Novelists Review Powell Biography

In yesterday’s papers, two novelists review the new biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling. Philip Hensher in the Spectator declares that Powell has finally received the biography he deserves. He also discusses the relationship of Powell and Evelyn Waugh:

The five novels [Powell] wrote in the 1930s fell under the shadow of Waugh and even of Henry Green; they are extraordinarily dry, and met with only very moderate success, though their brilliance has never been in doubt. The last of them, indeed, was published days before the war broke out and was a minor casualty of the conflict. Powell had a mixed war, though relations between him and the army never broke down as spectacularly as they did in the case of Evelyn Waugh — in person, he was always much more emollient, though perhaps not very competent.

In the Guardian Claire Messud also praises the biography and offers her own favorable judgment of  Powell’s work. She too includes Waugh in her discussion, citing the same assessment Waugh made of Powell’s work as quoted by Hilary Spurling in the recent Times article.  See previous post. Messud concludes that discussion:

…Waugh rightly salutes “the permeating and inebriating atmosphere of the haphazard” so distinctive to Powell’s oeuvre…In the immediate postwar years, Powell struggled again with depression, and was at sea as a writer: “Contemporaries like Waugh, Greene, and even Orwell were beginning to think about collected editions but he had published nothing for eight years, and was nowhere near starting a new novel. The closest he had got was to spend the last year re-reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past,” Spurling writes of a frantic period in which Powell was reviewing approximately a book a day. This rediscovery of Proust proved definitive for Powell, who came to envision a new way of writing, and a project that would consume him for the next 25 years. A Question of Upbringing was published in 1951.

UPDATE (29 September 2017): Lara Feigel, author of The Love Charm of Bombs, a literary history of WWII London, has reviewed the biography of Anthony Powell in the Financial Times. She also features a discussion of Evelyn Waugh’s relationship with Powell which opens her review:

Reviewing the sixth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time [The Kindly Ones] in 1962, Anthony Powell’s long-time friend and some-time rival Evelyn Waugh paid generous tribute. “Less original novelists tenaciously follow their protagonists”, Waugh wrote, but Powell’s method was different. Here we watched the characters 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 tail, they are off into the murk”. For Waugh, Powell had succeeded in capturing nothing less than the haphazard daily experience of life.

Waugh also reviewed the fifth volume (Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant) but liked it less than he had the others. Both reviews appeared in the Spectator and the earlier one is reprinted in Waugh’s Essays, Articles and Reviews. In the one quoted by Feigel and several others, Waugh thought Powell was back on form, and he enjoyed it as much as he had the earlier volumes.


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