Interviews

Anthony Powell, The Art of Fiction No. 68

Interviewed by Michael Barber

With the publication of Hearing Secret Harmonies, Anthony Powell's long serial novel, A Dance to the Music of Time, will have reached its climax. And to judge from the reception accorded to previous volumes, the applause in the U.S.A. will be as loud, if not louder, than that which greeted the completion of the sequence in Britain. For like his contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, to whom he has often been compared, Powell has successfully bridged the Atlantic despite the uncompromisingly “English” nature of his art.

Beginning with A Question of Upbringing (1951), the twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time cover some fifty years in the life of Nick Jenkins, who is, like Powell himself, a well-connected author and man of letters. But the novel is less about Jenkins than the metropolitan circles he inhabits. These circles overlap, so that men of action, socialites and artistic types are thrown together, the usual catalysts being their wives, mistresses or lovers. Observing the way these contradictory social groupings intertwine, and the bizarre human gyrations that result, Jenkins discerns a pattern dictated by the rhythm of life—hence the theme of the novel, which is that its characters, like the four seasons in Poussin's painting, are all engaged in a ritual dance to the music of time.

Anthony Powell was born in 1905, the only child of a regular army officer whose family line dates back to a twelfth century Welsh chieftain. After Eton (where he fagged for Lord David Cecil) and Balliol College, Oxford, he spent nearly ten years in publishing with Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. This was followed by a short period scriptwriting for Warner Brothers and an unsuccessful attempt to find work in Hollywood.

In December, 1939, Powell was commissioned into the Welch (sic) Regiment and served with them in Ulster. Later he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps and spent the remainder of the war as liaison officer to various Allied contingents in the UK.

A regular contributor to the literary pages in the thirties, Powell joined the TLS in 1947 and was literary editor of Punch from 1952 until 1958. Always an enthusiast of painting, he has been a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery since 1962.

Although Powell owes his international standing to the Music of Time, in British literary circles he has been a fancied runner ever since making his debut with Afternoon Men (1931). This, together with Venusberg (1932) and From a View to a Death (1933), forms a trio of anarchic social comedies distinguished by their laconic, matter-of-fact language.

Recalling the comparative ease with which he wrote the three early novels, Powell has attributed it to “a sort of lyrical flow,” which had already begun to dry up by the time he reached Agents and Patients (1936). This is certainly less immediate than its predecessors, but still recognizably in the same tradition. The real break comes with What's Become of Waring (1939), which ushers in the distinctive first-person narrative, at once detached and inquisitive, that is the Music of Time's hallmark.

Temperamentally unsuited to writing fiction in wartime, Powell did however manage to devote odd moments during his leaves to researching a biography of the seventeenth-century antiquary and biographer, John Aubrey. The result was John Aubrey and His Friends (1948) and Brief Lives: and other Selected Writings of John Aubrey (1949). By then life was more or less back to normal and Powell regained his appetite for fiction. Two years later his massive retrospective began to unfold.

In 1934 Powell married Lady Violet Packenham. Since 1952 they have lived at The Chantry, a grey limestone mansion in the West Country with its own fairly extensive grounds and a panoramic view of the Mendip Hills. Powell likes to recall that the Victorian novelist, Helen Mathers, devoted a whole chapter to the house in her bestseller, Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. But on the misty December afternoon I called there, a few days before Powell's seventieth birthday, it was difficult to visualize the little girls in bloomers playing cricket on the lawn that Ms. Mathers describes.

A stocky, slightly stooping figure with bushy eyebrows and neatly trimmed white hair, Powell greeted me wearing a maroon sweater and khaki twill slacks that had seen better days. We shook hands beneath The Chantry's Classical portico; and then, as time was limited owing to the infrequency of trains back to London, Powell ushered me straight into the sitting room, the walls of which were filled with books and ancestral portraits. Pride of place in this family gallery belongs to a distinguished relative of Lady Violet's, John Churchill, whose manly features are displayed above the mantelpiece.

On being assured that I didn't mind cats—was actually rather fond of them—Powell picked up Flixie Fum, his pedigreed Burmese, and measured most of his length on the sofa. Throughout the interview, a little over two hours, he only stirred to feed the log fire. From time to time he would smooth his hair with a delicate, two-handed motion; otherwise he made no gestures.

In our correspondence Powell had warned me that while he was quite happy to discuss his writing, he would not talk in great detail about himself “as I need any material of that sort for the memoirs I am writing.” In point of fact the only time he applied this embargo was when I asked him to elaborate on his interest in, and possible experience of, the occult.

At about a quarter to five Lady Violet appeared with the tea. We then gossiped about Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, and others of that ilk until the taxi I had ordered arrived. “Be sure to send me a copy of the mag,” said Powell as we parted.


INTERVIEWER

Can we begin at the beginning. I believe your father's family were of Welsh descent.

POWELL

Yes. They hadn't lived in Wales for about a hundred and fifty years, but they were Welsh. And my father went into the Welch Regiment—but I think quite by chance: I don't think it had anything to do with the family's being Welsh.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel Welsh yourself?

POWELL

I'm very interested in Welsh life and Welsh history. But I've only paid visits there—I've never lived there. But I am interested in what Wales was like and the sort of people they came from—that sort of thing.

