I first read the twelve-volume sequence of novels by Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, in 1982. I’d just left university, and having failed to notice that everyone else around me was busy getting jobs in the City or at Reuters or suchlike, I found myself standing in the job queue at Harrods one summer morning. In a very Powell-like moment, I met a friend from university in the same job queue, and we acknowledged each other’s mutual failure to secure a “proper job” with slight embarrassment. He was posted to the furniture department, I to the gifts department; later, another friend turned up, and he ended up in the Food Halls on the ground floor, and got in terrible trouble one day for inadvertently throwing a sack of chickens down the refuse chute. My job kept me in a tiny windowless basement storeroom, where I sat patiently waiting for one of the bustling gifts department ladies to come down with another order, which invariably involved musical cottages: I seemed to spend that entire summer wrapping up musical cottages and sending them off to America. There was so little work for me to do that I began on A Dance, and that summer I got through all twelve novels of them in that room, lining up each Pan paperback with the Marc cartoon on the cover in a neat row above the workbench where I cut up my wrapping paper.
Over 30 years later, I thought I’d give them another bash. This time, I’m indulging myself by listening to Simon Vance’s quite brilliant audio version. As I trudge through St Katherine’s Dock on the way to work, I hear his wonderful impersonations of Quiggin, Widmerpool, Sillery, Stringham and others. What more excitingly anticipatory phrase can there be in English fiction than: “It was Widmerpool.” I burst out laughing on the tube at the delicate absurdity of the social constructs, sometimes the sheer slapstick foolishness of one or other of the characters.
But what most strikes me this time round is just how remarkably good Powell is. Not just good, as in technically good. What really strikes me is how serious a novelist he is. English novelists traditionally suffer in comparison with their colleagues in many other countries because of a perceived narrowness of scope, a timidity of ambition. To be English is to be cloistered, buttoned-up, lacking in energy.
Powell negates this argument. In fact, compared to him, contemporaries such as Greene and Waugh come across as saloon-bar entertainers, superficial charmers trying to tie their stories to grand themes which really bear little investigating. What Powell achieved was something far more profound, and something which goes back to the originator of the European novel, Cervantes: the ability to use humour to reveal the true extent of the human desire to survive, and the willingness to set this humour against a profound seriousness.
He is our most underrated novelist.