Category: Anthony Powell

book review – From a View to a Death – Anthony Powell

“Mrs. Brandon did not answer. She had ceased to fan herself with the Illustrated London News and now she lay back on the sofa quite still. Her eyes remained open, but they stared in front of her at nothing in particular. Mrs Dadds made preparations to leave the room. She was an unobservant woman and did not notice that her mistress was dead.”

Cards on the table I like Anthony Powell. I know some people think of his Dance to the Music of Time as an upmarket Eastenders but it charts a world that has gone forever blown away by the bombs of war and the decline of the aristocracy. But From a View to a Death is slightly different.

It contains all of the Powell hall marks of characters from country houses that have wealth and eccentricities that are designed to make the reader laugh. The problem is that those characters were probably seen with some fondness back in 1933, when this was first published, but now seem not just vulgar but irrelevant.

The world inbetween the wars was one when those that had served in the First World War got to stroll around and talk about the war and the need for everyone to be a gentleman. But the spectre of Nazism was looming when being a gentleman was not going to be enough and those in houses that were already in decline were facing serious problems.

But this is written before that was clearly happening. In a nutshell an artist, Arthur Zouch, who is neither successful or a hit with the ladies exploits the hospitality of a family in the country setting his sights on an engagement and marriage into a comfortable life in the country.

He finds away from London he manages to start a couple of affairs with not just his intended target but another pretty girl in the village. Set pieces about a pageant and hunting are played out as the characters move through a vanishing world. What you sense clearly is how boring it is to be part of that and how protected they all are not just from reality but ever being told about it. Butlers might grumble about them but they dare not say it to their masters faces.

The two problems for me were firstly that the humour didn’t carry through 80 years and the scenes about transvestitism were just awkward when presumably they were meant to be rib tickling.

But secondly the main character of Zouch never really worked for me. Was the reader meant to like him as he broke hearts and schemed his way through engagements? Were they meant to feel pity when the family he had chosen to become part of closed ranks and made it difficult? I felt neither and as a result found it lacking any real engagement.

As a piece of social history charting a world that has largely disappeared then it is worth a read but those heading for Powell would be wiser to go for the Dance rather than this.

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When the TV is almost as good as the book

It’s not often that a televised version of a book gets a thumbs up but one episode into the Channel 4 version of Dance to the Music of Time and its looking like a winner.

The series, which is on DVD, was shown years ago and manages to weave together several books into each episode in a way that allows the story to flow and develop in a surprisingly good way. In that respect it is similar to last year’s Radio 4 adaptation which managed to roughly cover three books per episode.

Although it’s a different from the book in its own way it’s an experience that provides just as much enjoyment. The screen version has been written with real sympathy and where there are omissions you hardly notice them.

Looking forward to watching the rest of the series.

book review – Hearing Secret Harmonies

In the end you are left with an old man standing in his garden in the Somerset countryside next to a bonfire. He is surrounded not just by the smell of the fire but by the sounds and smells or autumn. He knows that time is running out and the autumn of his days is soon to be replaced by winter.

The twelfth book in the Dance to the Music of Time series Anthony Powell winds up some of the characters threads but leaves you at the end with Jenkins wondering and pondering on what life is all about.

For many of the characters, no more so than Widmerpool, life seems to be about a conquest for power. Getting wealth is a by product of the real Holy Grail to be a person of influence and someone with the ability to decide the destinies of others. Jenkins always wonders if Widmerpool is haunted by his role in sending Stringham to his death but never finds any remorse.

Equally motivated by power are those in the publishing world that find as they get older they become part of the establishment to be lampooned and undermined. No more cruelly than J C Quiggin’s twins who infused with the spirit of the 1960s embarrass him on numerous occasions. People seem to become the role models that they initially fought so hard to replace.

But the central character of Jenkins, who has by now had a long and happy marriage and a consistent career in the literary world is not only still able to stand to one side of the action but turn out by surviving and valuing happiness to personify the alternative path that many could have trod.

One character who manages to surprise till the end is Widmerpool who moves seamlessly from University Chancellor to head of a hippy commune renouncing his former motivation but at the same time striving to carve out an alternative source of influence.

He manages to come into conflict with a younger much more driven man who has come from a world far removed from the Etonian privilege enjoyed by Widmerpool. Murtlock manages to take over Widmerpool’s sect and in the end the struggle between them for leadership is the cause of the older man’s death as he tries to prove he can still keep up.

But one of the main themes here is about reflections with Jenkins able to accept more than most that he is now at the end of a generation and everything is about looking back not forward. He is occasionally dragged back through what his old friend Moreland called sentimentality jogging memories by pictures or places but as he watches acquaintances self-destruct or lose a life’s work he manages to steer a course to his safe home in the countryside.

For the first time really you feel that this where there are real moments of truth with Powell’s home life in Frome being described in the passages about the countryside. There is also a feeling that out where the worst thing to fear are devils in old stone circles age has also taken Jenkins away from London.

The bright lights and parties that first attracted him to the capital and then the work that kept him there have gone. Released from the centre of power he is also released from the fever that grips those looking for power.

