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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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Deaths crayfishing are comparatively rare

Hearing Secret Harmonies, by Anthony Powell

Hearing Secret Harmonies is the twelfth, and final, volume of Anthony Powell’s 3,000 page epic sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s taken me over a year and a half to read through them (with breaks for other books, obviously), and on finishing it last night I found myself looking at the opening pages of the first novel again – tempted to restart and hugely impressed at how it all came together in a thematic whole.

Thankfully, the journey is worthwhile. I’ll be buying more Powell, and while I may give it a few years before rereading this series I hope I do reread it. I’ll put up a separate post in a few days summarising my thoughts on the entire sequence, this post however is largely just about Hearing Secret Harmonies itself.

The problem I always have writing about the Powell’s is that I’m conscious anyone reading this may not have read the books yet, and I don’t want to spoil them. That means the further in I get, the harder it gets to say anything at all, for fear of revealing characters’ story arcs or unexpected developments.

So, this is going to be in some senses a very partial writeup. I don’t want to reveal more than the back of the book would, so I won’t be talking too much about character outcomes or anything of that nature, nor can I discuss in any detail the power of the final five pages – though I will say that the sequence as a whole has a remarkable thematic consistency which means that the work as a whole is greater than the sum of its (generally excellent) parts.

As Harmonies opens, Nick and Isobel are living in the country. It is the 1960s, Nick is largely retired and he and Isobel are letting their niece Fiona and some of her companions stay in a caravan on their land. Those companions include the redoubtable Scorpio Murtlock, a young cult leader who keeps strict control over Fiona and his other followers and who speaks of harmony in a way reminiscent of the now long dead Dr Trelawney (whose spirit, albeit unmanifested, hovers over much of this volume).

Nick, as ever, is tolerant of the foibles of others. It takes more than what are to him near-children in blue robes with curious religious practices to surprise him. Scorpio, however, catches his interest and it is clear that he is another example of a man who lives by the will, a man who imposes his personal myth (a phrase used more than once here) on others and shapes reality around him by sheer intent.

Other new characters are introduced, Barnabas who is a member of Scorpio’s cult, Fiona herself now she is an adult, and as ever many characters recur – Quiggin and Ada Leintwardine, Gwinnet, Dr Emily Brightman, even Bithel, but it is noticeable that by now most of the characters from the earlier books are gone, dead.

The dead, however, are not always quiet. Although the book contains no literal ghosts, the arrival of new generations means that some of the deceased are reevaluated, given new posthumous life. The novelist St. John Clarke and artist Deacon are critically reappraised, Dr Trelawney’s occult philosophy gains a currency it never seemed to achieve in his life. Characters leave the stage, but sometimes some part of them lingers on regardless.

In any case it was impossible to disregard the fact that, while a dismantling process steadily curtails members of the cast, items of the scenery, airs played by the orchestra, in the performance that has included one’s own walk-on part for more than a few decades, simultaneous derequisitionings are also to be observed. Mummers return, who might have been supposed to have made their final exit, even if – like Dr Trelawney and Mrs Erdleigh – somewhat in the rôle of Hamlet’s father. The touching up of time-expired sets, reshaping of derelict props, updating of old refrains, are none of them uncommon.

That quote illustrates the key themes of the series, apparently described by Powell’s friend Hilary Spurling as being old age, madness and death, but for me also including the bizarre mix of the random and the strangely fitting that so much of life consists of. It also illustrates a weakness of this final volume, the language isn’t always as tight as earlier novels in the sequence (“simultaneous derequisitionings are also to be observed” is not for me a great line). That said, while generally I have a great regard for Powell’s prose, it’s ultimately the humanity and life of his creation that one reads for – the style is a bonus, not the point.

Classical motifs continue to permeate Hearing Secret Harmonies, as they have in other volumes. Here Orlando Furioso and his quest with Astolpho to the moon (where they find all the lost things of Earth) is key. Orlando was a hero who lost his wits, at least for a while, unable to reconcile his personal myth with his reality. Widmerpool too now struggles with that conflict, he has become a university chancellor but appears increasingly confused and adrift as he enters his final years.

Widmerpool is still, of course, at the heart of the story. There’s a good argument to be made that Widmerpool is Dance’s real protagonist, Nick certainly isn’t – he’s simply an observer. Widmerpool, first met as a schoolboy running through the mist, has by sheer determination risen to become an MP and eventually to join the House of Lords, but like Nick his days of temporary kingship are now behind him and his crown has passed to younger men.

