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Marcia Muelder Eaton ANTHONY POWELL AND THE AESTHETIC LIFE Anthony POWELL'S work has been looked at carefully by relatively few critical scholars, in spite of the fact that he has been called "the most elegant writer presently working in the English language." ' I am surprised at how little he is read — at least in the United States. He is a splendid writer, often entertaining, always a skilled craftsman. His earlier novels {Afternoon Men, 1931; Venusberg, 1932; From a View to a Death, 1933; Agents and Patients, 1936; and What's Become of Waring, 1939) are short satiric and ironic comedies dealing mainly with London bohemia in the 1920s. His later fictional work is a twelve volume tour de force (A Question of Upbringing , 1951; A Buyer's Market, 1952; The Acceptance World, 1955; At Lady Molly's, 1957; Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, 1960; The Kindly Ones, 1962; The Valley of Bones, 1964; The Soldier's Art, 1966; The Military Philosophers, 1968; Books Do Furnish a Room, 1971; Temporary Kings, 1973; Hearing Secret Harmonies, 1975) 2 in which the narrator, NicholasJenkins, attempts, with varying degrees of success, to make sense of life as A Dance to the Music of Time. Both the early and later works are populated by many characters. Manageable in the short, independent novels, they become so numerous in the interdependent volumes of Dance that several critics are dubious about anyone's keeping them straight; had I read them as they were published — with months, sometimes years and the novels of others between appearances — I am sure it would have been impossible to keep track of the minor characters. In 1960, Time and Tide published a cast ofcharacters for "readers who find it difficult to remember from book to book details of family and other more tenuous relationships between characters who have a habit of popping up surprisingly in the most unexpected places."3 The entries provide the following kinds of information: "McReith, Lady (Gwen): friend of Babs Templer and Jimmy Stripling; goes to bed with 166 Marcia Muelder Eaton167 Peter Templer when staying in the Templer (senior) house. . . . Tolland, George: son of Lord Warminster: was in Coldstream for some years then went into city. Very correct." More recently Hilary Spurling has compiled a book-length guide to the plots and characters ofDance. It also includes an index of books, paintings, and places referred to.4 Even with these guides there are loose ends, and it is not always clear what functions certain minor characters serve. Nonetheless, the popping-up in unexpected places is, as I hope to show, essential to the theme of the work. Powell is by no means universally acclaimed; his novels have been described as "contrived,"5 and "pseudo-Proustian" and "blandly snobbish."6 The early novels have been said to "tell about 'twentyish emancipation, silly parties at which drunks behave stupidly, ambitious young men on the make for the daughters of fox-hunting families, all with an air of slightness and couldn't-care less." 7 And Dance has likewise been scorned: To begin with, each character is introduced as he first appears to the narrator , who immediately speculates for three or four pages on the probable nature of a character who is blond, has small ears, and wears a black overcoat . The overcoat then says a few desultory words, whereupon the narrator takes several pages of pain to modify his original opinion in the light of this additional evidence.8 Like all parodies, these have some truth in them. But it is simplistic to describe his work in these terms — it amounts to painting in colors far too crude what is an enormously subtle picture of life. Powell's "easy modulations ," as John Russell has called his novels,9 capture intricacies of human behavior and interaction in a profound and original way. And Powell's focus on ritual and the attempts of people to play chosen roles, ultimately provides a genuinely metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic interpretation of life. It is hopeless to try to provide a synopsis of the twelve volumes. The novels follow Nicholas Jenkins from his school days to late middle age. Friends such as Peter Templer, Charles...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 166-183
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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