A Dance to the Music of Time (series)

by Anthony Powell

1st Movement: A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer's Market, The Acceptance World

Fortunately—with so much reading by the same author still in front of me—I am here to report that I am alive and well and very much enjoying reading the "Dance to the Music of Time" series by Anthony Powell! Here's a status update: I am through the first three of twelve books...which comprise the first one of four volumes or "movements." I like the writing, I like the characters, I like the storyline! *Phew*

Anthony Powell is masterful at capturing the seemingly lesser episodes in life that end up serving as microcosmic windows on the whole enchilada. There's much to identify with here, which makes the reading meaningful. The author isn't concerned with minutiae to the point of boredom but just explores far enough to expose the ubiquity of human experience found therein. A sampling from the first volume: How you can tell, in the asking, when someone has invited you to an event as their second choice because their first choice has already declined; how appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to picturing someone capable of physical passion; how sitting in utter silence next to a person actually betrays a deeper intimacy than chatting the entire time would; how much art there is in seizing a moment to make an exit because you're aware a better moment might not present itself.

The story—set to span several decades—is told in retrospect, making the narrator superomniscient! Additionally, as the main character, he's a person who actually thinks about things, offers some insight, & doesn't just report. We are so inside the head of this young man—who starts out an empathetically callow youth amongst his more socially advanced peers—that we don't even learn his name until book two: Nick Jenkins. Happily, oftentimes the vision in this book comes tied to a gentle but very real humor.

The reader of Powell's series recognizes the "Dance" in the title to be that unforeseen (but for the benefit of hindsight) interplay of various people across one's life. Powell himself underscores this metaphor throughout. There is keen observation given to how certain characters (some unlikely!) appear and then reappear longitudinally. Powell executes this in an unforced manner—many many other authors could take a cue from his writing (everyone from E.M. Forster to James Michener should hear their phones ringing right about now). I find the long view of "the dance" to make for compelling reading to say the least. And there may be something more on the order of life lessons to be imparted from it. See if you can't hear the rhythm of The Dance in some of my favorite passages from Anthony Powell's 1st Movement...

• "Being in love is a complicated matter; although who is prepared to pretend that love is a simple, straightforward business is always in a strong position for making conquests. In general, things are apt to turn out unsatisfactorily for at least one of the parties concerned; and in due course only its most determined devotees remain unwilling to admit that an intimate and affectionate relationship is not necessarily a simple one: while such persistent enthusiasts have usually brought their own meaning of the word to something far different from what it conveys to most people in early life."
• "I should have liked to hear more of this last matter but[...]I felt that it would be beneath my dignity to discuss his family affairs with someone who[...]knew of them only through hearsay. Later in life, I learnt that many things one may require have to be weighed against one's dignity, which can be an insuperable barrier against advancement in almost any direction. However, in those days, choice between dignity and unsatisfied curiosity was less clear to me as a cruel decision that had to be made."
• "With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become."
• "I felt that, if we could avoid seeing each other for long enough, any questions of sentiment[...]could be allowed quietly to subside, and take their place in those niches of memory especially reserved for abortive emotional entanglements of that particular kind."
• "I can now, looking back, only suppose that a consciousness of future connexion was thrown forward like a deep shadow in the manner in which such perceptions are sometimes projected out of Time: a process that may well be the explanation, for which no other seems adequate, of what is called 'love at first sight': that knowledge that someone who has just entered the room is going to play a part in our life."
• "Although not always simultaneous in taking effect, nor necessarily at all equal in voltage, the process of love is rarely unilateral. When the moment comes, a secret attachment is often returned with interest. Some know this by instinct; others learn in a hard school."
• "Evidently she herself had been removed from his life as neatly as if by a surgical operation, and, by this mysterious process of voluntary oblivion, was excluded even from his very consciousness; all done, no doubt, by an effort of will. Possibly everyone could live equally untrammelled lives with the same determination."

If any of these quotes draw you in, pick up volume one in the series & start reading!

2nd Movement: At Lady Molly's, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, The Kindly Ones

The "Dance to the Music of Time" series by Anthony Powell continues to hold my interest & be at times charming reading! I am through the next three books, which comprise the second volume. Time continues to march largely forward for our young protagonist, but there are some vast retrospective swathes here as well. Nick Jenkins was a teenager at the series' outset, and at the second volume's conclusion he is in his early to mid thirties and moving headlong into World War II.

What else continues here is the sense of how life is woven with mysterious patterns (i.e., "The Dance"), universal human truths, and strata of meaning. Or as Powell himself would put it, "Life is full of internal dramas, instantaneous and sensational, played to an audience of one." That sense of unlikely yet somehow patterned fates keeps me chuckling & shaking my head (only mildly in disbelief) from book to book. Indeed, it is the thing that will keep you reading "A Dance to the Music of Time." Certain characters are so well drawn that you find yourself rooting for their reappearance across the years!

On a technical note, this series is marked by a long, intermarried, behemoth cast of characters. After all, it's England—everyone is either a cousin by blood or by marriage to someone. I only mention that as an attempt to explain to prospective readers why it would be a bad idea to go too long in between the time you last set this book down & the next time you pick it up to commence reading. Things are so interwoven that it is possible to lose the thread, as it were.

Looking forward to the next volume!

3rd Movement: The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art, The Military Philosophers

Here we find ourselves in the third volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, which is comprised of books 7, 8, & 9. This volume contains my least favorite book thus far, which is The Military Philosophers. The entire volume is set in the British military in WWII, but book 9 especially loses some of the more character-driven subtleties that have made most of the other books sing. Much of The Military Philosophers is in fact boring. I understand that this may be the point exactly: To be mired in war is to...well...be mired in war. The reader is as well.

