In the fall of 2009, I left the United States to spend a school year teaching English in China. There were many things to do before leaving, but one of the more pleasurable was choosing which books would see me through the year. When my friend Ellen suggested taking Anthony Powell’s series A Dance to the Music of Time, I felt a click, the sort you feel when someone suggests a thing and you realize that is exactly what you intended to do all along. I packed the whole series and spent the next nine months living in China but letting a great deal of my imaginative life take place in mid-20th-century England.
For those who haven’t heard about the series or seen its tantalizing spines lined up on some bookstore shelf, Dance is a sequence of 12 novels, generally published as four volumes of three novels each. The series takes its name from a 17th-century painting by the French artist Nicholas Poussin, which depicts the four seasons as nymphs dancing in a circle while a winged Father Time plays for them on the harp. (The American editions of the books, published by the University of Chicago Press, use Poussin’s artwork and put one of the nymphs on the spine of each volume, so that when lined up the four volumes create an eye-catching work of art on one’s shelf.) The books take place in England over the course of nearly 60 years, starting between the World Wars and ending in the 1970s.
Various people have claimed that Dance is the definitive work of the British 20th century. The whole series is one entry on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the century, which is a bit of a cheat, although there’s no good way to select one novel from the set. Evelyn Waugh called the books “more realistic than A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, to which it is often compared, and much funnier.” (Surely, if Waugh had tried, he could have come up with a more ringing endorsement than “funnier than Proust.”)
In any case, the books were a great success in both Britain and America upon their publication, but heaps of praise from people like Evelyn Waugh do not always secure a devoted, continuing readership once a book is no longer new. And these books deserve a continuing readership. They are masterful, they are deeply artful — and they are also rather fun. They contain a wealth of comedy, closely observed as the best serious work but with an additional twist that makes for a startled laugh when you suddenly realize what’s going on. They deserve to be popular. They deserve to be widely read and loved. These are the first books I can recall reading as an adult that made me want to go join the official society of fans of the author. Those who love these books love them for a lifetime; they are so rich and so pleasurable that they bear revisiting over the years as the reader grows alongside the characters and finds new ways to understand the story. And yet, in point of fact, nobody I know has read them, though I know a couple people who have been meaning to get around to it. And so I am taking to the Internet to make my own case for Powell to anyone out there who is in search of a new reading project as I was, or who simply needs something to read on these winter days.
Without further ado, then, seven reasons why these books deserve to be read:
Reason #1: They are unique.
This series is really a comic epic, and a fictional memoir of a person’s social life. It is a British social novel scaled way, way up.
A quick setup before going further: These books are narrated by Nick Jenkins. He shares a remarkable number of biographical details with one Mr. Anthony Powell, but we’ll take him on his own terms. Nick starts by telling us about his school days (outside sources say the school is Eton, though the text never indicates this) and university life (outside sources, Oxford, ditto) in the late 1910s to early ’20s, and the story continues through marriage, career, military service in the Second World War, and subsequent middle to old age in and around the London literary scene.
Nick is the only person who appears in every novel in the series, but he is not very keen on telling us much about himself. What he recounts are stories about social interactions at school, in the military, and in a roughly defined community of London literati, rather than stories about himself going to school, being an officer, and working as a writer. Nick is more likely to tell us what someone else appeared to be thinking than what he himself was thinking. His own marriage is sketched in the lightest possible lines, his children only hinted at. “It is difficult to talk about one’s wife,” he says, and so he doesn’t do it. He turns his considerable powers of understanding on other people instead — on other people, and on books.
Reason #2: They’re playfully, livably literary.
Nick is the kind of narrator who behaves as if he is actually writing the books; he serves as our author, rather than a conversation partner or a character into whose head we are allowed access. This works particularly well because the character is a writer. He doesn’t tell us the titles of any of his novels, though; the only book of his we’re allowed to know about is a scholarly work on Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, and that is included because it plays into his pattern of relating life to books. Nick shares what lines or ideas from other writers are playing through his head but not what stories he’s thinking up himself, rather in the way he is much more likely to recount a conversation with someone else than a solitary train of thought.
For the bookish amongst us — a category that surely includes nearly everybody willing to pick up these books — this kind of thought process will look rather endearingly familiar. As such it’s a comforting way in to the bigger stuff in the novels, the Second World War chief among them. Nick has a handful of attempted conversations about literature while in the army, the bulk of which fail so spectacularly that I laughed out loud while reading. There’s a fellow soldier who has a book of Kipling secreted away but is barely able to say anything about it. At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s David Pennistone, who though “capable, even brilliant, at explaining philosophic niceties or the minutiae of official dialectic, was entirely unable to present a clear narrative of his own daily life, past or present.” That’s obviously a problem not shared by our fearless narrator, but Nick and Pennistone are a kind of kindred spirit nevertheless and their conversations, however brief, are a relief from the military absurdity surrounding them.
