Friday, June 1, 2018

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (99 down, 1 to go)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell


…literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity.~ narrative by Nick Jenkins, the main character

A few more thoughts from Nick…

Yet love, for all the escape it offers, is closely linked with everyday things…

One hears about life, all the time, from different people, with very different narrative gifts. Accordingly, not only are many episodes, in which you may even have played a part yourself, hard enough to assess; a lot more must be judged from haphazard accounts given by others. Even if reported in good faith, some choose one aspect on which to concentrate, some another.

The title of this novel is taken from a painting by 17thCentury artist, Nicolas Poussin. The painting has numerous mythological elements: Apollos, Aurora, Time himself playing music, and four dancers who probably represent different stages in life.

Poussin is not known to have revealed the exact meaning of his dancers; Powell however, leaves a bit more material from which to infer what he thought. He wrote A Dance to the Music of Timein four volumes – that he called movements – each undoubtedly represents one of the dancers. The main character and narrator, Nick Jenkins, considers Poussin’s dancers, concluding that they are:

…unable to control the melody, unable perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.

As the author’s alter ego, Nick thus reveals a distinct fatalism in Powell’s world view.

I can’t say for certain what Powell might have labelled the four dancers, but I infer something like:  
- Coming of age (ambitiously, awkwardly, recklessly, naively)
- Setting course (success, failure, course-correction)
- Fates and follies (drudge, disillusionment, despair)
- Conclusion

First Movement – opens on Nick and a few schoolmates, unnamed college, England, late 1920s, early 1930s.

Second Movement – follows their diverging, and re-converging careers and relationships, presages of looming war.

Third Movement – their roles in WWII, mostly uninspired and bureaucratic, several fatalities.

Fourth Movement – Conclusion of the many lives portrayed in this tome, but also…

Time dances on. Like the figures in the painting – dancing in a circle – Powell brings the fourth volume full circle, with the aged narrator in a scene very similar to his opening scene of volume one. (Though I'd nearly forgotten the opening scene by this point.)

I thought it an impressive work, but not very enjoyable. I wasn’t invested in any of the characters. Nick is a likeable chap, but too dispassionate to be very interesting.

To give Powell proper credit, I have to admit, that it was only the first 2,500 pages or so that I didn’t enjoy. The final pages of the final movement, finally got interesting. That might sound like I’m being sarcastic – I’m not. If you dare to start this work – you need to stick it out.

I can’t help but compare A Dance to the Music of Time to In Search of Lost Time. Both are roughly 3000 pages, both cover the lifetime of the main character, even the titles are reminiscent – and both were rather a chore to read. I doubt he intended it, but I felt as if Powell’s work is the British answer to the earlier French novel by Proust. I was already making this comparison in my thoughts, when Nick began reading and commenting on Proust’s magnum opus in the second half of Powell’s classic.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars
 

This novel satisfies – “A Classic that scares you” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.


Excerpts – as always, I’ll include some excerpts here. This first is one of my favorites taking place during a calm moment of Nick’s army days, and is a casual conversation between Nick and his commanding General. The general, knew that Nick was an author, and literary critic.

Book reader, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘What do you think of Trollope?’
‘Never found him easy to read, sir.’
‘You never found Trollope easy to read?’
‘No, sir.’
He was clearly unable to credit my words. This was an unhappy situation. There was a long pause while he glared at me.

‘Whom do you like, if you don’t like Trollope?’
‘There’s Balzac, sir.’
‘Balzac!’
General Liddament roared the name. It was impossible to know whether Balzac had been a very good answer or a very bad one. 

And although Nick was uncertain, he must have made some points as the general then recommends Nick for a better position.

Other Excerpts: Mostly narrative by Nick

That illusion – as such a point of view was, in due course, to appear – was closely related to another belief:  that existence fans out indefinitely into new areas of experience, and that almost every additional acquaintance offers some supplementary world with its own hazards and enchantments. As time goes on, of course, these supposedly different worlds, in fact, draw closer, if not to each other, then to some pattern common to all; so that, at last, diversity between them, in truth existent, seems to be almost imperceptible except in a few crude and exterior ways:  unthinkable as formerly appeared any single consummation of cause and effect. In other words, nearly all turn out at last to be tenaciously inter-related; love and hate, friendship and enmity, too, becoming themselves much less clearly defined, more often than not showing signs of possessing characteristics that could claim, to say the least, not a little in common; while work and play merge indistinguishably into a complex tissue of pleasure and tedium.

…the persons we see most clearly are not necessarily those we know best.