Nine books-worth of the narrator being the least richly drawn character really sinks in here. The anonymity one gains within the military may underscore this as well. Very few lines of actual dialogue are ever ascribed to Nick Jenkins himself. Other characters are often put in positions of confiding loquaciously in him, and the reader is treated to their dialogue word for word. But Nick never reciprocates—or if he does, it is merely the gist of some laconic response of his that is recorded and not a direct quote. So, in a way, we are left knowing less of the narrator & main character than we know of many other characters (even though that perception of the others comes through the eyes of the protagonist himself)!

The upside, perhaps, for the author, of a story being set during wartime is that he is afforded the luxury of killing off characters believably. So we say goodbye to some figures in the 3rd Movement. I think I expected that fate of some of the male characters who ended up in the military here. But Powell has even more of an upper hand in this stretch, surprising us with deaths of civilian characters we've come to know & love. After all, Britain did get blitzed; no one was safe.

What Anthony Powell writes about death is: "As in musical chairs, the piano stops suddenly, someone is left without a seat, petrified for all time in their attitude of that particular moment. The balance-sheet is struck there and then, a matter of luck whether its calculations have much bearing, one way or the other, on the commerce conducted. The potential biographies of those who die young possess the mystic dignity of a headless statue, the poetry of enigmatic passages in an unfinished or mutilated manuscript, unburdened with contrived or banal ending."

Other favorite lines of mine from the 3rd Movement of A Dance to the Music of Time:
• "[N]o pretence that games were anything but an outlet for power and aggression; no stuff about their being enjoyable as such. You played a game to demonstrate that you did it better than someone else. If it came to that, I thought, how few people do anything for its own sake, from making love to practising the arts."
• "Moreland used to say love was like sea-sickness. For a time everything round you heaved about and you felt you were going to die—then you staggered down the gangway to dry land, and a minute or two later could hardly remember what you had suffered, why you had been feeling so ghastly."
• "Kedward dealt in realities. There is much to be said for persons who traffic in this corn, provided it is always borne in mind that so-called realities present, as a rule, only a small part of the picture."
• "[B]eing judicious about other people's love affairs is easy, often merely a sign one has not understood their force or complexity."
• "Few subjects are more fascinating than other people's sexual habits from the outside; the tangled strands of appetite, tenderness, convenience or some hope of gain."

Classic Bitch should note, especially, with respect to that last quote above, that much of this series is about sex. It really is!

Potsdam has just occurred at the end of the last book in this volume. So I look forward to getting back to Powell writing about civilian life again.

4th Movement: Books Do Furnish a Room, Temporary Kings, Hearing Secret Harmonies

Powell's four-volume series definitely presents a compelling enough story for the reader to make it all the way through every one of the twelve books, as Classic Bitch has done. This process has taken me one year, was a process which I enjoyed, and one with which I am satisfied. The fourth & final volume does indeed bring us back to civilian life, as I was banking on, but war's indelible mark...rightfully & realistically so...colors the surviving characters & the rest of their days.

Speaking of the surviving characters, I find myself holding out hope that through some plot contrivance, one or two or even three characters will be brought back from the dead. The author kills off so many in WWII—some seemingly so integral to the plot and so important to the narrator personally—that the reader just can't ever wholly believe that those folks won't somehow make a reappearance. After all, it's fiction! They're "allowed" to reappear through the divine intervention of the author, are they not? But then what you come to understand when the book is over, and Nick has indeed had to carry on in the absence of players critical to his own life, is that THAT IS a part of The Dance! Not everybody dances every dance all the way through, and in life in fact there isn't some deus ex machina that comes along & grants you another turn round the floor when the party's over. My say-it-ain't-so sentiment, and belief that beloved characters will rise from the dead, is probably just a weakness engendered by decades of modern-era plot contrivances made to deliver feel-good happy endings. The Dance, on the other hand, is LIFE.

I've found most, but not all, of the individual book titles in this series somewhat obtuse as to their significance. Book Twelve, entitled Hearing Secret Harmonies, is one exception. We're treated to the secret harmonies that the author hears, the secret harmonies that the protagonist hears, the secret harmonies that other characters hear, and I daresay I heard two secret harmonies that no one else did! I don't know if this is intentional or not of Anthony Powell. I feel I can make the case for either. This body of work is so massive, and spanned decades in focus, and took decades to write, that the reader might especially allow for some secret harmonies to escape even the author himself! Then again, the author can't control for symbolism assuming a feeling tone of personal significance to the reader anyway. After all: YOU are part of The Dance.

There are appropriate smatterings of metafiction afoot here that remind you that this is writing by an author (about writing & authors) that is passed off convincingly as real life:
• "'[T]here's a resemblance between what a spy does and what a novelist does, the point being you don't suddenly steal an indispensable secret that gives complete mastery of the situation, but accumulate a lot of relatively humdrum facts, which when collated provide the picture.'"
• "'[I]f things had been different, they would have been totally different. That is perhaps something only those—like ourselves—engaged in the arrangement of words fully understand. The smallest alteration in a poem, or a novel, can change its whole emphasis, whole meaning. The same is true of any given situation in life too, though few are aware of that.'"

And then there are passages that underscore the dance metaphor to the point of it feeling at times like frame narration: It isn't...but it is because outside the frame of the story is the dance of the reader's own life:
• "'May I say that you bear out a deeply held conviction of mine as to the repetitive contacts of certain individual souls in the earthly lives of other individual souls.'"

And then there is some writing here that...hell...is just inarguable:
• "It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them."
• "There could have been no doubt in the mind of an onlooker that Jean and I had met before. That was about the best you could say for past love."


The entire "Dance to the Music of Time" series has taken me a year to read: a year in which the dance of my own life has been going on. A story about Time takes Time. And its narrative has unfolded on the backdrop of my own.