by Hilary Spurling, Penguin, £9.99
Anthony Powell (19052000) has been called “the British Proust” for his 12-volume masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time, but it’s a claim accompanied by caveats. Particularly in his later years, the literary daring of his enterprise came to be obscured by the tweediness of his milieu, that of an aristocratic country gentleman apparently irrelevant to younger generations. This excellent biography will hopefully turn our attention again to his work. Powell’s striking achievement, ultimately, is to have eschewed the tyranny of plot in favour of the actual rhythms of human experience: his friend and admirer Evelyn Waugh rightly saluted the “permeating and inebriating atmosphere of the haphazard” in his work. He was, in the fullest sense, a 20th-century writer, shaped by his era’s forces of history and by its literary movements.
Spurling, a close friend of Powell and his wife, Violet, writes with great affection. She is frank, too, in recording the hostility he faced, in later years, from former friends. Powell emerges from this exemplary and deliciously readable account not only as a novelist of considerable significance who altered the parameters of the form, but also as someone of great wit, impressive modesty and firm integrity. He is, as Proust was before him, the great literary chronicler of his culture in his time; and has left us novels both richly meaningful and dangerously funny. Claire Messud