‘Human beings behaving’: an extract from Hilary Spurling’s ‘Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time’

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Our Author of the Month for October, Anthony Powell, is the subject of a new biography by Hilary Spurling. This extract explores the beginnings of what would become Powell’s magnum opus, the twelve volume series A Dance to the Music of Time.


It took ten years to work out how to confront what Tony defined as his central subject – ‘human beings behaving’– in successive instalments of a single long novel, instead of having to begin all over again with a fresh cast of characters in a new set‑up every couple of years. He found the answer in repeated encounters at the Wallace Collection in London with Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time: a painting that produced an impact as powerful and disturbing as his first sight of Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow twenty years earlier. ‘I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be.’

Poussin’s Dance shows three young women and a man, plump, pale-skinned, barefoot, loosely draped in blue, green or soft warm brick pinks and yellows, dancing hand in hand in a burst of brilliant sunlight. Their music comes from some sort of classical banjo strummed by a bald, bony, bearded old man with nothing on and a large pair of wings implausibly attached to his shoulder blades. In the bottom corners of the canvas two baby boys play with grown‑up toys (Time’s hour-glass, and an equally symbolic clay pipe for blowing bubbles). Two even tinier figures at the top represent a couple of Greek gods – Dawn leading the Sun in his chariot ‒ both decidedly insignificant against the magnificent skyscape of dark tumbling rainclouds that infuses the whole canvas with threat and drama. Poussin’s non-committal approach to classical allegory remains now as then essentially modern. ‘The one thing certain is that the four main figures depicted are dancing to Time’s tune,’ said Tony.

What hypnotized him was the way the painter captures the fluidity and perpetual movement of life itself, while at the same time emphasizing its rhythmic overall pattern with masterly lack of fuss in a canvas ‘somehow serene and clear’. Poussin’s masterpiece, as Tony explained it to [Malcolm] Muggeridge (who had never seen a classical painting before), combines extreme pictorial lucidity with richly ambivalent layers of meaning, something no contemporary painter could hope to achieve at a time when the arts in Britain were still not entirely free from the banal aftermath of nineteenth-century romanticism. Poussin was forty when he started painting his dancers in the late 1630s, the same age as Tony at the end of 1945. The first steps of his own fictional Dance were coming closer but for the moment any sustained imaginative effort was beyond him.

He fell back on [John] Aubrey, having sorted his notes into some sort of order that autumn at Lee in a cottage at the head of a deserted inland valley facing out over the sea, surrounded on all sides by an emptiness that suited his mood. Lee had been colonized by a small complex community of high-powered, intellectual women congregating round T. S. Eliot, who got on well with Tony when he came for a fortnight’s sea air. No longer the remote bardic oracle of an awestruck younger generation, Eliot was still a faintly forbidding figure, setting an example of stern self-containment, long solitary cliff-top walks and studiously trivial small talk. ‘This amalgam of tea-party cosiness with a cold intellectuality . . . gave Tom Eliot’s personality that very peculiar flavour,’ said Tony, struggling with his usual demons of lassitude, apathy and doubt. His typewriter stopped functioning, and some days he felt so weak he could scarcely get up a hill. Back in London in the New Year, he agreed with Muggeridge that all either of them wanted was for their lives to come to an end.

The death wish was tonic for both of them. Muggeridge left for New York as the Telegraph’s US correspondent that spring, and Tony finally put a stop to months spent picking through manuscripts in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the kind of ‘genealogical potterings’ that became over the next thirty years his standard routine for kick-starting ‘the novel-writing machine within’. Aubrey’s papers, many of them bundled up virtually untouched for centuries in Duke Humphrey’s Library, suggested at first glance an image of muddle and confusion that corresponded to the workings of their owner’s mind. But if Aubrey’s multiple projects often ended up scrappy or unfinished, enough survives to give a clear sense of his subtle ironic humour, his genius for friendship, his inexhaustible curiosity and keen grasp of the ways of the world, the sensitivity that set him apart from his contemporaries, above all the sheer originality of ‘his presentation of life as a picture crowded with odd figures, occupying themselves in unexpected and sometimes inexplicable pursuits’ in the Brief Lives. It is not hard to understand his appeal for a biographer contemplating something similar in fiction. There is a strong affinity in Tony’s account of Aubrey at forty, wary and watchful with the uneasy expression of an observer for once under observation himself, captured in a contemporary pen-and-ink drawing with a casual informality missing from most portraits of seventeenth- century celebrities in business, science or the army:

Here is the face of a man who has half explained to himself the follies of the world: who has failed; and yet achieved something – while so many of these men of action and affairs have sunk into oblivion, with the causes for which they lived and died, by some vitality less unreal than theirs, he has remained alive.

A book that began as an undemanding exercise for keeping its author on track during the war seems in some ways to have become a blueprint for the long novel incubating at the back of his mind.


Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling is out now from Hamish Hamilton.

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