INTERVIEWER

Did the fact that you were an only child affect your development? For instance, did it encourage you to read a lot?

POWELL

I don't think I realized at the time what a strong factor it was that one was an only child. But I have learnt since, because my wife comes from a large family and she is always pointing out that some comment of mine totally derives from an “only child's” point of view. But I don't think it really has anything to do with reading, because her family were always great readers, too. In fact as a child I used to draw a lot—almost more than I read, though of course I read a great deal. That, in a way, was just the same in her family, so that side has nothing to do with it. But there is no doubt that only children do have very much their own point of view. Being an only child makes you less conscious at the start that there will be ferocious competition from others.

INTERVIEWER

I believe you had a fairly peripatetic childhood, too.

POWELL

Yes. We moved round as the army always does: You're always being shunted round to different places. Before the First War we were living in London quite a long time because my father was a territorial adjutant there, and so my earliest memories were really of living in a perfectly peaceful way in London. Then we went to a place near Aldershot just before the war. And of course once the war started one was moving about all the time.

INTERVIEWER

I think Cyril Connolly said in Enemies of Promise that you were one of those who gained most from Eton because of the little you gave. Is this fair?

POWELL

He mentioned several people in that context,* and I don't really see that we gave such a little. I should have thought that we gave just as much as he did, because his efforts were enormously ambitious. But of course I never met him there; he was just that amount older than me. I knew him by sight, and am indeed talking about that in my memoirs. But the point really was . . . there was this small group of people who were very interested in the arts and he was just that much higher up for it to have been a bit of a condescension to have been mixed up with us; but he just might have done it if he'd been a rather different sort of person.

INTERVIEWER

Were you conscious of belonging to a very talented set who were all going to make their mark on the arts?

POWELL

It's very, very difficult to say. You see, you just knew people as your friends with common interests and I don't know that anybody had much idea what that group was going to do. I think that when I got to Oxford a lot of people were pretty sure that Evelyn Waugh was going to do something, but I don't think anybody really knew about any of the others. Of course somebody like Harold Acton was a very famous and flamboyant figure as an undergraduate. But again, I'm trying to sort out all this in my memoirs and to be quite honest about it, it's exceedingly difficult to know what one thinks, oneself, quite often. I mean, I thought that when I finished my first novel—having been extremely disciplined for twenty-five years—I'll just sit back and write a few stories one knew . . . but in point of fact I'm finding it extremely difficult to work out just what I do feel about all sorts of aspects of my life and the people I have known.

INTERVIEWER

It was easier, then, to write a novel than autobiography?

POWELL

No writing is easy—it is merely different. You just have to approach it in an empirical way.

INTERVIEWER

Did you know Orwell at Eton?

POWELL

No. I don't remember meeting him until about 1942, when we became great friends.

INTERVIEWER

Did you contribute to that famous on-off magazine, Eton Candle?

POWELL

Yes, I did indeed: I did a drawing for it—not, I think, a very interesting one.

INTERVIEWER

You've described your time at Oxford as a melancholy period. Any particular reason?

POWELL

I think perhaps I may have exaggerated that. Of course, a great many undergraduates do have rather gloomy moments, and I do remember my Oxford days as rather divided between being extremely rackety for certain periods and then sitting rather gloomily alone in one's room for a lot of the rest of the time. And I think to give it the short answer: In those days you really were totally prevented from seeing women in any form, and I do rather attribute it to that. Of course one might have got into much worse messes if women had been available. But looking back, I think that their absence undoubtedly contributed to my gloom a lot.

INTERVIEWER

When you were at Oxford, had you by then decided to become a writer?

POWELL

No, not at all. And even after writing my first two or three novels I don't think I thought that I should necessarily settle down to writing . . . for it to become my life's profession. You see in London in those days practically every intelligent young man was writing a novel—it would have been inconceivable not to have been writing a novel.

INTERVIEWER

Surely that's an exaggeration  . . .

POWELL

No, I mean if you were the sort of young man who was interested in books and so on, you almost certainly were trying to write a novel. But I didn't start at Oxford. Now Henry Yorke* was a direct contrast to me: He always did want to be a writer, and had a novel published while he was at Oxford—Blindness came out then. In fact he began writing it at Eton. Of course everybody was a bit skeptical about what it was going to be like but he was quite undeterred by this. But I've no embarrassing juvenile works or anything like that. I never really seriously wrote anything until I wrote Afternoon Men.

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that working in publishing you learnt more about writing from reading bad manuscripts than from the classics?

POWELL

Yes, well that is a great theory of mine. I do think that if a book is really well written, it's terribly difficult to see how it's done. I think it's part of the mystery of writing that the real great hands always conceal how they do it. And an awful lot of bad writing is due to people trying to write like great writers and not really seeing that the outer covering has nothing to do with it at all.

INTERVIEWER

Were there any authors at that time who did have a great influence on you?—I think you've mentioned Hemingway.

POWELL

Well, I think one was very aware of this new sort of writing, which Hemingway was the most obvious example of; but of course there were lots of others. There certainly was a feeling that writing had got to change, and I was quite interested in that. But it's awfully difficult to say who influenced one. I mean, on the whole I would instance the French and Russians as being the people I admire, rather than any particular British writers.

