Anthony Powell’s universally acclaimed epic encompasses a four-volume panorama of twentieth century London. Hailed by Time as “brilliant literary comedy as well as a brilliant sketch of the times,” A Dance to the Music of Time opens just after World War I. Amid the fever of the 1920s and the first chill of the 1930s, Nick Jenkins and his friends confront sex, society, busi
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it was amazing
I’ve been meaning for some time to post a review of Dance to the Music of Time, which is pretty much my favorite book ever, but it’s hard to know where to start. If you’ve read it, you know it’s a masterpiece, and anything I say is irrelevant. If you haven’t read it, I’m faced with the daunting task of persuading you that it’s worth your time to get through it. Not only is it 12 volumes long, but everyone calls Powell the English Proust. Why read some inferior Proust wannabe when you can get the
The above notwithstanding, if you are the kind of person who likes long novels, you will probably find Dance an unforgettable trip, irrespective of whether or not you have read Proust. I have read both of them more than once, and, although there are similarities, there are also huge differences. Let’s start with the style. Proust, of course, is famous for those incredibly long sentences, but, try as I will, I can only bring myself to be half-enthusiastic about them. OK, every now and then you are stunned by the syntactic elegance and perfect balance. Rather more often, unfortunately, it feels more like a really impressive Jenga tower: you are amazed that it can stand upright, but everyone has to tiptoe around the room as long as the game is in progress. Proust readers will all be familiar with the maddening phenomenon of being close to the end of a 500 word sentence when something interrupts your train of thought, and you have to go back to the beginning, losing 15 precious minutes that you will never see again. In a perfect world, the police would regularly check GoodReads, and divert noisy traffic away from the Proust readers who’d asked for this service; even with Obama coming in, it’s not going to happen any time soon. Powell’s sentences are satisfyingly long and elegant, but he doesn’t go to the absurd lengths that Proust does, and you can for example read them when small children are playing in the vicinity.
Still on style, I hope will not offend the hard-core Proust fans when I say that he’s not usually that funny. There are of course comic passages, some of them very good (I’m particularly thinking of the Duchesse de Guermantes and all her witty remarks). But on the whole, the tone is quite gloomy. So, when reading Proust, not only do you have to make sure you’re alert and not being distracted, you also shouldn’t be feeling too down. One begins to see why it’s significantly harder to reach the end of Le Temps Retrouvée than, say, the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Dance, in contrast, is basically a comic novel; it’s amusing most of the time, in a very dry, understated English way that definitely grows on you as the story progresses and the author builds up more and more possibilities for complex irony based on the past histories of the characters. If you’re still thinking of it as basically like Proust, you may have trouble believing me, but I assure you that Powell can cheer you up when you are unhappy. It’s that different.
Moving on to content, another major difference is that Powell characters inhabit a world that recognizably has some connection to the one most of us inhabit. In Proust, no one has anything as mundane as a job, and people spent most of their time attending fancy parties, agonizing about whether they can arrange to be presented to members of the French nobility, appreciating immortal works of art, and getting laid at houses of ill repute. (I really liked Jessica’s comment that SHE wanted to have that kind of life. If only!) A lot of Powell’s characters are from the English upper classes, but they do mostly end up working for a living, getting married, having children, and doing other things readers will find familiar. You aren’t constantly having to apply your internal cultural translator, and figuring out what the thing Proust is talking about might correspond to in your own dull, bourgeois existence.
I’m sorry if this review has so far has a defensive tone, but I’ve been saving the really good stuff for the end. The thing that makes Dance brilliant rather than just very good is the character development, which is simply unequaled in any other novel I have come across. Usually, when the novelist wants the reader to significantly change the way they see a character over the course of the book, he has technical problems because he needs to fit it all into the three to five hundred pages he has at his disposal. Hence all the tiresome foreshadowing that so often spoils the book, and makes it seem so unlike real life. (I love Christina Ricci’s comments about foreshadowing at the beginning of The Opposite of Sex). Because Powell is working on such a huge canvas, he can do without all that crap. The first time you meet Stringham, he is so funny, charming and witty that, just like the narrator, you are completely bowled over. He does perhaps seem a bit impulsive and irresponsible, but that is all part of the charm. Similarly, Widmerpool first comes over as a complete idiot. In retrospect, one does wonder whether it really was so funny for Stringham to make a prank call that got his teacher arrested, and you also see that the absurdly over-earnest way in which Widmerpool sorts out the quarrel over the tennis match at the French pension pointed towards something. But Powell’s touch is so light that I never suspected anything at the time. The next time you see them, you are just a little surprised that Stringham seems to have become rather thoughtless, but you ascribe that to the exhalted social circles he moves in; and when you see that Widmerpool has landed himself a better job than you expected, you don’t really pay much attention to it, particularly after he, once again, manages to cover himself in ridicule by knocking over his employer’s flower pots while reversing his car.
It’s only when you’ve got many hundreds of pages into the series that it starts coming together. Stringham is drinking far too much; it’s not funny any more, at least not most of the time. Widmerpool, on the other hand, suddenly has acquired some real power, without you quite being able to see how it happened. This is exactly how you experience it in real life. Some of the people you worshiped when you were a teenager have turned out to be hopeless failures; others, whom you laughed at, have somehow become very successful. You can’t quite reconcile the two views: some of the time, you accept them at their new value, and some of the time they still seem like morons. Powell succeeds perfectly in presenting all these contradictions, without ever seeming even to work up a sweat. It just flows naturally from the narrative.
Well… I probably still haven’t managed to convince you to read Dance. But think about it 🙂