Nick himself introduces literature into a lot of conversations that have nothing to do with literature, and it seldom works — as he comments after one of these conversations, “I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” The last scene of The Military Philosophers (the ninth book) is an end-of-war service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Nick spends the whole time thinking about the poetry and song lyrics used in the service. The older he gets, the more his reading informs what he tells us of his life, especially Burton. The last novel takes place in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but is suffused with concepts and stories from the 17th century.
Reason #3: Do you like England? These books are completely, uniquely, and ineluctably English.
Apart from a trip to France in the first book, some time in Ireland in the third volume, and an interlude in Venice in Temporary Kings (the 11th book), the entire series takes place in England. I think it’s fair to assume our narrator never crosses the Atlantic (though Powell himself traveled rather extensively). The foreigners in the novels, who include French, Polish, Swedish, Norwegian, American, and a prince from a never-named Balkan country are seen through English eyes, and there’s a lot to be perceived about the British characters in the way they think and talk about these foreigners. I suspect Powell understood America somewhat better than his narrator, who comes across as rather naive on the subject — there’s a charming conversation at one point about Americans who are descended from signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it makes American social strata sound as arcane as those of ancient Mesopotamia. As a boy who’s just finished school, Nick spends a short time in France, and he seems a little surprised that the Norwegian and the Swede he meets there don’t get along, being from such similar cultures. The novels are not parochial — Nick is educated and observant — but they come from a very definite cultural perspective.
I should not neglect to mention that Powell, though he spent his life in England, came from a very old Welsh family, whose name he preferred to pronounce in the traditional fashion (rhyming with “noel”). He gave Nick a Welsh name as well, but any influence of Wales in the text is so subtle as to be invisible to this American reader. England pervades every bit of the books, though perhaps most notably the humor:
Reason #4: They are wonderfully funny.
Dance is certainly a comedy, but it can’t afford to be a classical comedy with happy endings for all. In any work covering such a vast period of time, there will inevitably be many deaths to read about. As it happens, that time includes the Second World War, and there are some deaths that occur right out of the blue while the story is occupying itself with social matters. These are sometimes ridiculous, but never ridiculed; sometimes tragic, but never eulogized. There’s no denial of tragedy, in other words, but Nick manages to acknowledge it and then move on to tell us about the next social occasion.
He doesn’t laugh out loud at what he sees going on around him. He doesn’t tend to tell the reader that someone is funny, and no one ever says he’s funny either. But he is, terrifically so. The humor is dry, sidelong, sneaky.
The trick is to notice that Powell doesn’t take the social world he’s describing very seriously. It would be easier to notice this if the books didn’t look like they should themselves be taken very seriously indeed, if they were less hefty and classical — the Poussin nymphs on the American editions are beautiful but a little intimidating. If you can forget about them for a while and get into the small-paperback spirit of reading, you can appreciate the absurdity of this little exchange, where Nick and his former head of house from Eton are conversing in a library and a boy comes by to ask the teacher a question:
We were interrupted at this moment by a very small boy, who had come to stand close by where we were talking. It would be truer to say we were inhibited by his presence, because no direct interruption took place. Dispelling about him an aura of immense, if not wholly convincing goodness, his intention was evidently to accost Le Bas in short course, at the same time ostentatiously to avoid any implication that he could be so lacking in good manners as to break into a conversation or attempt to overhear it. . . .
‘What do you want?’
‘I can wait, sir.’
This assurance that his own hopes were wholly unimportant, that Youth was prepared to waste valuable time indefinitely while Age span out its senile conference, did not in the least impress Le Bas, too conversant with the ways of boys not to be for ever on his guard.
Is that too dry for an introduction? If so, perhaps I should mention that there is also a butler who gets attacked by a monkey.
Powell’s portrayal of servants is quite funny, actually. At the time when these books were being written, P.G. Wodehouse was already making virtuosic use of the comic possibilities of the English serving class, most famously in the form of the hyper-competent Jeeves. Powell cut against the Wodehouse grain by making his servant characters only middling in competence and by having them intrude in the life of the household at the most inconvenient times, highlighting the strangeness of two entirely different categories of person living in a house together. The aforementioned butler works for an upper-class Communist, who doesn’t want a butler or really believe in having butlers, but can’t manage his enormous house without one, and there’s a sadly droll tone to their interactions.
The funniest novels are those in Volume 3, the war volume, possibly from a need to counterbalance the effect of the war on the narrative, possibly because the military is just so rich in comic possibilities:
The General turned savagely on Gwatkin, who had fallen into a kind of trance, but now started agonisingly to life again.
“No porridge, sir.”
