Anthony Powell, Dance, vol. 4

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time. Collected edition vol. 4 (Arrow Books)

Vol. 10: Books Do Furnish a Room (1971) The strange title derives from the nickname for the seedy left-wing jobbing journalist, Bagshaw (later involved in television; the final three volumes of Dance portray the rapid changes in British cultural and social life in the decades after the war). It became attached to him according to one of two variations on a sleazy sexual encounter he’s alleged to have been involved in.

Nick has returned to university to research a book on Burton (author of Anatomy of Melancholy – a strong literary influence on this final trio of novels). Various characters from the early Oxford novels in this sequence reappear. But the key developments in vols. 10-12 are to do with the curious denouement of the fiery relationship between Widmerpool, now a Labour MP, and his destructively volatile and promiscuous wife, Pamela.

In vol. 10 we learn that Nick’s wife Isobel has given birth to a boy, but we hear very little about their personal lives. There are passing mentions of their children as they grow up, but the narrative focus is on the dance of characters taking place around them.

Vol.11: Temporary Kings (1973) In the summer of 1958 Nick attends a cultural conference in Venice. A number of new characters emerge, many of whom become entangled with key dancers from previous novels – especially the late novelist X. Trapnel, and the Widmerpools. Pamela’s extra-marital affairs exacerbate her husband’s problems in his professional and political life.

Vol. 12: Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975) This novel takes place during the peak of the era of youthful counter-cultural rebellion in the late sixties and early seventies. I found it the least satisfying of the Dance sequence. Powell’s satirical depiction of the cult of hippies that features centrally seemed to me uncharacteristically crabby and heavy-handed. He portrays its charismatic but sinister young leader, with the unlikely name of Scorpio Murtlock, as wielding a corrosive and autocratic influence over his gullible, besotted followers. Because he and his cult members play a major role in this final volume of the novel sequence, my response was to feel slightly disappointed that it ended this way.

Widmerpool’s life and career has taken a new and unlikely turn: he also falls under Murtlock’s spell. A biography of X. Trapnel by one of the characters introduced in the Venice section also causes much of the drama here. Some of the other threads involving earlier characters in the narrative are more successfully tied up. A priceless Modigliani drawing neatly does this job as far as Pamela and some of those who became disastrously entangled with her are concerned. Art and artists (as well as music to set the tempo for the dancer-characters) play an important, deftly symbolic part in Dance.

One of Burton’s ‘torrential passages’ from Anatomy rounds of this superb sequence of novels with a pleasing flourish; it sums up (and reflects) many of the key themes of the twelve novels and highlights Powell’s method as a unique literary artist and master of language; here’s a short, edited extract from a long and brilliant quotation:

‘I hear news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions…daily musters and preparations…which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks…peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances, are daily brought to our ears…Today we hear of new Lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed…’

Wouldn’t ‘Ordinary Rumours’ make a great title for a Powell novel?! My thanks to Cornwall Libraries for supplying Vols 2-4 of this novel sequence.