Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Questions of Canon Slippage: Anthony Powell

I LIKED DANCE to the Music of Time when I read in the middle years of the eighties, and I knew at least a few other people who read and liked it (even though it was never a must-read on this side of the Atlantic), so I was surprised when Max Hastings's NYRB review of the new biography of Anthony Powell began by noting that while "Waugh reigns triumphant [...] enthusiastically devoured by the young," Waugh's contemporary Powell "if not forgotten, is scarcely read by people under sixty" and "his reputation [...] has slumped."

I would guess that more people in the USA read Waugh than read Powell, and always have, but I don't think their reputations have diverged so dramatically. The young people I know are unlikely to be familiar with either one, actually.

Hastings circles back around at the end of the piece to give Powell a silver medal: "His books are unlikely ever to be placed on the top shelf of twentieth-century literature, but they deserve to appear on the one below."

Fair enough--but that's where I would put Waugh's as well. In fact, if we look at the British novelists whose work was appearing in the same span as Powell's, say 1920 to 1980, would you put any of them on the top shelf? If Joyce, Proust, Mann, Woolf, Musil, Bely, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Garcia Marquez are on the top shelf for the 20th century, are you going to put Waugh up there as well? Or even Graham Greene? Or Doris Lessing? Muriel Spark? Christopher Isherwood? Penelope Fitzgerald? Kingsley Amis? Angus Wilson? Sybille Bedford? Anthony Burgess? I don't think so.

Henry Green...maybe. But apart from Henry Green, they're all second shelf, I'd say, and Powell fits in with them comfortably enough.

It was and is unfortunate (as Hastings points out) that Powell's sequence invited comparison to Proust's, a matchup in which Powell was badly, badly outgunned. Powell's novels hardly come off badly in comparison to Waugh's, though. Or Greene's, in my opinion.

As long as I'm indulging in shoot-from-the-hip opinion-mongering, I would go so far as to say that British novelists of 1980 to the present are better, as a group, stronger top-shelf candidates, than those of 1920 to 1980. Zadie Smith, Edward St. Aubyn, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Alan Hollinghurst, Rachel Cusk, Barnes, Amis, McEwan. I could even keep going. These are the good old days.

No comments: