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“This Question of Discipline”: An Interview with Anthony Powell

ISSUE:  Autumn 1985

O, How the Wheel Becomes It! is the 18th novel by the author of the 12-novel roman-fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time. The following discussion has been edited from the transcript of a recent interview at the writer’s home, “The Chantry,” in Somerset, England.

PLG: Other writers have undertaken and completed ambitious projects. You, however, subjected your design to your publisher and your readers at recurring intervals—fully 12 times. Did you ever consider what you would do if you became dissatisfied with A Dance to the Music of Time or weary of it?

AP: I don’t think that I ever quite made up my mind what I should do. After the war, I decided that I would embark on this long sequence. I didn’t know how many volumes it would be, and I didn’t know how long it would take. But I settled down to write this long sequence. When I reached the stage when I had to deal with the war years, I realized that I should need at least three volumes to write about the war. And working out how old I should be after I had written that, I decided I would finish the whole thing in another three volumes, which would make a neat 12. I wouldn’t be all that young by then. Twelve is a convenient number. And I quite approve of discipline in all the arts. But what would have happened if I had broken down, I simply don’t know. It would be an awful problem.

PLG: It is an extraordinary act of faith to begin a project—

AP: Well, I think that is quite true. But you’ll never get anywhere unless you have a certain confidence in yourself. Of course, I had produced five novels before the war, and therefore did really know—or ought to have known—what my own form was and what it was like to write a novel. And then there was this really long war period.

PLG: From What’s Become of Waring to—

AP: Yes, that was the last prewar one, and that came out when Hitler had just gone into Danzig. It sold exactly 999 copies. And then the stock was blitzed during the war. So it’s actually the rarest of my prewar novels. There was a stretch of 12 years in which I wrote no novels at all. So there was really quite a lot of stuff dammed up in me. Though one never knows how much. Kipling apparently felt, every time he got up from his chair, that he was never going to be able to write another line. One just has got to fight against that feeling, I think.

PLG: Do you insulate yourself from that feeling, to a certain extent, in a project of these dimensions, a 12-novel work? One of the advantages would seem to be that you can build up a bit of momentum. You don’t have to invent an entire—

AP: Yes! It was always said, you know, that Queen Victoria never looked around when she sat down, because she always knew that someone would push a chair there. I think you have really got to behave rather like that. But there might have been a moment when I simply could not think of anything else. Taking the longer view, I have never really suffered from what is called “writer’s block.” Taking the shorter view, nobody could suffer from it more. Before the war, I used to spend perhaps three days looking at my typewriter without producing anything at all. After the war, I didn’t ever have that quite as badly. I could usually produce something, most days.

PLG: Do you associate the difference with the different nature of your enterprise?

AP: That may be. That is hard to say. You see, I’ve no particular talent, and no great interest in plots as such. Some people have an enormous capacity for plots. They have notebooks in which they write plot after plot. Somebody like Maugham, for example. I never had that. But I’m very interested in the play of characters and people.

And I knew that if I wrote a very long novel, I would not perpetually have to be reinventing what are often much the same people. If you read closely even the best novelists, you find they may have an awful lot of characters, but they are limited, they’re not infinite. You will find the same characters crop up in different books. I felt it would be very much preferable to recognize that in myself and just work my characters more. You know, instead of writing a new book, and having the same old character cropping up again, in a slightly different form, keep him there, getting older. Having invented him already, the writer can use his own energies in other ways. What an advantage!

PLG: The use of coincidence in Dance is not just one of its characteristics, but seems—

AP: One point is that you are telling the story of a limited number of people. Therefore, if you begin with Smith and Jones and, three volumes on, you say Smith met Jones in Piccadilly, that is just another incident in their relations. That is not quite the same as making them meet in Piccadilly. People always behave as if you are making them meet in Piccadilly.

PLG: It seems that one tendency a long series of novels would have would be centrifugal. The characters would keep going further and further afield. These meetings you describe provide a kind of counterforce, a centripetal force to return us to a sense of the society you speak of.

AP: Yes. Yes. But, of course, the other thing is— In reviewing the fourth or fifth book in the series, Evelyn Waugh, thinking over his knowing me, gave a list of absolutely extraordinary things that had happened. For example, when I was in the Army, I was sent to the War Office, and found myself working with a man I had never met before. About a year after we met, he married a sister of Evelyn Waugh’s second wife. He did eventually turn out to be Evelyn Waugh’s brother-in-law! I’m just giving you one example. What occurs to me is one of Updike’s remarks, that he would give a large prize to any Englishman who knew nothing of any other Englishman he mentioned. I mean, people here do know each other a great deal. I can never quite think why, but it does seem to me in this country people have connections much more somehow than in the States. I don’t know whether you would agree.

