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A Dance to the Music of Time: 1st Movement - Anthony Powell

“...at the termination of a given passage of time...the hidden gate goes down...and all scoring is doubled. This is perhaps an image of how we live. For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected; so that before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careering uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity."

So this year I decided to read Anthony Powell's epic series A Dance to the Music of Time. It took me a while to slog through the first volume, though not because it's not good. It's just very long and not at all the sort of plotty novels I usually like. At times it's Dickensian in its understated, dry social commentary combined with over-the-top, just barely plausible characters, but Powell has a much subtler touch than Dickens and his novels are more realistic, his characters more believable. His messages also are delivered with much more elegant, one might even say delicate, prose. At the same time, he made me laugh even more than Dickens does.

This volume combines the first three of the twelve books that make up the series: A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer's Market, and The Acceptance World. Together they cover the early adulthood of the main characters. The first-person narrator, Nick Jenkins, remains the most stable and sensible of the crew, though he is certainly not without his flaws. He becomes quite unbearably pretentious for much of the second book, in the manner of all young men who think they have life all figured out at age twenty-something. His friends are Peter Templer, a playboyish sort of rascal, and Charles Stringham, the tragic romantic with too much family money to take life seriously. There is a fourth member of the central "quartet" who is distinct because he's not really friends with any of them, yet seems to be a recurring presence in their lives: Kenneth Widmerpool, the awkward mediocrity they all remember as that kid they laughed at for being obtuse, ingratiating, and a natural figure to poke fun at.

A Question of Upbringing covers their school years at an Eton-like boarding school, introducing us to the quartet of boys and several other characters who will recur, such as headmaster Le Bas and Nick's Uncle Giles, a cagey, self-absorbed, money-seeking old bastard who is that irritating relation you can never quite shake off.

“Later in life, I learnt that many things one may require have to be weighed against one's dignity, which can be an insuperable barrier against advancement in almost any direction. However, in those days, choice between dignity and unsatisfied curiosity was less clear to me as a cruel decision that had to be made.”

A Buyer's Market introduces Nick to the world of sex and marriage (though he does not get married himself any time in this volume). Nick spends most of his time dawdling about in a publishing job, eventually becoming a writer himself, and hanging out at debutante balls, presumably with the goal of eventually landing a wife, though he doesn't really seem to be in a hurry. The book opens with him being "in love" with a rather flighty and temperamental woman who is apparently juggling a number of suitors, including our old friend Widmerpool. Widmerpool plays his usual role as comedy relief by getting a bowl of sugar dumped on his head, the entire incident described in exquisite physical and emotional detail, and at the same time, his reaction is another clue (we've had a couple of previous ones) that he's really not someone you should be quick to laugh at.

This isn't the only intersection of Jenkins and Widmerpool's professional and romantic lives; the book moves through some encounters with artists, socialists, and other people one might best describe as "social facilitators" whose precise role in life in never made explicit but whom everyone who is anyone seems to know.

I should note here that Anthony Powell is actually quite funny, even though he never writes straight-up humor. But that sugar bowl incident is both funny and strangely disturbing. There are also many amusing observations made throughout the series, mostly delivered in Nick's wry voice:

“He gave me a look of great contempt; as I supposed, for venturing, even by implication, to draw a parallel between a lack of affluence that might, literally, affect my purchase of rare vintages, and a figure of speech intended delicately to convey his own dire want for the bare necessities of life. He remained silent for several seconds, as if trying to make up his mind whether he could ever bring himself to speak to me again; and then said gruffly: 'I've got to go now.”

“Feeling unable to maintain this detachment of attitude towards human- and, in especial, matrimonial- affairs, I asked whether it was not true that she had married Bob Duport. She nodded; not exactly conveying, it seemed to me, that by some happy chance their union had introduced her to an unexpected terrestrial paradise.”

You can also see Nick's dry sense of humor in his conversations with Stringham and Templer and some of his other friends. He slowly begins to take himself less seriously, while figuring whom he should take seriously and whom he shouldn't.

The Acceptance World brings us to the end of Nick's early adulthood and we can readily see that it marks the beginning of his transition to real adulthood. He's becoming established as a writer, while a subplot in this book is a contretemps between a best-selling novelist of uncertain reputation, St. John Clarke, his current secretary, Mark Members, a poet, and J.C. Quiggins, a Marxist writer who seeks to supplant Members. This entire subplot is brilliant in all the unspoken inferences about the relations between these men, the personal and professional jealousies and petty maneuvering for prestige, and (at least I took it this way), the fact that one could read between the lines and suspect this was a romantic rivalry as well. (Powell does allude to homosexuality several times, but mostly in a jocular fashion, and it's not clear whether any of the characters will really turn out to be gay.)

And at last, Nick Jenkins is finally caught up in a true love affair of his own, not just being dangled by a debutante, but engaged in a serious affair with a married woman.

“There is, after all, no pleasure like that given by a woman who really wants to see you.”

A Dance to the Music of Time is not exactly exciting reading, but it's great reading when you are in the mood to luxuriate in careful prose that is deceptively deep for its apparent lightness, and get to know characters gradually and in great detail. After finishing the first volume, I am gaining an appreciation for Powell, and my motivation for continuing the series is not so much "What's going to happen next?" as "Show me more writing like this." It's really a book that is just full of quotable quotes, but sometimes it's the longer passages that strike you with the genius, the poignancy, the insight, or the understated humor. And I just know Widmerpool is going to prove to be some sort of dire lynchpin. As volume one ends, we are entering the 1930s, and already there are references to Mussolini and fascists, so while much of the first three books took place in the shadow of World War I, we can see foreshadowing of the war to come.

Maybe I am being a barbarian in only giving volume one 4 stars, because the writing is absolutely top notch. But I place a big value on story, and I want to see where the arc goes. Also, honestly, Powell did teeter on the brink of long-winded self-indulgence at times. I know, I know, the story isn't the main thing here, but to merit 5 stars (making it a "favorite"), Powell has to satisfy me all the way to the end. I may revisit this rating after I finish the series, and I plan to read the next three volumes this year.