Most of Nick’s generation have accepted the passing of their moment of glory (such as it was) with reasonably good grace, now spending their days instead worrying about children or sitting on the occasional literary committee. Widmerpool, as ever, is different and as obsolescence faces him he surrounds himself with students from his university and increasingly takes the side of the radical youth movements the ’60s are giving birth to. They tolerate him, but he cannot be one of them, he is quite simply too old. He is at best useful, and Widmerpool’s confused attempts to remain relevant, to continue to hold power now his day is past, are pathetic – something never previously true of Widmerpool who has often been repugnant but rarely pitiable.

Old age, madness and death. Not quite the stuff bestsellers are made of. There’s humour too though, dry comments like the one I titled this post with, or an observation that the firmest foundation of the “publishing profession” (now we call it the publishing industry of course) is that you can’t libel the dead, but it’s fair to say this isn’t the cheeriest volume. Nick’s world is dying around him, at one point he attends a gallery opening and is met with frank disbelief when he speaks of having known the artist, that world now so distant to the gallery owner that to him it’s an epoch as distant as the middle ages. Nick’s own life is passing into history before his eyes.

Powell offers too some parting thoughts on the form of the novel itself, via remembered comments of Trapnel’s. Trapnel held that the novel is superior to biography as a vehicle for truth, that it’s more serious. “What is effective is art, not what is “true””. Perhaps that’s a counter to another criticism I might make of the whole series, the extraordinary levels of coincidence that run through it. Characters bump into each other through levels of chance which are vanishingly unlikely, lives intertwine serendipitously in a way real lives rarely manage. But then, this is art, it isn’t “true” – it’s more serious than that.

Harmonies is ultimately a bleak book, most of Dance’s characters after all are dead before it opens, a few more die during this volume and of those who remain at the end it’s plain that their days are increasingly numbered. So it goes for all of us of course, and while it’s true that the themes include madness, old age and death that’s definitely not the whole story (to be fair, I’ve not yet read Spurling’s book on Dance, her views are likely more complex than four words can fairly summarise). For me, another theme is that life continues, we’re part of it but only briefly, and our own part is likely not that different to the parts others had before us. Dance constantly references the classics, and the truth is were they to somehow see it, transported back in time, the Greeks and Romans would recognise its themes and characters without difficulty.

Humanity never really changes. Every day, we hear news of important events, earthquakes, wars, murders and massacres. We hear too more personal news, of weddings, lawsuits, arguments between friends. Some prosper, some deservedly and some not, while others fail to achieve their promise. Works of art are created, others are lost, some are forgotten, some (like St. John Clarke’s novels) recovered from among the lost things. There’s a vast hubbub even to the quietest life, a sheer volume of incident that makes our own time seem special, the attraction of apocalypses I think is that they make our own days all the more important – if the world continues after us after all how important were we?

For me, all this is core to Dance. We are all of us at a dance to the music of time, the dancers and the music may change but the dance ultimately doesn’t. Nick, Widmerpool, Quiggin, Gwinnet et al come to their winters just as we shall (if we make it that far), but others have already taken their places. Whether that’s cheering, or profoundly depressing, I’m not sure. But either way, it is.

It seemed to start so well, and end so badly. Perhaps that’s how well constructed stories ought to terminate.

Perhaps. Dance doesn’t end badly, it’s a fitting end to an extraordinary sequence, for me the whole thing is a huge achievement in English literature. But for all its comic brilliance, it’s perhaps more a tragedy than a comedy. And for all the men of the will dominate it, I don’t think it makes being one of them a particularly attractive prospect. The Greeks would recognise that, too.

A Dance to the Music of Time

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Being the temporary king is what matters

Temporary Kings, by Anthony Powell

Temporary Kings is book eleven of A Dance to the Music of Time, it’s exceptional. It’s now the 1950s, Nick and his friends are at the peak of their careers, the new establishment, they’ve made their money and reputations (to the extent they’ll ever make either) and they’re enjoying both, but in the knowledge that neither will last.

The title is a reference to the practice in the ancient world (according to some sources, anyway), of appointing kings for a brief period, at the end of which they would be executed. Nick and his friends are temporary kings, rulers of the world, but not for long.

