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The Strangers All Are Gone - Anthony PowellThe final volume of Anthony Powell’s memoirs covers the years from 1952 to 1982. If anyone wanted a history of the literary life of Britain before and after the Second World War then the set of four volumes gives a writer’s view of those years.
Apart from his time as Literary Editor of Punch (if a short review was wanted it usually comprised 180 words which would give room to say what the book was about, give an opinion as to its worth and make a witty comment), and his extensive travels, he discusses other writers including Malcolm Muggeridge, V.S.Naipaul, Alison Lurie and Kingsley Amis whose talent he discerned from a dozen lines of journalism. He seemed to attract individuals with interesting anecdotes which he recounts with relish. One such is Wyndham Ketton-Cremer who tells of the churches and clergy of his native Norfolk where a tradition of eccentricity flourished.
There was the parson who standing in for an absent clergyman arrived early at the church and had a good look round. Spotting a ceremonial helmet on a tomb he tried it on. That was fine but when he came to remove it, no way. When the mourners, undertakers and the coffin arrived there was the parson in a knight’s helmet. Presumably he was able to lift the vizor to conduct the service!
Then there was the luncheon when the infamous vicar of Stiffkey arrived to harangue the churchwarden about a parish matter. Ketton-Cremer says he watched as the vicar was booted up the backside by the irate warden. There was a row, a court case and the warden was fined.
The publicity surrounding the vicar ensured that cheques and postal orders arrived to pay the fine. Even a pair of clogs from a Yorkshire miner so that next time the vicar would receive a ‘reet good kickin’.
But it is the literary anecdotes and comments that I find enjoyable throughout these memoirs. Powell was a potential witness at the Chatterley trial of 1960 but not called upon. He was firmly against censorship on principle – but as for supporting the novel on literary grounds, he was unenthusiastic! As part of his preparation he discovered that the surname Chatterley occurs in the R S Surtees novel Plain or Ringlets where they are described as a county family. Other hints lead him to the speculation that Surtees was part of D H Lawrence’s wide and receptive reading list. A list that produced a good poet, talented short story writer, some first-rate fragments of autobiography (notably his Introduction to Maurice Magnus’ memoir of the Foreign Legion) and a brilliant writer of letters.
Casanova’s Memoirs are considered masterly. He has the instincts of a novelist by giving substance to minor characters in his adventures and at the same time maintains dramatic suspense as to the final outcome. One adventure was running the French Lottery and it is believed he came to England in the hopes of setting up an English version. There is also a rumour that he may have contributed to the libretto of Don Giovanni. It is obvious that Casanova is a writer that Powell admires.
In 1964 Powell went on a British Council jaunt to Tokyo and met Admiral Katsunoshin Yamanshi, in his middle eighties and looking like a Hokusai drawing, who had served as liaison officer when the British Fleet was in the Far East in 1900. He asked him if he had known his wife’s cousin Admiral Sir William Pakenham who in turn had been a naval attaché during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.
Admiral Yanabshi said he remembered him very well.
It seems Captain Pakenham made a strong impression in Japan and was the model for the British naval officer Captain Fergan RN in Claude Farrere’s novel about that War, La Bataille, later made into a film starring Charles Boyer and Merle Oberon. Farrere was in the French Navy and wrote books in his spare time and it’s possible that he was ordered to become a writer as a counter to the patriotic passions inspired by Kipling’s work.
Powell reckons La Bataille is primarily a tribute to British seamanship in war.
Mikhail Sholokhov came to London in 1958 on a promotional tour for Russian writing. He had written And Quiet Flows the Don twenty five years before. When it first appeared in the West rumours were in circulation. It was thought that most of the book had been lifted from the memoirs of a Cossack writer killed fighting in the White army rather than the Bolsheviks during the Civil War. Alexander Solzhenitsyn also had doubts about the authenticity of the Don in 1974. He identified Fydor Krykov as the genuine author on account of his publication of several books about the Don country. The fact that Sholokhov’s name has never been associated with any other work so competently written as the Don has been advanced as an argument in support of Solzhenitsyn’s diagnostic attack.
