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Absent America

How Anthony Powell ignored the elephant in Britain's living room

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This year is the centennial of author Anthony Powell's birth, so it seems only fitting to look back at his classic twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time. Yet when the passage of a century also happens to be the fifth anniversary of an author's death, somewhere in there someone has played a momentarily insolent trick on time.

At this stage writing yet another review of Dance is pointless, particularly when there is little hope of approximating the careful readings of others, notably Christopher Hitchens in his remarkable "Powell's Way", collected in his 2000 book Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere. Nor is there much sense in extensively answering what Dance is about; otherwise you risk hearing echoes of Professor Eric Idle chastising you for failing to summarize the oeuvre in 15 seconds: "A good try though and very nice posture."

Powell has often been compared to Marcel Proust, and the essence of his cycle of novels is to examine how art can best express the passage of time. The context is roughly 60 years of the life of the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, assumed to be Powell himself, and the British society he moves in. The account spans the 20th century from the first decade to the 1960s, and the characters are mostly from the prosperous middle class (many of them, in today's parlance, "upwardly mobile"), though the frequent appearance of peers, lifelong or hereditary, speaks to a time when Britain's class divisions were beginning to fray. In creating a changing social context for the interplay between his characters and time itself, Powell creates an atmosphere redolent with impermanence and decay. Jenkins' recollections—in fact Dance as a whole—are awash with Tory nostalgia, so that, ironically, the collective mood of this sprawling work is one of insularity. Hitchens notes that this insularity causes Powell to overlook the rise of fascism in British society. "The fascist and crypto-fascist element in upper-class British society makes no appearance at all."

But the most flagrant absence, the one that cries out for mention, and that Hitchens more than anybody else should have noticed, is that of the United States and its post-World War II inheritance, if only through British imperial insolvency, of the old empire's global millstone. Why does Powell determinedly fail to mention the American elephant in Britain's living room?

Actually, he doesn't, quite, but the references are slight and not easily intelligible when they do come. Throughout most of the twelve volumes, America is a distant place, less immediate to Jenkins' characters than Kenya, South Africa or an all-purpose "South America", whose specificities Powell never bothers to elucidate. The first mention comes early in the first novel of the cycle, in an aside Jenkins offers on his Uncle Giles, a perpetual malcontent. He notes that Giles had once thought of moving to Philadelphia to take up a "commercial post" there. The idea is made to sound slightly absurd, and seems calculated to define Giles through that absurdity, as if he had contemplated investing in a banana plantation in Finland.

Much later on, America makes another cameo appearance, as Jenkins describes his friend (and future brother in law) "Chips" Lovell, the two of them scriptwriters at a film studio whose owners are American. Lovell's traces of blue blood prompt one character to hint that he was hired because the "American bosses of the company dreamed of some intoxicating social advantage to be reaped by themselves, personally, through employing an eligible young man of that sort." It's not as savage as Evelyn Waugh's lampoon of Hollywood anglophilia in The Loved One, but it clearly involves mockery of American social earnestness.

Had Powell wanted to touch on America, he could have done so most easily in the tenth or eleventh novel of his cycle, both of which cover the postwar period and the beginnings of the Cold War. Or perhaps even earlier, as Jenkins spends part of the world war as a liaison officer to the military attaches of countries overrun by the Germans—an unused opportunity to sketch bargaining over the future of many of these countries and illustrate the American and Soviet rise alongside Britain's decline. Instead, we are offered this passage in The Soldier's Art, the eighth novel in the series, when Jenkins learns that the Soviet Union has entered the war: "An immediate, overpowering, almost mystic sense of relief took shape within me. I felt suddenly sure everything was going to be all right. This was something quite apart from even the most cursory reflection upon strategic implications involved."

Now contrast this with what Evelyn Waugh has one of his characters, Guy Crouchback, think in Officers and Gentlemen, the second novel of his Sword of Honor trilogy, after learning of the Soviet-German alliance of 1939: "[A] decade of shame seemed to be ending in light and reason, […] the Enemy was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off; the modern age in arms."

For Crouchback, like Waugh, the alliance was a defining moment because the true nature of the Soviet state, whose communism he despised, had been exposed. Perhaps more sensibly, Jenkins chose to focus on the new hope provided by Moscow. Yet he utters not a word about America when it enters the conflict. More importantly, Powell never investigates what it says about Britain's disintegrating grandeur that his character must look to Stalin for moral sustenance. One gets the sense that Powell either did not think of the implications, or preferred not to. The son of a British army officer, married to Lady Violet Pakenham, a daughter of the Earl of Longford, Powell navigated among the very social classes most sensitive to the empire's termination, but that also pragmatically created with Washington what became the so-called "special relationship." Was Powell's not mentioning this an oversight? Could he just not be bothered? Not quite.

Sidestepping British decline, Powell, at the start of the eleventh volume, Temporary Kings, takes us to another imperial crypt, as Jenkins attends a cultural conference in Venice. The period is the late 1950s, the era of Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles; but it isn't paramount power to which we are introduced, but rather two apolitical Americans: an academic named Russell Gwinnett, who is writing a biography of a dead British novelist loosely based on George Orwell; but also an American film producer, Louis Glober. Gwinnett is obsessed with death—though death for him is a source of creativity (and sexual conquest and expression); Glober, in turn, is all life, and his later demise in a car crash on the French Riviera is wryly described by Jenkins as "the sort of end Glober himself would have approved."

Whether Powell saw any deeper truth in making their paths cross in Venice is irrelevant; the opportunities for interpretation are too good to miss. Europe was abounding with American visitors during the postwar period, and no self-respecting continental city failed to have a trans-Atlantic producer to entertain. However, it's tempting to go overboard and say that the Gwinnett-Glober encounter in the city of the doges, the centrality of both characters in their respective environments during the Venice sojourn, the subsequent "triumph" of Gwinnett over the most elusive character in the novels (who, sensing his necrophiliac tendencies, commits suicide as the ultimate sacrifice to love), Gwinnett's eventual marriage to the daughter of a British noble family (Jenkins' niece through his wife)—all in some way speak to the sudden, vigorous, slightly disturbing intrusion of America into European life, whether as promise of death or resurrection.

The resurrection theme is sounded in the last novel in the cycle, Hearing Secret Harmonies, which recounts, among other things, the downfall of Kenneth Widmerpool, who glides through the narrative as the supreme embodiment of the treacherous and grotesque. We are told that Widmerpool had earlier been invited to America by an Ivy League university, before moving to a "Californian center for political research" (a wink at Robert Conquest, to whom the novel is dedicated), where he had thought of being naturalized. Widmerpool's departure to America was understandable: his political career had been on the skids, his wife (Gwinnett's sacrificial lamb) had died, and he was suspected of shady dealings with Soviet intelligence. His time in America promised rebirth, a new personality, a break with the crumbling past. But Widmerpool returned to Britain, ultimately descending to increasingly abject depths of humiliation, until his death in a scene reminiscent of an early one in the first novel—time having rotated full circle.

The moral of the tale is ambiguous: America could have created a new man, but he chose, instead, to return home. Jenkins at one stage mentions the tyranny of time. Perhaps it's Powell's partiality to understatement that makes him believe in that far more than he ever could the alleged perennial rebirth of American life.