Originally posted 17 July 2008, thankfully.
A Dance to the Music of Time is a twelve volume epic work by Anthony Powell, whether you take it as twelve distinct novels or one large novel in twelve volumes is a matter for the reader. Each volume does stand alone, but they are intrinsically linked one to the other and in a very real sense Dance is a single 3,000 page novel.
Dance is widely seen as one of the finest works of literature in the English language, which makes it more surprising it’s not better known. I suspect the length is a factor there, as embarking on a 3,000 page journey is simply not practical for a great many people. Dance is also often compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a comparison I can’t unfortunately comment on at this time as although I have Proust sitting on my shelf at home I haven’t started it yet, I’m planning to read that in 2009.
Dance is a work of comic fiction, though dryly comic rather than laugh out loud. It follows the lives of a group of upper middle class and aristocractic men and women in the inter-war years and beyond, starting with several of the characters in school and ending I understand (since I haven’t finished the twelve volumes yet) with the eventual deaths of some of them years later. It’s themes are many, and I’ll get to them in more detail shortly, but essentially it’s ambition is to portray whole lives and to show how they intersect and impact on each other, in a sense how the various participants dance together to the music of time. Dance is commonly divided into four seasons, Spring for the first three novels, Summer for the next three and so on.
This morning I finished the fourth novel in the sequence, At Lady Molly’s, the first novel in the Summer part of the work. As is typical of the volumes so far, the novel takes a handful of scenes and explores them in some detail. A dinner, a house party, a night out, an engagement party. Each volume so far has worked in this way, we see the characters revealed in fairly quotidian circumstances, as chance and the passing of time bring them together at a social event or they hear of each other from mutual acquaintances.
The narrator is one Nick Jenkins, a quiet young man who initially works in a minor art publishing house and who by this point has become a scriptwriter for second features, English films which are required by law to be shown together with US films as a means of supporting the domestic film industry. Nick appears largely to be a fairly reliable narrator, although only to an extent as the impossibility of ever really understanding the acts and nature of another is one of the key themes of the novel.
Other characters are legion, from Widmerpool (arguably the true protagonist of the whole series) – currently a banker, to Quiggin – a young writer of communist leanings, Peter Templer – an old schoolfriend of Nick’s and now also a banker, Elridge – an eccentric peer with an interest in left wing politics, Mona – a hard-nosed former model, Mildred Haycock – Widmerpool’s fiance and a much older and more worldly person than he is, General Conyers, Lady Molly, Alfred Tolland, there are many others (and there are many key characters from previous novels who do not appear in this particular one or are merely referenced in passing). The novels are thick with characters, most of whom recur from volume to volume in greater or lesser roles as their lives continue to intersect. Part of the fascination of the work is the manner in which it creates a wholly credible milieu, a world full of people each of whom seems to have their own life and their own reality, it is I think an accomplishment which is only possible in large part due to the very size of the work and the space that grants.
Much of the comment I have seen online on the work treats it essentially as a sort of superior soap opera, and certainly it can be read in that way. One can (and people often seem to) marvel at how appalling Quiggin and Widmerpool are (though I’m not at all persuaded they are presented as mere objects of ridicule, rather they are simply people of a type who exist in the world and who tend not to be popular) or see how early promise is fulfilled or all too often unfulfilled. Equally, it can be read as a cleverly observed comedy in which the foibles of the characters are exposed and in which we see ordinary vanities and ambitions held up and gently satirised. This is though very much a multi-layered work, and while it can be enjoyed simply as soap opera or comic novel, it also is a work with some very serious themes which are explored at length and in depth.
Different readers will draw different themes, this is a subtle work with much in it, but of the many themes so far emerging the key one for me at this point is that of the ultimate unknowability of other people. Nick encounters some characters as a schoolboy, and forms judgements of them. Later he meets them in other contexts, socially, in business, as lovers. As the contexts change, so too do his assessments of these characters, but it is unclear if they have actually changed or merely his perception of them. A character at school may seem one way, when met with his friends may seem another, when met in his role as a businessman another way again. The character of any given individual varies by the context they are in, and we do not know if they are changing as they grow older, or are merely seen in more lights.