Yet love, for all the escape it offers, is closely linked with everyday things, even with the affairs of others.

‘Look here,’ said Stringham, ‘I must be allowed to get in and out of my own bed. That is a fundamental human right. Other people’s beds may be another matter. In them, another party is concerned, but ingress and egress of one’s own bed is unassailable.’

‘It seems to me,’ said the General, ‘that he is a typical intuitive extrovert – classical case…’

War is not an exact science, but a terrible and passionate drama ~ quoting Foch

‘The god, Mars, approaches the earth to lay waste. Moreover, the future is ever the consequence of the past.’

‘Adventures only happen to adventurers.’

‘The war seems to have altered some people out of recognition and made others more than ever like themselves.’ ~ Isobel (Nick’s wife)

…literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity.

Friendship, popularly represented as something simple and straightforward – in contrast with love – is perhaps no less complicated, requiring equally mysterious nourishment…

You know growing old’s like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven’t committed.

Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them…

When people speak of a subject close to them, they can look transformed.

One hears about life, all the time, from different people, with very different narrative gifts. Accordingly, not only are many episodes, in which you may even have played a part yourself, hard enough to assess; a lot more must be judged from haphazard accounts given by others. Even if reported in good faith, some choose one aspect on which to concentrate, some another.

…a restless soul wandering the vast surfaces of the Earth ~ Nick’s description of his Uncle Giles

A Dance to the Remembrance of Time is FILLED with references to classic literature. Nick, being a literary person (and as I said Powell’s alter ego), sometimes referenced an author, a title, or merely a character from some prominent work. These are the ones I caught. There were undoubtedly more.

Les Misérables
A Doll’s House
Jude the Obscure
Joseph Conrad
J.M. Barrie
H.G. Wells
Tolstoy
Anna Karenina
Orlando
John Milton
The Idiot
Henry James
Sherlock Holmes
William Thackeray
The Waste Land
Stendhal
D.H. Lawrence
Dostoevsky
The Brothers Karamazov, and The Grand Inquisitor
Stavrogin
Ernest Hemingway
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Franz Kafka
Anthony Trollope
Alice in Wonderland
George Orwell
Edgar Allan Poe
Hamlet
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Molly Bloom
Dr. Zhivago
Pilgrim’s Progress
Charles Dickens: Mrs. Nickleby, Mr. Micawber, Great ExpectationsOliver TwistBleak HouseThe Old Curiosity Shop, Bob Cratchit

A favorite reference: a character concocts their own cocktail and calls it Death Comes for the Archbishop

And of course
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

A Dance to the Music of Time is officially 12 novels, published 3 at a time in four volumes/movements. Personally, I don’t think the 12 novels are truly novels, but more like rather long chapters. I don’t believe any of the novels, nor any of the volumes stand very well on their own. But of course, to get the full effect, you must commit to nearly 3000 pages.

1st Movement
- A Question of Upbringing
- A Buyer’s Market
- The Acceptance World
2nd Movement
- At Lady Molly’s
- Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant
- The Kindly Ones
3rd Movement
- The Valley of Bones
- The Soldier’s Art
- The Military Philosophers
4th Movement
- Books Do Furnish a Room
- Temporary Kings
- Hearing Secret Harmonies

.

9 comments:

  1. brilliant citations; being old myself, i find a lot of truth there... tx for posting about these books. i've pondered getting into them for years: this is fuel for my cogitations...

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    1. Thanks...it was rather a chore...but I'm glad to have read it. Give it a go someday.

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  2. "To give Powell proper credit, I have to admit, that it was only the first 2,500 pages or so that I didn’t enjoy." LOL!

    I loved this series, from the start and I found the second book in the third trilogy particularly moving when Nick goes to France just after the war is over. But you are right, it is slow and Nick is dispassionate...almost always observing from the sidelines.

    I haven't tackled Proust yet but have also heard the comparison made.

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  3. I think you forgot Balzac in your list of classic literature references.. :)
    Congratulation for completing it, Joseph! I would have never dreamt even to put it in my wishlist!

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    1. Thanks Fanda. I think it was probably worth it.

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  4. Wow. Now I am scared about Proust, in the swnsw you say both were more a chore to read. I have chosen the first part of In Search for the Lost Time as a long classic. It's about 700 pages. I want to read the 7 volumes, but just committing to the whole thing svates me to death.
    I too enjoyed the quotes.

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    1. I hate to turn anyone away from a novel of such acclaim. I'm glad to have read both, but there were...yes...a chore.

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  5. And scares me... Sorry, too many typos today.

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