Anthony Powell

Thanks to The Paris Review for reminding us that this week was the anniversary of Anthony Powell’s birth (1905). Powell was a university pal of Evelyn Waugh and roommate of Henry Yorke (who wrote as Henry Green). He was one of Waugh’s Bright Young Things who illuminated the late Twenties.

Powell is chiefly–and rightly–known for his twelve novel cycle, “A Dance to the Music of Time,” which follows that same crowd over several decades as they drift away from and bump into one another in all manner of circumstances. Coincidence is such a regular feature of the novels that someone–Julian Barnes, I think–has a line to the effect that for years if anyone at a dinner party mentioned a coincidence, someone was sure to say, “That’s just like ‘A Dance to the Music of Time.'” The cultural impact was slightly less in the US, but the late novels at least were heavily reviewed and widely read.

I would find Powell impossible to teach in anything except a class just on him because you can’t really get the flavor of the thing from just one or even two novels. I was once told his name was pronounced “Poole,” but that friend was Canadian, so I took it with a grain of salt  I believe the preferred pronunciation is closer to “Pole” with a sort of quasi-syllable break around the “w.”


Beyond Scrooge

Hungry for great Christmas reading? Seen the sentence, “First of all, Marley was dead,” often enough? There are plenty of options out there.

Let’s say for starters that if you’ve never read “A Christmas Carol,” you owe it to yourself to do so. But Dickens has two other gems written in the years just after Carol and nearly as popular in their time. “The Cricket on the Hearth” lacks the spectacular specters of its predecessor, but it has plenty of human frailty and growth, along with an emotionally satisfying conclusion. “The Chimes” is a sort of precursor to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with a hero who sees what the world would be like without him compliments not of an angel but of goblins. And isn’t that what we all hunger for, Christmas with goblins?

A host of other stories are as close as a Google search. One of my favorites is “High Spirits” by the great Canadian Robertson Davies. When he became master of a brand new college at the University of Toronto, he lamented the lack of history especially the lack of ghosts, so for eighteen years he provided them, giving readings at the holiday convocations. The stories vary from near-horror to droll wit and are invariably entertaining. My favorites involve a character possessed by a portrait of Dickens and a student who builds a Frankencat. The book is thirty-some years old and might take some hunting, but it’s worth it

By all means, get out there and read the season.

Happy birthday, Edna O’Brien

The magnificent Edna O’Brien was born on this date, December 15, in 1930. She blew the lid off Irish women’s writing in 1961 with The Country Girls, the likes of which no one had ever seen. It eventually grew into a trilogy to which it gave her name, and those and a few other titles gave her the title of most banned writer in Ireland. She would be famous–and notorious–just for those books, but there is so much more. Her 1972 Night, a rejoinder to James Joyce’s Molly Bloom soliloquy, let us see how a woman’s mind really works through a long, sleepless night. In the Forest, her version of a terrible set of murders by a disturbed young man, made the awfulness of his violence inescapable, and unforgettable. House of Splendid Isolation brought together the Big House tradition of the Irish novel with IRA terrorism. Through it all, she has used language as if it would never run out and she could never get enough of it: rich, profligate, hilarious, appalling, colorful, dangerous. I can’t imagine a literary world that had never contained her. Not that anything could really contain her. 

T. Coraghesson Boyle

Today is the 68th birthday of T. C. Boyle, although, as my title suggests, I prefer his adopted middle name (he was born Thomas John, but what sort of name is that for an artist?).

He burst on the literary scene in 1983 with Water Music, perhaps not his best novel but the one that’s the most fun. Since then, he has skewered his (and my, of course) generation as well as major American figures from sex researchers (Kinsey) to architects (Frank Lloyd Wright, although there was plenty of sexual exploration there, too). He and Louise Erdrich are probably the two contemporaries on whose work I’ve leaned  most heavily over the years. Their debut novels (hers was Love Medicine, published the year after his) are among the most audacious in the last half-century.

His Paris Review interview is linked here: