Love means such different things to different people

The Kindly Ones is the sixth volume of Anthony Powell’s twelve volume epic, A Dance to the Music of Time. I have been working slowly through the whole sequence for the past few months, but recently had fallen out of the habit, so that as time passed the prospect of picking up the next volume became increasingly intimidating.

Which was my loss, because when I forced myself to pick up volume six, I remembered within a page quite how good a writer Powell is, quite how refreshing it is to dip into one of his books, and quite how much I enjoy this series. Twelve volumes makes for an intimidating target, that’s true, but so far each volume has been a genuine pleasure to read and there is a lightness to Powell’s prose which makes him slip down very easily indeed.

As with other works in the series, The Kindly Ones is formed of a handful of incidents in the life of the narrator, Nick Jenkins, each described in some detail. We open with his recollection of some scenes from childhood, just before the onset of the First World War. We then move back to his present, to 1938 and 1939 and a Britain again faced with the threat of war. This threat is one that in 1938 some still some dismiss as too unlikely to bear out, but which by 1939 has become an unavoidable certainty. In 1938 we accompany Nick on a trip to the country, culminating in a dinner party at the home of a wealthy industrialist and slightly drunken after-dinner party games. In 1939 Nick stays in a bed and breakfast run by an old family servant, arranging the affairs of a dead relative who had gone to stay there. Finally we have Nick’s efforts to use personal connections to get himself appointed as an infantry officer before the fighting starts – despite him having left it a little late and being just a touch too old.

Ordinary life then, ordinary life of the times in which the book is set at any rate. Part of the brilliance of the Dance sequence is how we explore the characters through their quotidian existences, dinner parties, dances, nights with friends, but through all this mundanity we also explore themes which are complex and subtle. Here the characters’ lives are overshadowed by the prospect of war, and by the Kindly Ones, the furies of Greek myth, the Eumenides:

I recalled Mrs Orchard’s account of the Furies. They inflicted the vengeance of the gods by bringing in their train war, pestilence, dissension on earth; torturing, too, by the stings of conscience. that last characteristic alone, I could plainly see, made them sufficiently unwelcome guests.

The Kindly Ones also follows the pattern of previous novels by introducing new characters and themes, while continuing to develop existing ones. If anything, Dance increasingly reminds me of a symphony, as we reach the middle parts more instruments join, more motifs emerge, but certain underlying refrains repeat and grant a consistency to the whole.

Here, recurring themes include the way some live by the will, forcing their perceptions and views upon those around them and by sheer obstinacy of vision controlling their own reality; the way human natures are essentially fixed; and the way people may change in their superficialities and circumstances, our perception of them may shift with greater knowledge or changes to our own situation, but the essence of the person remains the same throughout. Above all, the key theme remains the impossibility of knowing another human being or of understanding the inner truth of another couple’s relationship

One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.

The Kindly Ones also sees Powell return to the interest in spiritualism present in certain parts of British society during the inter-war years, introducing the somewhat comic figure of Dr. Trelawney, a spiritual guru leading a commune near Nick’s childhood home and who Nick encounters again when he is grown and the Dr. an old man.

As ever, Powell shows a sly wit, his descriptions of individuals frequently managing to bring them fully to life while being at the same time very funny. Here he describes Nick’s father, a man of constant irritability who forever finds the world ever so slightly not quite up to scratch:

My father really hated clarity. This was a habit of mind that sometimes led him into trouble with others, when, unable to apprehend his delight in complicated metaphor and ironic allusion, they had not the faintest idea what he was talking about.

And here Nick and his old friend Moreland discuss Trelawney, and the place of men like him in the world of 1938:

‘What will happen to people like him as the world plods on to standardisation? Will they cease to be born, or find jobs in other professions? I suppose there will always be a position for a man with first-class magical qualifications.’

The Kindly Ones themselves act as a running theme in this volume, both in the coming of war (in 1914 and again in 1939) and in the pricking of consciences. When Nick stays at the bed and breakfast, he encounters a man whose wife he once slept with, and ends up having to spend the evening drinking with him and hearing accounts of the marriage and the wife very different to those he once heard from her. Other marriages are no more successful, with resentment, infidelity and mismatched couples all making an appearance.

Not every aspect of this volume works, a comic episode in 1914 involving cars of the day ends with Uncle Giles stating his dislike of them, and how some Austrian archduke down in Bosnia just had a terrible mishap in one, getting himself shot. The conversation doesn’t wholly persuade, and is for me a rare example with Powell of his themes intruding a little too obviously into the characters’ reality. Equally, Powell continues to be far better at portraying the middle and upper classes, than he is the working.

Other elements, however, show Powell’s characteristic sureness of touch. Recently, I was discussing with Rob of The Fiction Desk how with long running crime series it can be a problem for an author to juggle the needs of writing an interesting novel with the desire of the fans to see what is happening to each of the characters established in earlier works. Rob pointed out that this is simply one of the challenges writers must face. At the time, I thought him a touch harsh, but reading this volume I see that in fact he was completely correct. When Moreland, Nick’s old friend, is reintroduced into the narrative I found myself for a moment struggling to remember exactly who he was among Dance’s vast and diverse cast. However, within a page he had, quite naturally in conversation, referred to the possiblity of himself writing a symphony – he came flooding back to me – Moreland, the composer, of course.

It was cleverly done, and it was noticeable given I had left a longer gap between volumes this time than usual quite how good Powell is at making sure you remember who people are. In a series of this breadth, this ambition to portray a whole society, it’s an essential talent and one Powell repeatedly displays to tremendous effect.

I don’t wish here to discuss plot, I rarely do on this blog, therefore there is a limit to how much more I wish to say at all. Powell is a writer of huge talent, Dance is a series with immense scope, in which characters come and go, living wholly convincing lives yet at the same time embodying themes of social change, aristocratic decline, disparate approaches to life, the crafting by people of their personal narratives and the illusions they live by and much more. I have touched on only a handful of the matters and characters contained in this (just 254 page) volume and the characters who recur within it and continue living their own lives in various proximities to Nick’s. Nick’s world is a breathing one, convincing in its internal connections and its sense that even the more minor characters remain consistent to themselves (sometimes by their still showing the same inconsistencies…).

The Kindly Ones includes then friendship, love, infidelity, guilt, fortune and misfortune. It contains a great deal of comedy, from curious individuals, unlikely (to Nick, anyway) developments and chance discoveries, but it also contains a fair helping of pain and loss and emotional bewilderment. As Moreland states:

One of the worst things about life is not how nasty the nasty people are. You know that already. It is how nasty the nice people can be.

The Kindly Ones


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

30 responses to “Love means such different things to different people

  1. As an addendum, I typed out a quote for inclusion in this blog entry, but there was no good place for it where it wouldn’t have damaged what I was trying to say. Since I lack the strength of character as yet to simply delete it, I include it below. It is a description of Sir Magnus Donners, industrialist and politician:

    “When he spoke, it was as if he had forced himself by sheer effort of will into manufacturing a few stereotyped sentences to tide over the trackless wilderness of social life. Such colourless phrases as he achieved were produced with a difficulty, a hesitancy, simulated perhaps, but decidedly effective in their unconcealed ineptness. While he uttered these verbal formalities, the side of his mouth twitched slightly. Like most successful men, he had turned this apparent disadvantage into a powerful weapon of offence and defence, in the way that the sledge-hammer impact of his comment left, by its banality, every other speaker at a standstill, giving him as a rule complete mastery of the conversational field. A vast capacity for imposing boredom, a sense of immensely powerful stuffiness, emanated from him, sapping every drop of vitality from weaker spirits.”

