Dancing on the head of a pin

There is an old philosophical argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Some of the answers lie in the twelve-part chronicle of the twentieth century in Anthony Powell‘s series Dance to the Music of Time, itself an homage to Nicolas Poussin‘s painting of the same name in The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London.

spurling 1Now Hilary Spurling has brought out her biography of her great friend and mentor Anthony Powell, called unsurprisingly, Anthony Powell Dancing to the Music of Time.

There are other novels by Anthony Powell, as there are other books by Hilary Spurling. But this one is a marriage made in heaven, with plenteous angels dancing on pins.

Early on in her career, when she had only one book published, she was invited by AP to compile a sort of dictionary/encyclopaedia companion to Dance to the Music of Time which he had completed in 1975 with Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final volume of the series. This admirable little volume is called Invitation to the Dance, it is a handbook to the characters and situations found in the long series.spurling 2

Powell lived a typically literary life of the twentieth century, sometimes radically short of money and often hard pressed for the next payment; he had a wife, Violet and two children. Violet is described by a contemporary and friend as “the right-arm of Tony’s imagination”. This I suspect, exactly represents their long relationship and intense marriage. Violet, born of a great literary family herself, the Pakenhams, had a marvellous memory for the detail in the sequence, and was always the first reader of any of Anthony’s books; but this came into its own once he began the series, which was first of all to be a trilogy, but then extended almost by its own volition into a twelve volume sequence which took almost twenty five years to write, a new volume coming out at almost two yearly intervals.

The delight of this biography is that it puts names of real characters to their fictional avatars in The Dance. Some fall straight from life on to the page, others are a combination of characteristics drawn from life and combined in fiction and a few characters in The Dance are completely original.

In the three volumes that cover the war years, more characters fall straight from life into fiction and Anthony Powell had a nervous lunch with one of them when his commanding officer invited him to lunch; AP was expecting a dressing down and possibly a legal action, but to his relief the Colonel had mis-identified himself with another much more likeable and congenial military figure, actually based upon a Major in Anthony’s unit of the Welsh Regiment.

In this biography, we meet more literary giants than you can imagine.  The Powells were well connected through Violet’s family and had a web of literary friends through Anthony’s other work as a reviewer, variously for Punch and The Daily Telegraph and other papers and periodicals. So parties and country weekends seem to burst with talent:  Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, T S Eliot, Philip Larkin, John Betjemen, Graham Greene and many others; not confined to the literary arts they were also friends with the painters Edward Burra, Edward Bawden, Henry Lamb, Osbert Lancaster, Adrian Daintrey, John Banting and Augustus John; through their friendship with Constant Lambert they mixed with the ballet crowd, including Margot Fonteyn and Michael Helpmann and through the Pakenhams (Lords Longford et al) they were connected with many other strands of society, both literary and nobility, and were often found to be staying with the Duke of Wellington in Granada, Spain, with the Sitwells at Renishaw, at Pakenham Hall in Ireland (in case you have not made the connection Lady Antonia Fraser, later wife of Harold Pinter is one of many) and the Mitfords.

This makes for fascinating reading because it is a glimpse into the lives of writers, artists and others that have figured enormously in the lives of anyone between the ages of 95 to 65, because these were the writers of modern fiction when we were “growing up”.

This large and talented group were the social opposite of the other famous, not to say legendary, literary giants of a slightly earlier period, the Bloomsbury Group. While the later group were all equally “well connected”, their lives were predicated upon the different mores that followed the First World War and during and after the Second.

If you have never read anything by Hilary Spurling, there are twelve other books to choose from, ranging from biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett to Pearl Buck, taking on Matisse and Paul Scott and the Raj Quartet as well and if you have not read Anthony Powell – I sort of envy you, because you have such a treat in store. The Dance to the Music of Time is one of the very few re-reads I make, and I follow through by re-reading Marcel Proust The Remembrance of Things Past, for they are enduringly fascinating, wonderfully revealing and each time make the reader feel differently, as you perceive more layers and meaning in the increasingly familiar texts.

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