Classical associations

A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell

Twelve volumes, around 3,000 pages, those are daunting numbers. It’s not surprising that A Dance to the Music of Time isn’t as widely read as it should be. That said, it’s bloody good. It’s also, actually, very easy to read.

It’s been a few months now since I finished the series, enough time for my thoughts on it to settle a bit. What strikes me now, with a little distance, is the extraordinary consistency it shows in terms of themes and characters. There’s a logic to the sequence, a whole which is greater than the sum of the (individually excellent) parts.

Here’s a paragraph from the opening of the first novel. In it, an elderly Nick Jenkins (the sequence’s narrator) sees workmen gathered around a fire in a coal bucket, warming themselves against the winter.

For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world – legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea – scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outwards like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seeminly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.

At the end of Dance, the centaur reference returns, and it’s not until the penultimate page of the final novel that we learn the circumstances in which Nick sees those workmen. The end of the series is the beginning, a literary Ourobouros capturing in its form one of its key themes – the cycle of time. In a sense, the paragraph above contains the whole work.

Dance is, however, about many things (chiefly old age, madness and death, as Hilary Spurling memorably put it). At the more obvious end, there’s the whole circle of life motif (cue swelling Disney music), in which generations arise to replace the ancients they find already populating the world on their arrival, grow older themselves until they become those they supplanted, and then are replaced in turn by yet newer generations.

Dance is also about the importance of the myth of self, of sustaining a personal narrative – a fiction one tells oneself about one’s own life so as to make sense of the world. It’s about too those who are able to force their personal narrative upon the world, to shape the world according to their own illusions, people who live the life of the will.

And then, of course, there are the characters. I recall most of their names even now, without needing to check them. They’re a memorable lot, Moreland, Sillery, Uncle Giles, Charles Stringham, Roland Gwatkin, Barnby, Pamela Flitton… Each of them is credible, yet ultimately unknown, we form views of them as Nick does, but a key point the sequence makes is that ultimately other people’s lives (and particularly their relationships) cannot ever be wholly understood. We see a fraction of each person we meet, we know them only as they are with us at a given time, which may not be how they are with others or even how they will be with us later. People don’t change, but circumstances do, presenting different facets of the same individual each time.

Among all these characters though, one stands out in particular. Kenneth Widmerpool. It could be argued that Nick is the Greek chorus to Widmerpool’s life, fate (authorial fiat) bringing them together time and again over the years so that Nick sees him from his earliest days at school through his business and political careers and his later entry into academia. Here is Widmerpool’s first appearance in the sequence:

By this stage of the year – exercise no longer contestable five days a week – the road was empty; except for Widmerpool, in a sweater once white and cap at least a size too small, hobbling unevenly, though with deterrmination, on the flat heels of spiked running-shoes. Slowly but surely he loomed through the dusk towards me as I walked back – well wrapped up, I remember – from an expedition to the High Street. Widmerpool was known to go voluntarily for ‘a run’ by himself every afternoon. This was his return from trotting across the plough in drizzle that had been falling since early school. I had, of course, often seen him before, because we were in the same house; even spoken with him, though he was a bit older than myself. Anecdotes, relating to his acknowledged oddness were also familiar; but before that moment such stories had not made him live. It was on the bleak December tarmac of that Saturday afternoon in, I suppose, the year 1921 that Widmerpool, fairly heavily built, thick lips and metal-rimmed spectacles giving his face as usual an aggrieved expression, first took coherent form in my mind. As the damp, insistent cold struck up from the road, two thin jets of steam drifted out of his nostrils, by nature much distended, and all at once he seemed to possess a painful solidarity that talk about him had never conveyed. Something comfortless and inelegant in his appearance suddenly impressed itself on the observer, as stiffly, almost majestically, Widmerpool moved on his heels out of the mist.

So enters Widmerpool, one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in literature, absurd, pitiful, slightly monstrous.

There’s a sense, of course, of middle class soap opera to it all. The novels trace the lives of various, mostly upper middle class, people as they grow up, marry, have affairs, pursue careers and so on. Part of the interest is who ends up with whom, for how long, what happens to so and so. That’s the same interest which keeps viewers tuned in to soaps, week in, week out. The difference, if there is one, is partly in the wider themes mentioned above that the novels contain, but also just in the sheer quality of the writing and the ambition of it all. Yes, it’s interesting to see what happens to Mark Members and how his early promise pans out, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a sense of timelessness embedded in time, of patterns recurring, individuals coming and going but the nature of human experience remaining the same.

