Graham Greene and Waugh Discuss Powell Novel

In the latest installment of imaginary encounters among Evelyn Waugh and his Oxford friends at the Castle Howard Brideshead Festival, Duncan McLaren has Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh discuss Anthony Powell’s 1971 novel Books Do Furnish a Room. This was the 10th volume of Powell’s 12-novel cycle Dance to the Music of Time. The book is set in literary London during 1945-47. The Waugh/Greene discussion begins with the funeral that opens Powell’s novel. This follows the death of the character Erridge who is based loosely on George Orwell. Greene and Waugh see some connections between Orwell’s actual funeral (described in Powell’s Memoirs) and that depicted in the novel. But most of their discussion centers on the character X Trapnel, a fictional novelist based heavily on the real life minor novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross, who was known to both Greene and Waugh. Much of the article is taken up with readings from the novel by Waugh interspersed with the two writers then discussing that bit of the text.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion centers on a connection the writers see between Powell’s scene where Kenneth Widmerpool, a central character in Powell’s novel, returns to his flat near Victoria Station to discover that X Trapnel has absconded with  his wife. This scene reminds Evelyn of the flat in Canonbury Square where he was living with his first wife in 1929 when she ran off with John Heygate. Here’s an excerpt:

Waugh: … I think Tony [Powell] had what happened to me in mind when he wrote the scene. After all, he was a close friend of mine at the time, and he heard my side of the story. Moreover, he was on holiday in Germany with John Heygate when they received a telegram from me telling Heygate to come back for She-Evelyn, because our miserable attempt at a reconciliation had failed. And Evelyn Gardner was a close associate of Tony’s too. And he remained good friends with the pair of them. Even writing of their shared life in the Canonbury Square – and easily recognisable flat – in his pre-war book, Agents and Patients. Then returning to the fiasco in volume two of his Memoirs, which is also lying on the table in front of you. Yes?”

Greene: “Yes.”

Waugh: “There are pages and pages about the breakdown of my first marriage in that book.”

Greene: “I think I see what you’re driving at. For at least a few pages in Tony’s Dance, you are Widmerpool. Or you understand yourself to be the failure and humiliation that was Widmerpool, the man who nevertheless kept going.”

There is also a discussion of the scenes set in the premises of the postwar literary magazine known as Fission, clearly based by Powell on Cyril Connolly’s Horizon magazine. In Duncan’s narrative, Greene and Powell see the editor of Fission, “Books” Bagshaw, as based on the shambolic Bobby Roberts (usually associated with a BBC connection) who was known to both Waugh and Powell and probably to Greene as well. Several Powell enthusiasts have favored Malcolm Muggeridge as the primary model for Bagshaw, although there may well be elements of Roberts in him as well. Powell (as did Waugh) usually combined features of several real life acquaintances as well as imaginary ones in creating their most memorable literary characters. Greene may have done so as well, but identifying the models for Greene’s characters never became the sort of literary parlour game that involved identfying those of Powell and Waugh.

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