A Dance to the Music of Time, inspired by the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin, was rated by Time magazine as one of the 100 Best English-..Show More »language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Written by the English novelist Anthony Powell, who took almost 25 years to create the 12-volume set, provides a highly-literate and highly-amusing look into the English upper-middle class between the 1920s and the 1970s. The book covers politics, class-consciousness, society, culture, love, social graces, manners, education, power, money, snobbery, humour, and more.
Although daunting in terms of length, the absolutely brilliant narration by the talented Simon Vance rewards the reader over thousands of pages, hundreds of characters, and twelve installments of gorgeous prose. This is a not-to-be-missed collection of novels for any serious reader of English literature.
BOOK FOUR (At Lady Molly's): We begin the 2nd Movement with the fourth book of 12. If you prefer to think of Anthony Powell's (rhymes with pole's, not..Show More » towel's) masterpiece cycle in terms of months, 'At Lady Molly's' is April.
This novel, like most all of Powell's novels so far, brings in new characters, allows old characters to flow through, and generally pushes time forward a few years. I've heard many descriptions of Anthony Powell's narrative. Some describe it as a dance (obviously) that Powell choreographs. Some describe it as a symphony where themes and instruments appear, play their part, and remain silent for a couple minutes only to reappear in slightly different circumstances and dress.
I am reminded a bit of Degas' experimentations with monotypes. He loved to play with the process of printmaking. How the printmaking process could smudge and press his ideas with either dark fields or light fields. His images of people and landscapes would emerge out of darkness, smudged reflections would arrive from the plates. He would create multiple images from the same plate that would allow him to create ghost images. He would let the press express, through colored smudges, the idea of movement. I think Powell is playing with some of the same ideas. Through time and memory, faces blur, but the dance continues. People spin into focus, briefly, and then spin away. That is the cycle of life and relationships.
I also like the appearance early in this novel of Lord Alfred Warminster (or Erry, short for Erridge, or Alf). This character is largely based on George Orwell, a contemporary of Anthony Powell and classmate and friend from Eton, who operated in many of the same circles. Orwell and Powell were actually very close for several years, and Alf, seems to be Powell both celebrating Orwell and poking gentle fun at his talented, leftist friend. In fact, Powell and Orwell were so close that at Orwell's funeral in 1950 Powell was the one who selected the hymns. Reflecting on this Powell wrote:
"The Lesson was from Ecclesiastes, the grinders in the streets, the grasshopper a burden, the silver cord loosed, the wheel broken at the cistern. For some reason George Orwell's funeral service was one of the most harrowing I have ever attended."
Anyway, like Proust, it is easy to get caught up in the talk, the movement. Whereas reading Proust always reminded me of participating in a lucid dream, reading Powell seems more like being fairly toasted at a beautiful party or -- well -- a dance.
BOOK FIVE ('Casanova's Chinese Restaurant'): Powell's fifth book opens with a flashback to the late 20s, and a discussion about love, marriage, and suicide. The book processes through the challenging marriages of Hugh Moreland (composer friend) and Maclintick (music critic friend) and their two difficult marriages. St John Clarke dies Erridge (see Orwell) is back from Spain. Af far as plots go, like most of Powell's books, there really isn't much happening. A couple dinner. A couple parties. Memories and flashes of insight into friends and their motives. Art, music, writing is discussed at length. People die. If I was pitching it as a movie, it would be a difficult pitch, but it is beautiful, thoughtful, and gentle.
The entire novel reminds me of listening to the 3rd movement of Mahler's 5th symphony. Powell's prose just glides. As you are spinning though the chapters and scenes, Powell throws a couple prose flowers of truth at you, and you spin on. Faces are recognized, spin, and blur out. Themes emerge, crystalize, and disappear just as quick. Yet, at the very end, you also find a dark pull to the gravity of this novel. What you initially took for a carousel is actually a ghost railway, and all at once the reader is "slowly climbing sheer gradients, sweeping with frenzied speed into inky depths, turning blind corners from which black, gibbering bogeys leapt to attack, rushing headlong towards iron-studded doors, threatened by imminent collision, fingered by spectral hands, moving at last with dreadful, ever increasing momentum towards a shape that lay across the line."
BOOK SIX ('The Kindly Ones'): The clock is at 6pm. The series is half-way through. And war, war has just begun.
"The slayer of Osiris once again demands his grievous tribute of blood. The Angel of Death will ride the storm."
The novel begins with a flashback to the eve of the Great War. Nick is a kid watching the adults in his life adjust and move to the inevitability of war and the changes it will bring into all of their lives. The best scene in this is one where the household parlourmaid, Billson appears the family's formal dinner naked (and clearly having a moment) after finding out the man she loves will marry another woman.
We also have many great scenes with Dr. Trelawney. Trelawney is an occultist who seems to be largely drawn from Thelema founder Aleister Crowley (occult + drugs + asthma + relationship with Germany and British Secret Service). Anyway he is a fascinating character to include in this book. The occult, however, seems to fit this novel that deals with an almost anticipation of the great war against the Nazis, while also showcasing England's historical fascination with the weird and magical. It also fits the title, 'The Kindly Ones' which is an allusion to the Furies - The Eumenides - The Kindly Ones. According to Powell, in the beginning of this novel, 'The Kindly Ones' "inflicted the vengeance of the gods by bringing in their train war, pestilence, dissension on earth; torturing too, by the stings of conscience."
