THIS book of reviews and essays by English novelist Anthony Powell is remarkable for its generosity. To read it is to feel you have an "in" with a vast range of writers, from Robert Burton (a little younger than Shakespeare) through Thomas Hardy, up to Powell's contemporaries Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, and V. S. Naipaul. Powell consistently offers a reader insight into the writers' thoughts, lives, and works. And he is generous to the writers, too.
Powell, who also wrote the 12-volume novel "A Dance to the Music of Time," doesn't just pass judgment on the books - he applies his expansive, witty curiosity to them. The book is like a short course in English - English writing, characters, history, and manners. There are field trips; a punchily entertaining section on American writers; a more erudite chapter, "Proust and Proustian Matters"; and knowing references to the Russians.
Powell seems to have read everything but manages to dish out the nuggets of his erudition with a light hand. How many reviewers could sensibly compare John Galsworthy's middlebrow "The Forsyte Saga" to Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past"?
As a reader, Powell always gives himself over to the author, following the path of his or her premise. Critical remarks come in the form of quick corrections at the end of a piece, like a director's notes to actors after a play. Motivated by a regard for historical accuracy and the proper use of words, these remarks are sometimes funny and always helpful. They are often based on Powell's own long life in literary circles in England and beyond.
Reviewing "F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography," originally written in French by Andre Le Vot, he says: "Edith Wharton, on the occasion of the disastrous tea party, wrote after Fitzgerald's name in her diary `(awful)', not `horrible' (no doubt an understandable error in translation). Fitzgerald, great writer as he was at his best, was fairly often awful; comparatively rarely horrible. There is a difference." It is hard to say what makes this book so pleasurable - the array of writers one learns about or the
presence in every piece of Powell himself. He always contributes something original, without obscuring the author's work.
Reviewing - of all things - "Burke's Peerage," the encyclopedic listing of Britain's titled families, he makes a convincing argument for the fact that the English aristocracy is not so old as it seems and that there is quite a bit of mobility up and down the rungs of its famous class system. His familiarity with the history of English families, of course, supports the fictional dynasties that people "A Dance to The Music of Time" and whose ups and downs make it so irresistible.
He doesn't seem to mind striking sparks, whether putting in a good word for an out-of-fashion author like Kipling ("a genius of rather a peculiar kind") or toppling a minor deity. He writes, "when you read Twain you hear echoes of every modern American writer - Pound, Hemingway, Salinger, Capote even. In fact there are moments when one wonders whether it would not be a good thing for American writing if someone could make a mighty effort and forget about Mark Twain altogether for a while."
Meanwhile, Powell keeps us from forgetting history and the real meanings of words and their authors. All in a gentlemanly, entertaining, and memorable voice.