A Tale of Two Anthonys

The current issue of the London Review of Books has an essay by Prof Perry Anderson on Anthony Powell.  This considers the recent biography of Powell by Hilary Spurling and morphs into a longer critical consideration of Powell’s works. It is Part 1 of what will be a two-part essay. Anderson notes at the beginning that Spurling’s supposedly official biography of Powell is considerably shorter than Martin Stannard’s work on Waugh as well as some of Spurling’s own biographies of other subjects; he also wonders about:

her relationship with the subject, a close friend whom for many years she knew and admired – Christopher Sykes on Waugh is the nearest parallel? In such cases, affection can shape the compass of a biography, personal knowledge lighting up but also limiting what can be said. Perhaps there are traces of that here; but, on the whole, in the warmth and grace of Spurling’s account there is a natural tact but little sign of inhibition. … Aesthetically speaking, at all events, the economy of her study is not out of keeping with its subject: Powell, a disciplined writer with a laconic streak of his own, would have appreciated it.

In the end, Anderson thinks Spurling gets it just about right. After an extended comparison of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time with Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time, Anderson compares Powell’s works with those of his English-language conetmporaries. This includes a comparison of Powell’s prewar novels with those of Evelyn Waugh:

The verdicts of Koyama Taichi, in The Novels of Anthony Powell: A Critical Study (2006), comparing them with Waugh’s output in the same [prewar] period, are brisk. Similarities abound – Decline and Fall: Afternoon Men (’the merry-go-round of manners’); Black Mischief: Venusberg (‘topsy-turvy in a foreign land’); Vile Bodies: Agents and Patients (‘satire of the fast set’); A Handful of Dust: From a View to a Death (‘the country house is falling down’); Scoop: What’s Become of Waring? (‘the dinginess of hacks’) – but Powell lacks the gusto of Waugh’s ‘wild, grotesque flights of the imagination’, his energy-saving variants yielding no more than a ‘light, prosperous disdain for the sordid affairs of the world’. That could be thought too harsh. But Koyama is perfectly correct in pointing out the most striking feature of the early novels. They contain, virtually without exception, only flat characters.

In an article in the Jesuit magazine America, the religious position of novelist Anthony Burgess is reconsidered by Christopher Sandford. The article provides this comparison with the approaches to religion of Burgess and Waugh :

Although [Burgess] proudly identified himself as an “unbeliever” from the age of 16, he continually returned to spiritual themes, whether in his novels, his poems or his screenwriting of the acclaimed 1977 miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth.” Burgess told me in 1987 that this aspect of his life was “an endlessly scratched itch.” Not that he ever for a moment identified with other prominent Roman Catholic authors of his generation (again shunning the lure of the club), telling The Paris Review in 1973 that he felt himself to be “quite alone…the novels I’ve written are really medieval Catholic in their thinking, and people don’t want that today.” Unlike him, Burgess continued, even the greatest of English Catholic writers “tend to be bemused by the Church’s glamour, and even look for more glamour than is actually there—like [Evelyn] Waugh, dreaming of an old English Catholic aristocracy, or [Graham] Greene, fascinated by sin in a very cold-blooded way…. I try to forget that Greene is a Catholic when I read him. Crouchback’s Catholicism weakens [Waugh’s] Sword of Honour in the sense that it sentimentalises the book. We need something that lies beneath religion.”

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