So a naked parlourmaid serves almost as an "infernal goddesses" portending the coming Great War. Later in the novel, we see other signs and portents (and an older, weaker, but still portending Dr. Trelawney) of another coming cataclysm (World War II) that is more felt and believed than understood. It seems at this point in the narrative inevitable (and for us with the virtue of looking back, obvious) that death and destruction will soon exact its vengeance on Nick and his friends, England, and the World. Everyone seems to be paralyzed by the realization that the fun times are slipping into the night, the storm approaches, and future for everyone is about to go to Hell.
"The god, Mars, approaches the earth to lay waste. Moreover, the future is ever the consequence of the past."
BOOK SEVEN ('The Valley of Bones'): We begin the 3rd Movement with the seventh book of 12. If you prefer to think of Anthony Powell's (rhymes with pol..Show More »e's, not towel's) masterpiece cycle in terms of months, 'Valley of the Bones' is July.
'The Valley of Bones' is a war novel that has nothing to do with war. Well, that is not right, there are signals that the war is beginning and the Nazis are invading countries in Europe. Nick Jenkins finds himself in command of a platoon training for war with the Germans. His company is a company whose officers are all primarily bankers and whose enlisted ranks seem filled with miners. Instead of a novel about a battle, or valor, or strategy -- we get a novel about marches, stolen rifles, moldy cheese, drinks, fights, and bureaucracy.
Having two brothers and a brother-in-law, a father-in-law, and a father who have all served overseas during the 1st Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, or the War in Iraq, I can attest from their stories that the introductory quote is absolutely true. One of the biggest parts of war is the sitting, the boredom, the drudgery. It is punctuated by insanity and violence, but the violence is rare often only felt by the tip of the spear. The romance of war is both a myth and a lie.
There is a quote that stuck with me from this novel, "A company commander...needs the qualifications of a ringmaster in a first-class circus, and a nanny in a large family".
If the idea of boredom, duty and bureaucracy seems to persuade you to look elsewhere for your Sunday, literary entertainment, you must not yet understand the full appeal of Powell. He is able to examine this reality of the rearguard of war with an eye that picks up little gems about war, the military, and those engaged in war that seem to transcend time and sides. "Looked at calmly, war created a situation in which the individual -- if he wished to be on the winning side -- was of importance only in so much as he contributed to the requirements of the machine, not according to the picturesque figure he cut in the eyes of himself and others".
Anyway, Powell is able to paint a picture of the boredom of war that reminds me of the literary equivalent of the Flemish masters. This novel is not the equivalent of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade. This novel is a painting of three soldiers, hung-over, pealing potatoes in the rain. And yes, even that has its own majesty.
BOOK EIGHT ('The Soldier's Art'): It seems almost by accident my pacing of Powell's 12 volume A Dance to the Music of Time brings me to book 8 in August. I didn't plan it. I fall into Powell in fits and starts. I'll read a couple books and move on to other books. But I keep coming back.
Anyway, a couple things stood out about this novel. The beginning starts out with Jenkins buying an army coat at a theatrical costume shop in London. The bent, elderly, bearded assistant mistakes Jenkin's motives for buying the coat, believing him to be in a play. It was beautifully done. It was rich, ironic, and anticipated the themes of war as theatre, etc. In the final act/chapter of this movement Powell brings it back around to dress when he is having a discussion with Chessman and remarks "It is a tailor's war, anyway" in response to seeing Cheesman wearing a waistcoat underneath his tunic.
Like every Powell book, this one involves dinners, drawing rooms (this one bombed out), friends rotating in and out of Jenkin's life. Some of these friends, however, leave permanently in this book. It was touching and like most all of the Powell books I've read, infinitely quotable. He weaves into each of his conversations pearls of wisdom, and clever observations about people and motives. It really is an amazing series.
BOOK NINE (The Military Philosophers): This is the last book in the Fall/WWII trilogy (3rd Movement) of A Dance to the Music of Time. It was at once the saddest of the series so far and also the most Proustian, with several direct quotations from Remembrance of Things Past and also several geographies in common with that other monster of 20th Century fiction.
The book had me hooked from the first couple paragraphs. To me, at least, it resembled (in a less funky and mad way) the opening section of Europe Central? You know the part. The very beginning too. Where, STEEL IN MOTION, with a black telephone/Signal Corps octopus vibrating, ringing, somnambulating, sleepwalking, eavesdropping, gloating as Europe Central buzzes.
See, here from the first couple pages of 'The Military Philosophers':
"from the secret radio Spider, calling and testing in the small hours..."
"Endemic as ghouls in an Arabian cemetery, harassed aggressive shades lingered for ever in such cells to impose on each successive inmate their preoccupations and anxieties, crowding him from floor and bed, invading and distorting dreams. Once in a way a teleprinter would break down, suddenly ceasing to belch forth its broad paper shaft, the column instead crumpling to stop in mid-air like waters of a frozen cataract."
