Stepping away from the chocolate-covered toffee for a moment, I just finished reading Michael Barber's Anthony Powell: A Life, finding it a modest but serviceable biography. Last year at this time I was immersed in the midst of A Dance to the Music of Time, so Barber's volume, which I received as a gift, seemed especially appropriate reading for the holidays.
Biography is not, generally speaking, my favorite genre. I'm as entertained by old gossip as anyone else, of course, and as easily caught up in a compelling narrative, but most lives--even notable ones--aren't all that interesting. The good parts only come after one's dutifully pressed through chapters on school days and the like, and the ending's always the same. Then there's the business, with artists' lives, among others, of the relation of life and work, and how tiresome that whole question can be. A friend of mine once observed that the profiles of actors that the entertainment press routinely churns out could reliably be divided into two groups, those that breathlessly revealed the performer was nothing like his current character and those that, with the same sense of amazement, observed that he was just like it. With artists' biographies, the usual expectation is somewhat different, though no less predictable: be amazed as it's learned that the creator of great things actually was an awful shit! No, thanks.
With Powell, it's a bit different. The worst that anyone--or, more precisely, that Barber--can say about him, while not always edifying, doesn't rank so poorly. That he could be peevish, that some thought him a bore or a snob, that he had a bit of an ego--those are not far from the equivalent of claiming, in a job interview, that one's worst flaw is that one works too hard or the like. And given that Powell did spend decades in and around literary London, there's no shortage of amusing anecdotes to fill the chapters. Barber dutifully gives the high points of Powell's career, providing summaries of the press reception for his novels, and charting out his progress across the decades. So what's not to like? The book's two main flaws are perhaps unavoidable, though the larger one seems to be made worse by the author's style. Barber spends a great deal of time on the literary parlor game of which figures from Powell's life became characters in Dance, a subject that inevitably has colored a great deal of the commentary on the work (the Chicago paperbacks, which I read, even promote certain identifications on the back cover, if I remember correctly.) Not unexpected, but in the end, who cares? Obsessives do, of course, and they probably make up a great deal of the audience for a Powell biography, but it didn't strike me that there was much to be learned. Ultimately this sort of source-seeking, while diverting to a point, amounts to a failure to take the work on its own terms. Knowing the George Orwell contributed to some degree to the character of Erridge, to pick a well-known example, doesn't really tell you anything about Powell, his character, or his source; and Powell drew inspiration from figures of even less current interest. If Barber endeavored to show us in detail how the novelist turned his models into art, what methods he used, that might be worthwhile, but playing spot-the-inspiration simply gets old.
The more serious limitation lies with Barber's unwillingness or inability to really animate Powell's own story, to bring to life the inner motivations behind his large ambition and deep curiosity. This is in part due to Barber's aforementioned modesty, which is not without its charm--as was widely noted in reviews, he cheerfully quotes Powell's own assessment of him as "an uninspiring figure, to say the least"--and has a certain honest integrity to it. It's also reflective of, as Barber argues, Powell's own retiring character and the fact that, as an unauthorized work, certain resources were closed to the biographer. Still, there's a rather surprising breeziness to the book, both in style and in judgments, that caused more than one raised eyebrow on my part. It feels as if, having laid the ground for the book's limits to be forgiven, Barber felt relieved of the duty to not be sloppy, a very undergraduate sort of failing that makes one itch for a red pen. That said, the only howler I found is when he blandly writes of Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald that they "overlapped at Princeton." True as far as it goes, I guess, but I don't consider that an endorsement, nor think British understatement can be accepted as a plea. In any event, I'm not equipped to judge the accuracy or handling of much of the material under examination, but Barber does not always give one confidence.
He does, in the end, though, give a good read, and a balanced, sane look at the life of a balanced, sane writer. As most of the reviews I saw seemed to shrug, Barber's book will do until someone comes along to do it better. Until then, there's always Powell's novels, memoirs, and journals, which should give any prospective biographer a good idea of what it means to examine character.
Also in recent reading of somewhat old books: The United States of Arugula. Since I think everyone's read this already, I'll just link to the post by Michael Ruhlman from last summer that made me want to read it in the first place--he covers most of the bases, including the annoying footnotes. Enjoyable read, though. Next up, as I continue to try to ignore the outside world, we go way back with The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. It's got all the Mathers! Can't wait.