INTERVIEWER

Which French and Russian writers?

POWELL

Well, I'm very fond of Stendhal and Dostoyevsky . . .

INTERVIEWER

Lermontov, too?

POWELL

Lermontov of course, yes. Really the whole lot of the Russian classics, although I'm a Dostoyevsky man as opposed to a Tolstoyan—

INTERVIEWER

Unlike books-do-furnish-a-room Bagshaw!

POWELL

Yes, exactly!

INTERVIEWER

What about Balzac?

POWELL

Yes, very keen on Balzac. Indeed I'm reading The History of the Thirteen at the moment.

INTERVIEWER

You've described your early writing as very lyrical.

POWELL

I think that's very true. When you're young you do have this curious fluency. I can remember that bits of dialogue used to come into my head when I was on a bus perhaps, and I would write them down on the back of an envelope—not in connection with anything. But I think you soon use up all that, although I must say that after six years in the army I did find after the war that one had a lot of dammed-up stuff—even at that age: I suppose I was at the beginning of my forties.

INTERVIEWER

I think you were surprised at the reaction to your first novel, Afternoon Men.

POWELL

I was surprised that people thought it gave a savage, cynical view of life. I was simply trying to write a straightforward account of what a love affair in those days was like, but it was treated as an example of the younger generation being rather brutal.

INTERVIEWER

They took you for a satirist, like Waugh?

POWELL

Yes, well there's always been this thing of whether one's a satirist or not. I always think there's rather a difference between comedy and satire. I'd perfectly be prepared to come in on comedy, but I wouldn't in general say I was a satirist. Satirists really have an aim, I think. They usually have something they are attacking. But of course a certain sort of writing is very apt to be called satire always.

INTERVIEWER

Does Afternoon Men anticipate the Music of Time?

POWELL

Well, a bit, yes. When I began writing Afternoon Men, it was going to have two sides to it, like the Music of Time. It was going to have what you might call the “pub-going” side and also a London dance side too. But I found that the dance side didn't seem to work, so I gave it up. In that sense—as regards planning—it anticipated the long novel.

INTERVIEWER

You've paid quite a generous tribute to Cyril Connolly in the thirties as an advocate of young writers.

POWELL

Well, when he was on the New Statesman I think he was very good at pressing the claims of . . . well, people like Scott Fitzgerald, whom I really would never have heard of if it hadn't been for Connolly. I think he really was very good when he was first of all writing criticism, and almost to the end of his days I always found him worth reading. But I think he went up and down as to quite how valuable the stuff he produced was.

INTERVIEWER

Of course a lot of young English writers at that time were very committed—the “Macspaundays”* and so on.

POWELL

Oh, absolutely, yes.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel very out of step with them?

POWELL

Totally, totally. You see there was this moment when the whole of this sort of committed writing really completely took over, and it felt quite extraordinary if you were another sort of person.

INTERVIEWER

Was it easier for young writers to make a living then?

POWELL

Oh, no, I should have thought it was much easier now. There were extremely few outlets. I mean unless you managed to bring off a success . . . things like doing odd jobs for the BBC or the British Council or whatever were far more difficult to get in those days. And literary journalism, too, was much thinner on the ground I should have said.

INTERVIEWER

What made you turn to scriptwriting?

POWELL

Well, again, in those days it was a natural progression: You wrote a novel or two, became a scriptwriter, and then if you were lucky, went to Hollywood and cleaned up there. And after I'd written three or four novels my agent came along and said, “I can get you a job with Warner Brothers.” And since I was at a completely dead end by that time with Duckworths, I switched over.

INTERVIEWER

Did you like scriptwriting?

POWELL

No, I absolutely loathed it—admittedly it was a very low form of scriptwriting—but I really couldn't have disliked anything more. And then there was rather a slump over here in the movie business, and so we went to Hollywood via Panama—

INTERVIEWER

You were married by this time?

POWELL

Yes, I was married in 1934 and they were just preparing a film called A Yank at Oxford, and my agent thought it might be possible for me to get in on that. Well, we arrived in Hollywood, and as I've said before, the only interesting thing was that we did meet Scott Fitzgerald who was working on A Yank at Oxford. Otherwise, one just tagged round and saw a few people, but I never got a job there. Again, you must remember that when you're that age you don't know all sorts of things you learn later on. Now my plan was to work there for about a year, earn as much as possible and then come home. But now I realize this would have been very difficult to do. It's much more likely that like Fitzgerald one would have been sucked into this really appalling machine and spent the rest of one's life working night and day in order to maintain a hideously expensive standard of living.

INTERVIEWER

So in retrospect you're pleased you didn't get a job?

POWELL

Well, yes . . . I mean, I don't think I was cut out for it anyway—it's one of those special talents, writing for the movies, and sometimes the most unexpected people can do it. But I don't think I had any talent for it at all.

INTERVIEWER

And you've never really alluded to this Hollywood episode in your novels?

POWELL

No, that again is slightly interesting in that you'd think it would be but you really never know what things are going to be suitable material for books. And for some reason I've never thought it was suitable material.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps you didn't stay there long enough?

