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May 2001

Of Osberts and Evelyns

by Ben Downing

A review of To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell by Anthony Powell

A review of To keep the ball rolling, by Anthony Powell.

I don’t like to meddle in my private affairs,” Karl Kraus once quipped, and his aphorism would have made a perfect epigraph to this book. For few memoirists have been less impatient to plumb their own depths than Anthony Powell. When, for example, his first child is born, Powell confides in us, “I found that becoming a father had a profound effect on the manner in which one looked at the world”—and not a word more on the subject. Note how, by sentence’s end, even the pronoun has withdrawn into impersonality.

To Keep the Ball Rolling—an abridged and revised edition of the four autobiographical volumes that Powell (1905–2000) published between 1976 and 1982, and which now appears for the first time in this country—does not recount a career of any great outward drama. Eton, then Oxford; a stint in publishing, another in screenwriting, a third as literary editor of Punch; a more or less even flow of increasingly acclaimed novels; a bit of unadventurous travel now and then; and, dullest of all, if rather shocking in view of his obsession with conjugal misery and divorce, a single happy marriage: Powell’s life was hardly more tumultuous or exciting than that of Wallace Stevens.

A third letdown awaits devotees of Powell’s twelve-volume masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, whose characters tend to stir in readers an almost prurient curiosity about their real-life models. Is Sillery based on Maurice Bowra, as has often been conjectured? Powell doesn’t say. Widmerpool, that sublime toad, isn’t even mentioned. Almost grudgingly, Powell allows that the composer Moreland harbors elements of Constant Lambert, and that the flamboyant writer X. Trapnel is a dead ringer for Julian Maclaren-Ross (who, as a friend and fellow Dance-enthusiast wryly remarked, is now more famous for having inspired Trapnel than in his own right). “The less novelists descant on their own works the better,” Powell opines, and in all fairness he can’t be faulted for this reticence. But still. Those looking to play the à clef game are better directed to the Anthony Powell website, which boasts pages of gossip about who’s who in Dance.

I might add that To Keep the Ball Rolling is rather indifferently written, full of lazy segues and tepid formulations, and that it seems prompted by nothing stronger than a vague sense that an English man of letters, having reached a certain age and distinction, should, after all, produce his memoirs.

And yet the book, for all its shortcom- ings, has just enough of Powell’s singular élan to scrape by. One reads it not for a deep view into the soul of its creator, but for telling, sometimes hilarious glimpses of his contemporaries. From Orwell to Muggeridge, Compton-Burnett to Kingsley Amis, Powell knew nearly everyone worth knowing, and his anecdotes do not disappoint.

Here’s one set at the notorious Hypocrites Club:

Evelyn Waugh (intermittently a prominent Hypocrites member, although excluded at this period for having smashed up a good deal of the Club’s furniture with the heavy stick he always carried) had been served with a drink one evening just before closing time.

“But, Whitman, I told you, when you asked, that I did not want another drink.”

“I thought you were joking, sir.”

Another, from later in life, concerns his cartoonist friend Osbert Lancaster:

Osbert Sitwell had at first resented that another Osbert should have entered his monde. In due course Sitwell and Lancaster had become friends, so that when Osbert Burdett, a man of letters of a somewhat older vintage who wrote of the Nineties, passed away in the 1930s they lunched à deux to celebrate being left as the sole Osberts (now, alas, reduced to one) in the field.

And this one, about the Beast of Ravello, comes courtesy of Harold Acton:

“Gore Vidal turned up here the other day,” Acton said. “He had a suitcase with him containing the body of his dog which had died in Rome. He wanted to bury it in the garden here.”

“Which you arranged for him?”

“Of course—so like Gore.”

Shortly thereafter, Powell notes, Vidal published “a distinctly tart piece” about Acton in The New York Review of Books. One fears for the sanctity of Fido’s remains.

Another source of delight is Powell’s knack for evoking milieux. As in Dance, he conjures up, with a few sure strokes, whole vivid tidepools of English social life, each with its delicate anemones and truculent crustaceans. Here he is on Garsington, lair of Lady Ottoline Morrell:

Garsington conditions have often been described, emphasis usually laid on the exotic appearance and behaviour of the hostess, both of which certainly had to be reckoned with. The worst perplexities always seemed to me to lie rather in the utter uncertainty as to what level of life there was to be assumed by the guest. A sense of “pre-war” constraint—or rather what one imagined that to be—always prevailed, in fact probably more characteristic of contemporary Bloomsbury than the beau monde of earlier days. There was also, I can now see (Harold Acton’s memoirs bear this out), a war between the generations; young men from Oxford welcome as much to be overawed as encouraged.

At Garsington one more or less wild man was likely to be present, a bohemian exhibit (in Wyndham Lewis’s phrase, an Ape of God), making appropriately bohemian remarks. To have these comments addressed to oneself, especially during the many silences that fell, was something to be dreaded. Alternatively, you might be caught out, in quite a different manner, by forgetting, say, the date of Ascot, or the name of some nobleman’s “place.”

Yet another Powellian forte much in evidence here is the piquantly improbable comparison: he observes likenesses of one sort or another between Orwell and Lord Byron; Cyril Connolly and Ronald Knox; and (my personal favorite) John Betjeman and Yukio Mishima. Allied to this is a fascination with strange bedfellows and absurd coincidences. Did you know that Msgr. Knox and Siegfried Sassoon are buried next to each other, or that John Heygate, who broke up Waugh’s marriage to Evelyn Gardner, was almost named Evelyn himself (after his ancestor John Evelyn), which would have made the ghastly mess an affair of three Evelyns?

Perhaps more to the point, do you care? A trio of Evelyns, another of Osberts: such bagatelles will be lapped up like cream by proper Anglophiles but leave all others cold. Powell himself acknowledges the occasional slightness of his material, but, as he says in defense of an anecdote about dancing with Tallulah Bankhead, “The period flavour of the incident must excuse its triviality.” So must the signature tang of his mots justes. When, for instance, he says of Somerset Maugham, next to whom he found himself seated at a luncheon, that he “took charge of the conversation at once, detonating a few near epigrams in the Nineties manner,” the second verb shows the true, feather-light Powell touch; like John Aubrey, of whom he wrote a biography, he enjoyed a mastery of the “ideal phrase for describing people.” Vexing though it is that he didn’t even aspire in these memoirs (whose very title seems to hint at low ambitions) to the Olympian level of art sustained across Dance, they cannot help but partake of the precision, humor, and inviolable suavity that made Powell one of the old century’s great writers.

Ben Downing's Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross was published in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 May 2001, on page 70

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