The novel takes place largely in Venice, I didn’t know that when I started it and if I had I might have left it a bit longer, having just finished two books about the place. As it was though, it worked quite well, and the fading grandeur of the city works as an unobtrusive metaphor for the characters themselves – glittering but perhaps no longer at their prime. Many earlier characters recur, Mark Members for example – the “coming man” of Nick’s university days, as well as new ones such as the entertaining academic Dr. Emily Brightman. At its centre though is Pamela, who continues to behave with an utter disregard for propriety and convention, often acting from sheer malicious impulse. Pamela is a spiritual sister to Patrick Hamilton’s Netta, a monster of sorts, though she is far from the only one.

The difficulty with writing about this volume is avoiding spoilers for earlier ones, a remark about what somebody is doing or who is married to whom could give away a major development in an earlier book. I’m going to avoid then talking too much about the plot, save to say that as with each previous volume it focuses on a number of episodes in Nick’s life (a conference in Venice, a visit to a palazzo with a Tiepolo ceiling of unusual symbolic significance to the characters, a visit to an artist’s studio, a visit to Bashaw’s new home, a charity concert) and that as ever it’s not really what happens that’s important as what it tells us about the people it happens to.

Powell is still very funny, dryly so, and yet what seems a joke on first encounter often turns out to foreshadow darker developments later. This quote comes from page two:

To exhibit themselves, perform before a crowd, is the keenest pleasure many people know, yet self-presentation without a basis in art is liable to crumble into dust and ashes.

It works because it’s true, and when first encountered it’s just a throwaway line. As the novel continues though, it becomes obvious just how true it is (particularly for some of the characters) and it ceases then to be funny at all.

The experience of aging runs through this novel. Nick meets Polly Duport, daughter of his former lover Jean Duport. Polly is now a successful actress, her own career blossoming. It’s clear that Nick and his generation are being replaced. Earlier in the novel, while wandering Venice, Nick reflects on the Futurists and it’s hard not to see their hopes and fate as that of almost every generation:

At the beginning of the century, Marinetti and the Futurists had wanted to make a fresh start – whatever that might mean – advocating, among other projects, filling up the Venetian canals with the rubble of the Venetian palaces. Now, the Futurists, with their sentimentality about the future, primitive machinery, vintage motor-cars, seemed as antiquely picturesque as the Doge in the Bucentaur, wedding his bride the Sea, almost as distant in time; though true a desire to destroy, a hatred and fear of the past, remained a constant in human behaviour.

Vintage cars are a key running element in this volume, a metaphor for the passage of life, for the major characters themselves who are now antique and yet are still valuable, though not perhaps running for much longer. Like the Futurists, they too once wanted to make a fresh start, as every generation does, now they too increasingly are antiquely picturesque. Interestingly, Debray in Against Venice made much the same point of the Futurists, but then their fate is peculiarly ironic (and perhaps fitting given some of their more unpleasant views).

The characters in Books do Furnish a Room mostly continue here, Ada Leintwardine (who “arrogated to herself all the world’s gossip, sources other than her own a presumption”) is increasingly a figure of note, Baghaw is now successfully working on television, X Trapnel is the subject of a biography and so continues to be a sort of presence. As well, some much older characters return. Mrs Erdleigh for example, that seemingly ageless mystic and fortune-teller. She discusses the now deceased Dr Trelawney with Nick, referring to his passing not as something so vulgar as death but rather as when the soul “hearing secret harmonies” ascends. As the series draws to its close, more of the characters are starting to hear those secret harmonies, and given the title of the next and final volume it’s likely that more of them will yet. The reign of a temporary king is brief.

Generally, this is a volume which draws together the themes of the whole cycle. The importance of personal mythology recurs. I mentioned that Bagshaw is now a success, with that he has settled down and now has a wife, family and house of his own:

There was no reason why Bagshaw should not possess a house, nor in general be taken less seriously than other people. No doubt, for his own purposes, he had done a good deal to encourage a view of himself as a grotesque figure, moving through a world of farce. Come to rest in relatively prosperous circumstances, he had now modified the rôle for which he had formerly typecast himself. Dynamic styles of life required one ‘image’; static, another.

Like Trapnel, like so many others, Bagshaw creates a role for himself. He performs before a crowd, as we all do, and the performance changes with his circumstances. How he sees himself, what happens within his own thoughts, is unknown and unknowable.

