Modern Library Revue: #43 Dance to the Music of Time

October 6, 2014 | 2 books mentioned 3 9 min read

On July 17, I walked down the hill from my office to the train station at the end of the work day. It was one of those days when all of the news was bad. The airliner had been shot down with 298 people because some monstrous clown, some flak jacket-clad cretin with a weapon bigger than his brain, had picked the wrong dot on the radar screen. Israel had invaded Gaza; the preceding day’s New York Times showed the mangled doll’s body of a little boy on a beach. I am not normally a person who is unduly affected by the news, mostly because to date I have had the good fortune not to be the news. Events happen swiftly and far away and are immediately knitted into the infinite scarred and knobby human carpet, forgotten by people who are lucky enough not to get knitted up with them. But that was a day when the news was bad enough, and coming fast enough, and seemed so dictated by stupidity and malevolence and bad luck, that it occasioned one of those low, dark, what-is-the-fucking-point afternoons that even people who enjoy a supremely placid existence can sometimes experience.

It’s now hard to recapture the profound sense of dejection I had as I crossed over the moribund little creek that bounds the campus where I work. But I don’t think I will ever forget the moment, as I considered what shit things are–what everloving, unjust, miserable shit–when I had what I can only think of as a religious experience for the reading unbeliever. Instead of Mary or Jesus or anybody, I suddenly thought only of Anthony Powell, whose beautiful Dance to the Music of Time I was then rereading, and felt an overwhelming sense that this is really all we get–that if everything else is taken away, the beauty of someone’s vision of the world is our meager but abiding solace for being in the world.

coverPowell himself understood the feeling, I think, when he concluded his masterpiece with a passage from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy:

I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, or towns taken, cities besieged, in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters and preparations, and suchlike, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, strategems, and fresh alarms.

What had I been feeling that day, but the fatigue of those ordinary rumors, those massacres and meteors and fresh alarms?

Days later I read the poet Edward Hirsch on the loss of his son, and found a solemn counter to my religious experience: “People are irreplaceable, and art, no matter how good, doesn’t replace them. It took this tragedy for me to feel that.” A revelation like mine is undoubtedly a luxury of unruffled circumstance, like not being the news. But after working my way through Dance to the Music of Time, and then through Michael Barber’s biography of Powell, I do feel that there was something appropriate about the vision of St. Anthony that visited me that dark afternoon.

coverThe great Islamic historian Marshall Hodgson, who began the magisterial Venture of Islam and expired at 46 before he could complete it, inscribed a theory of humanity in an essay about his mentor, the Viennese Orientalist Gustave von Grunebaum. According to Hodgson, a fiercely devout Quaker, the beauty of whose ideas was often obscured somewhat by the thickets of his prose, people fell into three camps. There were the militaristic ones, “those who look to glory, to honor—to a noble death. Such will rather see Plataea destroyed altogether than yield to Thebes.” Then there was the “Party of Culture.” For these people, “a greater tragedy than the defeat of Athens at Syracuse was the powder explosion in the Parthenon.” Finally, there was the “Party of Justice,” the party which, “from Hebrew times on, has felt the community tainted by a single act of iniquity.” Hodgson believed that the Culture people were interested in justice and fairness only so much as those things were “the natural functions of a highly cultivated human being.” But the Justice people were the ones for whom “the essential is the citizen, the son of Israel, the individual soul—however stupid, however narrow-perspectived he may be.”

Although, like everything Hodgson wrote, it takes a few turns with the essay to understand what he’s talking about, I don’t think I’ve read a more apt division of the main strains of human temperament. I’ve never recognized myself so fully, at any rate; I’m the Party of Culture all the way–I like heritage preservation, elegant talkers, and people who stand to the right on escalators. The good guys, the ones who never turn away from a homeless person, the ones who get out the vote and speak truth to power and read the news and do something about it, those are the Justice guys. (The Military guys are the stand-your-ground types.) And for us Culture people, us shallow feelers, those for whom profound religious sentiment and unconditional love of fellow man are elusive, for whom exquisite artistic expression represents the pinnacle of human achievement, Anthony Powell is an ideal patron saint.