POWELL

Well, I don't know. I mean one does other things for an even shorter time and you use them. It's a total mystery why certain things and certain incidents in your life seem to go into this material that you can use, and others don't. In fact I did write an account of meeting Fitzgerald, which appeared over here in the Times and in America in a thing called Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual in 1971.

INTERVIEWER

So after Hollywood you came back and knuckled down to . . . what?

POWELL

Well, I came back and messed around with journalism and that sort of thing, and then before one knew it, it was pretty well the war.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose your last prewar novel, What's Become of Waring, is stylistically the forerunner to the Music of Time.

POWELL

It is in that it's told in the first person, which I hadn't done before. What I always feel about it when I reread it is that although it's a fairly frivolous book, it does communicate an extraordinary feeling of nervous tension . . . of the war coming, in a rather indefinable way.

INTERVIEWER

I felt that Eustace Bromwich was a definite prototype of one of my favorites in the Music of Time, Dicky Umfraville.

POWELL

Yes, you're absolutely right about that.

INTERVIEWER

Bearing in mind that you were thirty-three when war broke out, did it ever occur to you not to join up?—after all, you could probably have got into the Ministry of Information or something like that.

POWELL

No, no . . . I should have felt frightfully out of it if I hadn't managed to get into one of the services somehow.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a particular attitude towards soldiers and soldiering?

POWELL

Well, having been brought up with it really all round one, I've always found a certain fascination in it. But I had quite enough of it during the war . . . although from the point of view of doing the sort of soldiering I did in the War Office, I'd far rather do that than be in the movie business, for instance.

INTERVIEWER

There seem to be quite a few eccentrics among your soldiers, beginning with Major Fosdick.

POWELL

Well, there are quite a lot of eccentrics in the army, you know . . . they abound, eccentric soldiers.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the war was a good thing as far as your work was concerned? I mean, was it a good thing to have had that break?

POWELL

Well, again, I simply don't know. The fact that it was an extraordinary break is undeniable. There it was: One simply did not write anything for six years. And what's more, I simply could not have done any writing during the war. Again, it's very interesting how different people react, because of course Evelyn Waugh was really perpetually writing on and off. I, of course, had a totally different sort of war from him, but even supposing there'd been moments where I'd been completely laid off, I don't think I could conceivably have done it.

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that the war adds a lot to the Music of Time: all those “violent readjustments” Nick refers to.

POWELL

Yes, well it really was a great upheaval, and one came out of it as quite a different person.

INTERVIEWER

Did your career more or less match that of Nick's?

POWELL

In the war it did, yes. The account of the army in the war is fairly autobiographical—really I would say much more than the rest of the book. You see if you go to a certain regiment and you're moved up to a certain division and so on, well, you give a kind of projection of that, but you invent up to a point, too. And of course once I was in this really quite small section of the war office, a great deal of the stuff inevitably had to be autobiographical because you really couldn't transpose it as regards a story. Most of it is purely background for the things that are happening in the book, but the description of dealing with the Czechs and the Poles and so on really was like that.

INTERVIEWER

When did you decide to do the book on Aubrey?

POWELL

Just before the war. Because I felt quite convinced that if I survived the war, I shouldn't be able to come out of the army and sit down and write a novel, because you do need some sort of inner calm to write a novel—at least I do—and therefore I did collect a fair amount of stuff on Aubrey before the war. Then during my leaves I worked hard on reading up all sorts of fairly obscure seventeenth-century books which if you were in ordinary life you might feel were pretty boring, but which if you're in the army make a refreshing change. So by the end of the war I had quite a lot of material, and this I worked up in libraries and such like places, which is what I describe at the beginning of Books Do Furnish a Room.

INTERVIEWER

Talking about that, is there any significance in the fact that Nick is supposed to be doing a book on Burton, who also comes into the last volume?

POWELL

Well, the phrase “afternoon men” does come out of Burton, so he's been on my mind since then and I have really read him quite a bit. But it would be a terrific undertaking to write a book about him—he just stands for my book on Aubrey, really. But a very serious American scholar who was talking to me about all this said that Burton is not at all a suitable alternative because Aubrey is a man of life and Burton is a man of death . . .

INTERVIEWER

Was there any particular reason why you settled on Aubrey?

POWELL

He was another chap I'd always been interested in, and oddly enough there simply was no book on him—well, there was a book that had appeared in 1845, but nothing since. And so that also seemed a rather good reason for having a go at it.

INTERVIEWER

Of course Books Do Furnish a Room is also about Fitzrovia.* Did you spend much time there?

POWELL

A certain amount, yes. I've always been fairly familiar with that world. But although I knew certain people in it, there was also a great deal about it I didn't know, or only heard about at secondhand. Because as I think I say in the book, it was a very odd world: quite unlike anything before, and quite unlike anything after.

INTERVIEWER

Very much lived-in pubs?

POWELL

Very much lived-in pubs, yes. Although again, I'd done plenty of living in pubs in my early days, really.

INTERVIEWER

The late forties certainly come across as a frightfully grisly period.

