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Slow Views

What happens when someone adds to a million-word masterpiece

Tuesday 13 July 2021

A Dance to the Music of Time is one of the great works of literature. The Anthony Powell Society exists to celebrate its author’s legacy – except it’s doing rather a lot more quarrelling these days


I don’t expect sensation when I open the quarterly newsletter of the Anthony Powell Society. Last time around, my copy began with a well-researched piece about Powell’s undistinguished career as a screenwriter.

Then there was a piece about fictional literature in fictional literature: books that never existed. There’s loads of that sort of thing in Powell’s work. After that, some stuff about Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn Waugh, who turned against Powell in a big way. Rather surprisingly, there was also a piece about Jilly Cooper – and it was all instructive and amusing for those of us who care.

Powell wrote a 12-volume sequence of novels called A Dance to the Music of Time, which was completed in the early 1970s. It’s a work that inspires devotees, and I’m one of them. It also inspires a good deal of hostility. People object to the number of characters who went to Eton. They also object to his old-school Tory politics, though he is far less extreme than Evelyn Waugh, with whom he is often compared. But perhaps the real objection is that the Dance is just too damn long unless you happen to like it an awful lot. You’re either a fan or you don’t get much beyond the first volume. It’s the same with Proust.

Powell is often accused of snobbery, even though Tariq Ali, the left-wing writer and activist, is a fan. True, many of the characters in the Dance are “well-born”; but Shakespeare went much further and wrote about kings and queens, while Homer wrote about gods, still higher on the social scale. In any work of fiction, it’s not about who you write about, it’s about how you write about them.

You will gather from my own tone that Powell invites partisanship. Enthusiasts for Powell often think that it’s us against the world. We see ourselves as a conspiracy against the unbelievers. Powell is great – if you but knew it.

And then I received the latest newsletter. It contained reports of complaints and resignations, of bitter divisions, of never-darken-my-doors-again animosity. The Society was accused of “literary vandalism”. Stephen Walker, editor of the newsletter, said: “People said that what we were doing was simply wrong. They said it was frivolous, and that it demeaned the work of Anthony Powell.”

The bone of contention is a book published by the Society, called The Ordeals of Captain Jenkins. It purports to be the lost memoirs of Uncle Giles, an important character in the Dance. The critic DJ Taylor provided the blurb: “As if Sebastian Flyte had written a commentary on Brideshead Revisited or Alec d’Urberville had been asked to supply an afterword to Tess.” In fact, it’s a jeu d’esprit from the society’s chairman, Robin Bynoe, a retired intellectual property lawyer currently living in France.

In the Dance, Giles is the uncle of the narrator, Nick Jenkins, and the family bad hat. “Even those who, to their cost, had known him for years, sometimes found difficulty in estimating the lengths to which he could carry his lack of reliability – and indeed sheer incapacity – in matters of business… His mastery of the hard-luck story was of a kind never achieved by persons not wholly concentrated on themselves.”

He is a brilliantly drawn character. Bynoe found himself increasingly fascinated by him, until he established a kind of reality in Bynoe’s mind. He began to wonder if Nick, as narrator, had not failed to grasp the essentials of his uncle’s nature: “With Giles, Nick sometimes got the wrong end of the stick.” He is straying into dangerous territory here, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, between subjective pleasure in a book and the objective critical standpoint they tried to teach us at university.

As a result, Bynoe wrote the Ordeals. He had the go-ahead from the Society and permission to do so from John Powell, son of Anthony, and therefore the Powell estate. The book itself is nicely produced, and obtainable through the society at £18. It’s wittily put together, an amusing read for all those who know the Dance.

Or so I would have thought. “The most articulate response claimed that interfering with fiction is the one thing you must never do,” Bynoe said. (Note that the Society is obliged to respect the anonymity of those who complained and/or resigned.)

The Society was formed in 2000; three years after the Channel 4 adaptation had caused a gratifying spike in interest. It publishes a quarterly newsletter and holds conferences; I spoke at the first one, which was at Eton. My talk was about the role of drink in the Dance, and was called ‘A Dance to the Music of Time, Gentlemen, Please.’

This objection – that fiction should never be interfered with – is a fair point of view, so long as you don’t expect everyone else to adhere to it. Literature is full of works that wouldn’t exist without others’ works: James Joyce’s Ulysses is a reworking of the Odyssey; West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. As TS Eliot said: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal”.

Beyond such adaptations, there are tribute spin-offs, in which the adventures of a great fictional character are continued by some other hand; the characters – James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves and Wooster – surviving, usually in slightly less vigorous form, the inconvenience of their author’s death. I once shared a platform with Sophie Hannah, who writes Hercule Poirot stories. Her attitude to both Agatha Christie and Poirot was of gratitude and humility. She was backed by Christie estate, to the profit of both. I once approached the estate of Peter O’Donnell about continuing the great Modesty Blaise series; wisely, O’Donnell had forbidden such a thing in his will.

