I first encountered A Dance To The Music Of Time in the mid-’90’s. A Borders bookstore had opened at the West Belt Mall in Wayne, NJ, and as was my wont, I inspected the fiction section — or was it “literature”?
At the time, my points of reference were the beginning of the G’s, where I’d look for Williams Gaddis and Gass, as well as David Gates, and the late P’s, where I’d check the selection of books by Richard Powers and Thomas Pynchon. It was in the latter section that I discovered Anthony Powell. University of Chicago Press had recently released a four-volume, slipcased edition of A Dance To The Music Of Time.
In college, I focused on “the encyclopedic novel” for my literature degree. I had a vague idea of what that term meant, and wound up conflating it with “really long novels with which I could impress/cow my contemporaries.” As such, this 12-novel cycle looked like it was right up my alley. Still, I’d never heard of Powell and the internet in that period wasn’t as awash in fan pages for obscure artists as it is today.
Further, I don’t recall there being any “flap copy” or anything else involving a plot description on the slipcase, which was shrink-wrapped to prohibit singleton sales. So I had nothing to go by, in terms of knowing what this series was about. The case was adorned with Poussin’s eponymous painting of the Dance, and the spine of each volume was a detail of one or another face of the dancers. I knew nothing of Poussin back then, still a year away from reading Arcadia for the first time.
Sixty or so dollars was a large sum to me in those days, so I held off on buying the Dance. It slipped off my radar shortly after. When Powell died in 2000, I read up on the Dance a little. I considered tackling the series, which is a sort of roman a clef of British literary & society life through the eyes of a crypto-Powell narrator over the span of half a century, but never got around to it. I noted at the time that it seemed like a book to tackle in my 40’s. I used to say that about Proust when I was young, but I got around to him before turning 35, and should’ve done so sooner.
It wasn’t until last December, when U of Chicago Press announced that it had released all 12 novels as e-books, that I returned to the notion of reading the Dance. Like a good drug dealer, the publisher was offering the first e-book free. I had just finished My Year Of Gin, in which I would try a bottle of a new (to me) boutique gin each month of the year. I had planned to write about the project, but both overachieved (in terms of bottles) and underachieved (in terms of coherence), and so scrapped my chronicle of the project. You can, however, find photographic evidence here:
A Dance To The Music Of Time, it seemed to me, would make for a fine followup. The two projects were of a piece with what I now realize is a life of dilettantism. Why not give my amateur passions some degree of structure by organizing them around the calendar?
And so I decided to read one book of the Dance each month throughout 2011. Besides allowing the pace to mirror the seasons themselves, around which each novel was (subtly) organized, I was also protecting myself from burnout. I know myself well enough to know how easy it would be for me to roll through 3 or 4 of the books in the first 6 weeks of the year, before allowing the distractions and derailments that characterize much of my life to lead me away.
This morning, I finished reading the last of the 12 books, Hearing Secret Harmonies. My wife still asks me, “So, is it good?” and I don’t know exactly how to answer her.
I certainly enjoyed reading the novels, and I’ll be the first to admit that Powell’s prose can be quite tortured at times. I was also amazed at the reticence to reveal anything about the narrator’s own life or feelings, to the extent that one never learns Jenkins’ children’s names nor much about the books he writes over his 70 years (his volume on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy notwithstanding).
At times, the sheer volume of coincidental meetings can be maddening (coincidence being the author’s point, I know). Another type of coincidence, during a bombing raid of London, strains all credulity. But then, perhaps that’s because my own life doesn’t have much room for chance meetings nowadays. In the early books, bumping into old friends takes the place of the narrator having to commit any real activity. While the stories and the interrelations of his friends and acquaintances are engaging, I found the “autumn” novels — those covering WWII — much more entertaining, because the narrator was largely removed from his society surroundings and had to become much more of a participant in the world. Paradoxically, the level observation is much sharper in these books than the preceding ones. There’s a wonderful comedy of manners of Jenkins’ superiors at dinner, highlighting the absurdities and hierarchies of military life. (There’s also a great moment when Jenkins, who remembers everyone over the years, encounters his brigade from earlier in the war, and discovers that his old cohort has no recollection of him whatsoever.)
I think Jenkins also undergoes a maturation process during the war novels. By book 9, The Military Philosophers, his literary persona really blooms as his military duty begins to draw to a close. There’s a wonderful passage where he realizes his assignment has taken him to Cabourg, the town that Proust fictionalized into Balbec. Maybe it’s a sort of clue into the roman a clef of the whole Dance itself, but it’s also some of the most gorgeous writing in the books.
As I look back over the scope of it all, a story beginning in 1920 or thereabouts, carrying on to 1971 (the year I was born, coincidentally enough), and flashing back to Jenkins’ childhood in the naughts, I’m struck by the vividness of so many minor characters. Just like life, I didn’t think much of some of them at the time and miss them now they’re gone. (Speaking of which, Powell is merciless in his characters’ ends. So many figures are simply reported dead as the years carry on. I was under the impression that the whole cycle of novels would revolve around the four schoolboys introduced in the first book, and then found myself thinking, “Well, they didn’t actually show us [x]’s body, so maybe he’s still alive and will be back in a later novel…”, as though Anthony Powell was writing The Fantastic Four or something.)
But I won’t write too much about the goings on of the Dance. I do think it comprises a wonderful tapestry of the transformation of a certain class in British society throughout the century, but it’s also the sort of thing that no one (I know) reads anymore. In harmony with my college self, that’s probably a big part of why I stuck with this project all year.
Just as Jenkins sees patterns and echoes throughout the generations (and there are plenty of echoes in the last novel), I know there are echoes of myself from that pretentious college kid to this pretentious trade magazine editor. But there are also substantial changes, both internal and external. That Borders was demolished a few years ago, before the chain itself went under. Pynchon and Powers? I don’t read them much anymore.
I’m not sure if I’ve changed all that much since beginning A Question of Upbringing last January. It’s been a complex year, and I think reading The Leopard had more of an effect on me than these 12 novels. Perhaps I’m underestimating. After all, the clarity of the first 800 words or so of this piece — written in the morning after finishing Hearing Secret Harmonies, driving my wife to the bus stop, and walking the dogs in a frosted-over field — and the sense of bliss I had all morning long could be telling me that I’ve been feeling a subtle anxiety about completing the Dance. Maybe my hesitance and depression of these past few months has stemmed from an anxiety about coming to the end of something so long and continuous. (Everything after Anatomy of Melancholy was written following a long day at the office.)