Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Questionable Assessment of Anthony Powell

Christopher Caldwell, writing in the Weekly Standard, makes some dubious assertions (amongst many good ones) about Anthony Powell's life and novels, and about the society which informed them.

Caldwell quotes with approval V.S. Pritchett's view that "the key English value" is cruelty, and that Powell expressed this in the "cruel" social system his books "remorselessly" depicted.

Caldwell, whilst disapproving of this social system, still thinks that Americans will "envy the intricacy and elaboration of a social system that can create such beautiful patterns of charm and power."

This seems precious, in a style once de rigeur amongst a certain species of Anglophile US academic - at once patronising yet forelock-tugging - and it seems to be central to Caldwell's take on Powell, on literature and society. But to hold a society as "enviable" or not in proportion to the quality of its "patterns" is to judge societies with the measuring-stick of literature (or whatever it is that elucidates those "patterns" for us) alone - a myopic venture, at best, and one to which few poets, not even Shelley's unacknowledged legislators, would subscribe.

"It is impossible," Caldwell concludes, "to write a novel of the very highest sort unless you believe that behavior is more interesting (and no more superficial) than ´what human beings are`."

In the context of literature, this is a strange and unhelpful distinction to make. Whilst the essence of what people are is clearly distinguishable from the social constructs within which they live, it is quite unnecessary for a writer to focus on one, as Caldwell suggests, at the expense of the other. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how a novelist might accomplish such a task. Later, and most embarrassingly, Caldwell seems to think that cruel social systems somehow equate to "the poetry of life". This is egregious nonsense, and Caldwell deserves a sharp rap across the knuckles for purveying it in the course of his otherwise entertaining piece.
PREVIEW: Anthony Powell's Century

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