This is key to the work in my view, arguably none of the characters change much at all, I think it is saying that arguably nobody ever really does. Rather, people are exposed as they grow older to more contexts, so more sides of them emerge and so we see them in different ways. People do not change, our perceptions of those people do.
Alternatively, perhaps they do change, since we never really know anyone to begin with how would we know? Characters often do things which appear to Nick out of character, yet the skill of the work is such that our credulity is not strained. Rather, people act out of character in the way people in real life often do act out of what we perceive as their character. Have they changed, or did we not properly understand them to begin with? Do we understand anyone, even ourselves?
Other themes emerge, tolerance is among them, the work is very sympathetic to gays and indeeed to outsiders of many stripes (though not unfortunately to other races, the second volume contains some fairly unpleasant racial descriptions). There is generally a compassion for those who do not quite fit, for whatever reason. The vagaries of success and failure, we cannot reliably predict (or I cannot anyway, but then I could never guess the end of Christie novels so I may just be poor at prediction) how characters will fare as time passes. The decline of the aristocracy, and of the world of which they were part. There is room for examination of the impact of fashion on art, of the seeming randomness of love and passion, on how solitary people can over time become increasingly distant to ordinary social concerns.
Coincidence plays a large part in the novel, characters often meet by chance (though years can pass one novel to the next, we are in each novel witnessing specifically those occasions when chance has brought people together) and lives often parallel each other in ways that seem somehow meaningful. Synchronicity and pattern are also among the themes, the ways in which lives can seem to have some greater order than mere happenstance, this is arguably the theme most alien to contemporary viewpoints since although there is no particular evidence of god in the novels there does seem to be a pattern to events which is acausal yet meaningful. Jung is expressly referred to on occasion, and were I more familiar with Jung’s work I suspect there is a lot of additional material I would draw from the novels that currently passes me by. Then again, this may be simply another example of how perception creates meaning, we see patterns when all that may be happening is a mix of the random and the explicable though not explained (the characters are all in the same milieu, it is not that odd that some of their lives reflect each other or that they run into each other on occasion, even if it may sometimes seem odd to them).
Equally, perception shapes reality. Widmerpool for example lives by the will (as it is expressed in the novel), he shapes the world about him in large part by how he chooses (or is bound by his nature) to perceive it. Others too shape their own reality, though perhaps not as forcibly as Widmerpool manages. Sometimes this theme is made explicit, as in a conversation between Nick and General Conyers at the end of which Nick thinks to himself of them leaving the cocoon of fantasy they had built to return to reality, or perhaps instead leaving the reality they had built to return to the fantasy of the ordinary social world. By our perception of our lives, we shape our lives, and even if the facts do not always meet our perception still our internal narrative is real to us and as such from our perspective is the only reality we know. Different characters are involved at times in the same events, but they do not appear to perceive them in the same way, and so in some senses do not experience the same events at all. Again, we are in the world of perception, and of how our perceptions and changes to them shape how we think about the world and about each other.
Despite all these fairly complex themes, the unknowability of others, how our perceptions shape our realities, coincidence and meaning, art, tolerance, love, many others which I haven’t spoken to, the novels are actually very accessible. These are easy reads, funny and entertaining. For a work of such remarkable ambition it is remarkably easy to get involved with (although I tend to try to read two or three other books between each volume, so as not to overwhelm myself with 3,000 pages in one go – given they were written over a 24 year period I don’t think one need read them in one continuous approach).
This is a complex and rewarding stuff, written lightly so that the complexity is easily assimilated. I genuinely think this a great work of English literature (although I say that having only read a third of it as yet), I have barely touched on its depth here and indeed at least one entire book has been written on the characters and themes of Dance. Many of the characters contain, in their own right, examinations of specific issues and themes and the breadth of the work is such that little short of another book could do it justice. In the end, however, the work is sufficiently readable that it needs little by way of explanatory analysis, one can simply read it and see for oneself.
The link immediately below is to the book I just read, which of course is volume 4. The second link is to volume 1, I strongly recommend reading the novels in their intended sequence.