Life's Choreographer

A review of A Dance to the Music of Time

All happy authors are alike; each unhappy author is unhappy in...Well, maybe that's an oversimplification. Nonetheless, the rule occurs to me that writers who give the impression in their work of being happy and at home in the world do so by writing about life, real life, and trusting the reader to recognize life. Unhappy writers may sometimes do this too, but they invariably have their little axes to grind: they are busy trying to persuade you that people are more sordid, or more decent, or crueler, or deeper, or stupider, or more sex-obsessed, or more heedless, or more something, than has ever been apparent to you, the reader, in your limited and shallow experience.

This idea forcefully presented itself to me somewhere around book five or six of Anthony Powell's great twelve-book work A Dance to the Music of Time, as I marveled, not for the first time, at how miraculously lifelike the series is. Its author gives the impression of being a happy man. And Anthony Powell (pronounced Antony Po-el) certainly has ample reason to be happy. He has lead if not a charmed life at least a charming one, abloom with as many personal and professional satisfactions as there are roses in an English country-house garden. Now that his authorial career is for the most part behind him (he turned ninety last month), Powell must know that in Dance he has written a series that will endure. ( The University of Chicago paperback edition, which was published last year, is the latest evidence of the series's staying power.) For an author, that must be the greatest satisfaction of all.

deserves to endure, both because it gives a comprehensive and subtle picture of literary and artistic life in England throughout the first three quarters of this century and because it is a remarkable literary achievement in its own right. The series chronicles the life -- or, really, the milieu -- of one Nicholas Jenkins, born, as Anthony Powell was, within a few years of the turn of the century to an army officer's family, and educated, as Powell was, at Eton and Oxford. Jenkins, also like Powell, becomes a book editor and litterateur, gets to know artists and models and lots of fellow editors and writers, marries into a large family, serves in a gentlemanly sort of capacity in the Second World War, and afterward picks up where he left off with his literary career. Roughly speaking, the first three books (A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer's Market, and The Acceptance World), which make up the first volume of this set, cover Jenkins's school days and the period just after; the next three (At Lady Molly's, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones) his young manhood; the third (The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art, and The Military Philosophers) the war years; and the final three (Books Do Furnish a Room, Temporary Kings, and Hearing Secret Harmonies) everything after that, concluding in the 1970s--a time that perhaps seems more contemporary today, now that tie-dye, spirituality, and home cooking are back, than it did in the eighties.

Powell has known or at least met many remarkable people over the years. The names that leap out of his memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling, include Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, George Orwell (all three were his schoolfellows), Malcolm Muggeridge, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sophie Tucker, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Cecil Beaton, Edith Sitwell, Ivy Compton-Burnett, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bernard Law Montgomery, Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Ian Fleming, Gore Vidal, C. P. Snow, V. S. Naipaul, Iris Murdoch, Erich von Stroheim, Tallulah Bankhead, and King Olaf of Norway. Dance, however, is not about Powell's celebrity friends but about a parallel universe, containing all the same emotional and social characteristics, all the same skills and talents and lucky breaks, as the universe that Powell has inhabited--except that in the parallel universe everything is parceled out to individuals differently. For example, a character who spectacularly ruins himself was modeled in part on a fellow who ultimately snapped out of it and became a successful historical novelist; in Dance the character goes ahead and ruins himself, and it is someone else from his past whose name arrives in Nick Jenkins's office mail, out of the blue, on the title page of a thick manuscript.

In his memoirs Powell details specific connections between acquaintances and characters which demonstrate thoroughly that Dance is nothing so simple as a roman à clef: that would be the wrong way to read these books. Anyway, the people the characters resemble are not necessarily the most famous ones. Surely Powell is speaking his own mind when he puts these words in the mouth of a writer character (fairly prominent in later parts of the series, and modeled on the unfamous writer Maclaren-Ross):

`People think because a novel's invented, it isn't true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel's invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they can't include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist himself lays it down. His decision is binding. The biographer, even at his highest and best, can be only tentative, empirical. The autobiographer, for his part, is imprisoned in his own egotism. He must always be suspect. In contrast with the other two, the novelist is a god, creating his man, making him breathe and walk. The man, created in his own image, provides information about the god. In a sense you know more about Balzac and Dickens from their novels, than Rousseau and Casanova from their Confessions.'

But we learn about much more than Powell from Dance: the magic of his parallel universe, after all, is how closely it tracks ours. As Kingsley Amis reports in his Memoirs, in the course of once interviewing Powell for a Sunday paper he asked him about the card reading that seems to be the eternal occupation of a character named Mrs. Erdleigh--"meaning, ahem, its artistic function," Amis explains. But that isn't the way Powell thinks: "Ah, said Tony, a lot of people had been in fact very keen on that sort of stuff at the time in question, so he had got it right."

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