Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Dance to the Music of Time

There are some books that you would only want to read once; War and Peace, say, or Jordan’s Autobiography…  Then there are others that you find yourself returning to time and again. I think I’ll leave RF Delderfield for another day, before we get too middlebrow (he’s very good though – never be ashamed to read what you enjoy), so, today we’re going to talk about Anthony Powell’s masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time.

I touched briefly on the Dance yesterday whilst looking at Julian Maclaren-Ross.  It’s a couple of years since I read it, but just thinking about X Trapnel brought the whole work swimming back t the foreground of my mind.  If you take Patrick O’Brian as Britain’s Homer (don’t panic, I’ll get round to justifying that at some point), then Powell has a fair claim to being our Proust.  The Dance is nothing so much as a conversation sustained over 12 novels.  Plot arcs are leisurely to the point of rendering themselves invisible, characters appear, start to get interesting, then vanish for a couple of books – or occasionally permanently. You could read one constituent volume as a novel in itself, but to be honest I can’t think why you’d want to; the whole thing would be far too confusing.

The sequence takes its name from the painting of the same name by Poussin, which hangs in the Wallace Collection and details the march of time through the seasons of life (if you haven’t been to the Wallace Collection, go immediately – it’s round the back of Selfridges in Manchester Square and is probably the only collection in the world that splits its catalogue down the middle between Old Masters and armour…..).  At one point in the Dance, Powell has his narrator and a colleague looking down from a window at the War Office on some workmen taking a break around a brazier.  Their movements as they circle the fire seem almost choreographed, a though they are taking part unconsciously in some great performance.

Powell’s great achievement then was to replicate the rhythms of life, through the eyes of his narrator, Nick Jenkins.  Jenkins is an odd device, clearly based on Powell himself; we learn very little about his close relationships (his marriage and wife are described very lightly), he simply stumbles through life from school to late middle age whilst things happen around him.  It is the vast supporting cast that repays the effort of reading.

Whole theses could probably be written about the monstrous character of Kenneth Widmerpool – by the end he is almost the star; did Powell intend this from the start? However I must say that I have never been too concerned with the story of his rise and ultimate fall.  The really interesting figures are the composer Hugh Moreland (drawn from Constant Lambert), and the tragicomic figure of Ted Jeavons.

Coming to the sequence for the first time can be pretty daunting – after all, one is essentially signing up for 12 volumes on spec, knowing that if you give up at any point before the end there won’t be any satisfying conclusions.  It’s also not helped by the first novel, “A Question of Upbringing,” is pretty heavy going (and ostensibly a “school story” qua Jennings or Mike and Psmith – if you come to it at the age of, say, 15, you are going to be disappointed).  Indeed, Powell takes a couple of volumes to really hit his stride, but by No3, “The Acceptance World,” it should have become clear to most readers what he is trying to do and they’re likely to want to stick with it.  Books 4-9 , taking Jenkins through the 1930s and the Second World War, are probably the best, but I do have a soft spot for No10, “Books Do Furnish a Room,” which deals with the early post-war period and literary London.

The only let down is the conclusion (no spoilers).  Book 12, “Hearing Secret Harmonies” does rather jar with what has come before.  I think this is because for the first time Powell is not writing about the past – Jenkins has caught him up and he is writing about the contemporary world.  The main characters that sustained the previous eleven volumes are perforce dead/dying off, and their children are carrying more of the action.  Powell unfortunately doesn’t really get the age of Aquarius, and his descriptions of proto-hippies are worryingly off-beam. Particularly hard to grasp is the end of Widmerpool.

Having said all that, the faults must be taken in the context of the whole (“the essence of the all is the god-head of the true,” as Dr Trelawney might have had it), and for the most part what you have got in the Dance is a window into the mind of the mid-20thcentury man, living with him his loves and friendships, seeing what made him, and how he will continue being made as hid life goes on.

If Powell had been killed in the war (he served with the Welch Regiment and in military intelligence), he would probably have been remembered as an author of “Bright Young Things” fiction, along the lines of early Waugh or Huxley.  That he survived is English fiction’s immense gain – next time you’re in the Wallace Collection, seek out the painting, stand a while, and wonder.


  1. I have recently started reading this. To my mind, Powell is a superior stylist to Waugh (to whom he is often unfavourably compared), as well as being an excellent technical novelist. Powell's Toryism comes across loud and clear in the text, even though there is little explicit political content so far.

  2. I think Powell would have to be going some to genuinely be a better prose stylist than Waugh! Having said that, I think you'll be genuinely surprised by the political content, in so much as it exists.

    Powell can be criticised for snobbery, but he was never the arch-reactionary a la Waugh. Indeed, you'll probably see that if anything Jenkins is a fellow-traveller-of-the-fellow-travellers, given the milieu within which he moves for most of his life, and many of the most sympathetic characters (Erridge, Quiggin, Moreland, etc, are far from Tory...)