Powell, of whom one critic said there was “no pity and very little indignation,” is remembered by some for snobbishness and bloodlessness and conservatism–he “blamed the ‘tiresome Edwardian Liberalism'” of Forster and the Bloomsbury Group “for the sorry state, as he saw it, of the modern world.” In this he differed from his friend George Orwell, a Party of Justice man if ever one there was (artists are not always Party of Culture people–consider Dostoevsky, O’Connor, Gaudi). Powell’s unofficial biographer, Michael Barber, quoted Julian Symons in describing the way that Powell and the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge would lure Orwell into “wild flights of political fancy” over their regular lunches, goading him to express opinions they found absurd, e.g., that the Labour Government should “try to convert the British electorate to the idea that they should accept a lower standard of living in order to get rid of the evils of colonialism.”

Powell wasn’t a Culture man only because he married a wife with a title and lived in a house with a drive. While he was known as an unrepentant Tory who admired Margaret Thatcher and disdained reflexive bearded leftists, his books indicate that his artistic politics were always more deeply felt than his mundane ones–that people with humor and style and humanity would always be greater allies than anyone who simply occupied the same end of the political spectrum. And the novels of Dance are overwhelmed with evidence of his supreme reverence for art. The way his narrator Jenkins sees the Belgian allies with whom he works, in the context of a Flemish painting. Or his long, playful, intense, cherished conversations about books and music and paintings with his friends Barnby and Moreland and Maclintick. Powell’s deeply-felt devotion to the meaning and importance and self-fulfilling majesty of art was manifest in his lifelong interest in the written and visual art of yesteryear and, most of all, in his own gargantuan series of books. “Art is the true adjudicator,” he once wrote, “in its complicated relationship with taste.”

And Powell’s art, like his taste, was impeccable. There’s really no better company than these novels (Marjorie Hakala contributed a nice writeup of their virtues to The Millions a couple of years ago). Philip Toynbee accused Powell of “immense circumlocutory facetiousness,” but I think his sentences are perfect. Writing about Powell invites block quotes–like this one, Jenkins’s description of his wife’s enormous family:

There is something overpowering, even a trifle sinister about very large families, the individual members of which often possess in excess the characteristics commonly attributed to “only” children: misanthropy: neurasthenia: an inability to adapt themselves: all the traits held to be the result of a lonely upbringing. The corporate life of large families can be lived with severity, even barbarity, of a kind unknown in smaller related communities: these savageries and distillations of egoism often rendered even less tolerable if sentimentalised outside the family circle.

Even his short descriptions, the one-offs, are magnificent. Here’s Sunny Farebrother, one of the recurring characters in the books:

There was a suggestion of madness in the way he shot out his sentences; not the kind of madness that was raving, nor even, in the ordinary sense, dangerous; but a warning that no proper mechanism existed for operating normal controls.

The comic aspect of Powell’s novels is often emphasized; Evelyn Waugh famously blurbed Powell as a comedic Proust. And Powell is enormously funny, although in his books humor and profundity shared the same territory:

Another long silence fell, one of those protracted abstinences from all conversation so characteristic of army Messes–British ones, at least–during which, as every moment passes, you feel someone is on the point of giving voice to a startling utterance, yet, for no particular reason, that utterance is always left pending, for ever choked back, incapable, from inner necessity, of being finally brought to birth.  An old tin alarm-clock ticked away noisily on the dresser, emphasising the speedy passing of mortal life.

Contemporary book culture roils with arguments about whether it is parochial or pointless to record only the narrow worlds occupied by a small group of homogeneous writers. A recent comment on an essay at this site asserted, “Any time an author seems more than willing to adorn his or her work with the trappings of a [modern] period piece, I begin to wonder just what kind of artistic ambition he or she has.” Reading Powell, you see the intrinsic possibilities of writing about a life that you are more or less living, even if to some people that life seems narrow and unsympathetic. In fairness, this is mostly because Powell was operating within an echelon of talent that renders arguments about parochialism totally irrelevant, and this is obviously an echelon to which very few people can aspire.

In Dance to the Music of Time, most people are privileged Etonians or wannabees, power-mad or at least ruthlessly pragmatic. The artists and leftists are delightful or zany, but not really sympathetic, and rarely good. But Powell makes all of these characters beautiful in his rendering; they, and the complicated dance they perform, assume a sanctified quality, like a leper cleansed by Jesus:

Afterwards, that dinner in the Grill seemed to partake of the nature of a ritual feast, a rite from which the four of us emerged to take up new positions in the formal dance with which human life is concerned. At the time, its charm seemed to reside in a difference from the usual run of things. Certainly the chief attraction of the projected visit would be absence of all previous plan. But, in a sense, nothing in life is planned–or everything is–because in the dance every step is ultimately the corollary of the step before; the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be.

