Dukes, debs and democrats

Salman Rushdie and Irvine Welsh, stand back - Anthony Powell was funnier and more shocking. What, the novelist who wrote about chaps going to Eton? That's the one, says D J Taylor
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The Independent Culture

At this stage in the proceedings - the subject four years dead, the world about which he wrote no more than a gently receding memory - there are two standard views of Anthony Dymoke Powell (1905-2000), each of them sharply opposed to the other. The first - to which I cheerfully hold myself - maintains that he was the greatest English novelist of the 20th century, responsible in his youth for five of the funniest novels ever to grace a 1930s bookshop shelf, and then in post-war maturity for a panoramic sequence (A Dance To The Music of Time, 12 vols 1951-1975) which, more than any other work of fiction, tells you what it was like to have been alive in England between the years 1920 to 1970. Humour, psychological grasp, wintry gaze bent upon the tides on history: Powell has them all, dealt out in a style of almost classical poise, precision and understatement.

For the alternative view of Powell and his works, let us turn to a conversation I had some years ago with the current head of Miramax Books. Why, this gentleman tolerantly enquired, did I want to bother myself with all that dusty old upper-class gossip, the self-evidently sterile manoeuvrings of worthless people amid a disintegrating (and worthless) civilisation, all written up in glacial, heartless prose by a decayed old snob more concerned with correctly addressing the Earl's eldest son as "Lord John Snooks" rather than "Lord Snooks" than the intricacies of the human heart? For the record, this is more or less the view of Powell taken by Malcolm Muggeridge in the infamous 1960s Evening Standard review that ended their 20-year-old friendship.

There are a number of ways of rebutting the (very common) idea of Powell and his chronicle as a kind of fictionalised version of Debrett. The most rudimentary is to point to the heterodox nature of his fan base. Presumably Steve Jones, Ian Rankin, John Peel and Brian Ferry - to take only four notables who have raved over him and chosen his books for their desert island library (Steve Jones instanced The Valley of Bones as his favourite metaphor for evolution) - can't all be coat-tail chasers seduced by the orchidaceous scents of Eton and the Ritz bar? Then, of course, there are the novels themselves. These, curiously enough, turn out not to be set in a sort of high-class night-club populated by debutantes and aristocratic what-not, but to feature an extraordinarily vagrant and rackety selection of people drawn from every social category. Powell's great theme is the extreme fluidity of English social arrangements, and some of the sharpest (and friendliest) portraits contained in The Valley of Bones, the first of Dance's three war novels, are those of "other ranks".

One of the main themes to emerge from Michael Barber's biography is how thoroughly Powell imagined himself to conform to his own theories of English social advancement. To the end of his days, the Eton- and Balliol-educated colonel's son, who once confessed to Muggeridge that his aim in life had been to marry a lady of title and own a house with a drive (he succeeded in both) supposed himself to be "a poor boy made good". However ludicrous a remark when set down flatly on paper, this becomes a great deal more meaningful when tested against the rarefied and exotic communities in which Powell spent his formative years. His adolescence was lived out, by and large, among people who not only had more money than he did but whose futures were already assured. This grounding undoubtedly contributed to the sense of self-preservation that characterised every aspect of his adult life. His friend Evelyn Waugh once complained that the atmosphere of a particular club to which they both belonged was on the frosty side. Powell replied that he had never found it so. "You were at Eton and Balliol," Waugh chided him. Unlike Waugh, who could be self-conscious about his middle-class origins, Powell invariably seemed at home among the company he kept.

There followed an almost archetypal literary progress for one born in the first decade of the 20th century: a decade's devilling in a publisher's office; an abortive attempt to manufacture film scripts in Hollywood; six years' war service followed by a half-century spent writing and seeing one's friends. Anthony Powell: A Life is an unofficial work, uncountenanced by Powell's family (Hilary Spurling got the subject's own benediction a decade and a half ago) and it shows a bit. Most of the detail has been picked up from Powell's published works, notably his four volumes of memoirs (1976-82) and the three volumes of Journals (1995-97) and not a great deal here, perhaps, will startle the experienced Powell-fancier.

As for the works, Barber simply assumes that Nick Jenkins, Dance's raissoneur, "is" Powell and the more prominent members of the cast a series of pen portraits, however subtly retouched, from among his acquaintance. Elsewhere, an occasional attempt to talk up the subject's human qualities is let down by contextual omissions. Much is made, for example, of Powell's sorrowings, late in his Somersetshire retirement, over the death of the family cat ("It breaks one's heart... A very, very sad day" etc) while ignoring his account, a fortnight later, of the death of a close friend ("We shall all miss her").

On the credit side, Barber is very good on Powell's Bohemian connections in the polyglot world of late 1920s London, provides an extended treatment of his affair with the painter Nina Hamnett and adroitly emphasises a side of his life not conspicuously apparent in the late-period Journals with their accounts of hob-nobbing with the Duke of Devonshire - his liking for people who existed on or beyond the margins of his own social catchment area. Cyril Connolly once inscribed a copy of his book Enemies of Promise "For Tony, who like myself was an Afternoon Boy" (a reference to Afternoon Men, Powell's first novel, itself a reference to the hangover-grounded barflys of inter-war Fitzrovia). Privately, Powell disparaged this claim to Bohemian solidarity: Connolly's affiliations to that specialised world of bad painters and biddable artist's models were, he thought, much less solid than his own.

Barber's sense of humour - a quality not always brought to Powell - also enables him on the one hand to appreciate what a great comedian Powell is, beneath his mask of polite evasiveness, and on the other to poke fun at himself. No doubt it came as a shock to find an account of his own visit to the Chantry, Somerset, to interview Powell written up in the Journals and a description of himself as "uninspiring to say the least". Above all he manages to gesture at the great deceit that has characterised most recent critiques of the Powell oeuvre, that is, the habit of critics to complain about his books for essentially non-literary reasons. Just as Kingsley Amis gets it in the neck these days simply for being a cross-grained old Tory, so merely presuming to write about chaps who went to Eton is seen as a sign of spiritual inadequacy. To offer some kind of benchmark for the modern age, Powell is a much funnier and more innovative and even more "shocking" writer than, say, Salman Rushdie or Irvine Welsh or the late Angela Carter. He was also, as Michael Barber's biography demonstrates, that very rare phenomenon, a genuine literary democrat.

To order a copy of 'Anthony Powell: A Life' by Michael Barber (Duckworth £20) for £18, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897