Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, 1-3

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (Arrow, 2000)

 I took this one-volume paperback edition of the first three novels in Anthony Powell’s acclaimed 12-novel sequence with me on our Christmas-NY visit in Spain. The three titles are:

A Question of Upbringing (1951)

A Buyer’s Market (1952)

The Acceptance World (1955)

There’s a huge cast of characters, but the central group consists of a few young men who met at their prestigious boarding school (said to be based on Eton, where Powell was a pupil). We then follow their progress into the privileged world associated with their class and background: Oxford University, then what follows for men of this social class.

Some of them become associated with successful businessmen, and they either thrive or flounder in this environment, depending on their prowess in the dance orchestrated by time (the title of this novel sequence comes from a symbolic painting by Poussin): sometimes they rise then fall. As the narrator puts it on p.2, they can be ‘unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.’

The narrator and central figure is Nicholas Jenkins, who becomes a novelist while working for a publisher of art books. As a consequence, the worlds of aesthetes and artists, writers and various bohemians come into not always harmonious contact with the politicians, high-powered entrepreneurs and fashionable socialites who populate the narrative.

I might have abandoned this book if this hadn’t been the only one I took with me on my travels. I found the fruity prose style and languorous narrative pace irksome at first. The characters were largely unappealing, sometimes cruel and heartless. But gradually I became attuned to the narrator’s presentation of this not very attractive scenario. The bland acceptance by these brash young men in the 1920s and 30s is placed against the turbulent political events of the time, such as the hunger marches of impoverished workers, and the first stirrings of fascism.

The shameless elitism, amorality and cloying sense of privilege in most of the characters, I began to appreciate, is portrayed with an element of subtle irony. There’s no overt criticism of their manners or behaviour, but the perspective of Nicholas, who views them all with a novelist’s appraising eye, ensures that they’re seen for what they are – though his judgements aren’t always reliable.

Like his former classmates, he has problems with his love life. The women that Powell has them become involved with are less successfully realised, but perhaps that’s part of Powell’s plan. They’re viewed through the eyes of the men who desire or seduce them. That’s possibly another aspect of the flawed world view that they fail to discern in themselves – Nicholas included – although he comes closest to assessing with any kind of perspicuity how useless he is in the sexual dance.

So I shall persevere and try volume 4. It could go either way for me.

8 thoughts on “Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, 1-3

    • In 1997, yes. There’s a still from a scene from it on the front cover of this edition – John Gielgud as Sillery. There’s not much plot in the novels, so must have made for undramatic television.

  1. It’s really interesting to read your response to the first three, I’m going to start A Buyers Market soon. I think the satire saves it – otherwise the characters would be unbearable. I’ll be interested to see how you find vol.4.

    • Madame B: They are a pretty vile lot, but as you say, the satire reveals their awfulness. Nicholas is emerging as an interesting character in his own right- I look forward to reading your thoughts on the next volumes.

  2. Hi Simon! I was very interested in your review, as I’m a great fan of Powell’s Dance. Admittedly, I read it many years ago, and it WAS a bit of a slog to “get into” the novel (3 or 4 attempts; like you, it was once of the few books I brought with me on a long trip, which did the trick) but once I did so I was hooked. I actually found it quite funny in spots; Widmerpool (spelling?) is one of those great, monstrous, over-the-top creations that live in the mind. I found Nick by contrast to be a rather two dimensional creation, functioning mainly as Powell’s stand-in; we learn only the most superficial details about him and he’s only interesting by reason of what he describes. I agree with you that the characters for the most part are pretty disagreeable; but as you point out, I think that’s really the point. Despite comparisons, Powell isn’t Proust but — like the latter, he does give you a fascinating portrayal of the society of which he’s a part (at one point, I think Nick actually visits a French village where Proust spent some time, just in case the reader’s missed the connection). As I said, I read Dance many years ago; should I re-read (which I’d like to do), I might come to an entirely different conclusion!

    • I agree, Janakay: Widmerpool stands out among all the disagreeable characters – the others find him ludicrous, which is partly justified, but this serves to highlight their own lack of self awareness. At least he refuses to conform to their fierce code of amorality, going his own bizarre way. Madame B commented in her post on vol. 1 recently that she would like to know more about Nick, but he tends to lurk in the background, watching the unedifying dance of the others as they change partners. I gave up trying to keep tabs on who was who and with who.

  3. I really love the series and have read it twice! Once on my own, once with my husband, who raced ahead of our plan to do one a month over a year and made me race to catch up. I love the echoes and remeetings and coincidences in the books as a whole. Then again, I’m also very attached to the Forsyte Saga …

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