PLG: I would agree. But I don’t think there is any problem with the essential realism of Dance. My question has to do with whether or not this may be a necessary principle in an extended fiction such as yours. Coincidence is required unless you are just going to continue—

AP: To continue aimlessly. Yes, I think that is perfectly true. I also think that is actually more realistic as well. I could tell you some extraordinary stories of coincidences, but you might say, oh, that is quite true, but you oughtn’t bring them into a book.

To mention an example, when I was at Oxford, my father, who was a professional soldier, was sent on a military mission to Finland. I went out there when I was about 18 or 19, and I used to dance with a girl there. Anyway, when our younger son was going to learn Spanish, some Spanish friends of ours recommended a family. They couldn’t have him, but they recommended somebody else, and when he wrote there, it turned out that the wife was this girl I’d used to dance with in Finland. If you can imagine anything further than Finland is from Spain. But you couldn’t put it into a novel, because it would be considered too extraordinary.

When I reread Dance, from time to time, I thought once or twice, perhaps, this is a bit—I’ve sort of stretched the thing a bit. But in a novel there comes a limit to saying Smith told Jones, who told Robinson, this happened. You have just got to get down to the story. Say, well, this happened, and Smith was there. You’ve got to do a bit of that kind of cleaning up. That is all part of being a writer, it seems to me.

I’m not absolutely bound to naturalism. I don’t know whether you’ll remember a character called Trapnel, who does speak about that.

PLG: He is himself a novelist.

AP: Yes. He says, you know, if you took the thing down on tape, it would seem quite unreal. You have perpetually got to do, and I think it’s reasonable to do a certain amount of— Nietzsche had this great theory: extraordinary coincidences take place in everyone’s life as a sort of natural process.

PLG: In the extended fiction, the kind of relationship that is built up between the writer and the reader allows for coincidence, even as extraordinaiy a coincidence as the one in which a man and his wife are killed by bombs the same evening.

AP: That is founded on fact. I could tell you the names of the people. He was out with a girl, taking her somewhere, some roadhouse out of London, and a bomb was dropped. She [the man’s wife[ was killed the same night in a blitz on London. Unless I knew as an absolute fact that that had taken place, I would have hesitated. I couldn’t swear that the real people in the story were each having an affair, but a husband and wife were each out with another person of the opposite sex.

PLG: The reason that it’s successful in the book, though, is that, by this time, the reader has faith you’re not going to lead him astray. This is one of the differences between an extended fiction and a single very long novel, it seems to me. Every time the reader purchases the next volume in an extended fiction, it’s like seeing a friend that one hasn’t seen for a while. And such friendships ultimately may be far stronger than those which are intensive over a limited single period of time.

AP: I see what you mean.

PLG: The repeatedly affirmed friendship is a more powerful force. An extended fiction has this advantage over a single long novel. By the time we reach the point at which these two people are killed on the same night, there is no question but that we would accept this.

AP: I absolutely see the point you make. But one of the great problems, of course, was reintroducing the same people after two years, when another book came out. Ideally, one wanted to introduce the same people with rather different information about them, adding to the picture of them, not repeating yourself, and, at the same time, giving the potential new reader something to go on, to carry them through a book, supposing they hadn’t read the earlier ones. I think that did require an awful lot of hard work.

I think there is this odd mixture in writing novels. You simply have got to have a certain amount of inventive power. Over and above that, you have got to have this down-to-earth hard work.

PLG: Though you do this hard work in your head. You say you don’t like to make notebooks.

AP: I make very little in the way of notebooks. I have got a notebook. It was in the days in which I was a publisher. In order to measure the size of the jacket, they’d bind some blank pages together. In about 1928, I made a few notes in one of these. I’ve still got it. It’s only half full. A few bits of dialogue, and names, and that kind of thing. Occasionally, situations. But I don’t, on the whole, make elaborate notes. Some people—I think James—had such extensive notes he barely had to write the novel.

PLG: The question that you raise about writing each novel to serve both the continuing reader and the first-time reader raises a wonderful complication. When you read Emma the first time through, there are many pleasant surprises prepared for you. When you read it the second time, you don’t have these surprises any longer, but you have the pleasure of anticipating the surprises experienced by the characters. You can talk about the difference between the two readings. When we look at Dance in this way, the number of possible readings becomes astronomical. What happens if the reader of volume six has read volumes one and three, but not two, four, and five ? The question of irony becomes a very complicated problem.