And of course that’s another of the key themes, the impossibility of really knowing other people. We make friends, enemies, lovers, but at the end of the day our own motivations often escape us. The motivations of others, the secrets of their lives, really we have no idea. Dance doesn’t show characters changing so much as it shows their circumstances changing and with those new circumstances new aspects of them coming to the fore. Who we are depends on where and when we are, and who we are may anyway be nothing more than a fiction we present.

The most unknowable thing of all is other people’s relationships, the truths inside them. We can guess, we can swap gossip, but ultimately whatever happens within a relationship is known only to those inside it. By its nature, others can never really understand its nuances. As Moreland says (here more specifically about sex):

‘All other people’s sexual relations are hard to imagine. The more staid the people, the more inconceivable their sexual relations.’

Temporary Kings has a definite feel of the dance drawing to a close. The recurrence of older characters (I saw an online comment referring to them as making curtain calls, which is about right), the tying together of storylines and the reminders of long running character arcs and themes of the series, all of it is building towards the conclusion. Along the way, there’s a great deal of consideration of myth, antiquity, art and the creative process. This is a rich and complex novel (though still easy to follow), but it’s also very much the penultimate work of the series. It’s hardly original to compare Dance to a symphony, but I will anyway. Here the instruments are coming together in unity and purpose, earlier motifs (major and minor) are worked back in and the whole orchestra is coming together in a way that couldn’t have been foreseen and yet is absolutely right.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a masterpiece. This is a strong volume, hugely entertaining, filled with comedy and melancholy, and ultimately a fair degree of tragedy. Characters die, and with some of them it is only when they die we realise how much they mattered to Nick (as often, it’s only when people die in real life we realise how much they mattered to us).

Powell often references the classics (the first novel opens with a classical reference), and the plot of this novel turns on the classical scene depicted in a Tiepolo ceiling. It’s no coincidence that I find myself reaching for terms like comedy and tragedy, part after all of what Powell is saying is that the ancients may have died, but so will we, and in the end although the surroundings may change human experience really doesn’t all that much.

Temporary Kings

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All my sad captains

Books do Furnish a Room is volume ten of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The war is over, Britain is poor and London is filled with empty and ruined buildings. The main characters are now middle aged, and the new characters introduced are noticeably younger, creating an impression of time passing and one generation replacing another.

One of the more interesting elements with Dance is its mixture of comedy and sadness, Powell can write exceptionally funny scenes and yet in the same novel show crushed hopes, failed relationships, lost friends. Books is not an exception. There is a sense in it of the cost of the war, many characters I’d come to rather like are now dead and some of those who remain are not what they once were. Equally though there are new characters, and some of those are very good indeed. Best among them is the hugely entertaining X Trapnel, apparently closely based on Powell’s friend and fellow novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross (author of Of Love and Hunger, which I can’t recommend to highly, particularly if you like Patrick Hamilton at all). Trapnel is an up and coming young novelist, highly praised, popular with women but perpetually broke and borrowing money (except from fellow writers, unless absolutely necessary).

Books chiefly follows the fortunes of a new post-war literary magazine, Fission. Nick Jenkins comes to write for Fission, and so sees its editors, backers, reviewers and writers (among them X Trapnel). Nick himself is taking a break from novels and instead writing a biography and supplementing his income with reviews, but as ever Dance is not really Nick’s story, he is narrator but not protagonist. Many existing characters become part of Fission’s life, J.G. Quiggin who has finally abandoned trying to write his great novel, Widmerpool of course who is one of the backers, Gypsy Jones and Rosie Manasch, former intelligence officer Odo Stevens and others.

Fission is a left-leaning magazine, though quite how left-leaning is a source of internal dissension. Some behind the magazine are communists who wish to use the magazine to promote the party line, others are most soft-left and unwilling to have the magazine seen as a mere mouthpiece. The real problems it faces though are more about how to cover a bad book by a writer previously promoted by the magazine and how to keep rival critics apart at a party, to the backers the politics matters but to the writers and reviewers the literary credentials are all that is important.

Books speaks also though to the change of generations, there’s a real sense of a passing of the flame. Nick returns to Oxford (“the University”) as part of his researches for his biography, where he once more attends the salon of the aging yet ageless don, Sillery. Later in the novel Nick returns to his old school, looking to place his own son there, where he encounters the long retired Le Bas, pressed briefly and unhappily back into service. Sillery and Le Bas are among the few characters who were old at the start of the sequence who are still alive, Nick now is attending school and university as an adult with adult concerns, not as a student, but too as Nick’s generation matures and the generation behind his declines, the younger generation is pushing through in the form of X Trapnel and the increasingly vile Pamela Flitton (as was).

