A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
Unlike some of the books on the All TIME 100 list, I had never heard of either A Dance to the Music of Time or Anthony Powell. After spending a bit of time on the internet I’ve come to realise that although a lot of people have not read this work, it is considered a highly important one for the English language.
A Dance to the Music of Time takes its name from a painting by Nicolas Poussin of the same name which he painted between 1634 and 1636 as a commission for Giulio Rospigliosi who later became Pope Clement IX. This painting detail certainly attracted my attention and the wikipedia article on it is worth reading.
“Today it is widely accepted that Dance to the Music of Time was meant to represent the passing of time, and the different stages of life on the rapidly revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labour, wealth, and pleasure.”
The four figures in the painting are said to represent the four seasons and I wonder if this holds any significance for the literary work A Dance to the Music of Time because although this work is made up of 12 volumes, those 12 volumes are published in 4 books. The four books are entitled A Dance to the Music of Time 1st Movement, 2nd Movement, 3rd Movement, and 4th Movement. Dance (as it seems to be called) was published between 1951 and 1975 and is set in England over a period of 60 years beginning just after WW1 and ending in the 60s.
GoodReads describes the entire series:
“Anthony Powell’s universally acclaimed epic encompasses a four-volume panorama of twentieth century London. Hailed by Time as “brilliant literary comedy as well as a brilliant sketch of the times,” A Dance to the Music of Time opens just after World War I. Amid the fever of the 1920s and the first chill of the 1930s, Nick Jenkins and his friends confront sex, society, business, and art. In the second volume they move to London in a whirl of marriage and adulteries, fashions and frivolities, personal triumphs and failures. These books “provide an unsurpassed picture, at once gay and melancholy, of social and artistic life in Britain between the wars” (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.). The third volume follows Nick into army life and evokes London during the blitz. In the climactic final volume, England has won the war and must now count the losses.”
Wikipedia describes the series as “[…] an often comic examination of movements and manners, power and passivity in English political, cultural and military life in the mid 20th century.” And the few that I have read who have written about this series have highlighted that it is indeed very funny. If you are worried, as I was, that this will read like a load of fodder for the literary intelligentsia we are assured by Tariq Ali in his article, Come Dancing, that it is not. Mr Ali goes on to say that:
“What is on offer in the 12 novels that constitute the Dance […] is not the nuances of class snobbery, but a reflection of the social history of five crucial decades of the last century, beginning with the end of the first world war and ending with the turbulence of the 60s. There is nothing quite like it in English letters.”
What I have picked up on is that in addition to its epic proportions and scale, and its comedic value, it is brimming with wonderful characters that have left many a reader wondering about the inspiration for them. Another quote from Ali’s great article:
“The sequence is also remarkable for its astonishing characterisations. To Charlus in the Proust epic, and Diotima and Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, must be added Widmerpool and Pamela Flitton from the Dance. The late Lord Longford often claimed that Widmerpool was based on him. And there’s an entry in one of the journals where Powell is at a college reunion at Oxford and runs into Denis Healey. The former Labour deputy leader greets him like a long-lost friend, and inquires: “I’ve always wanted to ask you this: Did you base Widmerpool on Edward Heath?””
My interest has been sufficiently piqued! I would absolutely love to hear from anyone out there who has read any part of A Dance to the Music of Time!