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.

13 thoughts on “Who Still Reads Anthony Powell?

  1. Blast from the Past. Haven’t thought about these for ages. Was in a de facto Powell cult in college… Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Blast from the Past. Haven’t thought about these for ages. Was in a de facto Powell cult in college… Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Well, I do. I return to “Dance to the music of time” about every 5 years and read them straight through from beginning to end. It’s interesting, well to me anyway, that over the last 25-30 years, each time I read the cycle, my favourite novel or novels changes. I suppose this relates to my being older each time I read them and presumably bringing a different life experience to the books?

  4. Well, I do. I return to “Dance to the music of time” about every 5 years and read them straight through from beginning to end. It’s interesting, well to me anyway, that over the last 25-30 years, each time I read the cycle, my favourite novel or novels changes. I suppose this relates to my being older each time I read them and presumably bringing a different life experience to the books?

  5. I read Dance many years ago, although it was a slow start and took a concerted effort, a year or two after beginning the first book, to get on and read the remainder. (The opening of the fourth collected volume – Jenkins’s extended musings on Burton’s The Anatomy Of Melancholy – was a particular trial at the time.) Afterwards, I had to watch the Channel 4 dramatisation (available now on All 4) to check I’d followed it all correctly. Even recently, it took a rewatch and partial reread for the full bizarre horror of Pamela’s fate to become clear to me. That said, it remains my proudest reading achievement (at least unless and until I ever get further with Proust), and I keep the books on my shelves to point out for awed bystanders (of whom regrettably there have been none so far).

  6. I read Dance many years ago, although it was a slow start and took a concerted effort, a year or two after beginning the first book, to get on and read the remainder. (The opening of the fourth collected volume – Jenkins’s extended musings on Burton’s The Anatomy Of Melancholy – was a particular trial at the time.) Afterwards, I had to watch the Channel 4 dramatisation (available now on All 4) to check I’d followed it all correctly. Even recently, it took a rewatch and partial reread for the full bizarre horror of Pamela’s fate to become clear to me. That said, it remains my proudest reading achievement (at least unless and until I ever get further with Proust), and I keep the books on my shelves to point out for awed bystanders (of whom regrettably there have been none so far).

  7. I do. I first read them in my 20s and thought, “I’ll re-read these in 20 years time.” Sure enough, round they came again. And twenty years on, time to go again. Each time the increase in one’s own age gives a change of perspective on the work.

    I consider him to be less the English Proust than the modern Jane Austin. He has a similar sly with and intelligence. He is also one of the most skilful practitioners of the crafted sentence I have ever encountered. Thank you for promoting him to a wider audience. I can also recommend the Channel 4 TV series, which is on their website as a boxset for free viewing.

    • Yes, I look forward to watching the series, after I’ve finished the books. It stars Simon Russell Beale, an actor I have long appreciated for his Shakespeare roles. (I saw him an The Tempest at the RSC last year, and again at a reading of Ovid at the RSC a couple of months ago.)

  8. I do. I first read them in my 20s and thought, “I’ll re-read these in 20 years time.” Sure enough, round they came again. And twenty years on, time to go again. Each time the increase in one’s own age gives a change of perspective on the work.

    I consider him to be less the English Proust than the modern Jane Austin. He has a similar sly with and intelligence. He is also one of the most skilful practitioners of the crafted sentence I have ever encountered. Thank you for promoting him to a wider audience. I can also recommend the Channel 4 TV series, which is on their website as a boxset for free viewing.

    • Yes, I look forward to watching the series, after I’ve finished the books. It stars Simon Russell Beale, an actor I have long appreciated for his Shakespeare roles. (I saw him an The Tempest at the RSC last year, and again at a reading of Ovid at the RSC a couple of months ago.)

  9. Does anyone read Powell anymore? I just did. A Dance To The Music Of Time was on a list of 100 great novels. I knew nothing about it upon picking up the four-volume set at a second hand bookstore. It appeared daunting. It took 100 pages or more before I began to appreciate it. Even then it was touch and go I if I would persist through all four books. I’m glad I did. The slow unfolding of theme and character came to fascinate me. The complex layering of past encounters informing the narrator’s present — it’s a remarkable literary technique. I have enjoyed it immensely. I’ve described it as a deeply English Russian novel, because events that seem minor in themselves at one time gain in significance and meaning — and for the abundance of characters with titles. This same list of novels introduced me to Middlemarch by George Eliot, and I find some similarity of style. These lengthy novels that ‘no one reads’ do still find grateful readers.

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