5 JUNE 1982, Page 23

An album of odds and ends

Allan Massie

The Strangers All are Gone Anthony Powell (Heinemann £9.50)

Anthony Powell has always tended to puzzle even while he delights. Wodehouse once said: 'It's extraordinary how interesting his stuff is, you know. And It justgoes on and on, with nothing much in the way of scenes or anything'. Not perhaps a fair judgment on A Dance to the Music of Time — think of the party given by Mrs Poxe for Moreland's symphony or of the charier at Stourwater at which the Seven ,,beadlY Sins were enacted for Sir Magnus unners's camera — the words might well be applied to Powell's four volumes of memoirs, though here it is not perhaps so much scenes that are lacking as the nar- rative impetus expected from the conven- tional autobiography. That is reasonable enough; Powell has always been concerned with the distorting effects produced by memory, Now, in this final volume which begins more or less in 1952 at the time when The Buyer's Market Was published, he finds that 'as one picks one's way between the trees of Dante's dark wood of middle life, its configuration becomes ever less discernible ... All the tune a perspective that once gave at least the illusion of order to the past diminishes ...' So one need not look for 'sustained cr,hronological narrative' here. Nor will r °well readers — and these volumes of autobiography obviously offer their ripest interest to us fortunate addicts of his fiction expect to find revelations about his Private life. This is not entirely a matter of reticence. On the subject of marriage, for instance, we were warned in Casanova's Chinese Restaurant that `to think objective- lY about one's own marriage is impossible, While a balanced view of other people's

marriage is almost equally hard to achieve with so much information available, so lit- tle to be believed ... ' We get no nearer to an account of family life than a description of the country house bought just after the war, the setting of the opening chapters of Hearing Secret Harmonies.

None of this is surprising. Indeed the laconic objectivity with which he treats his material is well-judged. What, after all, is a writer's life? It is a matter of sitting at a desk writing words. Nothing in a public sense happens to him; nothing too private for his novels properly matters to the public. It is fair, therefore, that the summing- up should offer 'an album of odds and ends in themselves at times trivial enough', especially since Powell 'has often found the trivial to be more acceptable, even in the long run more instructive, than attempts at being profound.'

Yet the relationship between life and let- ters, hardly trivial to any writer, is one that has always fascinated Powell in his awareness of the `uncertainties .. regarding what is true, what worth writing about.' And this relationship is exposed here when he comes to write about people who served, to some extent at least, as models for characters in his fiction. We can observe with a quicken- ing of interest the contrast between the vital completeness of a character in a novel, who has no proper existence beyond those lines of fiction which serve to delineate him, and the original breathing man. The paradox of course is that it is the fictional character who seems to take on autonomous life such as can hardly be claimed by the man described in a biography or memoirs. Trapnel is alive in a way that his original, Julian Maclaren-Ross, simply isn't.

This is, of course, partly a matter of presentation. In the novel Trapnel is set in

motion, presented dramatically, discours- ing in The Hero of Acre, borrowing a pound from Widmerpool at a party and then using it to take himself home in a taxi, in the throes of his disastrous affair with Pamela Widmerpool, etc; in the memoirs we are merely told about Maclaren-Ross. What we are told is certainly interesting and in its way moving, a vivid slice of Fitzrovian life on the downward slope. Powell writes of Maclaren-Ross, clearly an impossible man but one who elicits a certain respect, with great sympathy. He is used to highlight one of the writer's problems: 'The battle he fought was an increasingly losing one to keep contact (certainly hard enough for any writer whatever the circumstances) with things worth writing about'. This is the sort of observation, accounting for the premature silence or decline of many writers — Forster, Hemingway are two who spring to mind — which is likely to escape the academic critic.

The portraits of friends and acquain- tances have been the liveliest part of Powell's memoirs, as indeed they tend to be in any consistently readable autobiography. Apart from Maclaren-Ross we have here sympathetic, frequently amusing portraits of such as Jocelyn Brooke (whose Orchid trilogy was reprinted by Penguin last year), the young Kingsley Amis, V. S, Naipaul, and of an older generation, Siegfried Sas- soon and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Powell reckons her world 'not wholly extinct', his unusual judgment resting 'both on the vitality of the novels themselves (if there were ever people so credible as that, such people will always exist), also because from time to time one's ears are assailed — in railway carriages or public rooms of hotels — by sudden bursts of pure Compton- Burnett dialogue'.