POWELL

It was a frightfully grisly period. I mean in certain respects it was almost grislier than the war. London really was fearfully bleak then: Everybody was tremendously tired, and there was nothing to eat and jolly little to drink, and then we had that terrifically cold winter of 1947 when all the bathwater froze up . . . all most unpleasant.

INTERVIEWER

Was it about now that you began work on the Music of Time?

POWELL

Yes. Aubrey came out in about 1948, and that really did seem to do the trick. I was ready to write fiction again.

INTERVIEWER

Can you describe the genesis of the Music of Time?

POWELL

Well, this is rather a long story. You see I haven't any great talent for inventing plots, and indeed it seems to me that even the best writers are inclined to churn out the same stuff in eighty thousand words, although it's dressed up in a different way. And so I thought that there would be all sorts of advantages for a writer like myself to write a really long novel in which plots and characters could be developed, which would cover this question of not doing short-term plots—doing rather larger ones, in fact. But of course I didn't know at the beginning quite how long all this was going to be . . . I knew there would be a great number of novels, and about, I suppose, halfway through I realized that I should have to do at least three about the war. Well, having done six before, it seemed the obvious answer to do three to end it up with, because I think it's quite a good idea to have some sort of discipline imposed on yourself in writing, and therefore I deliberately wrote the last three with the idea of ending it up and doing the neat twelve volumes. But I have to admit that in 1951 I didn't know there'd be exactly twelve.

INTERVIEWER

When you first considered doing a long novel, did it occur to you that this might be rather a gamble?

POWELL

Yes, I think that is perfectly true. I think that really until the last page of the last volume was finished one never knew whether one was going to be able to bring it off, you see. You always have this terrible feeling, “Am I going to dry up?” Apparently Kipling felt the same: He never got up from his chair without feeling that he was never going to be able to write another line.

INTERVIEWER

How far ahead did you plan?

POWELL

That's a very difficult question to answer, because it's perfectly true that you set out in advance with a certain number of characters, but as they do different things, inevitably you have to trim your sails to what they've done, just as you do in real life. And I think that if the book has any vitality, it's due to recognizing this fact: that if you've got your character right, then up to a point what he or she does is fairly logical . . . But of course as you advance with your book, you're advancing on a wider and wider front, and there are all sorts of things that have to be taken into consideration. And I wouldn't for one moment suggest that it was easy to correlate all that, but in that does consist the hard work of writing a long novel.

INTERVIEWER

Did you keep a card index?

POWELL

I made one on the first volume, but it was such hard work that about halfway through the second I concluded that if I had the energy to write a card index, I really had the energy to write the book. So that was that.

INTERVIEWER

Has your wife helped at all?

POWELL

She's got a very good memory. And if you say, “What would somebody be wearing in 1936 if they were going to a party in a museum?” or something like that, she's very good at saying, “I think it would be so and so . . . ”—things of that sort.

INTERVIEWER

Does she ever comment on your work in progress?

POWELL

No, not really. But she always reads the manuscript at the end, and will make a few suggestions—usually of a fairly practical nature. For instance, “Doesn't this possibly contradict a previous passage?” She's also very helpful if I say, “Two people are arriving on a doorstep; I just want a bit of delay. What would they suddenly have begun to talk about?” —that kind of thing.

INTERVIEWER

Getting back to the business of characters. Do you find that they suddenly acquire a momentum of their own?

POWELL

Oh, I think that is certainly so. And the image I always use for that is that you've got three people playing Bridge, and for a matter of convenience you bring in a figure called Snooks to make up a four, and Snooks suddenly takes over and you find that the thing's totally run away with you. That of course is a very crude way of explaining it, but you are finding that happening all the time.

INTERVIEWER

Coincidence plays a large part in determining the pattern of the Dance—too large a part, according to some critics.

POWELL

Well, I think in human life it happens a thousand times more than I would ever dare bring it in, and I could mention the most extraordinary coincidences that have actually taken place in my own life. But yes, I think one does have to be careful about not using it too much simply because people do think it is unconvincing.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give an example of coincidence in your own life?

POWELL

Well, yes, this is a perfectly straightforward one: When my father was sent in 1924-5 on a military mission to Finland, I went out there for two Oxford vacs. And there was a family we knew there whose daughter I used to dance with occasionally. Well, about ten years ago, when our younger son wanted to go to Spain and learn Spanish, the Spanish wife of a friend of ours recommended a place which we wrote to, and they wrote back and said No, they couldn't take him, but they could recommend somebody else. Well, when he went there it turned out that the head of the family was married to this girl I used to dance with in Finland. It's not a bad one, is it really? But if you put that in a book it would be considered absolutely absurd. I mean, there's no particular tie-up in it: You can't say, Oh well, naturally everybody was interested in books or paintings or something . . . It was just sheer, extraordinary coincidence  . . . I mean there was no earthly reason why she should have married a Spaniard.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any definite stylistic influences you could name in respect of the long novel?

POWELL

Not, I think, conscious ones. Again, I rather feel that the less writers are always examining themselves in that sort of way, the better. I don't think you ought to be thinking, Well, am I writing like this? Or writing like that? I think you just want to try to write as well as you can. It's above all a question of instinct.

