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A Dance to the Music of Time: 2nd Movement - Anthony Powell

Outside the moon had gone behind a bank of cloud. I went home through the gloom, exhilarated, at the same time rather afraid. Ahead lay the region beyond the white-currant bushes, where the wild country began, where armies for ever campaigned, where the Rules and Disciplines of War prevailed. Another stage of life was passed, just as finally, just as irrevocably, as on that day when childhood had come so abruptly to an end at Stonehurst.

Anthony Powell's epic A Dance to the Music of Time is some good reading but it's slow reading, and taking me a while to work through it. The 2nd Movement is volumes 4-6 of the 12-volume series: At Lady Molly's, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones.

The 1st Movement covered Nick Jenkin's youth and early adulthood in the post-WWI years. Then he was a bachelor and up-and-coming writer in the Roaring 20s. The 2nd Movement brings us into the 1930s, with nary a mention of the Depression but growing talk of Hitler and Germany. By the end of The Kindly Ones, Britain is just on the verge of war, and Nick, who is now a married man, has joined the Army.

This isn't a historical drama per se, though. A Dance to the Music of Time is, fittingly enough, very much like a painting. It's one of the most passively entertaining books I've ever read. It would be wrong to say nothing happens, because things do happen: people get married, they have affairs, they die or commit suicide, and Nick is constantly meeting people he met in earlier books at the most unexpected times, and the intricate web of social connections Powell has been laying for six books now is becoming as big and interconnected and drama-ful as your wankiest Facebook friend. Yet it all happens in a very dry, understated British manner. Sex and money scandals, implied homosexuality, wartime preparations, are all threads in a tapestry and sometimes you have to look carefully to see what's going on in this corner or that. You read this because you enjoy the character portraits and the writing.

Frederica saw that she had said enough to command attention. To hold the key to information belonging by its essential nature to a sphere quite other than one's own gives peculiar satisfaction. Frederica was well aware of that. She paused for a second or two. The ransoming of our curiosity was gratifying to her.

At Lady Molly's introduces us to Molly Jeavons, who initially appears to be just another slightly dotty rich lady at the center of another one of those vast social networks Nick is always running into. But she's introduced for a reason, because among all her acquaintances who will figure in Nick's future is her niece. She's barely mentioned at the time; she's barely mentioned throughout this volume, even though Nick marries her. Yup, Nick gets married and it hardly seems to make a ripple in his life, though if you look carefully, you can see the deeper currents, such as when Casanova's Chinese Restaurant opens with Nick visiting Isobel "in hospital" and it emerges in almost oblique reference that his wife has just had a miscarriage. Nick, as the first person narrator of the series, is probably the least emotional of all of Powell's characters, but that's because he alone only shows us what he wants us to see, whereas all the other characters are being viewed by him. How reliable a narrator is Nick? We never get any hints that he might be deceiving us, but he does filter the world through his own perception. He'll sometimes tell us what he thinks of someone, then admit that he later learned he was wrong, but we're still seeing the character through his eyes.

The series matures in this volume, as Nick does, but Powell never stops injecting humor into it. The thing about Powell's humor is that he never tells you he's being funny or does anything to draw your attention to the fact that "Hahah! This is a humorous scene!" Just as he never provides any other outward markers of emotional context or mood: it's all right there in the dialog, or sometimes reading between the lines of Nick's internal monologue.

I was particularly fond of Dr Trelawney, though, who is about as close as Powell has come so far to a purely comic relief character. Trelawney is a New Age huckster whom Nick reencounters when coming to lay his Uncle Giles to rest.

Uncle Giles, you may recall, or will if you read the series, was Nick's father's brother, an eternally adrift and never very pleasant relation always stirring up money drama in the family. A typical Uncle Giles line:

'I like the little man they've got in Germany now,' he would remark, quite casually.

Anyway, in The Kindly Ones, which is the volume that takes place on the eve of World War II, Nick is seeing to the late Uncle Giles' affairs, and at the same boarding house where Giles was staying, he finds both Dr Trelawney and Bob Duport, who is the ex-husband of Jean Duport nee Templer, sister of Nick's old school friend Peter Templer, with whom he carried on an adulterous affair some years before. (Nick and Jean, that is.) See, you really need to read the whole thing to get these characters straight. But it all makes sense if you read it!

'There was no mystery about your uncle's grousing,' said Duport. 'The only thing he was cheerful about was saying there would not be a war. What do you think, Dr Trelawney?'

'What will be, must be.'

'Which means war, in my opinion,' said Duport.

'The sword of Mithras, who each year immolates the sacred bull, will ere long now flash from its scabbard.'

'You've said it.'

'The slayer of Osiris once again demands his grievous tribute of blood. The Angel of Death will ride the storm.'

'Could this situation have been avoided?' I asked.

'The god, Mars, approaches the earth to lay waste. Moreover, the future is ever the consequence of the past.'

'And we ought to have knocked Hitler out when he first started making trouble?'

I remember Ted Jeavons had held that view.

'The Four Horsemen are at the gate. The Kaiser went to war for shame of his withered arm. Hitler will go to war because at official receptions the tails of his evening coat sweep the floor like a clown's.'

'Seems an inadequate reason,' said Duport.

'Such things are a paradox to the uninstructed - to the adept they are clear as the morning light.'

'I must be one of the uninstructed,' said Duport.

'You are not alone in that.'

'Just one of the crowd?'

'Reason is given to all men, but all men do not know how to use it. Liberty is offered to each one of us, but few learn to be free. Such gifts are, in any case, a right to be earned, not a privilege for the shiftless.'

'How do you recommend earning it?' asked Duport, stretching out his long legs in front of him, slumping down into the depths of the armchair. 'I've got to rebuild my business connexions. I could do with a few hints.'

'The education of the will is the end of human life.'

'You think so?'

'I know.'

'But can you always apply the will?' said Duport. 'Could I have renewed my severed credits by the will?'

'I am concerned with the absolute.'

'So am I. An absolute balance at the bank.'

'You speak of material trifles. The great Eliphas Levi, whose precepts I quote to you, said that one who is afraid of fire will never command salamanders.'

'I don't need to command salamanders. I want to shake the metal markets.'

'To know, to dare, to will, to keep silence, those are the things required.'

'And what's the bonus for these surplus profits?'

'You have spoken your modest needs.'

'But what else can the magicians offer?'

'To be for ever rich, for ever young, never to die.'

'Do they indeed?'

'Such was in every age the dream of the alchemist.'

'Not a bad programme - let's have the blue-prints.'

'To attain these things, as I have said, you must emancipate the will from servitude, instruct it in the art of domination.'

'You should meet a mutual friend of ours called Widmerpool,' said Duport. 'He would agree with you. He's very keen on domination. Don't you think so, Jenkins?'

It's hard to explain the appeal of this book with excerpts, but it's hilarious (very, very dry, and hilarious) when you read it all in context. This is really a fine work to appreciate at leisure, but I can't read the whole series all at once, it moves kind of like paint drying.