And yet Powell’s novels have been accused of a certain parochialism since their publication. As Terry Teachout put it, “Even his most ardent admirers have been known to suggest on occasion that Dance might be too closely tied to the facts of Powell’s own life to flourish as a fully independent work of art.” (Heaven knows what these admirers, among them Philip Larkin, would have made of Karl Ove Knausgaard.) But even when writing about highly specific milieux, Powell manages to touch upon the universal. Describing the inside-baseball world of mid-century London writing and publishing, he conveys an impression of some age-old aesthetes’ fraternity; you can imagine the Flemish painters sitting around the bar and shitting on one another using similar rhetorical codes.

“I expect you have heard of a writer called St John Clarke,” she said, almost as soon as she had sat down. This supposition, expressed by some of my friends, would have been a method of introducing St John Clarke’s name within a form of words intended to indicate that in their eyes, no doubt equally in my own, St John Clarke did not grade as a sufficiently eminent literary figure for serious persons like ourselves ever to have heard of him. The phrase would convey no sense of enquiry; merely a scarcely perceptible compliment, a very minor demonstration of mutual self-esteem.

(I especially like this one: “Shernmaker represented literary criticism in a more eminent form.  Indeed one of his goals was to establish finally that the Critic, not the Author, was paramount. He tended to offer guarded encouragement, tempered with veiled threats, to young writers….”)

It’s a world that doesn’t seem so remote, in its backbiting and intrigue, from literary communities today, although I don’t want to overextend that comparison. Imagine if a new war was announced tomorrow–another new war, I should say, the kind that was called a war–and Keith Gessen and Chad Harbach and everyone else with a magazine or a book immediately signed up and began training in mobile laundry units and fighter planes, and about a quarter of them died. Imagine if the rockets started falling on Brooklyn, and the two halves of some couple about town were killed in one night, in two different dive bars:

As in musical chairs, the piano stops suddenly, someone is left without a seat, petrified for all time in their attitude of that particular moment. The balance-sheet is struck there and then, a matter of luck whether its calculations have much bearing, one way or the other, on the commerce conducted.

If the squabbles and anxieties of artistic types are timeless, the world that Powell describes–the particular texture of its massacres and meteors and fresh alarms–is specific to its historical moment, and his depictions the more valuable for it.

There are certain conditions, totally unique to themselves, that seem to last an eternity even while they have finite beginnings and ends. Pregnancy is one. Twelve-volume novels series are another. Both have the effect of coloring your whole sense of things and self for the time that you are in them. Who was I this summer? I was pregnant, and I was re-reading the twelve-volume masterpiece of Anthony Powell. I am still one of those things, although only for another seven weeks. I am sure that pregnancy contributed to my blue spell that July afternoon, when I felt sad that things were bad, and Anthony Powell appeared and told me I couldn’t do anything about it but read novels and count my blessings.

They say when you give birth you feel bereft, even lonely, as one stage ends and another begins. The taciturn but cherished companion you carried around for nine months becomes a separate, sometimes hostile being with complex demands. Finishing Dance to the Music of Time likewise required an  adjustment; it left me feeling lonely. But at least I can always go back to the novels, make a pilgrimage the shrine of St. Anthony–succor of us who like things to be beautiful, even when they are not good.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. I just watched a video clip of Ben Affleck and Bill Maher arguing about Muslims. As I watched the men talk over one another I realized both had interesting points to make but neither were listening to each other. That isn’t the way to change a person’s mind. And it struck me. That is the reason I write YA. I want to share my viewpoints (of forgiveness, tolerance, love) with an audience that is willing to listen. That hasn’t closed their mind yet or hardened their heart. That is still willing to hear what other people have to say before making a decision. The written word is so powerful and really can make a lasting impression on hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people. Excellent post, thanks so much for sharing!

  2. I am an unconditional fan of Anthony Powell’s superb tapestry. I am an American writer who has lived in Paris since the 1950s and was a friend of Sonia Orwell’s
    who was rather casual about her role in the books. They have been much in my mind lately and I am suddenly reminded of Prince Theodoric and his wispy appeareances through the lives of the characters but he is only vaguely identified.
    He is vaguely Balkan. But from where? Does anyone know who Powell drew on
    for this tender young man from an uncomfortable corner of Europe? Was there
    a model or several models for the Prince?
    I would be most grateful for any suggestions.
    Dolores Pala

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