... excellent ... Spurling, a veteran biographer most notably of Matisse, writes with her accustomed savvy ... [Powell's] books are unlikely ever to be placed on the top shelf of twentieth-century literature, but they deserve to appear on the one below. A Dance to the Music of Time is a remarkable achievement, as is Spurling’s biography of its author.
It’s thorough, judicious (except for her annoying insistence on calling Powell 'Tony'), and gracefully written, and it renders obsolete an earlier, chattier biography by Michael Barber. Spurling takes the greatness of Music of Time pretty much as a given and doesn’t spend a lot of time on literary appreciation. She is at some pains, though, to dispel the widespread notion that the books can’t be much good because their author was a toff—a snob, a name-dropper, a mossbacked Tory ... Spurling isn’t obsessive about pointing out all the parallels between fiction and reality, but her book quickly makes it apparent that, in one way or another, almost everything that takes place in the novel actually happened to Powell ... Spurling says that he was also genial (at least to people he liked), curious, a wonderful listener, and a tireless, heroic reader, and there’s no reason to doubt her ... as often happens when we get older, he fossilized into someone his younger self would scarcely have recognized.
... sensitive and sharply written ... Without fawning, [Spurling] warms Powell up. She places his work in social and intellectual perspective, and briskly lays bare a life rich with friendship and incident ... Spurling, writing with style and spark, pulls Powell down from his chilly pinnacle. It’s a pleasure to meet him all over again.
Yet, as Spurling shows in extravagant detail, Powell’s modest upbringing lay between him and the 'smart' friends he made at school and university like a sheet of glass ... The problem, as Spurling puts it, 'was that Tony was basically ineligible. He had no prospects, no connections, nothing to inherit and he wasn’t related to anyone people had ever heard of in the world of debutante dances and court presentations.' Against this backdrop, any efforts to infiltrate the beau monde (an environment that always fascinated him) were doomed to failure ... some of Spurling’s best bits of sleuthing work relate to its long gestation and the origins of its multitudinous cast. She is careful to avoid the narrowly reductive life-into-art line of much Powell criticism... Instead she argues for the complexity of his approach to characterisation ... None of this, though, should obscure Spurling’s achievement... My only serious complaint is that this biography should have been published 20 years ago.
Hilary Spurling’s authorised biography arrives in the nick of time to remind us of her subject’s quiet genius.Hilary Spurling’s authorised biography arrives in the nick of time to remind us of her subject’s quiet genius ... Spurling has triumphed. She has achieved an affectionate portrait of a man who, in the words of one contemporary, was just 'a colourless young man with some humour' ... The experiences of a man chained to a desk, writing 300 words a day, are hard to animate... The thing that rescues this long biography is Spurling’s wit, intelligence and deep, ironic affection for her subject, whom she knew as a friend.
... a perceptive and sensitive portrait that has benefited from Spurling’s access to Powell’s papers, but one that averts its gaze from the crater of 'Hieronymus Bosch activities.' Spurling herself hints at themes that a less tactful biographer might have developed ... A lifelong insomniac, Powell suffered intermittently from depression, which he and [Powell's wife] Violet personified as an angry dwarf, complete with beard, boots, and bobble hat. Whether these bouts, which sometimes shaded into a death wish, amounted to a depressive personality isn’t clear, nor are the long-term psychological effects that the 'abominable' Philip Powell had on his son ... For all Hilary Spurling’s success at presenting Powell in his milieu, the rehabilitation of [the multi-volume] Dance itself is a much greater challenge.
Spurling’s own practice as a biographer [have never] been so succinct ... The most striking revelations come where he said least, of his childhood and his loves. The finest thing in Spurling’s book is her delicate portrait of the extraordinary union that produced Powell and shaped his infancy ... Spurling’s portrait of Violet Powell – another part of his life, as he often said, that he could never describe – is the second great virtue of her book. Written with an underlying entre femmes warmth and understanding, its stress falls on ‘her extraordinary openness to experience, her voracious hunger for life and the energy she put into it’.
Through her sympathetic portrait, [Spurling] can now introduce [Powell] and his chef-d’oeuvre to a new audience. For Powell fans of yesteryear, she offers more; finally we learn just how closely his life is mirrored in 'Dance,' as Powell himself referred to his work.