AP: One gets extraordinary letters on that subject, from people deliberately reading it backward, and that sort of thing. As regards critics, you would get just about an equal number saying, about every book that came out, this can perfectly well be read as a novel on its own. Alternatively, people were saying, absolutely impossible. You’ve got one critic saying one and one critic saying the other.

PLG: Your sympathies certainly lay with the critic prepared to see that individual novel on its own merits.

AP: One tried, just because of the exigencies of publishing. Again, I think that this question of discipline comes in. I think it’s probably quite good for you to try to make your 80,000 words intelligible for somebody who hasn’t read the others. I don’t think there is any harm in a writer’s having to do that. Of course, Proust, who paid for his own publication, practically ended in the middle of a sentence, didn’t he? He didn’t make the slightest effort to make a thing complete in itself.

PLG: He didn’t have the example of Proust behind him.

AP: That is perfectly true.

PLG: He was in some sense discovering his form.

AP: Perfectly true.

PLG: Let me ask a question which suggests another theoretical problem. I’m not sure there’s a particular answer. James Tucker, who has written about your work, records having asked you whether the appearance of Pamela Flitton might not have been facilitated by relaxation of censorship laws. You say no.

AP: Oh, I think that it is perfectly true that at a certain stage it was easier to write about things in a more straightforward way than was previously the case. Philip Larkin writes, somewhere [the poem, “Annus Mirabilis”[, “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three. . . .” Before that, about halfway through [the writing of Dance[, no doubt dialogue would have to have been clipped a bit. And certain things which are fairly specific would have had to have been implied. I don’t think it would have made a very great difference.

PLG: I mention that question because it illustrates a problem in talking about a work that has been published seriatim over a number of years. Someone approaching this question might ask, all right, is this because censorship has been relaxed? Or is it because you have become more candid with the passage of the years? Or is it because you have become a more direct stylist? Or is it because Pamela herself, as a character, living through the war, has been coarsened by experience or is less restrained by convention? It isn’t a question that can be answered simply. Someone might say, it is none of these. The corruption of her character and her language was all provided for in your initial design. There are so many questions of relativity.

AP: Yes, but the general answer would be that, undoubtedly, Pamela says certain things which, certainly before the war, or even immediately after, she couldn’t have said. There might easily have been trouble. Your publisher would have disliked printing that.

PLG: I raised the question as an example of a simple question about your work, which, upon reflection, turns out to be very complicated.

AP: Perfectly true. Also, I do think one must make this point about novelists. They don’t know the answer any more than the reader does, very often. Writing is not a purely rational process.

PLG: That doesn’t make trying to account for it any the less interesting. You mentioned in your memoirs the principle that the narrator of Dance “ should be a man who had shared some (though not necessarily all) of my own experiences” [Messengers of Day (London: Heinemann, 1978), p.144[. As Dance developed through the years, did that “shared” experience become any more or less extensive? Were you aware of any change?

AP: Well, there again you open up the most terrific series of questions. Of course, one was getting older all the time, and it took 25 years to write. There was really quite a considerable difference from what one was like in 1959 to what one was like in 1975.But the narrator is also getting older. That was all right. But as regards experiences, describing something that has happened to you as accurately as one knows it is difficult enough, goodness knows. I’ve never been present for anybody’s telling a story where three or four other people were also present that one of them hasn’t said, “Oh, it wasn’t Tuesday, it was Wednesday.” “They weren’t looking out the window.” “They weren’t sitting in a chair.” And so on. Well, trying to describe something exactly, that’s difficult enough. But the very second you deliberately go away from that, the whole basis is altered, really. In my case, you start off with the narrator at school. The second you describe his two friends as two invented people—founded on people he knew, but not exactly the people—the thing is immediately dissipated. It’s only slightly like, and you carry the whole thing on. I mean, time and again, the thing really gets quite a way from what my life was like. And then one tries to bring it back. Supposing that I have written the book from the point of view of a doctor or stockbroker, and a war breaks out, I know only very roughly what they would feel like. But I do know what it felt like to be a writer when the war breaks out, you see, the things you immediately think about. Or, the whole question of being married, a terrific problem.

PLG: “No man can be objective about his own marriage,” you say at one point.

