Monday, August 3, 2015

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time--the dance is over.

Sad to say, but I've finished Anthony Powell's magnificent work--A Dance to the Music of Time.  The music has stopped, the lights are dimming, the musicians are slowly putting away their instruments, and the place is slowly emptying out.  But, soon the lights will come back on and the musicians will return and, once again, dancers will gather on the floor for the ritual goings and comings, arrivals and departures, losings and findings.

As I have mentioned before, this is a four volume work.  Each volume contains three novels, approximately 250 pages in length.  The first two volumes cover the period between WWI and WWII.  The third volume covers WWII and the four is of the post-war period, up until the 80s perhaps.  Powell is not very good at providing dates.

I have seen several different names applied to the volumes: one is Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter.  I had found a well-used copy of  Spring and purchased that on the strength of the BBC adaption of the work.  I finished the first novel and decided to get the complete set. I found a new set, in which the volumes were labelled 1st Movement, 2nd Movement, 3rd Movement, and 4th Movement.  This new labeling scheme seems more appropriate considering the musical nature of the title.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a first person narrative, the voice that of Nicholas Jenkins, Nick to friends and relatives.  The work is not solely about Nick, but about Nick and his friends, relatives, and acquaintances.   In the first novel, Nick is in his last year of school and we meet him and those about him, mostly his schoolmates as they look forward to moving on to the University the following year.

As in the real world, Nick loses track of some of his friends but maintains contact with others.  He also meets and makes new friends and friends of friends and relatives, both his and those of his friends.  We also meet some of his teachers.  This is the format of the work: Nick meets people, loses some, gains others, and then, some who have gone, suddenly return in unexpected ways, and places.  Some change, some seemingly do not as Nick goes through the university and then into the world to establish his career as a writer, and in the various occupations to support himself.  This continues through his military commitment as WWII breaks out, where he meets old friends and relatives in the military.

After having read the work, my impression is that Nick is a rather ordinary person who knows some original and unusual people, the strangest of whom is Kenneth Widmerpool.  No matter what Nick does and where he goes, Widmerpool always manages to appear in some way.  Widmerpool is one of the most fascinating characters I have ever encountered in English fiction.  There may be others whom I haven't met, but for now, Kenneth Widmerpool stands alone.

I may be doing Nick Jenkins a disservice, but when I do the next reading, I will spend more time observing Nick to see what I missed.   But, it just may be that Powell deliberately keeps Nick at a low level because he wanted the focus to be on those around Nick.  If Nick were too striking a character, readers may be distracted and miss Powell's theme of the recurring or cyclic nature of life, or perhaps a spiral would be more apt than a cycle.  For while various characters appear, disappear, and return in Nick's life, they have changed and while their interactions may resemble past interactions in many ways, they are never the same.  

This is about all I can say at the present, for there's too much here for me to make more sense of it and this, at best, can't be more than a superficial commentary.   Perhaps after a second reading, I may be able to be more intelligible and coherent.  For now, let's end this with the penultimate paragraph of the final novel.

Powell concludes with a quotation from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.  Although it isn't initially apparent, it is appropriate because Nick has been writing a book about Burton and his works and because there's a shift in tone at the end of the paragraph.  At first, the quotation consists of a series of lists, but then it changes into something quite different.  The quotation is all in paragraph form, but when I think there's a change in tone, I change the format:

"Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees.  .  .trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays .  .  . treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of Princes, new discoveries, expeditions;

now comical, then tragical matters.

Today we hear of new Lords and officers created,
tomorrow of some great men deposed,
and then again of some fresh honours conferred;

one is let loose, another imprisoned,

one purchaseth, another breaketh;

he thrives, his neighbor turns bankrupt;

now plenty, then again dearth and famine;

one runs, another rides,

wrangles, laughs, weeps, &c."

-- Robert Burton --
from Anatomy of Melancholy

Does this sound familiar to you?


  1. Congratulations on finishing your reading of Powell's novel(s). In a work written over so many years, the narrator's personality and attitudes must have changed over time, and perhaps that has something to do with the author's changing personality and attitudes over time, or am I unreasonably conflating narrator and author? And another question: Is there any other multi-volume work similarly narrated and involving such a span of time?

    Again, congratulations, Fred. I wish I had your kind of commitment to task. But, alas, I do not.

    1. R.T.,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I really liked _A Dance_ so I didn't see it as a task or something to be done. I had originally planned on reading one of the twelve novels each month, but once I got started, I just kept reading. I shall probably reread it next year.

      The narrator, Nick, got older but it was hard to see any changes in him, save for a lessening of being judgmental at times, but that really was minor. It was more Nick's reactions and thoughts about those around him, than anything specifically about Nick, if that makes any sense.

      I'm aware of single novels that cover a long period of time, but the only one that matches _A Dance_ as a multi-volume personal narrative covering a long period of time would be Proust, of course. But, Proust's narrator is much more the major element in the novels than is Nick, or so it seems to me.

    2. Here is my latest disappointment: my local library had only one copy of the first novel in the Powell series, but that copy is now listed as "Lost." However, the same library has multiple copies of _Fifty Shades of Gray_. Yes, I live in a wasteland.

    3. R.T.,

      Same here. That's why I ended up buying my own set. The library here has only the 3rd Movement, and 38 copies of _Fifty Shades of Gray_.

      It has nothing else by Powell either, so I'm going to go the InterLibraryLoan route for them.