Understanding Anthony Powell (review)
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Understanding Anthony Powell. Nicholas Birns. Columbia: South Carolina University Press, 2004. Pp. xvii + 389. $39.95 (cloth).

The year 2005 sees the centenary of Anthony Powell's birth. This follows on such high-profile centenaries as those, among others, of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell in 2003, and Graham Greene in 2004.1 But will Powell's centenary be addressed, publicized and fêted in a similar way? For a writer who has, in the past, been referred to as "the most elegant writer presently working in the English language," "our foremost writer," and "the most entertaining writer of fiction in English," Powell's work sadly no longer seems to attract much public or academic attention.2 The centenary year could change that. Already, in the build-up to it, the signs are positive, with Powell's name popping up again more often in the media. This is largely due to two recent book publications dedicated to his life and work: Michael Barber's biography, Anthony Powell: A Life and Nicholas Birns's critical Understanding Anthony Powell.3

Birns's work is a labor of love. Himself an acknowledged admirer of Powell, he has set out to give an appraisal of the entirety of Powell's literary legacy—an hitherto unattempted, and consequently all the more laudable, task.4 However, Birns's opening statement causes concern: "This book is directed to anybody who has enjoyed the works of Anthony Powell and is interested in learning more about them" (ix). Birns's readership is almost immediately limited to the connoisseur of Powell's work; a broader, and more public-minded approach might have been more advantageous.

Understanding Anthony Powell is part of a well-established series published by South Carolina University Press; a series that has previously covered authors such as John Fowles, Kazuo Ishiguro, Harold Pinter and Alan Sillitoe. It is consequently all the more disappointing that Birns's book seems poorly edited, marred by typographical errors that could easily have been avoided. Formally, the book follows the scheme of the other works in the series, being divided into clearly identifiable sections dedicated to Powell's life, his pre-war work, his masterpiece Dance to the Music of Time, the post-Dance novels, the memoirs and, finally, the journals. The section on Dance is by far the most detailed one and again shows Birns's thorough knowledge of his subject matter. The twelve volumes of the novel sequence are analyzed chronologically, with careful attention to detail: the titles of the individual sections are explained, links between the author's life and the novel made clearer, and Birns in general attempts (and achieves) an explanation of the novel and its relevance in and for British literary history. [End Page 200]

That said, there are a few problematic sections in the book. One of them relates to the fact that Powell does not depict the influence of fascism on the British upper classes in his representation of the 1930s. Of course, no novel can be expected to offer a comprehensive account of any given time. Nevertheless, Birns's excuse for the omission is somewhat on the vague side: "There is no evidence that Powell knew the Mosleys or the Cliveden set . . . and Jenkins thus does not meet characters based on these people in the novel" (164). Whether or not Powell knew any of the fascist sympathizers is immaterial to a possible depiction of them in his work. The fact is that fascism did have its followers among the British upper class and, as such, ought to have found some mention. Equally unsatisfying is Birns's explanation for the conspicuous absence of any mention of the Holocaust in the war trilogy of Dance, whereas there is much coverage of the plight of the Poles of Katyn. The explanation that "when the book was published in 1968, the Holocaust was in nearly everyone's consciousness, whereas Katyn was, outside a small, marginalized group of Poles and conservatives, unmentioned by the intelligentsia or the media" (194) does not convince. To excuse the absence of one major subject with the presence of another rather smacks of evasion of serious issues. Powell was...


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