It took me a year to read this entire saga. Four volumes each comprising three books make up Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time
, originally published as 12 books over the course of 24 years. We've gone from Nick Jenkins' boyhood, in which he has memories of the outbreak of World War I, to his senior citizen years as he watches with wry bemusement the arrival of the 1960s.
The Fourth Movement is a bit grimmer from start to finish. It's not my favorite of the four Seasons. Powell has been introducing and reintroducing characters since the beginning of the series, and now they begin dropping like flies, constant reminders to Nick that he too is mortal.
The first book, Books Do Furnish a Room
, picks up a few years after the end of the last. World War II is in the recent past, but while Nick frequently reflects on his wartime experiences, it's the Fifties now, pops! X. Trapnel, a beatnik sort of deadbeat writer whose legend will grow larger after he passes away (off-screen, in typical Powell fashion) in the next book, is the central new personality Powell introduces. Nick is resuming his literary career, but we hear little about his own endeavors; he's much more interested in narrating the rise and fall of X. Trapnel, with his affections ranging from his name to his death's-head cane, who falls into the succubus-like embrace of Pamela Widmerpool.
The Widmerpools — Kenneth and Pamela — loom large in these final installments. Their match-made-in-hell reaches truly abysmal depths before both of them are escorted offstage.
Really, these last two books are full of as much grotesquerie as humor. They still have Powell's rich, nuanced prose and detailed characterization, but the touch is not as delicate as in the previous volumes, maybe because Powell has spent nine previous books arranging the Dance and now he's winding it down, whirling dancers off-stage one by one.Temporary Kings
takes place ten years after Books Do Furnish a Room
. Most of it takes place at a literary conference in Venice, where Powell introduces a few new characters, including some rather caricatured Americans.
She had, so she related, stayed on after the rest of the party had gone home. Glober, it seemed, had been more attractive to her, far more attractive, than outwardly revealed by her demeanor at dinner. In admitting that, she went so far as to declare that she had greatly approved of him at sight, as soon as she entered the room where we were to dine. Glober must have felt the same. The natural ease of his manner concealed such feelings, like Mopsy's exterior reserve. Later that night mutual approval took physical expression.
'Glober did me on the table.'
'Among the coffee cups?'
'We broke a couple of liqueur glasses.'
'You obviously found him attractive.'
chronicles the beginning of the downfall of the Widmerpools. Pamela, after her disastrously sordid affair with the late X. Trapnel in the last book, is back with her husband, now Lord
Widmerpool, and still humiliating him like a modern Megeara. Pamela's never-explained rage reaches a crescendo, intersecting with the American writer Russell Gwinnett and the American film producer Louis Glober, both sexual deviants in their own way but no match for Pamela's chthonian fury.
And finally, there is Hearing Secret Harmonies
, in which Widmerpool himself, at the end of a long life of ever-increasing power, becomes every bit as absurd and full of himself as always as a self-styled "counter-cultural" figure, rebelling against the Establishment in which he is a Peer of the Realm. Nick sees the arrival of the Hippies, and Powell's view of them can hardly be considered benign. Scorp Murtlock, the "reincarnation" (possibly literally) of Dr Trelawney, initially appears as a long-haired mystic in the company of one of Jenkins' nieces, but over the course of the book, he becomes an ever more powerful and sinister figure, finally contending with Widmerpool himself in what is, in one sense, the ultimate battle of two Men of Will, and in another sense, an anticlimactic coda to 12 volumes of careful, intricate lifelines involving scores of characters.
The thudding sound from the quarry had declined now to no more than a gentle reverberation, infinitely remote. It ceased altogether at the long drawn wail of a hooter - the distant pounding of centaurs' hoofs dying away, as the last note of their conch trumpeted out over hyborean seas. Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.
This is a series that requires a heavy investment of time and effort. It's not "plotty" and it's not fast-paced and while it's not lacking in drama, the drama is as often something that happens between chapters as on the page. So why should you read it? Because it's a masterpiece. A slow, convoluted dance spanning decades. It's not quite like anything else I've ever read, and I don't know that I'd want to read something else like it. It seriously took a year to wade through to the end, taking a break to read other books between volumes.
But it is a masterpiece. Powell probably was one of the greatest writers of all time.