DANCE TO THE MUSIC
by Anthony Powell.
University of Chicago, 2,948 pages
each $17.95 or $18.95.
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
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.
Dance 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
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
NOW, there are a few amazing aspects to A Dance to the Music of Time.
One is that the reader can get through twelve intricate, notably detailed
novels about Jenkins's life without ever being told what Jenkins or his wife
looks like, how many children they have, where they live, or anything of that
sort. The effect--interesting to note in contemporary, confessional America--is
to elevate the series, to give it a more high-minded tone than it would have if
the narrator told all, complaining about hair loss and bad sex and little
squabbles at the office.
And yet one is deep in the mind of the narrator along with him as he reflects,
I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen,
recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily
as the close of a period. . . . 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.
And, from one of the war novels:
The longer one dealt with them, the more one developed the habit of treating
generals like members of the opposite sex; specifically, like ladies no longer
young, who therefore deserve extra courtesy and attention; indeed, whose every
whim must be given thought. This was particularly applicable if one were out in
the open with a general.
And, toward the close of the war, when it was clear to Jenkins that Britain was
going to win, and that he stood an excellent chance of surviving:
`Come on, sir, you have the last sandwich,' one would say, or `Sit on my
mackintosh, sir, the grass is quite wet.'
Afterwards, in memory, the apple orchards were all in blossom, like isolated
plantations on which snow for some unaccountable reason had fallen, light
glinting between the tree trunks. But it was already November. There can have
been no blossom. Blossom was a mirage. Autumnal sunshine, thin, hard,
penetrating, must have created that scenic illusion, kindling white and silver
sparkles in branches and foliage. What you see conditions feeling, not what is.
For me the country was in blossom.
I don't mean to suggest that nothing happens and the author maunders on in
lofty abstractions. Plenty happens, including adulteries, and suicides, and
marriages, and births, and a bit of travel besides--not to mention the blitz
and the rest of the Second World War. However--and this brings us to a second
amazing aspect of the series--Dance doesn't exactly have a plot. Does
one's own life have a plot? Well, neither does Nick Jenkins's. Thus somehow an
entire level of the work in which fiction writers normally engage is just not
there, rather the way gingerbread trim is missing from a Frank Lloyd Wright
house--and who needs it? Dance is a structure pleasing for what it lacks
as well as for what it contains. Everything that happens happens at about the
same rate, and in the same undramatic manner, as it would in real life. Readers
who want to see the big picture, the grand historical trends and sweeping
changes to British life that have taken place in this century, can find them in
these books, but such readers will have to decide for themselves what the
trends and changes mean. One senses no ax-grinding, just an invitation to enter
Nick Jenkins's life and live it along with one's own.
A third amazing aspect of Dance is the richness that it acquires through
sheer accumulation: this is why one doesn't miss a plot. In the course of the
series, after all, the reader gets to know quite a number of people. They come,
they go, they pop up again soon, or much later, or not at all. Sometimes they
meet one another and go off together, forming personal or business
relationships independent of the narrator. People one has known for hundreds of
pages, who were long strangers to each other, may have an affair or a fight, or
they may decide to start a publishing house, or nothing may come of their
meeting--just as in real life. This is, of course, interesting only because the
characters are distinct and interesting. They certainly are. And what could
forgivably have been mundane descriptions serving no higher purpose than to
move events along become fascinating little baubles in themselves. This is an
opera with no recitative, only arias. Somehow there always seems to be a point
to whatever it is Powell is talking about. Even the details--and, again, there
are many of them--are meaningful, because it matters to him to have "got it
right." Here, for example, is a throwaway description of an eminence who has
been invited to lunch and who is arriving a bit late.
He came hurriedly into the room, a hand held out in front of him as if to grasp
the handle of a railway carriage door before the already moving train gathered
speed and left the platform.
Dance can be tremendously funny, though as I've learned from setting
pages that made me laugh out loud in front of others not immersed in Powell,
the humor, too, depends on the steady accumulation of detail. Only with enough
background can one experience one's full measure of glee in watching
antithetical characters meet, or eccentrics carry on, or, simply, Nick Jenkins
enter a room and observe what's going on around him.
. . .
He gave a rapid glance round the room to discover whom he had been asked to
meet, at the same time diffusing about him a considerable air of social
discomfort. Lady Warminster accepted St John Clarke's hand carefully, almost
with surprise, immediately relinquishing it, as if the texture or temperature
of the flesh dissatisfied her.
`I hope you were not expecting a grand luncheon party, Mr Clarke,' she said.
`There are only a few of the family here, I am afraid.'
Plainly, that was only too true.
HOW on earth did Powell do it? How did he even keep all his many dozens of
characters straight--never mind keeping up the tone for 2,948 pages, written
over two and a half decades? He asserts in the memoirs that he made less than a
hundred pages of notes altogether. And yet he always knows just where he's
going, and where he's been. In the war volume this description of
"Hogbourne-Johnson, a full colonel with red tabs," appears:
A Regular, decorated with an MC from the previous war, he was tall,
getting decidedly fat, with a small beaky nose set above a pouting mouth
turning down at the corners. He somewhat resembled an owl, an angry, ageing
bird, recently baulked of a field-mouse and looking about for another small
animal to devour.
There the metaphor is dropped. Seventy-two pages later one wonders whether one
has finally caught Powell in a lapse of attention, for the reader is told that
another officer, Major Finn, "looked like an enormous bird." Did Powell forget
that he had already described one military man in bird terms? Of course not. He
continues by saying that Finn was "an ornithological specimen very different
from Colonel Hogbourne-Johnson, kindly but at the same time immensely more
Ultimately, what keeps one reading is that virtually every page offers
charming, or profound, or at least intriguing insights.
It is not easy--perhaps not even desirable--to judge other people by a
consistent standard. Conduct obnoxious, even unbearable, in one person may be
readily tolerated in another; apparently indispensable principles of behaviour
are in practice relaxed--not always with impunity--in the interests of those
whose nature seems to demand an exceptional measure.
One becomes more and more bound up in Powell's parallel universe, until the
novels begin to seem like a long, long, long letter by a witty and kindly old
friend, filling one in on what has become of other old friends. I have a number
of friends in the real universe who I felt would be susceptible to
Dance's charms, and having encouraged them to read it, I find that we
can talk about the characters almost as if we were discussing people in our own
There is, after all, no pleasure like that given by a woman who really wants to
One passes through the world knowing few, if any, of the important things about
even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest
Now the war was over one constantly found oneself congratulating people. In a
mysterious manner almost everyone who had survived seemed also to have had a
Thinking--as General Conyers used to insist--damages feeling. No doubt he had
got the idea from a book. That did not make it less valid.
In fact, curiously, no books have ever made me feel more as if I were living
someone else's life along with him. As one reads A Dance to the Music of
Time, one looks forward to meeting certain characters again as much as one
does to seeing favorite people in life; one looks forward to parties in the
books as much as to real parties. Anyone who has hated to finish a book because
then there will be no more of it to read will easily see the advantage in the
extravagant length of the series. Throughout the novels the reader is compelled
onward, onward, without ever being eager for that long life, this Dance,
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1996; Life's Choreographer; Volume 277, No. 1;