A Dance to the Music of Time Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is a roman-fleuve, a long sequence of novels that together make up a single unified work. Other examples of the roman-fleuve in English fiction include C. P. Snow’s eleven-volume Strangers and Brothers (1940-1970) and Henry Williamson’s fifteen-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (1951-1969). In French, examples of the roman-fleuve include Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe (1904-1912, 10 vols.), Jules Romains’s Men of Good Will (1932-1946, 27 vols.), Roger Martin du Gard’s Les Thibaults (1922-1940, 8 vols.), and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927, 7 vols.), to which Jenkins sometimes refers in his narration. Powell’s sequence also is reminiscent of the work of nineteenth century novelists such as Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), whose books, though much longer, have huge casts of characters.

Powell’s work, in its Englishness, is like that of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) as well, as it teems with delightful native eccentrics. Perhaps Powell would not have welcomed this comparison, however, because the novelist Nicholas Jenkins, Powell’s alter ego, on more than one occasion, voices his lack of admiration for the Victorian novelists.

The length of the roman-fleuve allows the novelist to develop characters over time, to convey something of the density and complexity of life itself. Powell memorably achieves these effects; at the same time, he is virtually unique among practitioners of the roman-fleuve in that his viewpoint is essentially comic. His narrative is not stylized or experimental in form, nor is it naturalistic, wherein the narrator purports to allow the characters and events to speak solely for themselves. In these novels, everything related is filtered through the intelligence and the temperament of the narrator, Jenkins. He has a ready eye for life’s ironies and absurdities. Thus, a sequence of novels featuring broken marriages, mental breakdowns, failures in business, the military, and the arts; deaths in battle, and suicides—because of the perspective and personality of the narrator—can be read as comedy.

A Dance to the Music of Time draws its title from a painting by Nicolas Poussin. At the beginning of the novel, Jenkins watches some workers gathered around a fire and is reminded of Poussin’s painting, the one in which the seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of time brings thoughts of mortality, of human beings, facing outward like the seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure and stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape. This image of “the music of time,” to the tune of which “partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle,” governs the entire sequence. This structure, therefore, supports the many apparently coincidental appearances and reappearances of characters (again, as in Dickens). Perhaps these coincidental encounters are made more plausible because of the relative closeness of the upper middle-class, aristocratic, and artistic circles within which Jenkins moves.

The twelve novels of the cycle are grouped in four subsections, or movements. The first movement, which includes A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World, traces the progress of Jenkins from youth to experience. Powell’s treatment of this passage is highly unsentimental; for Jenkins, youth is something to be endured and overcome, and the prevailing mood of the opening novels is one of waiting for life to begin in earnest. This mood is not Jenkins’s alone; indeed, throughout the cycle, Jenkins himself is rarely the focus of attention. He is, rather, a participant-observer whose experience enables the reader to meet an extraordinary diversity of characters. Jenkins is all that can be desired in a narrator. He is curious, temperate, and—when not in love—sensible. Because he is a writer, the behavior of characters and the events of their lives often strike within him a literary chord. These observations may provoke analogies—from classical writings, from poetry, even from hymns sung during church services. He is literary but not pedantic.

A Question of Upbringing begins in December, 1921, and although Powell does not always supply exact dates for the action, they usually can be reconstructed with reasonable accuracy following the internal chronology of the cycle, and with reference to historical events mentioned in each respective text. The location in this volume is an exclusive English public school. (This is one of the first biographical details linking Jenkins with his creator: Powell attended Eton College from 1919 to 1923.) Among Jenkins’s schoolmates are three characters destined to play an important role in the cycle. Of these, the most important is Kenneth Widmerpool, the only character other than the narrator to figure in all twelve volumes of the sequence. A disagreeable youth and, ultimately, a despicable man, Widmerpool appears at intervals through Jenkins’s life; their relationship embodies the metaphor of the dance, according to which one is bound to one’s “partners” by an inscrutable design. More sympathetic characters are Jenkins’s friends Charles Stringham and Peter Templer. Stringham is appealing yet self-destructive; Templer is smooth, confident, and mature beyond his years.

