Eternal music from a literary quartet

I’m belatedly experiencing a rite of passage for readers of English novels: eating up Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. This 12-volume sequence, which follows a set of characters through life, is often described as the English answer to Proust, only funnier.

As I update my list of favourite English novelists, I’m struck by their dates. George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Powell were all born between 1903 and 1905. These four men weren’t a “movement”, are rarely discussed together, and yet are best understood as a cohort. They were shaped by the same forces – and not simply by the “interesting times” they lived in.

They certainly didn’t shape one another. Though all came from upper-middle-class rather than posh families, and went to boarding schools, they rarely interacted in their formative years. Powell, Waugh and Greene were contemporaries at Oxford, but never became a “set”. “Greene looked down on us (and perhaps all undergraduates) as childish and ostentatious,” Waugh later wrote. Hardly anyone liked Waugh much. He and Powell became friends, but not particularly close ones. Greene fell out with Powell after calling his biography of John Aubrey “a bloody boring book”.

In fact, of the quartet only Powell and Orwell were close. The two didn’t meet while at Eton together, but were introduced one wartime evening in London’s Café Royal. Powell was wearing a smart patrol uniform, and Orwell’s first words to him were, “Do your trousers snap under the foot?” Powell said they did, Orwell approved, and a few years later Powell was organising Orwell’s funeral – all sweetly recounted in D.J. Taylor’s Orwell: The Life. Nonetheless, Powell eventually parodied his pal as the egomaniac leftist Erridge, Lord Warminster.

What the four men shared was first of all their prose: lucid and rhythmic at once. They were lucky to emerge as novelists around 1930, when frilly overwriting – “Edwardian debris”, Powell called it – and Joycean obscurity were both going out of fashion. “Good prose is like a window-pane,” wrote Orwell, but even he was never simply stark. His dictum itself has a wonderful metre, and he praised Henry Miller for his “flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it”.

Waugh, who could write perfect sentences, thought Powell and Greene also had “intensely personal and beautiful styles”. He suggested it was because they had all studied Latin from age nine. “They acquired a basic sense of the structure of language which never left them,” Waugh wrote, “they learned to scan quite elaborate metres; they learned to compose Latin verses of a kind themselves.”

Their second commonality: all four believed in the novel. Unlike Joyce, they saw no need to deconstruct it. They were fundamentally unexperimental, more interested in describing the world than in worrying about whether it could be described.

That was partly because the world gave them endless material. Their predecessors who matured in peace before 1914 – P.G. Wodehouse, J.M. Barrie, A.A. Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling – mostly wrote light stories, often for children. But the second world war gave even Powell a taste of hardship. These four men witnessed their time, and were generally contemptuous of W.H. Auden for sitting out the war. “Scuttling off to America in 1939 with his boyfriend like a, like a ... ” blustered Powell, decades later.

The war also helped the quartet look beyond England. Love abroad or hate it (as Waugh did), it provided yet more material and allowed these men to see England from the outside, especially from the 1940s when the country of their youth disappeared. Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are very different exercises in nostalgia for a lost England.

Above all, these four made you laugh. There’s a basic rule of English communication that foreigners often miss: everything must be funny, especially when the topic is weighty. Kingsley Amis once described the English literary speciality as “serious writers who are also funny”. Indeed, the scene in Powell when the retired general, who has discovered Jung and Freud, hears that the sexually dysfunctional villain Widmerpool had a father who manufactured artificial manure, makes me chuckle even as I write this down. (“Did he ... ” said the general. “Did he ... ”)

Greene’s Our Man in Havana is surely the funniest spy thriller; and even Orwell could make you laugh. “Four legs good, two legs better” isn’t simply horrific. Powell, visiting his dying friend, noted his “old Wodehousian side”. No wonder we haven’t seen their like in Britain since, because happily there has been less to write about lately. Decades after the war, Anthony Burgess complained that the modern British novel was about “adultery on Primrose Hill”, the novelist-ridden London neighbourhood. In our day, Martin Amis has so little material that his novels are often either experiments in pure prose or visits to the age of Orwell (or both, as in Time’s Arrow). For months to come I’ll have the best of both worlds: living today, but in Powell’s universe.

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