  2. Darling Max! Wait until you move into the next three books in The Dance; that’s where the heart and soul dwell in the series. That massive shift in the paradigm of life “before” and the suddenness with which life is taken away. I’ve got goosebumps just recalling it.



  3. It does feel now like it’s building up to something, it’s actually quite an exciting read in some ways, as you know of course.

    Did you put your review of the whole series up on your blog? I’d quite like to link through to it, it was a good overview.

  4. Thanks Irene, it’s well worth linking to.

  5. You know, Max, I don’t think I ever would have considered reading this massive of a work, but you’re starting to convince me it’s worth it.

    On another note, when I first glanced at your review I thought you were entering into the critical discussion of Littel’s book. I’m glad to see it was this, however!

  6. I’m glad you are finding this project worthwhile, Max — reading Dance was one of the more rewarding things I have done in the last few years.

    I think your symphony metaphor is very appropriate, particularly given that the 12 volumes separate into four parts. Now that you are through the Summer set/movement, Powell has introduced all his instruments and major themes, but hasn’t really explored theme. As Irene’s comment indicates, the Fall threesome (just like movement three of a symphony) is probably the most complex, Winter most contemplative. It is not a spoiler to say that you have now invested the time to do the hard work — you are ready to reap the rewards.

    Trevor: Reading Dance is not nearly as massive a project as it seems, once you have started. It does break into four parts — each of which is about as long as a longish novel (the individual books are all around the 250 page number in most editions I’ve seen). Taking some time to read it, as Max is, works very well because in the early books (say the first six) — you probably want to pick up the pace in books seven through nine, maybe slow things down in volumes ten to 12 (see what I mean about the symphony metaphor being good?). I bought the Folio Society set (four hardcover illustrated volumes) which added a wonderful physical aspect to the reading.

    And finally the BBC did a very good television adaptation of Dance which is available on DVD. It doesn’t spoil the books at all and if you don’t mind directors supplying images and settings for you it supplies some wonderful settings — we had a great time watching it.

  7. Trevor,

    It’s definitely worth trying, twelve volumes seems intimidating, but you don’t need to read it all at once and I’ve found it hugely rewarding, not at all a chore. It’s also remarkably well written.

    Littel’s The Kindly Ones doesn’t interest me much to be honest, a study of a Nazi might have I suppose, but making him sexually perverse to me seems lazy and obvious plus at the end of the day I have a limited appetite for wallowing in evil. I could of course be persuaded to the contrary, but nothing I’ve read about it yet has really tempted me on that one.

    Kevin, thanks for the comments, I will try to pick the pace up again for the last three I think, particularly now I’ve been reminded how good it is.

    Besides, I want to finish this in 2009, so I can read Proust in 2010…

  8. I might join you on Proust. I’ve had them for a while, but they still laugh at me when I look at them.

  9. When I bought the Proust set I have, I read a little in the shop, and it was extremely funny – much more so than I had expected.

    That sold me, I’m really looking forward to it now, if you have a go too it would certainly be good to compare thoughts, and hopefully to inspire each other a bit to keep going.

  10. I am definitely up for a Proust reread and would happily join a consortium. We do have to sort out translations — mine is the Modern Library version with Enright’s revision of Kilmartin’s revision of Moncrieff’s translation. Someone should probably read the new Penguin translation, see the attached for two fascinating discussions from the NYRB about translations:

    It is six very long volumes, but I am certainly up to a reread and having partners would make it an easier task. I will say from my most recent experience that reading only Swann’s Way is not enough — you have to read all six volumes.

    So let me know what the two of you think. I would suggest completing Dance might make sense before starting Proust.

    As for Powell, Max, I do think you are heading into the best part. Irene does indicate what books six through nine are good; I thought the series really took off with the last three books.

  11. I have the same translation as you Kevin, I didn’t fancy the Penguin as much, as I seem to recall they had different translators for different volumes, which could lead to a consistency issue.

