Wit and wisdom from Anthony Powell

August 30, 1994|By Robert Taylor | Robert Taylor,Boston Globe

Wit is an unexpected quality in a book reviewer; high priests of the intellect regard with suspicion a talent to amuse. Seldom indeed does a reviewer's comic sparkle actually contribute to our understanding of the work under review rather than standing apart as epigram, anecdote or wisecrack. Anthony Powell is a notable exception.

Now 89, the venerable novelist of the 12-volume "Dance to the Music of Time" sequence mines a personal vein of literary journalism. The biographical or autobiographical elements, however, not only lend his prose its special tone and coloration, but always augment intriguing critical judgments. There are approximately 120 reviews, most about a thousand words long, written for London's Daily Telegraph and for Punch.

"The trifling claim I would put forward for these relics of the past 40 years or more," he writes, "is that, to borrow a term from painting, they achieve a kind of pointillist effect by massing together comments on single individuals over several decades, thereby displaying a literary landscape slightly different in lights and shades from that found in an historical or critical book on certain themes."

In many instances, Mr. Powell has known the writers whose works he critiques in "Under Review." His commentary on them reminds one of his admiration for the "Brief Lives" of the delectable 17th-century author John Aubrey.

* "I last saw Arthur Waley [the eminent translator from the Chinese] when he must have been at least 70 at the Private View of some paintings executed by two chimpanzees. He was absolutely unchanged. We agreed that the female artist was the more sophisticated, the male with the deeper feeling."

* "The firm for which I was then working published [Ford Madox] Ford's war novels, and I met him in Paris about 1928. He gave me luncheon at Lipp's. He seemed a ponderous old buffer . . . I could not imagine why so many ladies seemed to be fighting to go to bed with him. I was quite unaware that he was very hard up at the time, and to pay for my meal was a generous and kindly act. I have no recollection of feeling particularly grateful. I think he probably signed the bill."

* "The novelist Michael Arlen ["The Green Hat"] "speaking of himself in the course of our luncheon, used the form for which he expressed preference, 'I, Dikran Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian.' "

"Under Review," a companion volume to "Miscellaneous Verdicts" (1990), begins with a section titled "The Nineties" (Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds as well as Wilde and Beardsley). The second section, "Bloomsbury and non-Bloomsbury," presents, among others, offbeat assessments of Lytton Strachey, his solid literary qualities vitiated by a giggling egotism, and Virginia Woolf ("It is perfectly true that she could grasp the importance in life of apparently trivial things, but in the last resort she is not sufficiently interested in other people. She has none of the understanding and wit of, say, Ivy Compton-Burnett."). Bloomsbury, in fact, is a blanket designation covering T. S. Eliot, who was friendly but aloof, and Wyndham Lewis, who despised the group.

The third section, "Some Novels and Novelists," is a deliberately mixed bag probably dictated by the demands of editors: Authors include Aphra Behn, Sheridan Le Fanu, Paul Scott, Arthur Machen. The last was not a great novelist, but his short story, "The Bowmen," gave rise to the Angels of Mons legend in the first World War and, durable plot that it is, more recently, to the baseball movie fantasy "Angels in the Outfield."

The fourth and last section, "The Europeans," emphasizes the French, ranging from Heloise and Abelard to Sainte-Beuve. Of Regine Pernoud's novel about Heloise, Mr. Powell comments, "The fastidious should not be put off by her opening sentence: ' "Paris at last!" the young student thought eagerly as the bend of the river came into view.' "

But even Mr. Powell's unfailing wit cannot distract attention from the gaffe on page 206, where "Finnegans Wake" is given an apostrophe.


Title: "Under Review: Further Writings on Writers, 1946-1990"

Author: Anthony Powell

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Length, price: 467 pages, $34.95

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