Hilary Spurling, who has written a new and much awaited biography of Anthony Powell, has served up an appetizer in an article published in the Times. She starts with a survey of the major 20th century writers who admired Powell’s work. These included P G Wodehouse, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. They also included a friend from Powell’s Oxford days, Evelyn Waugh, who wrote:
“The life of the series [Dance to the Music of Time] is generated within it,” said Evelyn Waugh. “Less original novelists tenaciously follow their protagonists. In the Music of Time we watch through the glass of a tank; one after another various specimens swim towards us; we see them clearly, then with a barely perceptible flick of fin or a tail they are off into the murk. That is how our encounters occur in life.”
Spurling goes on to give a sampling of her research on Powell’s early love affairs about which he was relatively reticent in his memoirs. In one of these he intersected with Evelyn Waugh, as will probably be mentioned in the biography:
When he and [his first lover] parted, Tony consoled himself with, among others, the tempestuous Varda (always known, like a man, by her surname), once billed by the great impresario CB Cochran as “the most beautiful woman in the world”. Tony met her when she sent him her translation of the French avant-garde writer Raymond Radiguet and shortly afterwards a novel of her own called Faces (always referred to by its author as Faeces).
Waugh describes some of the details of his own fling with Varda in his Diaries. Spurling’s biography is scheduled to be released next week in the UK by Hamish Hamilton.
The book is reviewed in the Sunday Times for 24 September by John Carey. Not known as a Powell fan, Prof Carey provides this comparison of Powell’s war trilogy in the Dance series to Waugh’s Sword of Honour:
Though nominally a member of the armed forces, [Powell] sat out the Second World War in various desk jobs, peacefully attaining the rank of temporary major and never setting foot outside the British Isles. This arrangement allowed him to spend occasional weekends with his wife, but it had its downside. His limited experience of soldiering is one reason why the three volumes of Dance that cover the war years are so inferior to Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy.
Carey is quite amusing on the subject of Powell’s “youthful deprivation” (only 3 servants!), but I can’t agree that his war novels are inferior to Waugh’s. Their approach was quite different: Waugh preferred the farcical aspects (Apthorpe, Ritchie-Hook) while Powell’s version was only too believable. The unfortunate Captain Gwatkin for example.