The first section of A Question of Upbringing introduces these characters in the school setting. In the summer following his graduation, Jenkins visits the Templers and meets Peter’s younger sister, Jean, then about sixteen or seventeen years old, to whom he is greatly attracted. In the fall of 1923, following a farcical interlude in France, Jenkins enters the university (unnamed, but presumably Oxford, where Powell attended Balliol College from 1923 to 1926). A long comic scene set several months later in the rooms of a power-hungry don, Sillery, introduces two of Jenkins’s fellow students who become recurring characters in the cycle: J. G. Quiggin, later to attain celebrity as a Marxist critic and all-around man of letters (although he leaves the university without a degree), and Mark Members, who makes his reputation as a poet and then, like Quiggin, branches out into the role of man of letters.

A Buyer’s Market, the second novel in the sequence, opens in the summer of 1928 or 1929 and concludes in October of the same year. Jenkins, having graduated from the university, has found employment in London, where he works for a publisher that specializes in art books but issues other sorts of books as well. After his own graduation, Powell had joined the publishing house of Duckworth.

Stringham and Widmerpool, in a coincidence typical of the entire sequence, both find themselves working for Sir Magnus Donners, a prominent industrialist. In structure, this volume follows the pattern established in the first volume. It consists of four chapters, each of which centers on a comic episode or set piece. With some variation, this is the method that Powell follows throughout.

A Buyer’s Market introduces the first of many artists and artists manqué who populate the cycle: Edgar Deacon, a seedy, egotistical, untalented painter with an attraction to young men (he dies in the course of the novel after a drunken fall), and Ralph Barnby, a far better painter but one whose art is very much tied to the Zeitgeist of the 1920’s; he is also a notorious womanizer. The central scene of the novel is a party at the home of Milly Andriadis, a socialite in her mid-thirties who has a brief affair with Stringham before his marriage, which takes place near the end of the volume. This party continues Jenkins’s initiation into the world of experience: “I was . . . more than half aware,” he reflects, “that such latitudes are entered by a door through which there is, in a sense, no return.”

A second set piece features Donners giving a tour of the dungeons at Stourwater Castle, his home, which occasions comment on his voyeuristic and otherwise perverse sexual proclivities. Among the party is the former Jean Templer, now Jean Duport; her loutish husband, Bob Duport, several years older than Jenkins and his contemporaries, is an aggressive entrepreneur who makes and loses great sums of money.

The Acceptance World (the title is British financial jargon for what is known in the United States as trading in futures) completes Jenkins’s initiation. In the course of this volume, which spans the period from autumn, 1931, to summer, 1933, Jenkins publishes his first novel (Powell published his first novel, Afternoon Men, in 1931) and carries on an intense affair with Jean, still going as the book ends but showing signs of ending. Later, Jenkins learns that while their affair was still going, Jean had already been with the man for whom she eventually leaves Jenkins, Jimmy Brent, an odious character whose appeal to Jean is incomprehensible to Jenkins.

An important figure in this volume is the novelist St. John Clarke, introduced briefly in A Buyer’s Market. Clarke, an Edwardian writer who in his time attains both popular and critical success, becomes a kind of litmus test: Referred to in various ways by various characters in the sequence, he represents for Jenkins all that is artistically cheap and meretricious. Also introduced here is the clairvoyant Myra Erdleigh, whom Jenkins meets in the hotel rooms of his uncle, Giles. This scene, the opening scene of The Acceptance World, is one of the most important in the entire twelve volumes. The sequence features many references to occult phenomena, in addition to the often uncanny coincidences that are the very texture of the action. Powell’s attitude toward such phenomena is neither credulous nor debunking. He clearly believes that some experiences of occult phenomena—second sight, telepathy (at least of a low-grade variety), and so on—are valid. Their recurring presence in the cycle (along with instances of obvious charlatanry) has a larger import as well, for they point to the mystery of human existence—a mystery not confined to realms designated “occult.”

When Erdleigh reads the cards and tells Jenkins his future, he is immediately startled by her perspicacity, but he quickly discounts that...

(The entire section is 4330 words.)