There are, as ever, some quite wonderful lines. This is the opening sentence of the novel:

Reverting to the university at forty, one immediately recaptured all the crushing melancholy of the undergraduate condition.

Books follows the pattern of other Dance novels in exploring a few scenes in depth: Sillery’s salon, a funeral, Fission’s launch party, trips to the pub, a visit to parliament and a trip to Widmerpool’s apartment, visits to X Trapnel’s apartment, Nick’s return to his school to place his own son there. Each incident is part of a chain of consequences, tracing Fission’s development and the intertwining lives of the various characters, particularly Widmerpool who continues to be the nearest Dance has to a protagonist and who here has risen to become an MP, and of course an up and coming one at that.

Books also spends a fair amount of time, through X Trapnel, discussing naturalism and the nature of the novel. Much of this is fascinating, and Trapnel’s comments are often quite blatantly applicable to Dance itself. I’ll go into that more shortly, for now though here’s one remark which I think has much to recommend it:

A novelist writes what he is. That’s equally true of mediaeval romances or journeys to the moon.

Powell’s portrait of the postwar London literary scene is wholly convincing, unsurprisingly so given that he was after all part of precisely that scene. Equally, there is a wry feel for parliament and the way in which politicians feel more comfortable dealing with each other (even their opponents) than they do the public, but above all this is the continuing theme of the series – the importance of crafting a personal mythology to live by, the refusal by some to live by mere reality, the ability of the individual to live by the will and so craft their own narrative within the world. Nick is an observer, not an actor, Widmerpool is oblivious to the reality of how others see him or the consequences of his a ctions and so shapes the world rather than being shaped by it. In a way, that makes Widmerpool a monster, but a morbidly fascinating one.

On the subject of Widmerpool, I thought this passage quite marvellous, Books was written nearly 40 years ago but politicians clearly haven’t changed much since then:

“… I fear pomposity is not one of my failings. I can’t put up with pompous people, and have often been in trouble on that very account.”
Roddy was determined not to be outdone in detestation of pomposity and superfluous formality. For a moment the two MPs were in sharp competition as to whose passion for directness and simplicity was the more hearfelt, at least could be the more forcibly expressed. At the end of this contest, Widmerpool carried his point.

Was there ever any doubt he would?

For me, the most enjoyable part of this novel was the character of X Trapnel, another man who lives by personal myth, Trapnel has a role for every occasion and lives according to his concept of who he should be. A man constantly in debt, he travels everywhere by taxi and is capable of borrowing money from a man only to then hail a cab to depart with or offer to buy his creditor a drink with the proceeds of the loan just advanced. Serious about his writing, crafting his life itself as a form of art, Trapnel is a wonderful creation (though, based on Maclaren-Ross as he apparently is there may not have been much creation at all).

Almost as good was the increased focus on Pamela Flitton, we learn more of her and her consistently appalling and wholly self-centred behaviour, the consequences of which are sometimes very funny (at the funeral and afterwards for instance) but more often needlessly vicious. We also see more of her devastating effect on men and it becomes increasingly apparent that there is something fundamentally wrong with her, that she is essentially a monster herself, damaged and damaging. A character that would fit quite happily into a Patrick Hamilton novel, Pamela too is a superb creation, attractive in part because of her intrinsic lack of any form of virtue. In my last Powell writeup, Kevin of Kevinfromcanada commented that Pamela is “without guile and morality”, an excellent point which helps capture her allure.

Near the end of the novel comes a three page discussion of the nature of Naturalism as a literary form, really a drunken monologue by X Trapnel while he seeks to avoid going home. I’ve no idea whether the views expressed are Powell’s, Maclaren-Ross’s or indeed just X Trapnel’s, but whoever’s they are I thought them interesting and persuasive, here are some excerpts from that section:

“People can’t get it right about Naturalism. They think if a writer like me writes the sorts of books I do, it’s because that’s easier, or necessary nowadays. You just look round at what’s happening and shove it all down. They can’t understand that’s not in the least the case. It’s just as selective, just as artificial, as if the characters were kings and queens speaking in blank verse.”

“There are certain forms of human behaviour no actor can really play, no matter how good he is. It’s the same in life. Human beings aren’t subtle enough to play their part. That’s where art comes in.”