    I definitely intend to read all six, though not in a row I suspect. I also definitely intend to finish Dance first, otherwise I’d just be taking on too much, so for me it’s a project for later this year or early next, but I’d definitely be keen and if either of you chaps starts before me I’ll read your comments with interest.

    Right, I’m off to read those articles you kindly linked to Kevin. I fixed the italics problem by the way that was in your post, so deleted the follow-up post where you flagged the bug. Hope that’s ok.

  12. Thanks for sorting out my texting problem. I won’t be starting Proust until you are ready, but I do like the idea. Good luck with the rest of Dance — I do think it is a badly underated piece of work.

  13. Rob

    Hi Max,

    Thanks for the mention, and apologies for taking so long to enter the conversation. I’m a bit under the weather at the moment (nothing serious).

    What a terrific review—and subsequent comments—for The Kindly Ones. It’s high time I went back to the Dance. I really enjoyed the first book, but you know how it is. Reading the first volume was something of a flag-planting. I enjoyed it very much, and then completely forgot about it until you mentioned it to me last week.

    I was wondering about the TV series, actually, as a substitute until I get time for reading the books. But does it measure up to, say, The Jewel in the Crown or Brideshead Revisited?

  14. Hi Rob,

    Dance is excellent, well worth going back to, though I’d consider rereading the first if you do so as to replant it all in your mind.

    I’ve not seen the tv series, the usual fear of the casting decisions overshadowing my own perception of characters if I watch it before reading the whole thing, but I’ve heard that it was quite exceptional.

    Oddly, I’ve not seen The Jewel in the Crown or Brideshead Revisited either, though I’ve certainly read the latter. Clearly I’m a bit behind on the classic tv drama front. Dance though, on tv, was fairly landmark I think and my impression was that fans of the books thought the series did a good job – which would be no small achievement if true.

  15. Rob

    I was thinking just that, actually – to reread the first.

    If you’ve already read Brideshead, you might well want to try the series (it was on sale a while ago for around a tenner). Strangely, I think of the Brideshead series as being the primary medium for the story, which is very unusual for me.

    Then again, I did first read the book on a crowded aeroplane while a sticky, bescabbed toddler who was no kin of mine alternately poked me, kicked me, and tried to snatch the book out of my hands while her mother stared out of the window with a fixed expression. And I first watched the series on a large, comfortable sofa, accompanied by some nice half-bottles from the Wine Society.

    Actually, I think people are pretty polarised by the series, and it all depends on how you feel about the idea of Jeremy Irons talking wistfully for thirteen hours.

    Well, if I can’t get around to reading the Dance, maybe I will watch it instead. If so, Ill let you know how it goes…

  16. Since I have read all three series and own DVD’s of each, my opinion is:

    1. Bridie: Truly wonderful tv (unless you don’t like Jeremy Irons) that actually goes in a direction that the book does not. One of the few attempts ever where I like both — the book is more compact than the tv series, but packs more impact for just that reason.
    2. Jewel in the Crown: The tv series has the advantage of wonderful scenery but the plot is perhaps a little too complex. Again, I like both but prefer the books to the television in the final analysis.
    3. A Dance to the Music of Time: A very interesting comparison between the two. The books get stronger as they progress — the first six literally set the stage, the next three produce the “action”, the last three contemplate the results. In some ways, the tv series goes in the other direction — the first half is very, very good but as the book plot gets more complex, the screen finds it harder to keep up. The last three episodes, where for me the books were strongest, don’t make for the best of television — I think the books were just too subtle in what they were exploring. In no way is that a criticism of the tv series — the literature just became too complex.

    And, to explain my own biases, I read Brideshead as a youth and some years later saw and loved the television — then went back to the book and was surprised at how good the book was. I saw Jewel before I read it and am not sure which I prefer. Read Dance before I saw the television show — they are even for the first three quarters, the books win on the basis of the last quarter.

    All three to me represent very good examples that Brits know how to turn excellent literature into equally excellent television in a way that Americans have yet to figure out.