Without giving too much away (meetings are held, rockets scream, people die, but the Allies eventually win) this novel centers on WWII from about 1942 to the end of the war. The war, except for the bombs and the V2 rockets is largely fought elsewhere by other friends. Nick is engaged primarily as a liaison officer (first with the Poles and then with the Belgians, etc.) where he learns how to maneuver through bureaucracy and personalities. Widerpool again (and also Pamela) seem to both act as catalysts whose actions impact heavily the lives around them.
I think it is also worth posting the Nestor poem in full that I (and Powell) borrowed a verse from:
Vulcan, contrive me such a cup, As Nestor us'd of old; Show all thy skill to trim it up, Damask it round with gold.
Make it so large, that, fill'd with sack, Up to the swelling brim, Vast toasts on the delicious lake, Like ships at sea, may swim.
Engrave no battle on his cheek, With war I've nought to do, I'm none of those that took Maestrick, Nor Yarmouth Leaguer knew.
Let it no name of planets tell, Fix'd stars, or constellations; For I am no Sir Sidrophel, Nor none of his relations.
But carve thereon a spreading vine, Then add two lovely boys; Their limbs in amorous folds entwine, The type of future joys.
Cupid and Bacchus my saints are, May Drink and Love still reign! With wine I wash away my cares, And then to love again.
In war time it is always interesting to see the interactions between the soldiers in the field and the POGs* (persons other than grunts). Powell plays with this a bit. Jenkins and Widerpool aren't exactly "safe" but their positions during the war keep them primarily in London. The war is being fought by other men. There is also tension between the above ground and below ground (secret) elements of the war. Again, towards the end of these war trilogies we see clothing used to convey the idea of the war as a play. One costume is exchanged for another as Jenkins is demobbed.
* this was a term I was first introduced to by my little brother who served as a "foot" or a "grunt" with 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.
"Imagination must, of course, select and arrange reality, but it must be for imaginative ends: all ..Show More »too often the role of imagination in this sequence is to funny-up events and people whose only significance . . . is that Powell has experienced them." - Philip Larkins, in a review of 'Books Do Furnish a Room'
'Books Do Furnish a Room' starts with a discussion of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy* and this book (and themes of melancholy and love) reappear frequently throughout the novel.
The central plot thrust of book 10, or the first book of the final season/October (if you will) centers on X. Trapnel a novelist loosely based on Julian McLaren-Ross a writer described by his biographer as "mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent". This novel is the first of the post WWII novels. It takes place in the years immediately after WWII when England is dealing with the social and economic turmoil of the Post war years. Powell describes these changes by describing how the sea and tides will roll certain things back, lose certain things, and propel new things onto shore. I'm obviously paraphrasing because it is late and I haven't the energy right now to find the damn quote. Anyway, it was an interesting brick in this series, not my favorite, but rewarding for some of its dialogue and plot twists.
* An amazingly rich work that I'm almost done with myself (I've got two hundred pages left in the last of the three partitions. I've spent about 3 years worth of Sundays intermittently reading while sitting through church. I'm not sure of my wife is thrilled with me reading Burton in Church, but Burton's explorations of Melancholy seem to almost need an altar or some sacred space to read it near
BOOK ELEVEN ('Temporary Kings'):
"Reading Novels needs almost as much talent as writing them." - Anthony Powell, Temporary Kings
Temporary Kings opens at an international literary conference in Venice. The literary pot is beginning to boil. Who knew the literary world was such a Casino Royale of intrigue. I really think Powell set this novel's beginning in Venice to make the reader think of the Romantic era, but also of the Doges of Venice and all those dukes and kings that seemed to rise and fall during the period between Rome and the Romantics. Hell, I'm probably way off, but that's my wall and I'm going to lean against it.
More than almost any book, except the series itself (Dance to the Music of Time), Temporary Kings seems dominated and driven by a work of art. Art and music, like food and sex, are scattered in all of Powell's novels, but in this one, a painting of Candaules and Gyges by Tiepolo. In the myth Candaules, the Lydian (Sardis) king has a fatal enthusiasm to show his queen’s naked body to his lieutenant Gyges (without her knowledge or permission). She discovers her husband's peeping sin and invites Gyges to kill him and take his place on the throne. Powell practically beats the reader over the head with this idea. The myth itself is fairly melodramatic (characters in the book discuss the myth as a perfect Opera story), but also seems to parallel some of the activity of some major characters.
BOOK TWELVE ('Hearing Secret Harmonies'):
Hearing Secret Harmonies is the end, the final, the cap of this huge series. Powell reminds me of one of those extreme runners. Those masochists who seem to enjoy running 50, 100, or more miles. The amazing things about writing 12 novels that are together nearly 3000 pages and written over 24 years (1951 - 1971), is how uniform these books are. I'm not saying uniform in a boring way. I'm just saying there isn't a real weak link in them. They are beautifully constructed. I think of big canvasses like the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Certainly, with such a big canvas the risk of a disappointing section or segment isn't linear. A big book, with more pieces and pages, comes with an exponentially growing level or risk. Powell just didn't have a shitty two years anywhere in that 24 years.