INTERVIEWER

Could we just settle the comparison to Proust? I believe you reject it?

POWELL

Well, I do to this extent: that I'm a great admirer of Proust and know his works very well. But the essential difference is that Proust is an enormously subjective writer who has a peculiar genius for describing how he or his narrator feels. Well, I really tell people a minimum of what my narrator feels—just enough to keep the narrative going—because I have no talent for that particular sort of self-revelation. Like movie-writing, it's a very particular sort of talent, but people often speak as if every writer had it. You've only got to see the number of books in which people bore you to tears with very detailed revelations about their sex life to realize that this isn't so. Writing is only interesting if, to use a rather pompous phrase, the art is there. And certain people's sex life can be interesting if the art is applied to it, but unlike Proust, most of us aren't equipped to bring this off.

INTERVIEWER

Talking about your narrator, to what extent does Nick Jenkins share your literary and artistic tastes?

POWELL

Well, what I usually say about him is that he's somebody of my sort simply because it's much easier that way. Supposing, for the sake of argument, I wrote from the point of view of a surgeon. Well, I don't really know what a surgeon's life is like. And although I'd read it all up, I'd probably make some fearful howler about what it feels like. Therefore, having decided to do the thing in the first person, which in itself is a decision—you know one might have done it in other ways—I came to the conclusion that if you try and avoid what is roughly speaking your own point of view, it simply comes out another way. And so it's much simpler to write about someone who is roughly speaking the same sort of person, has roughly speaking had the same sort of life . . . but that doesn't necessarily mean that all the things that happen to him have happened to me.

INTERVIEWER

Well, I wasn't thinking so much about the things that have actually happened to him as perhaps the opinions he comes out with on books and paintings or whatever . . .

POWELL

Yes, well sometimes one uses him that way, sometimes one uses him as a foil to make somebody else say it, you see.

INTERVIEWER

What about that passage in The Acceptance World in which Nick broods on the complexities of writing a novel about the English—largely because of the intricacies of our social life? Were those your sentiments?

POWELL

I think they were. I've always rather felt that the Russians and Americans, for example, and to a certain extent the French, can throw somebody onto the canvas, so to speak, and everybody knows what they're talking about . . . I think much more so than in England. I think here people have to be described much more—you do get these extraordinary variations.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have a definite reader in mind when you embarked on the novel?

POWELL

No, I think not at all. And again, I think that's rather the sort of thing I would prefer not to do. I do think one of the great troubles about writing is this business of being self-conscious. If you possibly can avoid being self-conscious about your writing, I do think it is ever so much better. And thinking my readers are so and so, and will they like this and will they like that—if you can avoid it, I think you want to.

INTERVIEWER

Was it a surprise to you that the novel has been so popular in America?

POWELL

Well, in a sense it has been a surprise. Again, as I think I've said before, the complaint that I sometimes get in England—that it's all rather esoteric and about a very small group of people—I don't get from America. And of course the thing that drives me absolutely mad—I just say it hasn't happened to me for a long time now—is to have an Englishman reviewing the book in America explaining that it's very difficult to understand. It really does absolutely send me up the wall, that; and it used to happen a lot in the early days.

INTERVIEWER

How did you react to Arthur Schlesinger calling you a Prosopographer?—which I think is someone who writes the social and intellectual history of a loosely connected group.

POWELL

Well, up to a point I would go along with that, because that again is a sort of literary device, and having once started writing that sort of book, you are really committed to going ahead with it. The only way you can get away is for example in the war, because then you genuinely do get away, and therefore what you describe is just as real as when everybody is apparently linked up. But I think that you don't want to do that artificially.

INTERVIEWER

I was struck by your use of Art in the novel—not just as a title theme, but also as a medium for putting people and events into perspective.

POWELL

Well, as I said before, I've always been very keen on painting, and known a lot of painters at one time or another and so on.

INTERVIEWER

So it was very deliberate?

POWELL

Yes, it was quite natural to me, I think, to explain things in terms of paintings.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any other of the arts you're keen on?

POWELL

Well, I'm not musical, although again, at one time of my life I did know a lot of musicians . . . I was a great friend of Constant Lambert's and through him met several other musicians. And then I knew the Sitwells, and through them got to know Willie Walton.

INTERVIEWER

The occult and its devotees crop up throughout the novel. Are you very interested in that, too?

POWELL

Well, not particularly. But in Edwardian times there was an enormous amount of interest in fortune-telling and that sort of thing, and I think you'll find that people like myself who were children in the years before the First World War were automatically familiar with it. And it so happens that I have also met quite a lot of people by chance who were interested in it. But really the point of it coming in at the beginning and coming in again at the last volume is the fact that nothing ever changes: that what is now dished up in a supposedly different form is really exactly the same as the thing one was familiar with as a child.

INTERVIEWER

At one point in Books Do Furnish A Room, Traphel says, “Human beings aren't subtle enough to play their part. That's where art comes in.” Was this meant as a riposte to all those people who've been trying to identify your characters with real people?

