Love and Work: Anthony Powell’s ‘O, How the Wheel Becomes It!’ and ‘Venusberg’

Screen-Shot-2016-01-12-at-3.11.14-PMGerald J. Russello at The Millions:

Love and work are the subjects the British novelist Anthony Powell covers in O, How the Wheel Becomes It! and Venusberg two slim novels, recently reissued by University of Chicago Press, which bracket his monumental 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, written over the course of almost 15 years, from 1957 to 1971. Still relatively lesser known in the United States, the Dance series is one of the great achievements of 20th-century literature, and perhaps the greatest portrayal of (mostly upper-class) British life from approximately the 1920s through the 1960s.

In his introduction to Venusberg, which Powell published in 1932 when he was only 27, Levi Stahlastutely notes the differences between Powell and the author whom he is often thought to resemble,Evelyn Waugh. Both wrote about the educated upper classes and had enormous skill at skewering their pretensions and obsessions. But where Waugh was highly self-conscious of his status as an outsider and desperately wanted to be included among his subjects even as he savaged them, Powell developed a different style. He writes more as an insider but one removed from the social whirl by almost incomprehensibly sensitive social antennae. “Waugh’s books are arguably funnier (though some sections of Dance hold their own), but they also have an angry, cruel, even nihilistic strain. Waugh’s satire is scorching, leaving little behind but blasted ground. Powell, on the other hand, while refusing novelistic happy endings, presents a more hopeful outlook: his early novels tend to include at least one character who yearns, if fitfully, to live a life with meaning.”

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