“I’m in favour of Naturalism. I write that way myself. All I want to make clear is that it’s just a way of writing a novel like any other, just as contrived, just as selective.

I’m fond of Naturalism myself, however I absolutely agree that it’s as artificial as any other literary form, and these arguments hold good for Realism too. By way of example, Haruki Murakami has written both surrealist fiction and Naturalist fiction, but the artifice in both cases is the same. I think this is an important argument, Realism and Naturalism have become the default modes for literary fiction, indeed Michael Chabon described literary fiction as being the genre of “late-Century naturalism” (a view I don’t wholly agree with but think is at least worth considering). It’s important to recall that these forms are not necessarily superior or truer than the many alternatives that exist.

All that though makes Books sound like a dry read, it’s not at all. I can’t discuss the ending for fear of massively spoiling several developments, but it contains drama and pathos and a degree of simple cruelty that make it very powerful. There is a vicious irony to this novel, and a clash of wills between Gypsy Jones, X Trapnel, Odo Stevens, Pamela and Widmerpool (all of whom of course are among the characters who live by the will) that is terrible and tragic. This wasn’t my favourite of the sequence, though it was hardly helped by my going down with yet another Winter bug myself while reading it (though having a slight fever did make Arthur Scnitzler’s Dying ,which I just recently finished, a little more dramatic. Unfortunately I have it still as I write this), but it is a powerful novel that clearly marks the start of winter and the decline of what has gone before.

Books do Furnish a Room

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Few subjects are more fascinating than other people’s sexual habits from the outside

The Military Philosophers is the ninth volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Dance is broken into four seasons with three books in each, this then is the last book of Autumn.

In the first six volumes, Spring and Summer, Powell introduced a huge and complex cast, each skilfully brought to life. Part of Powell’s mastery is his ability to introduce and reintroduce characters, reminding the reader who they are without tedious exposition or the need for caricature. By the mid-point of the twelve volume whole he has populated a living London, a world filled with friends, family, lovers, rivals, acquaintances.

The Autumn novels cover the war years, and now that I’ve finished The Military Philosophers I can say that nothing else I have read has brought home for me the cost of those years. War novels typically show the horrors of the front, the casual death and sudden brutalities. Powell is not so obvious. He takes time to let us get to know people, as in real life we may not like all of them but we become accustomed to them. Then, as the war continues, many of them leave the dance never to return. As a rule they do not leave in dramatic fashion, Nick Jenkins (the narrator) is an intelligence officer in London and so when he hears of deaths he hears of them second hand, news of another exit. The effect for the reader is that as time goes on people simply stop being part of Nick’s (and our) world. They become an absence, an emptiness where once there was a person.

There is a huge power to this, some deaths may be dramatic in their own terms, but the effect in the novel is as in life – as one gets older from time to time one hears that a friend, family member, distant acquaintance even has died and one never sees them again. One hears that a great-uncle was hit by a car, a friend’s sister fell ill and didn’t recover, a multitude of fates all with the same end. In the war, that experience we all have (if we live long enough) is magnified many times over, and by the end of The Military Philosophers many of Dance’s characters, major and minor both, are simply gone.

The Military Philosophers opens in Spring 1942, and closes in 1945 with Nick Jenkins picking out his demob suit. As ever, the novel focuses on a handful of incidents over its period, a cabinet office meeting, time spent on liaison duties with allies, a night sheltering from an air raid, a tour with various military attachés of liberated France, the thanksgiving service for the end of the European war.

By this point, the possibility of severely damaging the work for others by discussing plot details is very high, part of the pleasure of Dance is how the courses of people’s lives turn, how some succeed with seeming inevitability while others fade from view. Early promise is fulfilled or frustrated, people marry or remarry, those we think we know are seen in new lights. Powell uses the space he has given himself to show how people change, or don’t, as the years pass and part of the increasing triumph for me of this series is how despite the fact my own life and background bears no resemblance to anyone in Dance, the pattern of their lives rings true for me all the same.