Powell was invited to a British Council dinner party to meet Sholokhov and took the opportunity to ask him a question about his Cossack background. He wanted to know if the Cossacks were not a separate race but had been a nomadic tribe of horsemen, Turkish in origin. The reply was that ‘Everybody could be Cossack except Jews’.
It is only the next day that Powell realizes that Sholokhov was wrong – Isaac Babel was a Jew who fought in a Cossack detachment and had written a collection of well known short stories called Cavalerie Rouge.
The dinner party was the occasion for the corniest pun I have encountered in all of Powell’s erudite and lucid literary output. It’s as if he feels he can at last make a commonplace remark in these personal memories. I’ll come to it later.
The last pages are devoted, and he is literally devoted, to Shakespeare – he doesn’t need to explain why except he did confide in his journals (another three volumes from 1995 to 1997) of his ambition to read all of the Shakespeare plays and poems again. Rather than discuss individual plays bar one, Powell concentrates on the Sonnets and the interpretation of key ones such as no.66 for the meaning of life or no.145 for the impatience for bed. As to the identity of Mr W.H. he agrees with Leslie Hotson’s choice of William Hatcliffe because the poetic imagery of the Sonnets recalls Hatcliffe’s election as the Prince of Misrule at the Inns of Court. If it is assumed that Shakespeare hero-worshipped Hatcliffe would the emotions aroused influence writing? Powell believes that variety of personal experiences sometimes produces literary results; sometimes that is achieved without participation.
As to the play, an aspect of Shakespeare’s keen appreciation of relationships between the sexes that seems to me often missed is that of The Taming of the Shrew, admittedly a lesser play. He rises above the artificiality of the plot and conventions of the period by showing how two narcissists might hit it off in marriage. Petruchio was just as neurotic as Katherine; no doubt why he had to go so far afield in the first instance to find a wife. As so often in Shakespeare there is the impression that the couple depicted in The Shrew were drawn from individuals known to the dramatist.
Now to that pun. In 1958 the Cold War was still at its height; Marshall Lavrentiy Beria, ex-head of the Russian Secret police, had been liquidated not many years previously so the British Council lady in charge of seating arrangements at the dinner party wasn’t sure how Powell would react when she informed him that she’d had to put the Secret Police man next to him at the table. He didn’t speak much English so could he cope? She wasn’t to know that Powell had been in Military Liaison and had experience of using his broken English on foreign guests. As far as he was concerned: The Secret Police man would be a challenge. The more the Beria.
Re: Thr Strangers All Are Gone - Anthony Powell
|Castorboy wrote: |
|The last pages are devoted, and he is literally devoted, to Shakespeare – he doesn’t need to explain why except he did confide in his journals (another three volumes from 1995 to 1997) of his ambition to read all of the Shakespeare plays and poems again. |
What a daft idea!
Thanks for thatpost , castorboy, that was fascinating. Just picking up on a couple of random points:
Casanova was, as I understand it, a friend of Lorenzo da Ponte, and he most certainly came to the rehearsals of Don Giovanni. Whether or not he had any input into da Ponte's libretto can only remain a matter of conjecture! Whether he did or he didn't, the opera remains very dear to me.
The Red Cavalry Stories of Isaac Babel are absolutely superb. You can get a translation by David McDuff in Penguin Classics, or included in teh Complete Works translated by Peter Constantine, published by Norton. He was one of the finest short story writers of the century, and his Red Cavalry Stories, especially, are among the most vivid of all war stories. But the stories do make clear that while Babel fought with Cossack troops, he was not Cossack himself. Indeed, given his background as a Jewish intellectual, heis presence amongst Cossacks (who had, I believe, a reputation for antisemitism) was certainly inconfgruous.