Philip Hensher

Of his time

Hilary Spurling knew Powell and the world he scrupulously described – and shares her insight generously

Great novelists come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they all share is a status of half-belonging. If they had no foot in the world at all, they could hardly understand it; if they completely belonged, they could hardly understand what was distinctive. One of the pleasures of this excellent biography is fully appreciating the peculiar, liminal, not-quite-successful position Powell wrote from, and described with great exactness. In half a dozen social and professional milieux, he was a tolerated, perhaps useful minor presence, like a spare man at dinner. From the standpoint of a rather failed editor, screenwriter, soldier, socialite, he stood by and watched the world. In each case, one suspects, the subjects hardly realised they were being observed.

This is the fourth major biography by Hilary Spurling, after her full-scale lives of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Paul Scott and Henri Matisse. It is the first, perhaps, with no major surprise to spring on the reader. (What the great Compton-Burnett biography had to reveal came as news to people who had known the novelist for many decades.) Powell told his own story twice, in his novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, published from 1951 to 1975, and four volumes of richly enjoyable memoirs, published between 1976 and 1982. There is a gentlemanly reticence about private matters in both novel and memoir — the sentence in which Nick Jenkins, the narrator of the novel, informs the reader that he has married Isobel Tolland is, to fashionable sensibilities, indecently clipped. Nevertheless, what we have in both is a detailed and largely truthful account of events. Powell made sure there would not be much for a biographer to discover.

Powell came from a line of soldier gentry. The unusual fact of his childhood is that his mother was very much older than his father, and they moved around various London addresses when he was a small child.

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