... [Spurling] has produced a richly enjoyable book, though it is not quite what some of us were expecting. You might say that it is a biography of A Dance to the Music of Time rather than of its author ... Once [Powell's novel] sequence has been finished, however, Spurling stops, conveying the last thirty years of Powell’s life in a mere fourteen pages. Many of the friends he made during this period – and Powell was a gregarious man – receive either a passing mention or none at all. This approach could readily be defended, the most interesting thing about an author – or an author who is any good – being the work and not the life. On the other hand, it misses some of the flavour of the man ... Furthermore, either because Spurling was a close friend of Powell in later life, or because he simply was a sphinx-like figure, he remains impenetrable here ... Having said where Spurling’s biography is lacking, it remains to say how richly and movingly enjoyable it is...
Spurling’s excellent and vivid biography will hopefully turn our attention again to Powell’s work ... Spurling’s account of the tensions and machinations there provides a lively portrait of London’s literary scene in the 1920s and 30s ... Spurling, a close friend of the Powells, writes with great affection and respect of their union and of Powell’s remarkable life’s work. She is delicate but straightforward in tackling sensitive subjects – such as Violet’s affair, during the war, with an unnamed man – and frank, too, in recording the hostility Powell faced, in later years, from former friends ... Powell emerges from this exemplary and deliciously readable account not only as a novelist of considerable significance who altered the parameters of the form, but also as a human being of great wit, impressive modesty and firm integrity.
Many of [the people in the biography] served as raw material for the enormous cast of characters who drift in and out of the pages of the Dance novels. In fiction they can be amusing, but in real life they seldom were, and chronicling their confused and confusing careers, plus the effort to make them sound exciting and glamorous, puts Spurling’s prose, and her reader’s patience, under strain ... Powell died in 2000, but Spurling’s biography ends in 1975 with the publication of Dance’s final volume. Possibly she found his declining years too painful to record. It may be, too, that she did not wish to give more than passing mention to the four volumes of Memoirs and three volumes of Journals that he published between 1976 and 1997. These occasioned some merriment in critical circles, and secured him a reputation for vanity and pomposity that Spurling’s biography battles to dislodge. [Spurling] is at her most persuasive when writing on his talent for friendship.
... elegant, affectionate ... Spurling’s pages on [the period after Powell left Oxford], like the fictional version of it in A Dance, contain some of the most richly entertaining passages in the biography ... [Powell] spent the remainder of his life doing little more than tidying his desk, as Spurling tacitly acknowledges by wrapping up those years in an appositely titled, and decidedly perfunctory, 13-page ['Postscript'].
Now, [Spurling] examines [Powell's] life in detail, showing the intersections between fact and fiction in considerable detail ... Spurling does well in getting between the real-life Powell and his narrator Nick Jenkins, and bringing the reader with her ... Overall, Spurling, the author of an acclaimed biography of Matisse, has done well by Powell. She takes us through the life and his many literary friendships, pointing out landmarks and influences which made their way into Dance and his other writings. In dealing with Powell’s personal life, she has been a tad too reticent for my liking. A few blots on the copybook would not go amiss ... And finally, Spurling’s biography to tie up loose ends. You’ve a treat in store.
So one of Hilary Spurling’s achievements in this fine book lies in the way she uses Powell’s few hints to identify Widmerpool’s origins... Another lies in the structure of her work itself. Ms. Spurling knew Powell well. As a young woman she produced a guide to the recently completed Dance and in the years since has become one of Britain’s finest biographers, known especially for her two-volume life of Matisse. This book was written with the cooperation of the novelist’s two sons, but she doesn’t hide the family secrets, and its proportions are in keeping with his achievement.
... a very elegant, very tactful book that sticks closely to the paper trail and more or less skips the last twenty-five years of Powell’s life. It’s essentially a history of A Dance, and instead of soiling her hands with analytical grunt work, Spurling guides the reader to a wider view of the question of Powell’s oddly elusive personality, which can’t always be distinguished from the related question of quite what he was up to in his books ... Spurling is impressively severe about the urge to treat fiction as disguised autobiography, but the story she tells accounts convincingly for Jenkins’s mixture of sociability and reserve ... it’s a virtue of Spurling’s book that it lets you see Powell as both a convivial chap in tweeds and, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote of Henry James, 'a resigned and ironic inhabitant of Hell.'
Spurling’s account of this English publishing world is delightful ... Readers will enjoy Spurling’s descriptions of Powell’s literary friendships with, among others, Evelyn Waugh, the Sitwells, George Orwell, Malcolm Muggeridge, and V.S. Naipaul; less so, her numerous, detailed descriptions of dinner parties. Affectionate and intimate, this hefty biography should help Powell find new readers.
... comprehensive ... Spurling, a longtime friend of her subject, wisely chooses to cover the last, relatively uneventful 25 years of his life in a postscript. This is not the place to start for those who have never read Powell, but his many American fans will be rewarded.