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.’