Powell, A Dance…vol.2

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time vol 2 (Arrow Books, 2000)

I posted in January about the first in this sequence of 4 bulky 3-volume editions of the 12 novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. My response then was less than enthusiastic. Now I’ve finished the second volume, which contains these three novels:

At Lady Molly’s (1957)

Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960)

The Kindly Ones (1962) – the title refers to the Eumenides or The Furies, the Greek deities of divine vengeance and retribution.

I’m now firmly hooked: A Dance to the Music of Time is brilliant – witty, and written with a purring elegance beneath which there’s a wickedly sharp critical portrayal of the (mostly upper-middle-class) large cast of characters.

The narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is now (it’s the mid-30s for most of these 3 novels, and ends with the start of WWII) a novelist of moderately successful standing. He’s got over his love affair with Jean, who’d married a former school acquaintance of his, Bob Duport, and settled into married life with Isobel Tolland – one of a large number of siblings (their aunt is the ‘Lady Molly’ of the first novel here). He makes some alarming discoveries, however, about the true nature of Jean (and, for that matter, many of the other characters) – he’s not usually the most discerning or omniscient of narrators, despite his capacity for turning an epigrammatic phrase, and his shortcomings in reading people, especially women, are starkly exposed again.

It’s difficult to do justice to the subtlety of Powell’s achievement in these novels in a short space here; the slowly accreting narrative and lack of notable incident are central to his purpose. He takes his time in demonstrating the relative skill or ineptitude of his creations, as they join partners and then change them. Widmerpool, the eccentric figure of fun from school days, pops up regularly, and is becoming an ever more complex player in the drama: at times seemingly the solipsistic fool, but always vaguely menacing.

As in Max Ophuls’ excellent 1950 film (based on an Arthur Schnitzler play from 1897) ‘La Ronde’, it’s the inevitably cyclical turn of events, the rhythmical change of partners in that looping dance through time, that underlies and governs things. The participants have far less agency than they tend to realise. Nick relates what he sees of this with varying degrees of understanding; as a bemused participant himself, his view is as partial as the rest of his acquaintance.

I’ll try to give some examples of the exquisite style and tone of this deceptively languid sequence of novels.

Early on (p. 32) there’s Nick’s friend Barnby’s Wildean insight into the nature of the minor aristocracy invoked in describing the ‘lonely, derelict character’ of uncle Alfred Tolland (ie uncle to the siblings including Lady Isobel), who’d sat morosely next to Nick at one of their former school’s old boys’ dinners – these references to scenes in earlier novels in the sequence regularly appear, all part of the meticulously constructed architecture of the novels. Barnby had quipped that ‘melancholy is the curse of the upper classes’ (32).

Character description is another rewarding feature of Powell’s approach. These generally appear in the big set pieces that punctuate the narrative, such as parties at Lady Molly’s, drinks in seedy London pubs, or meals at the Chinese (formerly Italian) restaurant named in the second novel here.

Miss Weedon is the former secretary to Mrs Foxe; she takes over supervision of her employer’s drunken grown-up son, Charles Stringham. Nick remembered her looking at Charles when he and Nick were boys with ‘adoration’; she’d been his sister’s governess as well. Charles, she declared, had never grown up. She only tolerates conversation with Nick at one of the many parties he attends because he’d said he and Charles had been friends since school. She looks at Nick ‘with a kind of chilly amiability’. As a boy, Nick had thought her ‘formidable’:

I still found her a trifle alarming. She gave an impression of complete singleness of purpose: the impression of a person who could make herself very disagreeable if thwarted.

Later, when she’s revealed as engaged to an elderly general (a friend of Nick’s family), he concludes that this is consistent with her ‘taste…for power’ – she enjoyed her ability to control wayward Charles, and now sees the general as another such project (p. 163).