POWELL

Well, I think to some extent, yes . . . But—I can't remember whether I actually quote this—but at one point Afternoon Men was dramatized, very much to my satisfaction, by an Italian called Ricardo Aragna who actually did the dialogue for The Millionairess. And I always remember talking to him about actors and saying that there are certain things one never hears said on the stage. I mean nobody ever says, “Will you have a cigarette?” and then goes on talking. And he said, “Well, if you're used to the theater, you do realize this: that there are certain things that human beings say which no actor can say.” I think it's a rather interesting and good point. It did explain a lot. And that all links up with the business about art, you see . . . about it all having to be done.

INTERVIEWER

Of course you've written a couple of plays* yourself.

POWELL

Yes. It came about as a result of the adaptation of Afternoon Men. It's very intoxicating to hear your own dialogue spoken, and as I was rather stuck at that moment in a novel, I thought I'd have a go at writing a play. And I wrote these two plays and both at different moments were absolutely at the point of being put on. Then as happens in the theater things totally collapsed and there the matter rests.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mind if we consider Widmerpool now? He does seem to hold an awful attraction for many readers.

POWELL

Well, I think he was always going to be a kind of focal point because if you're writing a very long book that has got to come out about every two years in a single volume you have got to have some terms of reference to keep the reader going.

INTERVIEWER

So Widmerpool was a bait, then?

POWELL

He was a certain bait, yes. But he again I would have thought has grown. I mean, earlier on you said, “Do people take over?” I think up to a point one has to admit that Widmerpool has taken over . . . more perhaps to an extent than I would wish.

INTERVIEWER

Like Frankenstein's monster?

POWELL

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

Apart from Widmerpool, there are several other characters who are said to live by the Will: Barnby and Uncle Giles, for instance. Is this a preoccupation of yours?

POWELL

Well, yes, I've always been interested in people who do this. And of course one rather came across people in the war who carved out careers by just absolutely imposing their will, with nothing else behind it.

INTERVIEWER

Did you take a lot of time over getting the right names for your characters?

POWELL

Yes, I did . . . they can be an awful plague, names.

INTERVIEWER

One reviewer was rather critical of your naming characters after places. I think he cited Widmerpool, Leintwardine, and Isbister.

POWELL

Well, Widmerpool I got out of a seventeenth-century book called Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson. There's a Cromwellian Captain of Horse called Widmerpool who's described as being very parsimonious and generally sounded a rather disagreeable person, and I'd had his name down for really quite a long time as a name I was going to use. So as far as that goes it happened to be a place name, but it was also a name that was perfectly ordinary. Ada Leintwardine, which has been much pulled out as an unreal name, was again a name I came across in I think a sixteenth-century document, and I thought it was such a good name that again I made a note of it. Isbister . . . it was Philip Larkin who brought this up, wasn't it? [laughs] . . . well, Bob Conquest, who's a great friend of Larkin's, was very outraged by this and wrote to Larkin and pointed out that Larkin's a place name as well—I'm not sure he didn't find two Larkins, one in America and one here. Bob also discovered that the first man killed in the last war by a bomb was called Isbister. But I don't think I knew that Isbister was a place name, to tell you the truth.

INTERVIEWER

I think you've said that wit is very hard to preserve on paper. But in point of fact a lot of your characters are witty. Did this pose problems?

POWELL

I think it's perfectly true about some of the persons one's known who really are—or were—the wittiest and funniest of people. What they've said has totally gone with them because what's happened is that somebody's uttered a trivial remark and they've made some wonderfully funny comment on it. But somebody who wasn't there could only appreciate just how funny it was if you were to reconstruct the whole thing. On the other hand, there's less of a problem with people who've rather ground out aphorisms like . . . every fat man having a thin man trying to get out of him. That's very funny too, but it's a different sort of wit.

INTERVIEWER

Of course some of your characters are inclined to be pretty aphoristic, aren't they?

POWELL

I suppose they are a bit, yes.

INTERVIEWER

There are scarcely any children in the novel. Is this significant?

POWELL

Well, I think children are extremely difficult to deal with, you know. And I would generally avoid dealing with children simply because I haven't got the capacity. Very few writers have—though Gerhardie pulled it off in The Polyglots. The children in The Polyglots are brilliantly done. But I think most children in novels are embarrassing to a degree. I introduced them once or twice in my earlier prewar novels, but I think not perhaps very happily. And again, as you work you get to know up to a point what you can do and what you can't do . . . and one rather steers clear of things one can't do.

INTERVIEWER

Remembering what you said earlier about writers and their treatment of sex, I think it's interesting the way you manage to introduce a very strongly erotic element, but do it elliptically.

POWELL

Well, I think that really is the only way you can do it. I mean I've no strong feelings about people giving detailed descriptions of people going to bed except I never really feel it's the right way to do it. Oddly enough, when I was in London yesterday I was passing a cinema and there was a still outside of a chap sort of lying on top of a girl. And I thought, Well, really, you know, I'm not sure that I really particularly want to see him having her. I think my own imagination would be better about that than him doing it. People are awfully odd about that. But I'm glad you think the erotic bits are erotic—one always hopes they are.

INTERVIEWER

I think Nick's first clinch with Jean in the car stands out. In fact I think their affair is one of the central things of the whole novel—more so than Nick's marriage to Isobel.