All of which makes this sound terribly serious, and though it is it’s also very funny. There’s a continued use of (often wonderfully inappropriate) classical references, and though I’m reasonably good on my classics I’m not a patch on Powell and it’s obvious if I were better there are extra levels here I would pick up. Even with my understanding though, it’s hard not to be amused at the excess of some of the comparisons, such as here where Nick heads to his boss’s office after a meeting in a basement office:

Like Orpheus or Herakles returning from the silent shades of Tartarus, I set off upstairs again, the objective now Finn’s room on the second floor.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had too in Powell’s prose, his excellent descriptions such as here where he details a rather desolate scene in liberated France:

In one of these secluded pastoral tracks, a Corot landscape of tall poplars and water meadows executed in light greys, greens and blues, an overturned staff-car, wheels in the air, lay sunk in long grass. The camouflaged bodywork was already eaten away by rust, giving an impression of abandonment by that brook decades before. High up in the branches of one of the poplars, positioned like a cunningly contrived scarecrow, the tatters of a field-grey tunic, black-and-white collar patches jut discernible, fluttered in the faint breeze and hard cold sunlight. The isolation of the two entities, car and uniform, was complete. There seemed no explanation of why either had come to rest where it was.

And here, in a much earlier scene, where Nick is required to visit the office of one of the more obfuscatory elements of the British civil service:

The stairs above the second floor led up into a rookery of lesser activities, some fairly obscure of definition. On these higher storeys dwelt the Civil branches and their subsidiares, Finance, Internal Administration, Passive Air Defence, all diminishing in official prestige as the altitude steepened. Finally the explorer converged on attics under the eaves, where crusty hermits lunched frugally from paper bags, amongst crumb-powdered files and documents ineradicably tattooed with the circular brand of the teacup. At these heights, vestiges of hastily snatched meals endured throughout all seasons, eternal as the unmelted upland snows. Here, under the leads, like some unjustly confined prisoner of the Council of Ten, lived Blackhead.

Blackhead is a minor character, a type almost, the Platonic form of the civil servant made flesh, “the mystic holy essence incarnate of arguing, encumbering, delaying, hair-splitting, all for the best of reasons.”

Other characters are developed in this volume, most notably Pamela Flitton – a strikingly attractive girl whose “rankling animosity against the world in general was discharged with adamantine force…” Flitton moves from man to man, provoking minor scandals and using her near-irresistible magnetic force to lure men to her often to their vast disadvantage. Like so many, she is a person who lives by the will, her sheer force of personality bending the world around her. Existing characters recur, Peter Templer, Odo Stephens, Mrs. Erdleigh and others.

And, of course, Widmerpool returns. Widmerpool by this point is the nearest thing Dance has to a protagonist, his will carrying him ever upwards to new heights of power and prestige. He is a monster, a man who shows no loyalty or compassion at all to those he leaves behind in his wake, yet remains a brilliantly drawn character. I particularly liked this line, where Widmerpool runs into Nick and his wife at the theatre: “Widmerpool, who had met Isobel in the past, peered closely to make sure I was out with my wife, and said good evening.”

As the story moves into France, references to Proust become more explicit, with Nick encountering some of the locations that are used in his In Search of Lost Time. I haven’t read Proust yet, it’s my project for 2010, and I rather regret that because in part Dance seems inspired by Proust’s work and as with the classics there are references I suspect I’m missing that I would pick up if I’d read In Search already.

At the end though, a work as layered and complex as Dance will always be at least partly inaccessible, there will always be more in there, nuances that another reader would see that I do not. That’s inevitable, and in a way is a testament to the work. I’m already excited at the prospect of finishing the series, now too I find myself looking forward to one day rereading it, so that I can see it all unfold again with knowledge of what is to come.

Still, for now it is the mix of comedy and tragedy (an appropriately Grecian contrast which Powell would appreciate) that sticks with me. Death, fear, disappointment, ruined hopes, but also friendship, warmth, the foibles of humanity. The follies of the powerful come up often, there is a wonderful section involving a race between a party of foreign generals for who gets the only bath in a guest house. There’s also a marvellous section consisting largely of Nick’s thoughts wandering as he sits in the victory thanksgiving service, musing on the meanings of the hymns and observing the people around him:

General Asbjørnsen certainly enjoyed singing the words. He was quite flushed in the face, like a suddenly converted Viking, joining in with the monks instead of massacring them.

There’s a humanity in all of this which runs right through this work, this series indeed. Not perhaps a love for us all, but at least an understanding.

As I move towards the last three volumes of Dance, I am increasingly of the view that this is one of the great works of literature, a masterpiece. The statistics, 3,000 pages, twelve volumes, are deeply offputting I admit. But the reward is worth it, each novel is itself only around 250 pages and each is enjoyable and challenging in its own right. This is deep stuff, lightly written, an example of what at its best literature is capable of.

The Military Philosophers

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