The Anthony Powell Society on one of the pages of its website comments that no “… volume-by-volume summary seems to do justice to Dance, only make it sound like a soap-opera. In summarising such a complex and lengthy work one is bound to remove not just the great writing but all the nuances and the majority of the characters.” That’s very true, in fact having written a volume by volume summary I’m painfully conscious how true that is. Whole books have been written about the sequence, I’m not going to even attempt to address its complexities in this one blog post, but I do think it’s worth quoting what the Anthony Powell Society view “probably one of the best ever summaries of Dance.”

This twelve-volume sequence [A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life’s poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. Until the last three volumes, the next standard excitements of old-fashioned plots (What will happen next? Will x marry y? Will y murder z?) seem far less important than time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers in intricate human arabesques.”
[Robert L Selig; Time and Anthony Powell, A Critical Study]

I don’t use the term masterpiece much. A Dance to the Music of Time is though just that, a masterpiece. Yes, it’s daunting to start a series that long, that many volumes and pages. But if you read it as I did, a month or so between each book, it’s actually surprisingly easy. Time and again I found myself intimidated by the size of it all, but each individual novel was delightful, funny and clever and well written. If I read a bad book, I’d read a Powell afterwards to refresh myself. There’s no need to sit down and decide to dedicate yourself to reading them all, you just need to read the first, then if you like it (and you likely will) some time later the second. And so on. Anthony Powell took years to write them all, there’s no hurry to read them all. But, if you do, it will be worth it.

And well, I’ve not even touched on the connections with Proust, the use of Poussin’s painting and other artistic references, the often strong parallels between the characters and real individuals in Powell’s life (and with Powell himself). As I said above, whole books have been written on Dance, there’s a limit to what I can do here.

While writing this blog entry, I came across this article in Salon magazine (which contains spoilers). It’s an excellent piece, well worth reading if you’re already familiar with Dance’s storyline. And if you’re not familiar with it, well, there are far worse companions to be had as we take our own places in the dance and await our own turns for old age, madness and death…

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19 Comments

Filed under A Dance to the Music of Time, English Literature, Powell, Anthony

19 responses to “Classical associations

  1. Hello Max and welcome back:

    A very nice wrap-up to a series of books I’ve yet to read. I still have three more Zolas to go.

    I particularly enjoyed this:

    “People don’t change, but circumstances do, presenting different facets of the same individual each time.”

    The biographer’s dilemmma.

    And the idea of building fictions. How true that is. The latter was an issue I recently came across in Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency.

    Interesting to note too the idea of the soap-opera–something that both you and the Anothony Powell Society address. But when you consider the sweep of the years (war years no less) perhaps it’s impossible to deal with life without also addressing suffering, and that, of course brings in the soap opera elements.

  2. Nick

    Perfect.
    Your post really makes me want to read the series.
    And why not, a book at a time it must be possible.
    Though maybe I should begin by Proust… What do you think?

    I don’t see the issue with the soap opera thing. As long that I like it, and this for any reason, it’s good for me.
    It’s normal to want to know what will happen to a character you care for, wherever your interests lie. Caring for people is part of life (or definitely should be), so must certainly be part of a book representing it.

  3. It’s actually a really easy read, much more so than the numbers suggest. That said, I suspect there would be additional rewards, references, if you’d read Proust first. I hadn’t though, I’ve just started Proust.

    Proust so far incidentally is extremely funny, really well written, but it’s also intense stuff. I could read Powell to unwind, Proust demands a clear mind and concentration. Worth it though.

    The soap opera thing doesn’t bug me, the problem with soap operas is a mixture of melodrama and bad writing (driven by time and commercial pressures), the interest in what happens to people is simply human, as you note.

  4. Guy, I saw you’d liked The Northern Clemency, I’ve not read your review yet though (I have a printed out stack of recent posts I’m slowly reading through).

    The unknowability of others is a central theme in Dance I think, we know people only in facets, when after the passage of time they surprise us it may be that circumstances are presenting a previously unseen facet which we mistake for them having changed.

    I think it’s been criticised as basically a soap opera, which is why that needs addressing. But as you say, when you consider the scope it’s unavoidable, and I agree with Nick that it’s also part of life. The question for me isn’t whether it has those elements, it’s whether they’re well done or not.

