"Faces in My Time" is a delight to read and hard to review, because it is full of things I wanted to know, but it is also the third volume of Anthony Powell's autobiography, following his elegant and magically funny 12- volume novel, "A Dance to the Music of Time." That novel, published from 1951 to 1976 and offering a view of English upper- class upper-existence, has been compared to Proust's work. It is much easier to read, however, a masterpiece of funny stories and strange characters. Though there is a lot in "Faces in My Time" for anyone interested in the life of the mind, it's very tempting to be a Powell snob and tell general readers they can't have this until they've read the rest.
They can, though. Powell is very well read, very intelligent, and very private, but even that won't keep you away. Here he is refusing to tell us much about falling in love with his wife while recounting a visit to her family's castle in Ireland and their marriage after they'd known each other for three weeks: "I shall not attempt to describe how my personal problem was (to borrow a favoured Jamesian idiom) beautifully solved, when Violet Pakenham arrived at the house. . . . She herself has in any case touched on that in her own autobiographical volume 'Within the Family Circle' (1976)." The essentials are there (together with a typically Powellian reference to further reading), and he withholds the rest to gracefully that that in itself has a certain romance.
And one can't help but be touched by the gentleness with which the novelist prepares for war. The Powells took a last trip to France and found a place to lodge their cats. Anthony finished his fifth novel and found a subject for a biography. He chose John Aubrey, the 17th- century writer, figuring that "application rather than invention," assembling notes and doing research, "might see me through the war." There was nothing left to do but enlist, which de did, in the Welch Regiment.
He worked, in London mostly, for military intelligence (liaison), which oversaw Allied troops in England. The strange political and bureaucratic trappings of running a war are just a backdrop for a troop of wartime Powell acquaintances.
Alexander Dru is a charming Anglo- Frenchman who has learned Danish so he can translate Kierkegaard. At anintelligence- training course Powell encounters one of the editors of "The Oxford Book of English Vers," not to mention Lord Gerald Welles- ley, later the seventh Duke of Wellington, who roomed with John Hayward, the poet. They play an intricate joke on each other involving a forged letter, a spurious telegram, and an unpleasant person who was the model for Evelyn Waugh's character Miles Malpractice. Anglophiles will hop up and down with glee.
For all this, Powell doesn't spare us the miserable gloominess of wartime London. If you have never been in a war, this aura is more affecting than dramatic battle scenes, because more easily imaginable. The war means tedium and discomfort. The blitz causes insomnia. Mrs. Powell leaves, having just found out she is pregnant, for the country. "It was a sad and upsetting moment when the train steamed out at Paddington, and one I don't care to dwell on," writes Powell.
When his own train steamed out for his regiment, "No one talked much so far as I can remember. It was a long journey, one leading not only to a new life, but entirely out of an old one. Nothing was ever the same again."
It's as if the anonymity of being in uniform has liberated Powell's writing from its shyness in this volume. More often than in the earlier works, we know how he feels. And he is suddenly forthcoming about which acquaitances went together to make certain characters in "A Dance to the Music of Time."
Though we know he is depressed, tired, and bored, there is something cheering in the way he keeps up his Aubrey investigations, reading in bed, as bombs sail over. And in the way he keeps up his investigations into human nature. My favorite part of the book is not the brushes with notables, but the description of his regiment. Surrounded by Welshmen who sang all the time, he had the feeling he was in the midst of a musical production. He makes a wonderful comparison between the natures of south and north Welshmen. Southerners, he notes, are "people by nature talkative, good-natured, witty, given to sudden bursts of rage, unambitious, delighted to ironic situations."
So delighted that when the orderly sergeant remarked one day, "The porridge is very good this morning, sir," Powell was filled with dread, imagining "some fearful slop full of cockroaches." Luckily the sergeant was a north Welshman, and all he meant was that the porridge was fine.
This book is really an account of how Powell stayed himself through the war, a heroic task for anyone. In his case it resulted in writing "A Dance to the Music of Time."
Even though the world seemed to be ending, or at least changing fearfully, Powell looked after his cats, enjoyed France, and kept on thinking about Welshmen, Kierkegaard, and john Aubrey. It is this relentless, humorous mind that invigorates the reader all through all 12 volumes of "A Dance to the Music of Time." This book should encourage anyone living through a catastrophe.