26 October 2017

'Biography is a ruthless process': A Q&A with Hilary Spurling

Posted by Hilary Spurling

Biographer Hilary Spurling answers our questions about the life and work of our Author Of The Month for October, Anthony Powell.

You were a friend of Anthony Powell towards the end of his life, and there was an agreement between you that you would write his biography. What problems did this closeness to your subject pose for you as a biographer?

It was an enormous problem for me – although for him I think it became a handy way of choking off other prospective biographers on the grounds that he’d already got one. He said I could ask him any questions I liked, but I only tried it once, when it turned out to be a complete disaster. I had to write afterwards and explain that I didn’t know the right questions to ask, let alone how to follow them up. The trouble was that I was in the thick of writing my life of Henri Matisse at the time, and I had no attention to spare. On top of that there was another more complicated problem, which was that I’d grown too fond of Powell as a friend to treat him as a biographical subject. It made me understand why surgeons don’t operate on their nearest and dearest. Biography is a ruthless process. You have no more control than a surgeon over what you will find when you start opening up your subject and, when you do, any personal attachment makes it impossible to treat him or her with anything like objectivity.

There is a popular image of Powell as having lived a life of great privilege, exclusively moving in (and writing about) upper-class society. Would you say this view was entirely fair? It seems that for much of his early life he led a fairly rackety existence, and indeed only gained financial security well into middle age.

It’s nonsensical. His Powell grandfather was a surgeon in Melton Mowbray, not much better than a butcher in those days, and his grandmother was a local brewer’s daughter. His father joined the army but never rose above the rank of major as a serving soldier. He sent his son to Eton to make up for having been virtually uneducated himself, but Powell escaped as soon as he got the chance from the narrow conventional upper-class setting of debutante dances and country house-parties to which he didn’t belong. I greatly enjoyed writing about his rackety youth in the seedy, turbulent, often shambolic world of hard-up young writers and painters struggling to find a footing in London between the two World Wars. He had never had a home of his own as a child, and he was nearly fifty before he could afford to move to a house in the country and set to work on A Dance to the Music of Time.

As for the idea that he wrote exclusively about the upper classes, it’s a myth that won’t stand up to even the most cursory reading of the Dance. Few English novelists cover a broader social span than Powell, but his core subject is the insecure world inhabited by writers, painters, musicians and their multiple hangers-on, all jostling for position, like him.

Powell published five novels before the war. Perhaps inevitably they have been overshadowed by his later work, being seen by some as merely the orchestra tuning up for the Dance, but how would you rate them on their own terms?

It was probably inevitable the early novels would be overshadowed by his later work, but it seems a shame to me. They’re funny, sharp and surprising, as all his books are, and they’re remarkably diverse, almost as if he had set out systematically to explore all available ground. My favourite is the first, Afternoon Men, ‘the party novel to end all party novels,’ as one of his friends said at the time. It’s very short and, for anyone who’s not read Powell before, worth trying as a kind of taster or trailer for all that came afterwards.

By 1947, Powell had published nothing since before the war and had at times despaired of writing anything worthwhile again. What then was the genesis of A Dance to the Music of Time, and at what point did he realise that it would become such an all-consuming project for the next 25 years or more?

After the disruption of WW2, it took Powell longer than most of his contemporaries to start writing fiction again, but he never contemplated giving it up. He knew from the start that his new project would be a sequence of several interlinked novels, something on a much larger scale than he’d attempted so far. His intentions were always fluid so there was no pre-prepared plan, and my guess is he would have been as amazed as anyone else if he’d known then that the Dance would monopolise his attention for the next quarter of a century. It started initially as at least two or three books, which then grew to six, at which point he realised he would need three more to cover the war, and eventually a final three before he could finally bring the whole sequence into the present and complete what had grown by now into a novel roughly the length of War and Peace, subdivided into twelve successive slim volumes.

You cover the years that followed the completion of Dance in 1975 in a short postscript. On the face of it Powell was still remarkably productive in those years, publishing several volumes of memoirs, journals and criticism, plus two further novels, so what led you to structure the book in this way?

The thrust and momentum of my book was controlled by the Dance, which ends in 1975. The two novels Powell published afterwards were relatively slight and, although the memoirs are remarkable in their own right, they deal almost entirely with other people, not with the author himself. Like the Journals (which he kept for a single decade, starting when he was 77), and his collected reviews, they would have broadened the scope and loosened the focus of my book. If, as I think, Powell is one of the great novelists of the twentieth century, other biographers will fill in these gaps, but at this particular moment I wanted to concentrate on the single, incomparable imaginative achievement of the Dance.

Hilary Spurling's 'Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time' is published by Hamish Hamilton, priced at £25. Click here to reserve your copy.