Vital Signs

An Enduring Feast

Some cult writers are admired more for what they mean than for what they accomplish. The works of the novelist, diarist, and prolific reviewer Anthony Powell (1905-2000) enjoyed only modest commercial success; Powell grouched to his British publisher in 1961, "I perfectly realise that I am not an enormous seller, but I am a seller, and certainly give Heinemann's increasingly unattractive list some prestige." But the comically understated, not infrequently sinister crew of his 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time—the grotesque "Ken" Widmerpool, industrialist, fellow-traveler, and deranged victim of a Satanic cult (Hearing Secret Harmonies); the impecunious, pill-popping author of no fixed abode, X. Trapnel (Books Do Furnish A Room)—have passed into folklore. As military enthusiasts adopt period costume to reenact Civil War battles to the least detail, so addicts of Dance gather to recite whole scenes involving such characters. Powell himself, whose centenary falls on December 21, remains a unique source of information for 20th-century social history—schooling, clothes, diet, manners, the degradation of religion—and on the working of the British military machine from the inside out—this last, in the words of his fellow veteran and author Simon Raven, achieving "a combination of poetry, reflection, satire and farce which no other living writer...

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