Monday, December 21, 2015

Speaking of The Possessed

‘To London, mainly for another Prime Minister’s dinner party [. . .] I continue to find Mrs Thatcher very attractive physically. Her overhanging eyelids, hooded eyes, are the only suggestion of mystery (a characteristic I like in women). This is Anthony Powell - born 110 years ago today - the British author of A Dance to the Music of Time, making a somewhat surprising confession to his diary. He was not far off 80 at the time, and she was closing in on 60.

Anthony Powell was born in London on 21 December 1905, the son of an army officer. He was was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, and then worked at the publishers Gerald Duckworth and Company for ten years. In 1934, he married Lady Violet Pakenham, sister of Lord Longford. They had two sons, one in 1940 and one in 1946. After leaving Duckworth, Powell did some script writing and some travelling in the US and Mexico. On returning to England in 1937, he lived in London and worked as a full-time writer, producing novels and literary criticism.

During the Second World War, Powell joined the army and rose from the rank of second lieutenant to major, serving first in the Welch Regiment and then in the Intelligence Corps as a liaison officer with Czechs and Poles among others. In 1951, he published A Question of Upbringing. This was the first novel in what would be 12 volumes, written over a quarter of century, making up A Dance to the Music of Time for which Powell is most remembered. In 1952, he moved to Somerset where he spent the rest of his life.

Powell also wrote other novels, two plays, many literary reviews, and autobiographical works. He served as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery in the 1960s and 1970s, and was also a vice-president of the Society of Genealogists. In 1956 he was awarded a CBE, and, in 1988, was made a Companion of Honour. But, in 1973, he declined a knighthood. He died in 2000. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, the Anthony Powell Society or The Guardian.

In the early 1980s, when already in his 70s, Powell decided to begin keeping a daily journal, and, in time, these were published by William Heinemann in three volumes, each one spanning 3-5 years. The first to appear in 1995 was Journals 1982-1986, then came Journals 1987-1989 (in 1996), and finally Journals 1990-1992 (in 1997). According to his wife, Violet, who provided an introduction to the first volume: ‘The idea of keeping a journal appealed to Anthony Powell as bridging the gap when a novel was not in immediate production.’ She adds, the five years covered by the volume ‘make an effective sequel to the author’s memoirs, the last volume of which was published in 1982.

Further information about Powell’s diaries is available online in Chapter Six of Understanding Anthony Powell by Nicholas Birns (University of South Carolina Press, 2004) at Googlebooks; or in an article by Christopher Hitchens for The New York Review of Books. Two volumes of the diaries themselves can be previewed freely at Googlebooks (Journals 1982-1986, Journals 1990-1992). Here, though, are several extracts.

28 March 1985
‘To London, mainly for another Prime Minister’s dinner party [. . .] At dinner, to my great surprise, I was put on Mrs Thatcher’s right, with Vidia Naipaul on her left; on my other side was John Vincent. At one time or another I had read a lot of reviews by Vincent, some of them no great shakes, so far as I remembered, others pretty good. He has a notably prognathous jaw, perfectly civil manner. We did not have much talk, as I was fully occupied keeping my end up with the Prime Minister, while Vincent probably thought he had to make some sort of showing with his fellow don, Tony Quentin, on his other side.

I continue to find Mrs Thatcher very attractive physically. Her overhanging eyelids, hooded eyes, are the only suggestion of mystery (a characteristic I like in women, while totally accepting Wilde’s view of them as Sphinxes without a secret). Her general appearance seems to justify Mitterrand’s alleged comment that she has the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe; the latter a film star I never, in fact, though particularly attractive. Mrs Thatcher has a fair skin, hair-do of incredible perfection, rather dumpy figure, the last seeming to add a sense of down-to-earthiness that is appropriate and not unattractive in its way. She was wearing a black dress, the collar rolled up behind her neck, some sort of gold pattern on it. On her right hand was a large Victorian ring, dark red, in an elaborate gold setting. She only likes talking of public affairs, which I never find easy to discuss in a serious manner. In fact I felt myself taken back to age of nineteen, sitting next to a beautiful girl, myself quite unable to think of anything to say. Mrs T. is reputed to have no humour. I suspect she recognizes a joke more than she is credited with, if probably jokes of a limited kind, and confined to those who know her well. [. . .]

The talk at this Downing Street dinner, as before, was introduced at a certain stage by Hugh Thomas. It ranged over East Germany, to the condition of Young People in this country, topics on which I am not outstandingly hot. Mrs T. did, however, please me by saying that everything from which we are now suffering is all discussed in the plainest terms in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (as I prefer, The Devils); a fact I have been preaching for decades. I wonder when, how, she got round to this. Did she read the novel, see its contemporary relevance herself, or was that pointed out to her by someone? I fear probably the latter.’

4 April 1986
‘My agent John Rush rang in the afternoon to say the BBC (i.e. Jonathan Powell) have decided not to do Dance [to the Music of Time] on TV. Rush says he is going to try Granada with the Ken Taylor/Innes Lloyd script as a package. After the last eight or nine years of BBC ineptitudes about Dance nothing surprises me, I feel one of the commercial companies certainly would be no worse to deal with, probably better. Why Dance should now appear unsuitable after ‘passing’ three scripted episodes is beyond comprehension. For that matter, after reading the sequence itself, a quiet beginning leading up to deeper matters is an essential aspect of the construction. Rush rather distraught. He has taken a lot of trouble about Dance over the years, and is understandably disappointed at this.’

7 April 1986
‘Main reviews of The Fisher King are now in; a generally satisfactory press, important thing is to let people know book is out, what it is about. Reviewers mostly approving, tho’ one is always struck by the ingrained philistinism, illiteracy, humourlessness, their fear and hatred of literary references. [. . .]

British reviewers tend to hate writing as such. This also applies to most interviewers. I always say the same thing to interviewers, because they always ask the same banal questions. They subsequently write facetiously, desperately anxious to show they are not in the least impressed by anyone or anything.’

25 November 1990
‘I wrote to Mrs Thatcher expressing regret at her resignation, saying that at one of her dinner parties where I met her she had spoken of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (in Russian The Devils), i.e. those that entered into the swine, which then rushed over the cliff. This seemed a perfect example of what had happened to her, the swine being her betrayers in the Tory Party.’

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