  17. Rob

    That’s great, Kevin! I feel like I should print that analysis out and pin it to the bookshelf where I keep my DVDs… And you’re right about the scenery in the Jewel in the Crown. It’s pretty mesmerising.

  18. Indeed, I’ve just added the Brideshead Revisited series to my Amazon basket (I tend to get dvds from them). Thanks for the analysis Kevin.

  19. Rob

    I guess we know how you come down on the question of Jeremy Irons, then, Max!

  20. Having opened the DVD discusssion……

    My favorite television of all time is Foyle’s War, created by Horowitz for the screen and not derived from a book. I think my wife and I have now watched all five years at least four times, so we were obviously impressed. I raise the point here, because I think it is the only television that I would like to see back-adapted (or whatever the right word is) into a book. As much as I loved both The Sopranos and The Wire, I can’t say that about either of them.

  21. I’d wondered about Foyle’s War, I had heard it was good.

    The Wire is taken from a book Kevin, it’s based on the non-fiction work The Corner, which I hope to read and blog about later this year.

  22. Rob

    Isn’t that his other series, The Corner? (Never seen that one – don’t think it came across the pond.) Nothing to say the book couldn’t have inspired both, of course. I think John Self read some of his work a while back. Maybe answers can be found in The Asylum…

    I’ve always wondered whether to check out Foyle’s War. I always think of Michael Kitchen as being thoroughly evil to Clive Owen in Chancer… or as a pseudo-Prince Charles in To Play the King

  23. Rob

    Oh, and no discussion of literary TV can be complete with a mention of I, Claudius. That’s up there with the best, although it’s theatricality can take an episode or two to get used to. I’m a big fan, but both the Italians I tried showing it to took mysterious objection to the portrayal of Augustus as a tubby Welshman, and all but banned it from their respective houses.

  24. Rob

    Sorry – Yorkshireman. As you were.

  25. It is Rob, but I think the one book inspired both programs (though I could be wrong).

    I, Claudius is some of the best television I have seen, tremendous stuff, I hugely recommend it. I’ve never been a huge Brian Blessed fan, but I actually thought him very good as Augustus.

    While we’re recommending retro British tv series, I consider The Sandbaggers possibly the best spy drama ever to hit television in any country, possibly even better than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which is high praise indeed.

  26. Rob

    You’re right about Augustus – it’s a wonderful performance. Apparently they told him to just be homely and not show his power at all, but let that be reflected in the way people behaved around him. The result is utterly chilling at times. But then you know that 🙂

    Strangely enough, I couldn’t get into TInker, Tailor, despite fully intending to. I just never got dragged in.

  27. Quite right Max — Simon used his experience as in inspiration for both series, although I would say The Wire headed off into new territory (and attracted some excellent screenwriters as well). I haven’t been motivated to check out the book but look forward to your thoughts on it.

  28. Yes, I think you should right one big review for the whole of The Dance.

    You’ll be able to revise the sentence: ‘When Nick stays at the bed and breakfast, he encounters a man whose wife he once slept with, and ends up having to spend the evening…’

    [Edit: I’ve deleted a sentence of Nick’s post here. Apologies Nick. Max.]

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. And what this comment says about me I’m not sure – perhaps I should get out more!

  29. I missed this comment of Nick’s. The reason for the sentence he complains of is my desire to avoid revealing characters’ futures through my reviews. I’m afraid I edited your comment Nick slightly so as to take out the relevant character’s name. Probably not necessary, but leaving that out was the logic behind the clumsy phrasing of the sentence you quote.

    One of the biggest challenges I had writing up Dance was avoiding spoilers for the sequence. It gets harder and harder as the volumes go on, too…

    It’s worth avoiding them though, as one of the pleasures of Dance is discovering how the different lives intertwine and change. Anyway, I don’t normally ever edit comments and I thought I should explain why I had here. Apologies for having done so.

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