  5. Your post and its predecessors are a huge recommendation to anyone to get stuck into this epic read. As someone who is still on volume three of Proust I’m not sure how soon I’ll start on this one, but I’ve just bought A Question of Upbringing on ebay for a couple of quid.

    “it’s daunting to start a series that long, that many volumes and pages. But if you read it as I did, a month or so between each book, it’s actually surprisingly easy”

    Well, that’s an idea.

  6. How are you finding the Proust? I’m loving Swann’s Way, but although I am I still wouldn’t call it an easy read.

    I tried reading one Powell in every two books I read, but that was a bit too much, after that I tried to read at least one every month or so which seemed more doable.

  7. Kudos to you, Max, for both attempting and succeeding with this summary post of the 12-volume project. It does bring back some fond memories.

    My own view is that the first nine novels have a lot of “reportage” (and for me that is a positive). Powell considers the society of the time and locates an overlapping cast of characters in it. In the final three, I think he focuses more on specific characters and the outcome that the world produced for them — and that is why I agree that this project is a masterpiece.

    For those who are contemplating reading A Dance to the Music of Time, I would like to add my voice to Max’s in saying that it is not a difficult project. I read the Folio Society version, which conveniently packs the 12 books into four volumes (represented by the seasons, because the author breaks them down that way). For no reason other than physical convenience, I read three volumes at a time — the novels are short and three of them are roughly equivalent to a longish novel, but Powell’s narrative style makes them move much more quickly. Like Max, I found the prospect of picking up a new volume to be interesting, not a chore.

    And there is no doubt that Proust requires more concentration — Powell takes you on a reading ride, Proust needs close attention. While I think comparisons are fair, there is a limit to their value. Proust is much more introspective and his language is much more important to the books — not to mention the challenge of translation. I intend to reread both, but it will probably be a year or two before I start that project — and it will be Powell first, although this discussion has raised the possibility that perhaps I should alternate between the two. Now that would be interesting.

  8. Sheila is away for two weeks and I just put the DVD of A Dance into the player — thought you might appreciate that.

  9. Max … Many thanks for this excellent and thoughtful review of Dance, and of course for the link to the Anthony Powell Society. It’s good to know there are still people discovering Powell. If you, or anyone else here, is interested in joining the AP Soc then feel free to email me at kcm [at] cix.co.uk.
    Keith Marshall, Hon. Sec., AP Soc.

  10. Keith, thank you for the comment. I hope people will discover him for years to come, as we still discover 19th Century authors who though not well known are still rightly remembered by a few. I doubt he’ll ever be popular, there’s just too much there for that, but I have a degree of hope his temporary kingship has a while yet to run.

    And thank you for the society, I looked at your pages many times while reading the books and writing my thoughts on them. I found your site a very valuable resource and was very glad it was there.

  11. Nick

    From The Paris Review, an interview of Mr Powell:

    http://www.theparisreview.org/viewinterview.php/prmMID/3475

  12. How marvellous, thank you. I’ve never got into The Paris Review, so I’d entirely missed that.

    On another note, I was reminded today that I’d never linked to the Phillips Academy essays on Powell. Essentially, two classes studied Dance and wrote essays as they went along, some of which are very good. It’s here: http://www.anthonypowell.org/andoverdance/home.html and it’s well worth a browse.

  13. Congrats on finishing the series! Just to further testify on the ease of reading the series, I’d already read it twice by my early 30s and I’m pretty lazy and self-indulgent when it comes to reading. In terms of difficulty levels Proust is near the opposite side of the spectrum to A Dance to the Music of Time.

  14. Twice by your early 30s? That’s going it some. But yes, it’s not as hard as it looks, certainly it’s not as hard as Proust…

  15. leroyhunter

    Max, I came across this piece which is probably more interesting to those who (like me) haven’t read the books. But I thought I’d post it in the interest of sharing further encouragement to take on Powell’s cycle.

    http://www.themillions.com/2012/01/seven-reasons-to-read-a-dance-to-the-music-of-time.html

  16. Thanks Leroy, printed and I’ll have a read. Nice to see a bit more Powell attention out there.

  17. mopiegirl

    I just finished the series and want to thank you again for these writeups! I’m still absorbing everything myself. I agree with your thoughts on Widmerpool, and on the overarching themes of the series. Thanks for articulating them so well!

  18. Mopiegirl,

    I’m delighted to find someone reading them after all this time. I’ll definitely pop by for a look at your writeup.

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