There have been numerous moments in the 12 book series when the reader wants to urge Jenkins forward but in the end his approach, with its wisdom and detachment, succeeds.

book review – Hearing Secret Harmonies

In the end you are left with an old man standing in his garden in the Somerset countryside next to a bonfire. He is surrounded not just by the smell of the fire but by the sounds and smells or autumn. He knows that time is running out and the autumn of his days is soon to be replaced by winter.

The twelfth book in the Dance to the Music of Time series Anthony Powell winds up some of the characters threads but leaves you at the end with Jenkins wondering and pondering on what life is all about.

For many of the characters, no more so than Widmerpool, life seems to be about a conquest for power. Getting wealth is a by product of the real Holy Grail to be a person of influence and someone with the ability to decide the destinies of others. Jenkins always wonders if Widmerpool is haunted by his role in sending Stringham to his death but never finds any remorse.

Equally motivated by power are those in the publishing world that find as they get older they become part of the establishment to be lampooned and undermined. No more cruelly than J C Quiggin’s twins who infused with the spirit of the 1960s embarrass him on numerous occasions. People seem to become the role models that they initially fought so hard to replace.

But the central character of Jenkins, who has by now had a long and happy marriage and a consistent career in the literary world is not only still able to stand to one side of the action but turn out by surviving and valuing happiness to personify the alternative path that many could have trod.

One character who manages to surprise till the end is Widmerpool who moves seamlessly from University Chancellor to head of a hippy commune renouncing his former motivation but at the same time striving to carve out an alternative source of influence.

He manages to come into conflict with a younger much more driven man who has come from a world far removed from the Etonian privilege enjoyed by Widmerpool. Murtlock manages to take over Widmerpool’s sect and in the end the struggle between them for leadership is the cause of the older man’s death as he tries to prove he can still keep up.

But one of the main themes here is about reflections with Jenkins able to accept more than most that he is now at the end of a generation and everything is about looking back not forward. He is occasionally dragged back through what his old friend Moreland called sentimentality jogging memories by pictures or places but as he watches acquaintances self-destruct or lose a life’s work he manages to steer a course to his safe home in the countryside.

For the first time really you feel that this where there are real moments of truth with Powell’s home life in Frome being described in the passages about the countryside. There is also a feeling that out where the worst thing to fear are devils in old stone circles age has also taken Jenkins away from London.

The bright lights and parties that first attracted him to the capital and then the work that kept him there have gone. Released from the centre of power he is also released from the fever that grips those looking for power.

There have been numerous moments in the 12 book series when the reader wants to urge Jenkins forward but in the end his approach, with its wisdom and detachment, succeeds.

book review – Temporary Kings

Having mentioned in a review of the previous volume Books do Furnish a Room those connections are in the open here as Anthony Powell moves the location of the action to Venice.

Jenkins is on an academic publishing conference organised by Mark Members and along with some faces from the previous book, Ada now a successful novelist among them, there are some new comers. Among those are two figures that stand out. Russell Gwinnet, a academic from the US announces he plans to produce a biography of Trapnel who has died since the last volume. Then there is Dr Brightman who has the ability to combine an academic ignorance of the real world with an interest in gossip and intrigue.

There is plenty of that provided by the Widmerpools. Pamela is linked too the death of a French public figure and he is embarrassed and embarrassing as they drag each other round Venice. They are guests of a film star that Pamela wants to turn her into a film star but they all meet as the academics do a tour of the film director’s palace.

On the ceiling in the film director’s palace is a painting depicting a King quite happy to allow another man to sleep with his Queen while he looks on. As the book develops it becomes clear that this is the sexual activity enjoyed by the Widmerpool couple.

But Pamela is never one to sit tight and she makes a beeline for Gwinnet and after hearing that the American has purchased at auction a copy of Trapnel’s writings that will help him construct the great lost novel that Pamela destroyed the two enjoy a heated relationship.

Jenkins watches on as these relationships develop and is confined to the margins, even when he visits his first boss who has moved from publishing to painting and now lives in Venice. Throughout it all the twin figures of Kenneth and Pamela Widmerpool are the subject of gossip and scandal.

Once back in England Jenkins is reminded of the past once again as he sits by the bedside and watches his friend Moreland die but he is also keeping an eye on the future with Widmerpool embroiled in a spying scandal and Pamela missing out on her role as a film star.

The ghosts of the past are kept alive with Bagshaw meeting with Gwinnet to fill him in on the life of his autobiographical subject Trapnel. The American is an oddity who has problems conversing and is obsessed with death with his former girlfriend’s death being some cause of erotic stimulation for him.

The book is rather a watershed with not only the death of Moreland but also of Pamela. Maybe part of the problem for me with this volume is that never having particularly cared much for Pamela her rise and fall rather passes me by. Of course she has a role in influencing other characters and pushing life in a certain direction. But with it looking as if she has taken her own life to please her new lover Gwinnet it just feels like not only a waste but to some extent a relief that the remaining book will not be dominated by her personality.

Although it is becoming clear that Jenkins is getting older and his connections with the dance is becoming ever more limited as he fellow dancers dies off there is a real sense of the end coming and ironically it is Jenkins who starts to step into the spotlight. After years and years of describing other people and their achievements it starts to look as if his is not only surviving but also doing so with family, health and mind intact.

book review – Temporary Kings

Having mentioned in a review of the previous volume Books do Furnish a Room those connections are in the open here as Anthony Powell moves the location of the action to Venice.

Jenkins is on an academic publishing conference organised by Mark Members and along with some faces from the previous book, Ada now a successful novelist among them, there are some new comers. Among those are two figures that stand out. Russell Gwinnet, a academic from the US announces he plans to produce a biography of Trapnel who has died since the last volume. Then there is Dr Brightman who has the ability to combine an academic ignorance of the real world with an interest in gossip and intrigue.

There is plenty of that provided by the Widmerpools. Pamela is linked too the death of a French public figure and he is embarrassed and embarrassing as they drag each other round Venice. They are guests of a film star that Pamela wants to turn her into a film star but they all meet as the academics do a tour of the film director’s palace.

On the ceiling in the film director’s palace is a painting depicting a King quite happy to allow another man to sleep with his Queen while he looks on. As the book develops it becomes clear that this is the sexual activity enjoyed by the Widmerpool couple.

But Pamela is never one to sit tight and she makes a beeline for Gwinnet and after hearing that the American has purchased at auction a copy of Trapnel’s writings that will help him construct the great lost novel that Pamela destroyed the two enjoy a heated relationship.

Jenkins watches on as these relationships develop and is confined to the margins, even when he visits his first boss who has moved from publishing to painting and now lives in Venice. Throughout it all the twin figures of Kenneth and Pamela Widmerpool are the subject of gossip and scandal.

Once back in England Jenkins is reminded of the past once again as he sits by the bedside and watches his friend Moreland die but he is also keeping an eye on the future with Widmerpool embroiled in a spying scandal and Pamela missing out on her role as a film star.

The ghosts of the past are kept alive with Bagshaw meeting with Gwinnet to fill him in on the life of his autobiographical subject Trapnel. The American is an oddity who has problems conversing and is obsessed with death with his former girlfriend’s death being some cause of erotic stimulation for him.

The book is rather a watershed with not only the death of Moreland but also of Pamela. Maybe part of the problem for me with this volume is that never having particularly cared much for Pamela her rise and fall rather passes me by. Of course she has a role in influencing other characters and pushing life in a certain direction. But with it looking as if she has taken her own life to please her new lover Gwinnet it just feels like not only a waste but to some extent a relief that the remaining book will not be dominated by her personality.

Although it is becoming clear that Jenkins is getting older and his connections with the dance is becoming ever more limited as he fellow dancers dies off there is a real sense of the end coming and ironically it is Jenkins who starts to step into the spotlight. After years and years of describing other people and their achievements it starts to look as if his is not only surviving but also doing so with family, health and mind intact.

book review – The Military Philosophers


Of the three books in the series of Dance to the Music of Time that cover the war this is the most enjoyable. The other books that Anthony Powell wrote that covered the war had the main character Jenkins failing to find a role and hanging on to the coat tails of Widmerpool, hoping that his ambitious old school acquaintance will help him.

By the later stages of the conflict Jenkins is working in a department that liaises firstly with the Poles and then the Belgians. The war is coming to an end with the Germans in retreat. Jenkins still connects with people from his past with Widmerpool and Farebrother working in Whitehall. But a character that emerges, initially as just a minor mention driving Jenkins, suddenly becomes something quite obsessive. Pamela Flitton, the niece of Charles Stringham is an odd woman.

You are introduced to a woman who is rude, sexually a tease and spreading herself through London and at the same time an enigma that Jenkins keeps meeting but never quite getting to unwrap. She is going through men at a rate of knots and manages to bewitch most of the Poles and Belgians that Jenkins has to work with.

She also manages to drive Templer into the jaws of death making him feel too old sitting in Whitehall so he goes out to chase bullets. She also mingles with Odo Stevens who she leaves in the middle of an air raid.

If there is a theme apart from Pamela emerging it is about remembering the past. The numerous references to Proust are not accidental and then underlined when Jenkins and the allies visit the hotel Proust described in his books. This is not just about allies rediscovering the countries that they had been locked out of for years as Hitler was in control.

There is also a sense of Jenkins mulling over his own past as he hears of the deaths of his old school friends Peter Templer and Charles Stringham. Memories of the era that is described in the first couple of books is fading fast. There is a sense of how much the war cost a certain generation and a certain class. Those that had been able to exploit their connections and had their eyes on power managed to use their war to their advantage.

But those that came into the conflict already battered and weak were finished off by enemy and friendly fire. Although not too much is said it is the death of Stringham as a POW in a Japanese prisoner of war camp that is most poignant to Jenkins.

It is for that reason that as he sits with foreign officers at the service of remembrance he thinks of those he has known to have died and casts his mind back to a Proustian world of safe and comforting childhood.

As he leaves the church to walk off into a military-less future he comes across his old flame Jean and is reminded of a pre-war world and the reader is pulled back from further recollections. Unlike Proust, who naval gazes for too long over the same period Powell seems keen to move the reader on.

And onwards we go to the next volume…