POWELL

Well, there again it's frightfully complicated, but clearly people don't tell you what their life with their wife is like if they're at all satisfactorily married. Therefore apart from any other considerations there'd be a great unreality in the narrator talking about this, you see. This is one of those instinctive things you've got to remember, I think, if you're writing a novel. You are simply telling a story and you want it to be convincing. Well, very often the greatest amount of detail is not the way to be the most convincing. After all, there's such a lot one goes through life not knowing when people are talking to you about something—you've got to guess and so on. And I think up to a point the novel wants to be like that, too. You get stronger effects.

INTERVIEWER

Have your working methods varied much over the years?

POWELL

Not a lot. I really always, whenever I could, have worked all the morning. But in my early days I would quite often sit in front of a typewriter the whole morning without producing anything at all—it was not at all uncommon. Latterly I've got much more control as regards producing something, but one pays for that by not being able to do it later in the day. And when I was younger I found I could usually work all morning and then again after tea for an hour or so. But now I find that any serious work has got to be done in the morning, that I really am pretty well out for what you might call inventing anything after that, although I copy things out. My system is to do endless copies.

INTERVIEWER

Did your move down here from London lead to any great readjustments in your routine?

POWELL

Only insofar as the telephone became less intrusive. I mean the trouble about living in London is that you are an absolute martyr to the telephone if you work in the morning. You get the odd phone call here, but on nothing approaching the amount and scale. I do know people with strong enough nerves to take their receiver off or just let it ring, but my nerves have never been up to that. And what used to happen in practice was the telephone went and you answered it and it was a friend and before you know what the whole morning was gone.

INTERVIEWER

What about parties in London? Did you go to many?

POWELL

Oh, yes, I think that's also true. Inevitably one went out more, although I don't think that particularly matters when you're younger—I mean unless you live it up tremendously. I think it's perfectly reasonable to go to a few parties and still be able to write novels, in fact I think it's perhaps quite a good thing, even.

INTERVIEWER

I believe, though, that you've never been able to work after having a drink.

POWELL

No, absolutely. That goes for now, too. I like feeling very sort of after-breakfastish and it's a business morning rather. But I couldn't work after dinner—I mean some people work all night. I couldn't attempt to do that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hobbies?

POWELL

Well not really, no. I sort of potter about in the garden, but I'm really rather hobby-less to tell you the truth. And of course I find now that one's older, one does sort of work all the time. I'm really frightfully bored if I don't work.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still do any reviewing?

POWELL

Yes, I do two pieces a month for the Daily Telegraph.

INTERVIEWER

You don't find it a chore?

POWELL

On the contrary, I find it extremely stimulating. I get two really pretty serious books a month—and I must say they're extremely good at trying to give me something that I like—and I really think it's rather good for you to have to review, say, a book about the organization of the Roman Army in the first half of the month and then the life of Christina Rossetti in the second. So far from being bad for you, I think it's very educative and it really makes your mind work. In fact, as I said before, I'm really rather lost now if I don't have something like that that I've got to do . . . But of course there are demoralizing forms of literary journalism, and I've done my stint of reviewing five novels in a column and so on. You know how it is: Your friends say, “Are you mad saying this terrible book is quite good?” But you can't week in, week out keep saying this is all absolute rubbish.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read much modern fiction now?

POWELL

Not a great deal . . . V. S. Naipaul: I'm very fond of his books—he's rather a friend. And Kingsley's books. Roy Fuller I think's a good novelist. I've said this dozens of times and it never gets put in, but I think that Kingsley Amis is underrated as a poet because of his famous novels, and I think Roy Fuller is underrated as a novelist because of his famous poems.

INTERVIEWER

Harking back to what you said about the importance of work in your life, did you experience a sense of anticlimax when you'd finished the Music of Time?

POWELL

Well, it's extraordinarily like coming out of the army in that after six years one is exceedingly glad to come out. But on the other hand you felt very lost . . . and I think up to a point I did feel that immediately. Now I'm really feeling rather calmer about it . . . and of course I have got these memoirs to knock into shape as well.

INTERVIEWER

One last question: In the introduction to John Aubrey and His Friends, you put the Lives into perspective like this: “To the question, ‘What are the English like?’, worse answers might be given than, ‘Read Aubrey's Lives and you will see.’” Would you be happy with this as a verdict on the Music of Time?

POWELL

Yes, I think I would, I think I would . . . I did actually say in my book on Aubrey that it's not inconceivable that he might have been a novelist if he'd lived at a different date because he obviously had a lot of novelist's characteristics. But on reflection I don't think he probably had the staying power: You do have to have enormous staying power as a novelist. You've got to do a lot of very boring things over a long period, and if you can't do that, all the imagination in the world is no good.

INTERVIEWER

A question of guts?

POWELL

Yes, it is really I think rather—like almost everything else in life.

 

* Harold Acton; Robert Byron; Oliver Messel; Henry Green.

* Henry Green

* Amalgam of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden and Cecil Day Lewis.

* After the Fitzroy Tavern. A collective noun for the Soho pubs and clubs popular with Grub Street in the Forties.

* The Garden God and The Rest I'll Whistle (Little, Brown).