AP: Well, exactly! I feel that very strongly. There have perpetually been complaints: “The narrator’s wife is only just suggested.” And so on. I mean, you’re living the whole thing the whole time. As it happened, I was in there at the same moment. You’re having the experience all the time. Therefore, you can’t write it down. You can only sort of vaguely suggest it. But very often, people who know us both have suggested that, far from its being utterly unclear, it’s quite alive, in a sense. But that’s for somebody else to say. It’s not for the writer to say.

PLG: This idea of the writer and the narrator developing along roughly parallel tracks over a long space of time is just what makes this so fascinating. If, by some enormous feat of industry, you had written the 12 books of Dance in, let’s say, a couple of years, it would be much less interesting. But, as you say, the writer ages, his narrator ages, the age grows older, it runs down in certain ways. You are aware of that, Nicholas Jenkins is aware of that.

AP: Well, even the world of 1951 is very different from the world of 1975, much less the world of 1913, which we have got when the book really starts.(The first volume doesn’t begin with 1913, but eventually you come around.) All that is frightfully complicated. To some extent, one realized that. Early on, even then, you realize while you’re writing the frightful complications you’ve landed in. You try to get yourself out of them as best you can, really.

PLG: That is a very practical approach, and it is one that I sense in Dance—encountering problems in certain novels that hadn’t appeared earlier, coping with those problems resourcefully, learning by that process, building on it later on. The other side of that question would be whether the extended fiction would enable a writer to develop theories of human behavior, or history, or whatever, over the space of several novels, without seeming too theoretical in any one? Were you aware, as you wrote Dance, of a theoretical side to your nature that otherwise would not have come out? Was there a point at which you looked back and said to yourself, well, it seems to me that I have now come to an understanding that I wouldn’t have had otherwise?

AP: No, I don’t think that I have exactly. Some people I know don’t find the slightest difficulty. Their life story is, so to speak, perfectly clear to them. They will tell you exactly what’s happened to them, from their birth to the edge of their grave. I have never felt that about myself at all. I think the reason novel writing appealed to me is that one somehow can get out all sorts of things about one’s self. You’re really exploring yourself a great deal of the time. But I don’t think that I, exactly, wrote three volumes and then thought, well, this has cleared up my life, rather, and now I know what it is about. I now feel I know less about my life and less about myself in a way. I know this must seem to be an extraordinarily odd thing to happen. A sort of ignorance makes writing easier, I think. Simplification makes it easier. Take a fairly low form of novel narrative. You can write about cowboys perfectly easily, but you don’t contemplate what their inner troubles are, only Indians, broncos, etc. Nobody bothers what a cowboy’s psychology is like.(They probably do, nowadays. I don’t mean Midnight ones.) But, as you gradually move up the scale of sophistication, it becomes more and more complicated.

PLG: The question of too much assurance for a writer—

AP: Yes, that’s it. You do often begin to write about things and suddenly realize that if you carry on, you’re going to be arguing against yourself. There again, it’s a question simply of hard work and thinking the thing out. The question of characters is very complicated. Although one tries to be objective about one’s characters, in practically any story there is a slight feeling of more sympathy for one character than for another. And you can very easily throw the whole of the narrative out by suddenly false-carding your reader. You have got to be very careful not to somehow put the reader off from realizing the point you’re making. Yet, at the same time, you don’t want to tread it too much. So you’ve got to walk this very difficult tightrope of trying to be objective, not contrived, and at the same time not being so objective that you give so much information that the reader doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

PLG: What you’re saying reminds me of one of Conrad’s late novels. He seems at last to understand, and that is the ruination of his style.The Arrow of Gold

AP: Which, oddly enough, I reread last year. I’m a great Conrad fan.The Arrow of Gold: some of it is terrible rubbish, and some of it is so well done.

PLG: This tightrope you speak of. It seems to me he doesn’t maintain his balance.

AP: Yes, that’s quite true. My own view of Conrad is that he’s so frightfully good at describing the action. On the whole, most good writers are rather at their worst describing action. Conrad is particularly good at it. But, as against that, there’s so much one feels is so unlikely and untrue in The Arrow of Gold.

PLG: It’s the relationship with Dona Rita that bothers most people in that book.

AP: I’d be very interested to know what Conrad’s relations with women were. One really would like to know—not in any vulgar sense—what he felt, what he was like. An awfully difficult man. People obviously felt, at the time, that he was an agonized figure. James, for example. James was quite a fairly agonized figure himself.

PLG: Let me ask you about the novella that you have—

AP: Oh, my publisher now says I mustn’t call it a novella. It’s really long enough to be called a novel. It’s about 36,000 words. I really don’t want to say very much about the plot.