When you step beyond such tributary writing – carrying on where the author left off – you get to the genre called metafiction. In this, you take material from established fiction and turn it into a different work altogether. That is precisely what Bynoe has done here. There are plenty of other examples. I have on my shelves fictional biographies of Leopold Bloom, the main character in Ulysses, and of James Bond.

They are both, in their different ways, rather touching tributes from a lesser author to a greater. Bloom looks back at the day when he met Stephen and when his wife slept with Blazes Boylan; Bond is found sojourning on a yacht belonging to the struck-it-rich Honeychile Ryder, former child of nature in Dr No.

There is plenty of respectable metafiction around. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester, the incarcerated madwoman in Jane Eyre. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead takes two minor characters from Hamlet and dumps them into Waiting for Godot. Kate Bush has sung songs as Cathy from Wuthering Heights and Molly Bloom from Ulysses

“Stepping out of the page…
Into the sensual world.”

Powell himself had a crack at this form, writing A Reference for Mellors, in which Constance Chatterley provides a reference for her former lover, who is apparently looking for “a post on one of the game-preserves of the Dominions”.

The most successful example, certainly in terms of copies sold, is the Flashman series: the further adventures of Harry Flashman, the bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. George MacDonald Fraser has produced 12 volumes, a rare example of metafiction better than the book that inspired it. These powerfully researched historical romps have Flashman taking part in the charge of the Light Brigade, meeting Bismarck, General Custer and Rajah Brookes, and bedding Lola Montez and Lillie Langtry.

Jane Austen is an inevitable target for metafiction. The actor Adrian Lukis played Mr Wickham in the 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice; this year, he put together a one-man show, Being Mr Wickham, which portrayed the character at 60. It was well worked and well performed, though perhaps not for strict Janeites.

Janice Hadlow wrote The Other Bennett Sister. The book, published last year, tells the story of the awkward middle daughter Mary, the one whose piano playing has “delighted us long enough”. And in a piece in the newsletter, Bynoe tells us about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: “This novel, written by Seth Grahame-Smith, follows the language and action of Pride and Prejudice closely, except that England is ravaged by zombies.”

This last work will strike you in one of two ways: either with mild amusement or with appalled disbelief. At last, a zombie story that inspires genuine horror! This is where I find a sneaking sympathy for the Powellites who instinctively turned away from the Ordeals, one of them stating that he had “less than zero intention” of reading it.

He didn’t have to read it. He already knew it was appalling. That’s because he was appalled by the very thought. Fair enough, but this is not literary criticism, it’s a response to blasphemy. Or what is perceived as such. Great books, like major religions, are tough enough to survive any amount of messing about, but that’s not the point: the idea that people are willing to have fun at the expense of something you care about is a violation.

The Jungle Book was one of the sacred texts of my boyhood, and it’s still a pleasure to revisit it. I am not, I accept, altogether balanced on the topic. It follows that Walt Disney’s cartoon version of the work appals me so much that I have never seen it. Apparently, I have missed one of the great masterpieces of cinema: I must live with that. The point is that we have control of the off-button in much of our lives.

But there’s another question to be faced by the Society. Is the publication of such a work what the Society is really for? The Anthony Powell Society is a charity, and its aims are: “To advance for the public benefit, education and in retest in the life and works of the English author Anthony Dymoke Powell.”

You can argue that Ordeals does as much for Powell as a scholarly work of literary criticism written on the premise that comprehensibility is a sign of triviality. But all the same, even if Ordeals is not blasphemous, it is, intentionally and knowingly, a bit silly.

“Should we be doing this?” Walker asked. “Some thought that publishing the Ordeals was frivolous, others read it and loved it.” He pointed out that Hilary Spurling, who wrote an excellent biography of Powell and also a guide to the novel sequence called Invitation to the Dance, said at the Society’s formation: “You’ll run out of things to talk about.” 

“So the point is, how do we keep it alive? How do we grow it? How can we widen the magazine?” In addition to the three pieces about the Ordeals and related issues, the current newsletter has an account of Nina Hamnett, a former mistress of Powell’s, another on Powell’s grasp of 60s counter-culture (by me), and a regular column, ‘Uncle Giles’ Corner’, which has been running for a few years, and so prepared the ground for the Ordeals. Some 21 years after his death, there is still plenty still to be said about the life and words of Anthony Dymoke Powell.

The Society’s founder, Keith Marshall, was not involved in the decision to publish the Ordeals but finds it not inappropriate. “Most people found it amusing,” he said, “Anything to keep AP in the frame.”

And that is the point. The Society continues to tell the world about a marvellous work of about a million words at a time when people will post TLDR on any piece that goes over a single screen. (Too Long Didn’t Read.) The idea that length can also mean depth is no longer considered obvious.

An author who produces a work of such length will, if good enough, find supporters. But it’s also true that the scale and ambition of the project requires from its readers a greater commitment than is usual with fiction. It’s easier not to read such a colossal work: much easier to find some excuse.

The Society exists to encourage the faithful and to missionise the rest, in the belief that the life of any reading person can be enriched by a reading of the Dance. As for me, I will read the Dance for the thousandth time when the moment seems right.