Who Still Reads Anthony Powell?

Many years ago, someone recommend that I read Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Since I’ve long been a fan of Marcel Proust – I’ve written a number of articles about his work – I should like Powell. After all, he is called “the English Proust.”

Alas, that moniker is quite incorrect. The only thing that makes the two similar is that Proust wrote a very long novel in seven volumes, and Powell wrote a cycle of novels in 12 volumes. The writing, the characters, the style are all very different.

Nevertheless, I tried. I read fifty or so pages, and gave up. But I tried again last year, and was hooked. Now that I live in England, perhaps I understand this type of novel a bit more than when I was a foreigner. Powell’s work is humorous, perceptive, enjoyable, its characters quirky, and the voice of its narrator, Nick Jenkins, is compelling. It’s not as deep or as linguistically challenging as Proust, and, in fact, it’s best to just forget the comparison.

But the question Who still reads Anthony Powell? is one that A. N. Wilson answered in a podcast from the Times Literary Supplement, at the time he published a review of Hilary Spurling’s recent biography of Powell. He seemed to think that no-one reads Powell any more, and, in a relative sense, that’s probably correct. But I’m sure there are occasional curious people like me who pick up the first book in the cycle, and find it enjoyable, and keep on going.

I found one interesting coincidence between the novels and my life. Early on, two of the characters go to France to learn to speak French a bit better. They stay at a place called La Grenadière, which is a property in Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire, a town next to Tours where I lived for seven years. I would often walk by La Grenadière, which is now an equestrian center, in my strolls to and from a local garden.

Powell is probably indicative of a wide range of post-war novelists in the UK who have been forgotten. Wilson mentions a few in his interview, most of whom I am unfamiliar with. Alas, this is what happens: the old make way for the new, and only a handful cling on over time. That Powell is still read is a sign that his work has some staying power. There are, apparently, a smattering of Powell fanatics, who run Anthony Powell Societies in both the UK and the US. (I joined an email discussion list for one of them, only to find that my introduction emails bounced; I assume someone died.) Perhaps he is one of those authors whose flame is maintained by a small circle of fanatics, who will eventually die off.

In any case, if you have a few quid to spare, I recommend that you buy the first of four omnibus volumes of the work in Kindle format. It’s £5 in the UK, and $7 in the US. You can get the entire cycle for £20 or $28. If you like audiobooks, I strongly recommend the recordings narrated by Simon Vance from Audible UK or Audible.com. Vance has the perfect tone for this work, and I’ve been switching back and forth between the text and the audio as I read thorugh the cycle.