It was only in 2014, a.k.a. ‘My Year of Proust’, that I first heard about Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume story, A Dance to the Music of Time. After a quick glance at the book I didn’t seriously consider reading it at the time, thinking it was just a Proust imitation. But, I started to pay more attention to it and then one of the members of the GoodReads Proust group (Travelling Sunny) decided to set-up a group for a year-long read of Powell’s Dance and I got sucked in….and I’m glad that I did. I’m now half-way through volume 5, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant and I’m enjoying the literary ride through the lives of the characters. I haven’t posted anything about these novels so far, so here goes.
A Dance to the Music of Time (hereon known as Dance) is named after a painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). The novels were published between 1951 and 1975 and concern the lives of a multitude of characters, mostly English upper-class and artists, from the main characters’ schooldays in 1921 to about 1971. Comparisons with Proust abound and are not to be entirely ignored, so let’s look at them; both are large multi-volume books covering the lives of a large number of characters; the books are essentially plotless and instead follow the lives of these characters as they interact with each other; much of what we find out about the characters is from the conversations of other characters at parties, over lunch etc.; the main characters’ backgrounds and lives are similar to the authors’ and it is possible to identify real people who can be identified with the fictionalised versions in the books – even if the authors deny this; most of the characters are upper-class or artists. And the differences? Well, the main difference is their style — Powell does not write in the style of Proust and is definitely not trying to imitate Proust in that respect. Powell’s novels are very tightly written and are a lot more humourous than Proust; we don’t get Proust’s long, tortuous, sentences, nor do we get the claustrophobic feeling associated with Proust. At times, when reading Proust, I felt as if I was trapped inside the narrator’s skull, doomed never to escape; with Powell we tend to drift around amongst the characters more and in fact we tend to learn very little of the narrator’s (Nick Jenkin’s) life.
The edition that I’m reading consists of four volumes, thus grouping three of the original books in each volume. The book begins by introducing some of the main characters whilst they are at a boarding school (presumably Eton as Powell went there as a boy); Nick Jenkins the narrator, Charles Stringham, Peter Templer and the rather curious Widmerpool. Although Nick is not friends with Widmerpool at school their paths keep crossing throughout the novel. Widmerpool is introduced as a rather odd, but enigmatic figure and we first encounter him going for a run in the rain:
Anecdotes relating to his acknowledged oddness were also familiar; but before that moment such stories had not made him live. It was on the bleak December tarmac of that Saturday afternoon in, I suppose, the year 1921 that Widmerpool, fairly heavily built, thick lips and metal-rimmed spectacles giving his face as usual an aggrieved expression, first took coherent form in my mind.
We are also introduced to Nick’s uncle, Giles, and the house-master, Le Bas, who periodically appear at later dates. In fact the third novel, The Acceptance World ends with an annual dinner hosted by Le Bas for the ‘Old Boys’ (c. 1933) in which Widmerpool bores everyone with a dry speech, Le Bas has a stroke and collapses and Stringham gets so drunk that Nick and Widmerpool have to help him home. In between these two points we get to see Nick’s visit to France as a student, his time at University, his life after University working for a publisher’s, many parties, some of the characters getting married…and then divorced, we encounter writers and artists and as we venture into the 1930s there’s the changing political landscape to contend with. Every now and then political events intrude on the characters’ lives.
One of the best things about these novels is the characters and the way that we get to know them. As with Proust, we often hear about a character before we meet them or we meet a character periodically and have to catch up with what’s happened to them in the intervening period. Powell expertly gives us a sketch of a character with a few words. I especially liked the episode at the beginning of The Acceptance World in which Nick has tea with his Uncle Giles who has a room at the hotel, called the Ufford:
On most of the occasions when I visited the Ufford, halls and reception rooms were so utterly deserted that the interior might almost have been Uncle Giles’s private residence. Had he been a rich bachelor, instead of a poor one, he would probably have lived in a house of just that sort: bare: anonymous: old-fashioned: draughty: with heavy mahogany cabinets and sideboards spaced out at intervals in passages and on landings; nothing that could possibly commit him to any specific opinion, beyond general disapproval of the way the world was run.
Uncle Giles is only a minor character but he sticks in one’s mind, as do many of the other characters. In the fourth book, At Lady Molly’s Widmerpool reveals his own impending, strangely matched, marriage to a Mildred Haycock. We’re introduced to the huge Tolland family which includes Isobel, whom Nick decides he will marry at first sight. The family includes another brilliant character, the eldest son, Erridge or the Earl of Warminster; although he lives in the ancestral country home, Thrubworth Park, he lives more like a hermit and likes to dabble in left-wing politics. When Nick is visiting him and some of Erridge’s sisters turn up, including Isobel, he has to ask his servant, Smith, to get a bottle of champagne from the cellar to celebrate Susan Tolland’s impending marriage. There’s a delightful exchange between Erridge and the moody alcoholic butler who has no doubt ear-marked the contents of the cellar for his own use:
‘Have we got any? One bottle would do. Even a half-bottle.’
Smith’s face puckered, as if manfully attempting to force his mind to grapple with a mathematical or philosophical problem of extraordinary complexity. His bearing suggested that he had certainly before heard the word ‘champagne’ used, if only in some distant, outlandish context; that devotion to his master alone gave him some apprehension of what this question—these ravings, almost—might mean. Nothing good could come of it. This was a disastrous way to talk. That was his unspoken message so far as champagne was concerned. After a long pause, he at last shook his head.
‘I doubt if there is any champagne left, m’lord.’
In the current volume I’m reading, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, we’re introduced to a delightfully argumentative couple called the Maclinticks. Mr. Maclintick (I’m not sure if we get to know his first name) is a composer, has a love of Irish whiskey, and is described thus:
Maclintick’s calculatedly humdrum appearance, although shabby, seemed aimed at concealing bohemian affiliations. The minute circular lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles, set across the nose of a pug dog, made one think of caricatures of Thackeray or President Thiers, imposing upon him the air of a bad-tempered doctor.
Maclintick hates just about everyone, but especially his wife, with whom he rows incessantly. She nags him, he goads her. Together, they seem to Nick, to be at the end of their tether. Mrs. Maclintick is described thus:
Mrs Maclintick’s dissatisfaction with life had probably reached so advanced a stage that she was unable to approach any new event amiably, even when proffered temporary alleviation of her own chronic spleen.
Even later, when they attend a party their bickering doesn’t cease. They’re great characters for a book but they’d be hell to live with in real life.
So, after about a thousand pages I’m still fascinated with this book and I eagerly look forward to the next volume — I hope my enthusiasm will continue.