ANTHONY POWELL DIED LAST WEEK. He was, and has been for
a few years now, my favorite living novelist. Now I can no longer say that.
It was such a satisfying way to answer the question:
"OK, so who's your favorite writer?"
"Fiction or non-fiction?"
"Living or dead?"
"Well, Anthony Powell, probably."
Anthony Dymoke Powell (b. 1905) was a contemporary of
Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, among others, but he was never as famous,
for the very simple reason that he never wrote a Brideshead
Revisited, or had a Third
Man made out of one of his books. He was an obscure figure while
Greene and Waugh were making their reputations, and only reached literary
prominence when he began his 12-volume series of novels, A
Dance to the Music of Time. Perhaps because of the slightly pretention
title, or just the lenth, it was one of those literary monoliths, like
that was more spoken of than read, something brought up in conversation
to enhance one's literary erudition. It was popularly supposed that the
only people who read the whole thing in Britain were Powell's friends and
acquaintances, who were merely looking to see if they were recognizable
in any of his characters.
I love Powell's writing.
His sentences are nightmares for the modern reader or editor, who've had
their sensibilities formed by journalism and a simplistic, revered, popular
conception of Hemingway, whose supposedly lean prose is assumed to have
set the benchmark for modern syntax. Powell's sentences couldn't be less
"modern", looked at from that particular prejudice; a sentence will begin
with an observation, or a snippet of narrative, then flow into countless
subordinate clauses, a steeplechase of commas, colons and semi-colons that
-- grammatically flawless -- take the reader on a ride that might end half
a page later, and convey the kind of equivocation, digression, and rambling
train of thought that, more than Hemingway's telegraphic recitative, give
the reader a marvellous sense of how the human mind really works, how the
grist of information, memory and sensation form into the steady momentum
of a life's narrative.
Since there's really no such thing as "modern" -- how
can anything stay new, after all? -- it seems that Powell's style of writing,
once dismissed as quaintly Victorian, even Georgian, is starting to re-appear
in the prose style of people like David
Eggers or David
Foster Wallace. And if anyone bothers to look back on my last paragraph,
it's been a big influence on me. Even before I read Powell -- before I'd
even heard of him -- I was struggling to write sentences that did more
than link component parts -- subject, adverb, verb, predicate, object,
noun, adjective, etc. -- and repeat the same process in an endless cycle,
parsed regularly with periods. It wasn't the way I thought about things,
and it seemed unfair to reduce the experience of the mind processing the
world to such scant blocks of sensation.
Powell might not have approved of my use of dashes --
his generation had been taught to use them sparingly, if at all -- but
then he had the luxury of living in the last time in living memory where
one needn't feel that anything one was saying was constantly in peril of
being interrupted, even by oneself. Writers like Eggers and Wallace live
in a world where a long sentence is as likely to be broken into by stray
ideas, much like a t.v. show with too many commercial breaks, or not enough.
It was a world that Powell, who lived far too long to have done much good
for his reputation, had always inhabited, and described, as someone constantly
aware of his chosen role as an outsider. Not a rebel -- there was nothing
rebellious or overtly revolutionary about Powell -- but something not much
valued today: the gifted spectator.
BOUGHT THE RING. I have it here, on my desk, sitting on the edge of the
latest edition of Fowler's; I can see it just over the right-hand edge
of my laptop screen. It's estate jewellery, and my sister bid for it on
eBay for me, after I idly showed it to K. during a lazy trawl online. She
liked it, and my sister won it. I got it from Mary last week when we got
together at an antiques auction, and snuck it home in my jacket pocket.
I still don't have a clue when I'll pop the question,
but at least I have the essential prop. It might be nice to do it if we
go to Nova Scotia this summer, but that seems like an awful long way away.
Maybe it would be something to do up at Vicki's
cottage, if we're invited up early in the season. Her birthday's not
till the fall, and we have no serious plans to travel anywhere before then.
What do I do?
Does anyone have any suggestions? I've never done this
before, and I have to say that no movie, no novel, no "real-life" cable
documentary show can give me any decent ideas.
I'm sure she knows. I'm pretty lousy at hiding things,
and I've left it sitting out in the open as a sort of dare, I guess. I'm
not sure she's been reading this too often, lately, and I know she doesn't
mess with things on my desk. In any case, the ring is sitting in its case,
just behind my human skull, so I guess that's sort of a safety barrier
-- K. is sort of creeped-out by the skull.
I know that the ring, and the question it accessorizes,
is a kind of point of no return. Once she's got it on her finger, an inexorable process begins, first gently, then with increasing speed as we try to cope with a ritual she's been through before, and which I've never been entirely at ease with. Nevertheless, I want to do it. Wish me luck. But don't hold your breath -- this could take a while.