PLG: Could you give the title?

AP: I certainly can, indeed. I spent years having rather easy titles. I remember, in my publishing days, authors would come in and have some absolutely unintelligible title. I now feel I’ve reached an age where I may do that. It’s called O, How the Wheel Becomes It! Ophelia says, you know, “O how the wheel becomes it! It is the false steward, that stole his master’s daughter. And you must sing, “A-down, a-down.” ” Something like that. As I say, I don’t really want to—it’s so short.

PLG: No, I wasn’t asking that. I’d rather have the pleasure—

AP: Most of it is about more or less the present day, but it does begin in the 1920’s. It’s quite a short thing. The wheel will crop up again in it. I’d like to think it sort of a short version of what Dance is a long version of. Really, it’s rather frivolous. I felt I’d rather it just be a very short—when you’ve done something very long.

PLG: And you are also working on a shorter version of your memoirs?

AP: Yes, I am. I’m really very pleased about that. Penguin is doing a paperback of what is about five-eighths of them, and American Penguin is going to do it, too. I found that I could just reduce it to that, as a matter of fact. I mean, a small bit less space would have inconvenienced me. I found I could cut just to that extent. I am leaving out a certain number of travel descriptions and a certain amount of discussion of the history of my own books. There was a lot of relatively boring stuff I wanted to get into print, to get on record, because otherwise people do write such terrible things after you’re dead and gone. James wrote to Conrad, saying, get something down, otherwise people will say totally inaccurate things about what’s happened. So there is a certain amount of stuff which has come out without too much difficulty. Now, it really boils down to the people in it.

Of course, the curious thing is that various odds and ends do crop up. This is an extremely funny thing: I don’t know whether you remember the Burgess/Maclean case? I came across Maclean several times and took this tremendous dislike to him. I had thought I had never met Burgess. But I was arranging my letters to my wife, getting them into some sort of order, trying to get them into slightly less space. One of these letters describes my meeting Burgess. I speak of him with great distaste. And, if you please, the other person who was dining with us was Anthony Blunt. I say, there was also an art critic called Anthony Blunt, now in military intelligence. He seemed quite nice in a very Cambridge way. Then, I say, this man that was horrible, a character called Burgess, came in.

You see, that greatly cheers up the whole story. So I’ll be able to slip this into the abridged edition. I don’t know whether I’ve got anything else as good as that, but I’ll be able to make a few revisions.

PLG: Let me ask one last question. I mentioned earlier that it seems to me a particular kind of intimacy is established between a writer who publishes 12 novels and a reader who goes to the bookshop 12 times, each time recovering old friends. It doesn’t seem to me that you have any problem in ending any of these 12 novels—

AP: I’m very glad you feel that. Again, hard work is not the word!

PLG: -—but ending the entire work! How to do that? It would seem almost a kind of bereavement must take place for the reader at that point, after such a long relationship. Twenty-five years, then, suddently, there is no longer this novel to be read. You close the covers of Hearing Secret Harmonies, and not only is that 25 years of Nicholas Jenkins’ life and of Anthony Powell’s life, but it is 25 years of your own life as well.

AP: Yes!

PLG: It is an extraordinary moment.

AP: Yes, in a sense, I think that’s true. Of course, my having written the memoirs and then talking over doing something again, various people suggested, you know, slight extensions. But I am very much against that. The point you made about closing down is a very valid one.

Obviously there are certain aspects of characters’ lives that you could extend a bit. People have suggested that. It would not have been absolutely inconceivable. But I felt that was very, very undesirable. The whole mood had all altered. I’ve lost the mood. I’m just outside the whole thing. Well, one had written it, you see. I felt I’ve no right to interfere with it anymore.

PLG: The characters do continue to live, because they are rich characters. They remain alive in the reader’s imagination.

AP: That’s what one likes to think. Again, I do mention somewhere that I’m never really sure how much one knows about the young people. Young people take different views about—to say, well, you know, it is perfectly reasonable of Pamela to do what she claims she did. One likes to feel that it’s all a matter of opinion, that I’ve really sort of launched something which I’ve no right to lay down the law about, and nobody else has.

PLG: That should be gratifying for a writer, to hear disagreements, knowing that you hadn’t slanted—

AP: One does really quite often get arguments for changing the book, or letters saying, will you settle this? My son says so and so or my wife says so and so. . . I had, some years ago, a letter from a bookseller in Palo Alto, who said that there were people dressed up as my characters when they came to her shop for parties.


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