The Pequod Review:
Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time stretches across nearly sixty years (from the end of World War I to the early 1970s) as it follows a group of English friends and acquaintances through key moments in their lives. The story is narrated by Nick Jenkins, a passive but intelligent observer, who describes in great detail the journey from adolescence to adulthood for both himself and his school friends. By telling a story with such great sweep and with so many characters who cycle in and out of the narrative, the book manages to convey the actual course of our lives better than almost any other work of literature.
Powell makes clear his intentions early on, as Jenkins (who is in many ways a stand-in for Powell himself) describes how Nicolas Poussin’s eponymous painting captures both the chaos and the rhythms of human relationships:
These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces, hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.
Jenkins begins by recounting his own childhood and adolescence — at boarding school and then university — but otherwise the focus of the novel is almost entirely on other people in his life. Over 3,000-plus pages, hundreds of characters make appearances of one kind or another — some as acquaintances who show up only briefly and others as longtime friends who remain in Jenkins’s life for decades. We watch as they establish careers, chase fame and notoriety, wed and divorce, and succeed and fail in various pursuits. Through it all, the book captures how human lives are not single-threaded stories, but instead are full of detours, chance encounters and shifting allegiances. And the story is told in a bemused and fascinated way, which is perhaps best illustrated by Powell’s most famous line — “All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.”
In both length and style, Powell’s book shares many similarities with Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. But Powell’s book is quite different in many ways. While Proust is focused inward on his interior thoughts, Powell turns his gaze outward — onto his fellow human beings and the broader culture around him. The result is a richer and more all-encompassing novel, and one with far stronger characters. Here for example is how Powell introduces Jenkins’s closest friend (Charles Stringham):
He was tall and dark, and looked a little like one of those stiff, sad young men in ruffs, whose long legs take up so much room in sixteenth-century portraits: or perhaps a younger — and far slighter — version of Veronese’s Alexander receiving the children of Darius after the Battle of Issus: with the same high forehead and suggestion of hair thinning a bit at the temples. His features certainly seemed to belong to that epoch of painting: the faces in Elizabethan miniatures, lively, obstinate, generous, not very happy, and quite relentless. He was an excellent mimic, and, although he suffered from prolonged fits of melancholy, he talked a lot when one of these splenetic fits was not upon him: and ragged with extraordinary violence when excited. He played cricket well enough to rub along: football he took every opportunity of avoiding.
Later, Powell describes the nightclub owner Dicky Umfraville:
Trim, horsey, perfectly at ease with himself, and everyone around him, he managed at the same time to suggest the proximity of an abyss of scandal and bankruptcy threatening at any moment to engulf himself, and anyone else unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity when the crash came. The charm he exercised over people was perhaps largely due to this ability to juggle two, contrasting, apparently contradictory attributes; the one, an underlying implication of sinister, disturbing undercurrents; the other, a soothing power to reassure and entertain. These incompatible elements were always felt to be warring with each other whenever he was present. He was like an actor who suddenly appears on stage to the accompaniment of a roll of thunder, yet who utterly captivates his audience a second later, while their nerves are still on edge, by crooning a sentimental song.
Throughout the book Powell is also a keen social observer, sensitive to the subtleties of human relationships. Here he describes an interaction between Lieutenant-Colonel Lysander Finn and Jenkins's friend David Pennistone:
[Pennistone was] capable, even brilliant, at explaining philosophic niceties or the minutiae of official dialectic, was entirely unable to present a clear narrative of his own daily life, past or present, so that it was never discoverable how he and Finn had met in Paris in the first instance. Probably it had been in the days before Pennistone had abandoned commerce for writing a book about Descartes — or possibly Gassendi — and there had been some question of furnishing Finn’s office with Pennistone’s textiles. In peace or war, Finn was obviously shrewd enough, so he might have ferreted out Pennistone as assistant even had he not been already one of the Section’s officers, but, on the contrary, concealed in the innermost recesses of the military machine. He enjoyed a decided prominence in Finn’s councils, not by any means only because he spoke several languages with complete fluency.
"Why did Finn leave the City for the cosmetics business?"
"Didn't he inherit some family interest? I don't know. His daughter is married to a Frenchman serving with the British army — as a few are on account of political disinclinations regarding de Gaulle — but Finn keeps his wife and family hidden away."
"Why is that?"
"My theory is because presence of relations, whatever they were like, would prejudice Finn's own operation as a completely uncommitted individual, a kind of ideal figure — anyway to himself in his own particular genre — one to whom such appendages as wives and children could only be an encumbrance. Narcissism, perhaps the best sort of narcissism. I'm not sure he isn't right to do so."
I saw what Pennistone meant, also why he and Finn got on so well together, at first sight surprising, since Finn had probably never heard of Descartes, still less Gassendi. He was not a great reader, he used to say. Such panache as he felt required by his own chosen persona had immense finish of style, to which even the most critical could hardly take offence. Possibly Mrs Finn had proved the exception in that respect, lack of harmony in domestic life resulting. Heroes are notoriously hard to live with. When Finn conversed about matters other than official ones, he tended on the whole to offer anecdotal experiences of the earlier war, old favourites like the occasion when, during a halt on the line of march, he had persuaded the Medical Officer to pull a troublesome molar. Copious draughts of rum were followed by the convulsions as of earthquake. Finn would make appropriate gestures and mimings during the recital, quite horrifying in their way, and undeniably confirming latent abilities as an actor. The climax came almost in a whisper.
"The MO made a balls of it. The tooth was the wrong one."
Had Finn, in fact, chosen the stage as career, rather than war and commerce, his personal appearance would have restricted him to 'character' parts. Superficial good looks were entirely absent. Short, square, cleanshaven, his head seemed carved out of an elephant's tusk, the whole massive cone of ivory left more or less complete in its original shape, eyes hollowed out deep in the roots, the rest of the protuberance accommodating his other features, terminating in a perfectly colossal nose that stretched directly forward from the totally bald cranium. The nose was preposterous, grotesque, slapstick, a mask from a Goldoni comedy. He had summoned me a day or two before the teleprinter news of the Polish evacuation.
After describing key events, Powell often steps back and pulls everything together into a series of concluding observations; these make up some of the best parts of the book:
Certain stages of experience might be compared with the game of Russian billiards, played (as I used to play with Jean, when the time came) on those small green tables, within the secret recesses of which, at the termination of a given passage of time — a quarter of an hour, I think — the hidden gate goes down; after the descent of which, the white balls and the red return no longer to the slot to be replayed; 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.
There is something unique and enchanting about this great novel. It is very British (and very conservative) in its style and outlook — and as a result it can take a bit of time for modern American readers to settle into. But once you do, it is a thoroughly engrossing story that captures essential features of human life. Highly recommended.