I blame Anthony Burgess. In 1984 he produced a book (written in two weeks) titled Ninety-Nine Novels: The best in English since 1939. He chose 99, allowing the reader to choose one of their own to make up the hundred. There seemed a paucity of female authors listed and, of course, as with any list of ‘the best’ it was bound to be controversial. He declared it was his personal choice, which he was entitled to make (in the days before a growing phalanx of people feel obliged to be offended by any statement of personal viewpoint).
I’ve read a good number of books from his selection; others are still on my bookshelves, waiting for me to read eventually. Only now, some thirty-four years later am I tackling the sequence A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, a 12-book novel, dauntingly amounting to just under 3,000 pages! All in the first person viewpoint narrated by the character Nick Jenkins.
The back covers don’t provide a blurb telling the prospective reader about the book; instead, they’re filled with reviewers’ comments:
‘I would rather read Mr Powell than any English novelist now writing.’ – Kingsley Amis.
‘One of the fictional landmarks of our time.’ – Times Literary Supplement.
‘A Question of Upbringing is a witty and shapely account of conventional English education.’ – Francis Wyndham, Observer.
Powell’s first book, A Question of Upbringing (1951) in the sequence is set in the period 1921-1924. It starts, however, with our narrator Nick viewing men at work gathered round a bucket of coke in winter. This two paragraph passage is highly visual and conjures up a distant memory – a Proustian madeleine moment in time – of winter at school in 1921 when Nick first takes much notice of fellow student Kenneth Widmerpool. And so the long novel begins…
At the time Widmerpool was ‘fairly heavily built, thick lips and metal rimmed spectacles.’ Widmerpool was not highly thought of at school and was the butt of jokes, yet he seemed to possess a thick skin.
Nick shares a room with Charles Stringham and Peter Templer.
The fact that Templer had declared ‘he had never read a book for pleasure in his life did not predispose me in his favour: though he knew far more than I of the things about which books are written. He was also an adept at breaking rules, or diverting them to ends not intended by those who had framed them.’
Stringham was ‘tall and dark, and looked a little like one of those stiff, sad young men in ruffs, whose long legs take up so much room in sixteenth-century portraits…’ (p12) He was an excellent mimic, and used this to good effect to get their housemaster Le Bas arrested! (pp 48-52) As you will gather from this, the novel is at times comical – never laugh-out-loud, but it possesses amusing scenes and dialogue. For example, Stringham’s attractive mother observes, ‘Still, you weren’t expelled, darling. That was clever of you.’ And Stringham replied, ‘It took some doing.’
Sillery is a manipulative Oxford don who hosts students with tea and cake, and while he inclined ‘to the Right socially, politically he veered increasingly to the Left’ (p165). He is a name-dropper and maintains contact with ex-students who might prove useful. ‘Sillery was a keen propagandist for the League of Nations, Czechoslovakia, and Mr Gandhi... and had been somewhat diverted from earlier Gladstonian enthusiasms by the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917.’ (164)
Nick spends a summer in France, where he stays at a large house, La Grenadiere, run by a Madame Leroy. The time-worn taxi ride from the train station has its moments: ‘Even when stationary, his taxi was afflicted with a kind of vehicular counterpart of St Vitus’ dance, and its quaverings and seismic disturbances must have threatened nausea to its occupants at the best of times.’ (p108) On arrival, Madame Leroy ‘led the way through the door in the wall in the manner of a sorceress introducing a neophyte into the land of faerie…’ (p109)
Throughout there are apt references to classical paintings, which isn’t surprising since Powell studied art in the early 1920s. What appears impressive is the forward planning in the early novels: ‘He piled his luggage, bit by bit, on to a taxi; and passed out of my life for some twenty years.’ And ‘This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. 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.’ (p222)
Clearly, much of the book has an autobiographical feel about it, reinforced by the first person narration. The writing is measured, considered, and coldly precise. There is much to admire in that regard. Yet, not a lot happens. The colours and hedonism of the 1920s do not seem in much evidence; the depiction, despite the paintings, appears colourless. There is no depth of feeling, only good observation. It’s a book of quite engaging characters; a slice of life and manners, perhaps, in a moment in time long gone by.
The cover features a quote from the Sunday Times: ‘A remarkable picture of the history of our times.’ This must relate to the entire sequence rather than this single book.
I’m determined to read all twelve books to see what happens to Stringham, Templer and Widmerpool.
My copy was published in 1983 (after 14 prior impressions) and yet there were two glaring typographical errors at the outset; ‘street had made a a kind of camp…’ (p5) and ‘he was found to posses an overcoat…’ (p10).
There are only four chapters.
There’s a tendency to write long paragraphs – sometimes only one or two per page.
An over-indulgence with colons in these lengthy paragraphs gives the impression that the pages have succumbed to a contagion of sorts.
Sentences should certainly vary in length, to provide diversity and change pace; however, Powell employs too many complex and lengthy sentences for the modern taste.