This is entitled The Kindly Ones and was published in 1962. It has not been collected, unlike Waugh’s review of the previous volume Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960) which appears in Essays, Articles and Reviews. That happened to be the volume Waugh liked least because of the introduction of several musicians in whom he had little interest. In the quoted review, Waugh thought Powell was back on form and commented favorably on the entire series up to that point.

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