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Powell, Anthony 1905–
Powell is an English novelist and screenwriter. His twelve-volume fictional work "A Dance to the Music of Time," is gradually coming to be considered a masterpiece of modern fiction. The Poussin painting, from which the novel's title is derived, establishes and defines the pattern of the work. As in the painting, where the four seasons, represented as four dancers, move to the music played by Time, the novel explores the seasons of life and the cyclic nature of time. Powell's prose is characterized by formal elegance and subtle wit. (See also CLC, Vols. 1,3,7,9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1636
Despite Powell's inexhaustible interest in the highly competitive literary and artistic life of London, he has never shown the slightest desire to gain power for himself, a characteristic that helps explain the strange, almost anthropological interest with which he examines those men—of whom the power-hungry are the most obvious example—whose public image of themselves is so important to them that they subdue their whole natures to it.
With this insight into the folkways of men of will, Powell gives us an understanding of a fundamental distinction of character in twentieth-century life. His sense of its refinement is remarkable….
Powell is specially fascinated by the comic predicament of men of will who, though wholly engrossed by personal policy, are pitifully incapable of effective action…. (p. 80)
It is possible to work out the chronology of The Music of Time, but there are astonishingly few dates in it. It is the human sense of time rather than chronology that interests Powell, the shape of the feelings at a particular age, the characteristic tone of a period. He fixes our attention on "that feeling of anxiety … that haunts youth so much more than maturity," or the "sense of guilt in relation to [marriage that] makes itself increasingly felt" as one approaches thirty…. (p. 84)
This representation of the shifts and changes in our consciousness of reality as both we and society change with the passage of time is made possible by the scope of The Music of Time and by the controlled variety of circumstances through which the dancers to this music move. But these conditions only make the effect possible; the effect itself has to be realized in the action of the novel or in Jenkins' comments on the action, and it may be that Powell's comparative lack of popularity is a consequence of the quietness with which Jenkins presents the action and comments on it. He never stops to point out to the reader the comic significance of such things as General Conyers' remark to the theosophist Trelawney, with his solemn superiority to Time and Space, "Off you go now—at the double," or to explain to him what he is to deduce from the many marriages of Casanova's Chinese Restaurant. He clearly has an instinctive dislike of what Henry James called "the platitude of statement," and it is only when the significant action is an event in Nicholas Jenkins' consciousness that something of what Powell is driving at becomes overt. (pp. 84-5)
Powell is a man for whom "in human life, the individual ultimately dominates every situation, however disordered, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse," and constitutes the operative center of energy and value in society, however complex the organization and immediately irresistible the conventions of society may be. Powell's awareness of society's power is very acute, but he never fails to suggest that it is both energized and used by the egos of individuals. (p. 85)
Powell, an expert on the rituals of British upper-middle-class life, is fascinated by the essential independence of those who sustain these rituals with such skillful concern for their own egos. (p. 87)
Of all the characters in The Music of Time Nicholas Jenkins is the most subtly and fully developed, but he is no more significant than a number of others. (p. 89)
Powell's sense of character is like his sense of time. Even Jenkins is almost always revealed to us by implication…. (p. 90)
Thus Jenkins' thoughts—and he is a thoughtful man—always effective and often brilliant as comments on experience in general, are always dramatic revelations of character. (p. 91)
[In] Powell's novels passages of speculation are always dramatic displays of the speculating character's motives for action as well as acute general comments on the life about him….
Powell's conception of [both the major and minor] characters and of their immensely complex interrelations has been clear since the opening pages of A Question of Upbringing, where, in a timeless prologue that may well describe the actual genesis of The Music of Time, Jenkins is reminded, by a London street scene, of the Poussin in the Wallace Collection called "A Dance to the Music of Time."… (p. 92)
This beautifully disciplined comparison really tells us all we need to know about the design of The Music of Time. It proposes that we contemplate the interaction of these brief lives as constituting a loosely woven pattern within which parallels, contrasts, repetitions will occasionally occur, sometimes planned by the characters, sometimes unexpected by them. Its emphasis is on the relations of the dancers to the dance, and what it finds important is not what abstract meanings may be ascribed to the dance or to the melody by which the winged and naked greybeard guides it, but what response of the order evoked by Poussin it arouses.
The allusion to Poussin is not accidental. Powell's imagination is intensely visual and his deepest responses express themselves as images. It is characteristic of him to see loiterers outside a nightclub as "two Shakespearean murderers, minor thugs from one of the doubtfully ascribed plays."… It is when, as here, such images are specifically drawn from the fine arts that we can be sure the controlling attitudes of Powell's imagination are asserting themselves. (pp. 92-3)
Images like these dominate The Music of Time, establishing and defining the pattern of feelings for the action. They make us feel—even as Charles Stringham leans over his school-room fire toasting a piece of bread on the end of a paperknife—the splendid but tragic melancholy that will ultimately destroy him. They give us a glimpse of Powell's deep, quiet sense of the twentieth century as a wrecked civilization grubbing along in the shadow of its greatness's ruins, a world nearly transformed by the Widmerpools though still haunted by the Stringhams. "Though ominous," as Jenkins puts it, "things still had their enchantment." This is the tone everywhere in The Music of Time…. (p. 94)
It is the continuous triumph of The Music of Time to show us, in these ways, without resort to extravagance of representation or distortion of perspective, that "all human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary" and that human affairs are therefore both absurd and sad. The title of Powell's first novel, Afternoon Men, comes from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy…. Like Burton, Powell assumes without argument that, despite some superficial appearances to the contrary created by social convention, men, seen close up, reveal themselves to be demented, driven by invisible but powerful spirits to behave in extraordinary ways. He is fully aware of the horror this is. What could be sadder than the life of Charles Stringham …? What could be more frightening than the single-minded, unrelenting, inhuman drive for power of men like Widmerpool, the destructive anarchy of Audrey Maclintock's nature and of the scores of other characters like them in their self-regard if in nothing else?