Surely this is one of the truest tests of a writer's vitality, that one should come to in- terpret life through his eyes and ears? It cer- tainly applies to Powell himself.

Interest of another sort is provided by a chapter called 'Fit for Eros' in which, by way of Erich von Stroheim and the Chat- terley trial, Powell takes a look at the battle for 'uninhibited treatment of sex in art', the outcome of which has certainly been the most remarkable development in literary manners this century. Powell's objections to Lady Chatterley, and indeed to Lawrence as a novelist, seem pretty just, and he finds 'a certain justice in the rights and wrongs of Lady Chatterley being ham- mered out without a vestige of humour on either side', not something that could be said of his own treatment of that absurd case. Characteristically, this chapter says nothing about the remarkable development of Powell's own handling of erotic themes that took place over the quarter century of The Music of Time's composition.

A chapter deals with his time as Literary Editor of Punch, and the portrait of that come-late-to-sexual-virtue curiosity Mug- geridge offered here is less sympathetic perhaps than that drawn in the previous volume. Muggeridge indeed receives a backhander worthy of R. A. Butler himself

when Powell quotes Isaiah Berlin's descrip- tion of the ghastly Mikhail Sholokhov as: 'hates everybody. Touch of Muggeridge. A bad-tempered version of Muggeridge. Distinct touch of Muggeridge.'

The book is rich in entertaining anec- dotes of this sort. Powell goes in company with C. P. Snow to a Writers' Conference in Bulgaria. He meets Yevtushenko there who calls Kingsley Amis 'a shit' (one up to Amis perhaps) and Gore Vidal CI always sit next to a man with a turban. You get photographed more'). He puzzles the Bulgarians: 'They had never seen anyone like you before,' Snow tells him. 'There was an argument whether you looked like a pro- fessor or a soldier.' He fell into, silence, seeming to ponder the strangeness of the personality with which I had lived so long, and was still illusive [sic] to Bulgarians. I have often wondered about it myself.'

Illusive, elusive? Which? The book ends on a Prospero note provoked by a medita- tion on old age which recalls 'something of that once familiar cadence, harsh authoritarian knell of the drinker's passing day, to which Bobby Roberts (like Books- do-furnish-a-room Bagshawe) 'used to at- tach such mystic significance: last orders, please, time, gentlemen, time; in this case the unspoken sanction "last conclusions, please".'

Faced with this, a writer to the last, Powell turns back to Shakespeare, though mindful 'that even if one manages to re- main on the right side of sanity, Shakespeare remains possibly the easiest subject on earth about which to become a bore . .", propounding as convincing an ex- planation of the Sonnets as I know (in blessedly few pages), and reflecting that Shakespeare, unlike professors, 'rarely loses touch with reality of one kind or another, and always refuses to be tied down by theory ..' He quotes Proust on Saint Loup's inability to perceive that what he considered intellectually frivolous could yet enchant the imagination, and notes that 'Shakespeare would have agreed with Proust on this point, both of them appreciating that great themes are not necessary for great art; while neither would have underrated the sheer difficulty of "writing well", whatever that may mean'.

Whatever that may mean, it is something that Powell has never failed, however idiosyncratically, to bring off. These volumes of memoirs stand in fascinating and splendidly entertaining relation to his fiction, while at the same time sketching, with the economy of a great artist who can bring a drawing into life with what seem to the onlooker absurdly few strokes of the pencil, la vie litteraire of the last half- century. They recall, in their mixture of portrait sketches always individual, not perhaps wholly reliable, with ruminations, on the difficult business of writing and forging a career as a writer and some penetrating maxims, drawn from ex- perience and observation of literary work, those other masterpieces of casual reminiscence, Ford Madox Ford's Memories and Impressions.