On his best behaviour

Journals, 1990-1992 by Anthony Powell, Heinemann, pounds 20

It used to be said that there were two ways of achieving lasting literary celebrity in England. One was to die young and tragically leaving tantalising shards of promise; the other was to live to a gargantuan old age having written a shelf of books to be rediscovered in one's dotage.

Judging by the violently mixed reaction to his recent work - two volumes of assorted reviews and the first two instalments of these journals - Anthony Powell is rapidly disproving the second strand of this adage. Worse, critical sniping at late-period trifles has started to encroach on his greatest achievement, the soon-to-be-televised 12-volume novel sequence A Dance To The Music Of Time. Praised to the skies on completion in 1975, it is now found to be snobbish, recondite and a threnody for a dead world.

Writers have their ups and downs, and Powell can take comfort from the example of Anthony Trollope, whose reputation has undergone a bewild- ering switchback ride over the past 100 years. At the same time it cannot be gratifying to learn, at the ripe age of 91, that the masterpieces of one's maturity are now seen in some quarters as impenetrable exercises in obscurantism. You sympathise all the more in that so much criticism of Powell's work is fundamentally non-literary, if not simply obtuse.

Turning over the Journals and noting their mania for lineage, connection and social correctness, many a reviewer diagnosed simple snobbery. One might retort that if a writer whose work grows out of social codes and distinctions can't take an interest in this kind of apparatus, then what can he take an interest in?

Doubtless many of these strictures will be pushed to the surface again by Journals 1990-1992, another hefty report on late-period life at The Chantry (Nr Frome, Somerset), the Powells' West Country hideaway. Outwardly not much has changed since the earlier volumes. Friends come to lunch; the Powells' hospitality is returned.

Other friends die ("XYZ obit" is a familiar entry). The cat depopulates the local fauna, and Lady Violet nips up to London for a Pakenham clambake leaving AP to brood over Shakespeare in the study and indulge in one of his favourite parlour games - suggesting improvements to great works of world literature.

It's a critical commonplace to talk of Powell's habitual reserve. The near-simultaneous deaths (recorded in volume two) of his cat Trelawney and an old friend who was the joint dedicatee of a novel are worth considering in this respect, as most of the emotion looks to be lavished on the cat. For all this, it seems clear that as he sinks deeper into old age Powell has ceased to care about giving offence.

The polite balancing acts of his memoirs dissolve into wounding judgments of contemporaries (Harold Acton: "an unfortunate influence on the Oxford of his generation"; Evelyn Waugh: "interesting how little people know themselves"; Henry Green: "really rather a shit"). The only surprise is the elaborate smokescreen raised above the famous row with Auberon Waugh in 1990 (Waugh fils had liberally besmirched Powell's reputation in a paper for which Powell reviews), adumbrated only in an innocuous remark about "having resigned from the Telegraph".

Elsewhere the tone settles itself into the kind of specialised, old-world crossness of which Powell is perhaps our greatest living exponent, a litany of reproach that takes in everything from feeble books to journalists who presume to address him by his Christian name and unpunctual photographers, the Independent's own Herbie Knott included.

Much of what follows is irresistibly funny - a telephone call from Lord Denning, who "wafted waves of genial egotism down the line in accents of a stage peasant", or a televisual sighting of John Major, described as "tall, good figure, dignified movement, distinctly aristocratic one would have thought".

By the end, powers waning in the wake of a serious operation, the consolations of old age seem less tangible. "I sit or lie with a rug round me like a character in the background of a Russian novel, the old prince."

All this comes interspersed with the usual wistful glances into the lost world of youth. A visitor in the previous volume of journals was described as "tall, thin, rather little-girl voice that made her seem like girls in the past one used to know, not of today". Powell might not be "of today" himself, but that doesn't make his life any less beguiling, or his achievement any less important.

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