By the time they are half a century old, most books have ceased to be subjects of critical controversy. Their reputations are generally agreed upon: masterpiece or minor classic, obscurity or oblivion. But while Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time began to appear in 1951, and its author died in 2000, critics still don’t seem to know quite what to make of it. It can hardly be ignored, if only because, in terms of sheer scale, it is without rival in twentieth-century English fiction.
The Dance is a series of twelve novels that totals more than twenty-five hundred pages and a million words. The only modern work that compares is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; and it is not just their scale that unites them. Powell was consciously indebted to Proust for the whole conception of the Dance, and the series is punctuated by allusions to its French predecessor. Like Proust’s sequence, Powell’s charts the life of its narrator from boyhood to middle age as it intersects with the lives of his friends and with historical events.
The publication of Hilary Spurling’s new biography, Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time, has provided an occasion for critics to relitigate the question of Powell’s achievement and its relationship to Proust’s. In an essay in the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson argued at length that Powell was actually the superior novelist: “Quantity is one thing, quality another. There Powell stands alone.” Yet as Anderson granted, this is far from being a consensus view. Proust is ensconced at the center of world literature, the subject of countless studies in many languages. Powell, meanwhile, remains a parochial phenomenon, bulking much larger in the view of British readers than he does elsewhere—including the United States, where his readership by now must be minute.
The truth is that the comparison with Proust does Powell no favors, for it encourages us to look to the Dance for a kind of experience it was never meant to supply. Proust is analytical and deductive, using the material of his experience to arrive at general principles about desire, memory, happiness, and time. He strives for, and achieves, qualities of profundity and exhaustiveness that are foreign to Powell, whose approach is much more empirical and observational. Powell records the human comedy without pressing and squeezing it for meaning; the general conclusions about life and society that emerge from the story mainly do so indirectly. If this makes Powell finally a less rewarding writer than Proust, it also makes him a less demanding one. People don’t write books about the experience of getting through the Dance, the way they do about In Search of Lost Time, because the reading bears less resemblance to scaling Everest.
A good gauge of the difference between Proust and Powell is the way they deal with naming their fictional alter egos. Proust famously avoids telling us his narrator’s name, suggesting only once that he is so close to the author that the reader will inevitably think of him as “Marcel.” The effect is to bring the reader entirely inside the narrator’s consciousness: he is not one person among many in the story, but the medium through which human nature itself is scrutinized. This is one of the ways in which In Search of Lost Time approaches the condition of autobiography or confession.
Powell, on the other hand, takes a more conventionally novelistic approach. The Dance’s narrator is Nicholas Jenkins, whom we first meet as a teenager in the year 1921. The son of an army officer whose career failed to flourish, Nick attends Eton and Oxford, where he meets many of the people whose lives will be entangled with his for the next fifty years. He then moves to London and embarks on a haphazard literary career, working first for a book publisher, then as a screenwriter for a movie studio, and later as a magazine editor and freelance book reviewer. During the Second World War he puts writing aside to join the British Army as a low-level officer, never seeing combat. Along the way, he writes several novels, has love affairs, gets married, and fathers children.
In each of these respects, Nicholas Jenkins is a faithful mirror of his creator. Just how faithful can be seen in Spurling’s biography, whose subtitle suggests that Powell’s life is to be seen primarily through the lens of his magnum opus, and vice versa. Powell, born in 1905, followed just the same trajectory as his character: education, work, army, family. One of the peaks of the series is the opening of the sixth volume, The Kindly Ones, which flashes back to Nick’s childhood in 1914, when his family lived in a cottage called Stonehurst; Spurling shows that, in that year, the Powells inhabited a cottage called Stonedene. In the fourth volume, Nick marries Isobel Tolland, one of many siblings in a lively but ramshackle aristocratic family. The same was true of Powell’s wife, Violet Pakenham, whose brother was an earl.
Spurling identifies many real-life prototypes for characters in the Dance, most of them already familiar to Powell aficionados. (She herself was the author, in 1977, of a book-length guide to the Dance.) Yet the obscurity of these names renders the exercise strangely circular, since the only thing that matters to us about most of them is that they served as models for Powell’s characters. Literature, in its uncanny way, has become more real than real life.