General Liddament pondered this assertion for some seconds in resentful silence. He seemed to be considering porridge in all its aspects, bad as well as good. At last he came out with an unequivocal moral judgment.
“There ought to be porridge,” he said.
Reason #5: There is a judicious amount of world history.
By this I mostly mean World War II. Nick is just old enough when the war starts that he’s more of a military bureaucrat than a soldier, so none of these books is a War Novel in the customary mold. That said, it made me feel more powerfully about the London Blitz than anything, fiction or nonfiction, has ever done before.
In the war volumes, the humor is a little broader, with fewer subtle verbal jabs at social gatherings and more caricatures of superior officers (such as the two colonels named Eric and Derrick). And, as one would expect, the bad things that happen are far more serious. Nick, being who and what he is, gives us these things — the party hit by a bomb, the deaths that come out of the blue — without very much comment. There’s a section in The Military Philosophers where he says, “I was briefly in tears,” and I found it the most poignant bit of fiction I’d read for a very long time. Mostly, though, he continues to portray his life by way of the people with whom he surrounds himself, and to cope with uncertainty, discomfort, and death by finding comfort in the literary and intellectual.
Others, of course, respond to the war in very different ways, for instance,
Reason #6: Widmerpool.
Kenneth Widmerpool is one of only two characters besides Nick who appear in both the first novel of the series and the last. When he is first introduced, he’s a boy at the same school as Nick, a little older than our narrator, and his defining attribute is “the wrong kind of overcoat,” which “was only remarkable in itself as a vehicle for the comment it aroused, insomuch that an element in Widmerpool himself had proved indigestible to the community.”
This indigestibility serves Widmerpool surprisingly well. Possessed of no virtues but ambition, he is almost always able to convince his superiors that he’s especially worth promoting, rather than especially repulsive. Throughout the 12 novels, he turns up like a bad apple, and nearly every time he does so, his social or professional or military status has increased. “It was Widmerpool” is the most frequently repeated line in the books. Widmerpool himself may be the most deeply realized shallow person in English writing. His sense of his own importance, and his ability to force others to treat him as important, propel him to stations he does not deserve and cannot capably fulfill, and he is just competent enough to keep rising up in the world. Nick is none too pleased to be thrown together with Widmerpool so often, but he maintains his characteristic detachment on the matter. A different writer might treat the contrast between the two men as a moral one, but in Dance it is almost entirely aesthetic, and it is all the richer for it. The two of them, writer and bureaucrat, meet and part and re-meet over the course of the dance with an inevitability that is somehow both wearying and wonderful.
Reason #7: The books are both discreet and entertainingly frank.
The romantic relationships in this series are an utter mess. Almost everyone who gets married gets divorced, usually sooner rather than later; there’s infidelity all over the place; there is voyeurism and necrophilia and people showing up in the nude at surprising times. But it’s not lurid, simply because of the manner of writing. Nick tells us about a few sexual encounters before his own marriage, and he does so in a way that leaves no real doubt what’s going on but that includes no description whatsoever. The love scenes divert their gaze away from physical details and instead are all about character, behavior, and the degree to which people’s emotions are engaged (and whether they’re engaged equally, which they almost never are).
Homosexuality, incidentally, gets a rather interesting treatment in these novels. Early on — this would be in the 1920s and ’30s — it’s hinted at much more subtly than the hints of what’s happening in those love scenes. As time goes on there are clearer hints, often in the form of rumors that turn out to be true perhaps half the time, though there are also a couple scenes where a walk-on character is casually identified as a lesbian. In the post-WWII novels, the word “queer” is introduced, apparently in the process of taking on its new meaning. (There’s a conversation in Temporary Kings that illustrates this very well, where someone asks Nick if a mutual acquaintance is “queer:” “Is he?” “Homosexual?” “Of course.” “I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s very normal either.”) The word and the concept then move into the mainstream of the narrative until there are, in Hearing Secret Harmonies (the final book), an acknowledged male couple, an occult community where everyone is expected to have sex with everyone else for ritual purposes, and a number of offhand references to off-screen gay characters that don’t seem to surprise anyone.
Overall, the effect is that of a narrator with a strong sense of personal privacy but a very mild sense of shame. Like Melville’s Ishmael, he may choose to look away but he never flinches.
If you are not convinced…
If none of this has persuaded you that you need to read 12 British novels right now, here is what I recommend. Get hold of Volume 2 or a copy of the last novel in it, The Kindly Ones. Read the first chapter. It takes place in 1914, earlier than the rest of the saga, and it is the most self-contained bit of the series. If you don’t have the time or the will to read all 12 novels, this one chapter gives you some of the best they have to offer; I can’t imagine a better account of the start of World War I from a domestic, English point of view. If you think you don’t have the time or the will, this chapter might convince you it’s really not such a daunting task, and that this is a story and a voice worth settling down with for the long haul.