WIDMERPOOL’S WAY

This week’s Weekly Standard contains, by happy coincidence, an essay by one of my favorite writers, Chris Caldwell, about one of my favorite novelists, Anthony Powell. The author of the multi-volume tragicomedy of manners, A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell is sometimes called the English Proust – a claim I’m in no position to judge, never having made my way through Remembrance of Things Past. What I can say, however, is that Powell’s series of novels, which tracks the fortunes and misfortunes of the British upper crust from the First World War through the 1960s, is unquestionably one of the great (and underappreciated) literary achievements of the century. As Caldwell puts it, the sprawling series is “dedicated to answering the big question that draws people to novels, as surely as it draws them to high school reunions: What becomes of people?” And it has as its anti-hero one of the most delightfully odious literary creations of all time – Kenneth Widmerpool, a sweating, bumbling man on the make, embodying the triumph of the will-to-power over all obstacles.

Powell’s concerns, like Proust’s (and Evelyn Waugh’s, to whom he’s also often compared) are almost entirely confined to a single social class: his work “spans the socioeconomic ladder of midcentury Britain from its 99th percentile to its 98th,” as Caldwell wryly puts it. Which is perhaps why there have been so few recent American novelists like him: Our writers are often obsessed with class, but they tend to either zero in on the anxieties of a single character (a Gatsby or a Swede Levov) or region (Faulkner’s South, Wharton’s New York), or else pan outward, as in Twain and Tom Wolfe, to offer a panorama of society entire, from top to bottom. This makes sense, in a way, since class is so much more fluid in this country than in Europe, and people move relatively easily from level to level, rank to rank – or at least they’re encouraged to try. And the overall bigness of America, too, threatens to overwhelm the pointillism of the novel-of-manners.

But even so, it would nice to see someone attempt to do for the contemporary American elite, fluid and hard-to-pin-down thought it may be, what Powell did for the British upper class, and pen A Dance to the Music of Time that follows, say, the Ivy Leaguers of the 1960s down to the present day – or my own generation out to 2040 or so. Caldwell notes that Powell’s books, like many English novels, satisfy a voyeuristic American appetite for brighter lines of class and conduct than we possess – and indeed, they may even inspire us to “envy the intricacy and elaboration of a social system that can create such beautiful patterns of charm and power.” But our voyeurism and envy – and our self-satisfaction at having left many of the cruelties of class behind – shouldn’t blind us to the intricacies and elaborations that American society, too, affords its artists, particularly as our meritocracy becomes less permeable and more inherited. Caldwell writes that Americans “tend to look at social systems as annoying impediments to the poetry of life,” and that “Powell may have been the last novelist to realize that the system is the poetry, under certain circumstances.” But there are systems here as well, and no less deserving of their poets.

– posted by Ross

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