27 February 2016

#135 Critical Appraisal of Powell

Powell is one of the most serious and technically adroit novelists since Dickens. His procedures are in fact unobtrusively modernistic, but are in the interests of an essentially conservative (with a small c) morality based not on puritanism but on freedom and on an exceedingly complex notion of, to put it necessarily crudely, decency. Jenkins is skeptical but – despite his coolness – obsessed, in his apparently casual way, with decency. He is almost paralysed by decency, as Powell shows us. Widmerpool is the foil to him: the ambitious go-getter, amoral, wanting to have his cake and eat it. Each book [in Dance] betters its predecessor but only because of its predecessor ... At the end we recognize that the old charges against Powell – he could not deal with the lower classes, he was a snob, he was limited, and so on – have all been dealt with by him ... Powell has very intelligently employed reader-reaction as feedback, and has succeeded in accomplishing almost all of the things he was supposed not to be able to do. This fundamental modesty has helped him to achieve one of the masterworks of his time ... [Dance] is humane, poetic, and moving: not a comic work, as is so often supposed, but a tragi-comic one of enormous sensibility, subtlety, and compassion.

Martin Seymour-Smith, Guide to Modern World Literature
Contributed by Larry Kart