Nick meets Jean’s ex, Bob Duport, in a seedy hotel – he’d gone there to arrange the funeral of his bad penny uncle Giles, another recurring character, who’d been staying there when he died. Nick had never liked Bob, and was even more inclined to antipathy when Bob reveals that Jean had been unfaithful not only to her husband, but to her other lovers (including, unknown to Bob, Nick himself). She had orchestrated the end of the affair with Nick with a lie about having to move abroad. Nick realises he’s joined a long list of men she’d treated badly. He concludes, with bitterness and resignation:

For the moment, angry, yet at the same time half inclined to laugh, I could not make up my mind what I thought. This was yet another example of the tricks that Time can play within its own folds, tricks that emphasise the insecurity of those who trust themselves over much to that treacherous concept. I suddenly found that what I had regarded as immutable – the not entirely unsublime past – roughly reshaped by the rude hands of Duport. That was justice, I thought, if you like. (p. 655)

Powell is perhaps overfond of that unusual double negative structure that Orwell advised against in English usage (‘not un- something’).

Nick muses further on Miss Weedon’s ability to capture the heart of the worldly old general:

One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.

‘Valéry asks why one has been summoned to this carnival,’ [Nick’s friend] Moreland once said, ‘but it’s more like blind man’s buff. One reels through the carnival in question, blundering into persons one can’t see, and, without success, trying to keep hold of a few of them.’ (691)

‘Carnival’ here is a variation on the recurring metaphor at the heart of these novels: the revolving performance in which the performer-dancers are not entirely aware of the rhythms, the formal pattern, that influence their movement.

Which returns me to a quotation I included in my first post on A Dance to the Music of Time, from p.2 of the first volume of three novels: ‘they [AP’s characters] can be unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.’

12 thoughts on “Powell, A Dance…vol.2

  1. I’m so pleased you’ve revised your opinion of this series.
    I don’t watch much TV, and TV series only rarely, but I’ve found with some, that the first episode is often a bit dull while it introduces itself and its characters. Things improve after that, or else it’s a dud, and I stop watching it.
    I think the introductory novels in the Dance are like that… not much happening, but then, as you say, Widmerpool becomes a much more intriguing character. I look forward to revisiting the Dance as you read on, because when I read it, I didn’t really grasp a good way of writing about it and so my ‘review’ is not much use to me or anyone else.

    • You’re right about the slow start being potentially off-putting – I just watched the first of 3 episodes of the BBC series on Vita Sackville-West’s novel All Passion Spent, and imagine many people giving up because of the lack of incident. That’s what took me some time with A Dance… It’s mostly a stately sequence of set pieces: people meeting at parties or other gatherings and sparring verbally. The beginning of The Kindly Ones is different: Powell takes an unusual, lingering look in flashback at the lovelorn relationships between the servants in Nick’s rural childhood home. It doesn’t quite come off: he’s on more assured ground when dealing with the more affluent classes that he knows so well. I also agree with your point that it’s difficult to write about these novels and convey what makes them work so well.

  2. This is so encouraging! I’m just about to start The Acceptance World, then it will be time for the three you describe here. I’m really looking forward to it, it’s great you’ve found so much to enjoy.

  3. I think you’re right that it takes a while to get hooked. I read the whole sequence once year, a book a month, and it was clear that Powell was going for the long game. You’re right that his characters gradually develop and go off in unexpected directions – rather like life really! I enjoyed the books very much in the end.

  4. So glad to see you’ve revised your opinion of these wonderful novels! Loved your review BTW, which makes me want to read them all over again, as it’s been years & years and I’ve forgotten many of the characters. I do recall that I felt a certain falling away of the magic in the last set of novels; I think Powell introduces an American character that didn’t feel quite right to me, or something of the sort. Not that it mattered much–Powell’s work is such a triumph. In fact, at one point I was such a fan that during one of my rare visits to London, I took precious time to visit the Wallace Collection, primarily to see Poussin’s painting that provided Powell with his title (and metaphor)!

    • Thanks, and yes, it took a while but I’m now enjoying the slow pace, epigrammatic style and character portrayal that Powell does so well. I’ve never seen the Poussin picture – must look out for it next time I’m in London.

      • It was fun to see (I always prefer looking at paintings in “real life”), but TBH you’d probably see it better online! As I recall, the Wallace Collection hangs its art gallery-style, which makes it difficult for me to see, much less focus on, any one painting. I’ve enjoyed your reviews of Powell’s trilogy & I’m looking forward to the final summing up!

  5. Hooray! You’re hooked, and I am so pleased, as is my husband, who loved it so much he pushed our book-per-month schedule hard when he did it on audiobook with me on paper a few years ago! Simon Vance was the narrator, which helped.

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