Indeed, this process is one of the central subjects of the Dance itself. The story covers such a long span of time that it allows us to see how early promise gives way to middle-aged fulfillment or disappointment, and then to death and oblivion. Only art has the power to arrest this process, at least figuratively, by capturing the dynamic movement of life in a static monument. Powell took the name of his sequence from a painting by Poussin, which he invokes in the first volume, A Question of Upbringing:
The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.
This is, of course, also Powell’s statement of the aesthetic program of the novel, which is similarly focused on uncontrollable destinies and chance reappearances. The dance of the seasons and the years makes up a form, a pattern; but that pattern is largely invisible when we see it from the inside. It is only the artist who is able to show it to us whole.
This long view accounts for much of the poignancy of the Dance. The clearest examples of Powell’s method are Charles Stringham and Peter Templer, the narrator’s closest friends at school, whom we first meet as teenagers brimming with mischief and attitude. In the first novel, we see the friends play a prank on their housemaster, the ineffectual Le Bas. After the students see a wanted poster for a con man named “Braddock alias Thorne,” who faintly resembles Le Bas, Stringham calls the police and informs them where the man in question can be found—directing them to a nearby field where Le Bas is innocently reading a book of poetry. The housemaster is briefly detained, and then the whole thing is straightened out and forgotten—except by Nick Jenkins and the reader, for whom the episode of Braddock alias Thorne remains a landmark memory.
For the next twenty years, Nick will repeatedly reencounter these dramatis personae in new circumstances, allowing him to chart their trajectories through life. He will see Le Bas a decade later at a reunion dinner, where the aging teacher is felled by a stroke during a particularly tedious speech; then he will run into him again, after the war, during a visit to his old school, where he has gone to enroll his own son. Peter Templer, who as a schoolboy is the first of the friends to uncover the secrets of sex, will grow into a notorious womanizer and man about town. But he will find it impossible to reconcile himself to the arrival of middle age and the loss of sexual power. By the time of the Second World War, as he enters his late thirties, rejection by a younger woman will send him into a moral tailspin that results, indirectly, in his death.
Stringham, meanwhile, finds himself overwhelmed by familial strife, innate melancholy, and a ruinous taste for alcohol, which combine to spoil his life. His reappearances in the narrative punctuate his steady decline: he starts off with a promising job as assistant to an industrial magnate, but loses it along with his wife and his self-confidence. Eventually he is placed back under the custody of his childhood governess, who is the only person able to stop him from drinking. When Jenkins last encounters Stringham, he has been reduced to serving as a waiter in the army mess—the only Eton-educated soldier in such a lowly rank. Character, Powell suggests, doesn’t change over time. Rather, it unfolds, with the same drives and needs expressing themselves in shifting circumstances.
By the end of the Second World War, both Stringham and Templer have been killed, and both can be seen as having connived in their own deaths. They have left no mark on the world, not even the ordinary immortality of having children. They survive only in the memory of the narrator, and of the reader. The same is true of other major recurring characters in the sequence, who seem so vivid until they vanish: Sillery, an Oxford don obsessed with petty intrigues; Sir Magnus Donners, a rich businessman whose outré sexual tastes are the subject of fascinated gossip; and X. Trapnel, a louche, penniless writer whose life and legacy dominate the last three volumes of the Dance.
It is as a witness to all these stories, not as a protagonist of his own, that Powell conceives the role of Nicholas Jenkins. Indeed, one of the most important facts about the Dance, and its clearest point of contrast with In Search of Lost Time, is that its narrator is quite uninterested in himself. That is why, while we are never out of Nick’s company, we are also seldom alone with him. He is usually to be found on the fringes of some party, social set, or institution, observing the more vivid adventures of other people.
Thus the fourth volume, At Lady Molly’s, focuses on the chaotic, down-at-heel, but welcoming household of Molly Jeavons, where Nick is a frequent guest. The fifth, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, is named for one of the cheap establishments where he hangs out with his bohemian artist friends. The army, where Nick spends the seventh, eighth, and ninth volumes, is of course a setting devoid of privacy, where he is constantly exposed to the personalities of other soldiers, congenial or otherwise. And the eleventh book, Temporary Kings, is set at an international writers’ conference in Venice. All these places are hotbeds of gossip, rivalry, and intrigue, and while the Dance—like life itself—may appear tragic when seen as a whole, on a page-by-page basis it is often very funny. Powell has a sharp eye for the way people tend to turn into caricatures of themselves, a staple of English social comedy since Shakespeare and Jane Austen.