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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – June 2015 (2)

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A Dance To The Music Of Time – Anthony Powell

Well, I’ve done it – I’ve completed Anthony Powell’s twelve novel series. Inspired by Poussin’s eponymous painting (in the Wallace Collection, if you want to see it) it explores the idea that time (the seasons in Poussin’s painting) marches inexorably on whilst characters (the dancers) move in and out of sight as if they were performing an elaborate dance.

It seems mind boggling that someone would contemplate writing such a lengthy series of books these days – Powell’s books were published between 1951 and 1975. It is an enterprise fraught with danger – you could die midway, a jilted inamorata could destroy your manuscript (as happened to X Trapnel in my second favourite of the series, Books Do Furnish A room) or you could just lose heart. And it requires an orderly and structured mind to ensure that too many inconsistencies of plot and character do not creep in.

Inevitably with a work of this size a cottage industry has sprung up to assist the reader. I found Hilary Spurling’s concordance, An Invitation to the Dance, an invaluable guide to keep track of characters and to remind oneself of a literary reference casually tossed into the prose. And actually, there are very few obvious inconsistencies.

Powell is rather like marmite – you either love him or hate him – and many in the latter camp were luminaries in literary and artistic circles who perhaps saw a snatch of their own character in the Dance’s cast list.

To characterise the books in a few sentences, they are a comedy of manners – they are genuinely funny in parts – which comment on and lampoon English upper class and bohemian circles. A central theme running through the books is power in all its myriad forms, political, military, commercial, artistic and sexual and its use and abuse and the tragic and comic consequences thereof. The anti-hero is an odious but brilliantly created character, Kenneth Widmerpool, whose vicissitudes of fortune form a significant part of the magnum opus.

Strangely, the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, whose journey through life from school, varsity, the arts, the army and novel writing we follow, comes across as a bit of a cold fish. What we find out about him and his personal life we have to piece together from snippets, obiter dicta and throwaway comments. But he is our constant and reassuring companion through this long journey.

Reading all of the books in a relatively short period of time you can easily spot the signals of where the plot is going to take you next – there is a bit of clunkiness in the overall plotting and it is astonishing how often characters who have had nothing to do with each other for years suddenly bump into each other in the unlikeliest of settings. Perhaps London was much smaller in those days and I don’t move in the right circles but it never seems to happen to me. And of course when characters meet after such a long time there is an opportunity to recycle what had happened earlier in the sequence, a device that allows Powell to take his foot off the gas every once in a while.

Of the dozen books my favourite is the sixth in the sequence, The Kindly Ones. I have always had a soft spot for the Furies, the Eumenides in Greek which translates tongue-in-cheek as the kindly ones – geddit? The ability to solve cryptic crossword clues is helpful, but not essential, for the enjoyment of Powell – and the book features some moments of high comedy, for example when the maid, Billson, interrupts the evening’s entertainment by walking in naked – and moments which profoundly affect the direction of the sequence such as the re-enactment of the tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Probably each of the books could be read in isolation without losing too much of the context but I found that once I had plunged in at the beginning, I was hooked.

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