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."

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, for example,

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.

`Come on, sir, you have the last sandwich,' one would say, or `Sit on my mackintosh, sir, the grass is quite wet.'

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:

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.
. . .

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.

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.

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 powerful."

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.

There is, after all, no pleasure like that given by a woman who really wants to see you.

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 intimacy.

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 leg up.

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.

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 circles.

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, to end.

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1996; Life's Choreographer; Volume 277, No. 1; pages 108-112.