Yet, however terrifying, these people are also ridiculous, "to reason most absurd," an endless source of comic enchantment. (pp. 95-6)
No doubt the hopeful generalization to be deduced from these observations of life would be some conviction of the temporary decline of our culture and the need for energetic reform, as the unhopeful generalization would be one of the more or less gloomy cyclical theories of history. But feelings in Powell never ossify into doctrine, which is associated in his mind with egotism and inhumanity; all his doctrinaires are men so egotistical as to be incapable of enough human experience to engage their feelings, who must substitute doctrine for understanding. (p. 97)
Like his sense of the absurdities of the human imagination—willful or not—Powell's sense of its sadness asserts itself as implication, a shadow behind the character's immediate responses and conscious intentions…. Even more remarkably, this sadness is evoked by the great comic egotists of The Music of Time, the J. G. Quiggins, the Uncle Gileses, the Widmerpools. It is a faint but persistent aftertaste of the comedy of their marvelous, unremitting self-absorption. In the end, despite their outrageous selfishness, one always sees the sadness of the defeat they have, from their own point of view so unjustly, suffered.
The heart of Powell's work is these brief lives, these beautifully realized characters, all moving within the pattern of Time's dance, but all moving in their own ways, and, as they suppose, at the dictates of their own desires, more or less ludicrous according to the extent to which their sense of reality has been distorted by the willful assertion of their public images of themselves, but—ludicrous or not—always a little sad. Every one of them is both a period piece and himself…. (pp. 97-9)
[Uncle Giles's] is a wonderfully ludicrous life, and it would be easy to be so amused by Uncle Giles as to miss his underlying pathos, for his is not a despicable life…. It is in this way that Powell makes his great egotists, for all their absurdity, something not essentially different from the rest of us; even Widmerpool, the most extravagant of them all, is not. However sublimely ridiculous he becomes, he continues to remind us, not so much, perhaps, of what we have done, as of what we have, in our time, known we might do. (pp. 100-01)
The effect of The Music of Time is a very remarkable one for the mid-twentieth century. It is as if we had come suddenly on an enormously intelligent but completely undogmatic mind with a vision of experience that is deeply penetrating and yet wholly recognizable, beautifully subtle in ordination and yet quite unostentatious in technique, and in every respect undistorted by doctrine. (p. 102)
Arthur Mizener, in his The Sense of Life in the Modern Novel (copyright © 1963 by Arthur Mizener; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, 1964.
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Anyone wanting to give a general idea of Anthony Powell's novels will find himself talking pretty soon about an easily recognised prose style and a steady concern with the well-born, well-off and well-educated. As it happens, the writing changes sharply between the early books and [A Dance to the Music of Time (ADTTMOT)]; for that matter, there are changes within ADTTMOT. But a distinctive polish, restraint and wit do run through all, and touches of learning are fairly regular. As to class, a few books may glance at lowish, or even low, life but this is not typical…. (p. 1)
One further common quality needs to be mentioned early: a constant aim to be readable, to entertain, for the most part wonderfully realised. To draw the three elements together, one can say that much of this readability in ADTTMOT and in several of the earlier books comes from the elegantly deadpan treatment of liberated upper-class behaviour, and especially sexual behaviour: the lowdown on high life in charming undemonstrative prose.
If Powell's work went only this far it would be slight: no more than a slick and funny exposé of the privileged. That is not how it turns out. Certainly the novels occupy themselves at some length with shallow, possibly effete, lives and skilfully create the right drifting, inconstant, often anarchic tone of the society they inhabit. What seems to give the books their substance is this unflurried willingness to see high life as it is and accept its rough edges; while suggesting in a moderate, not too convinced manner that it is better on the whole to do things in a humane, temperate way free from self-obsession and from cruelty…. Tolerance, humanity, decency attend Powell's heroes and narrators and come through to the reader as the qualities most worth bothering about. (pp. 1-2)
One feels … a plea throughout Powell's books for the natural warmth and vitality of life to be allowed their expression. Bores and monsters get in the way. It is this belief which gives the platform on which Powell's humour, elegance and épatant disclosures rest, and which provide the books with the solid ground to support their charm. A reservation must be made here too, though. In many ways, Powell, like the narrator of ADTTMOT, has a classical mind and terms like warmth and vitality may sound purple; after all, the standard description of his style is cool. In addition, a conservative, if not Conservative, rationality pervades the books…. Yet, for all their attention to control, and their regard for decorum and what is proper … the books see further. (pp. 2-3)
The distinction of Powell's novels is that they engagingly look at surfaces and, at the same time, suggest that this is by no means enough. They will continually disturb the surface to show us much more. In their quiet way they direct us towards a good, practical, unextreme general philosophy of life. Where very specific admirable behaviour is implied by the irony the books are less assured: Nicholas Jenkins's radiantly unexceptionable marriage comes to seem freakish, given the surrounding sexual restlessness; what St John Clarke, during his Marxist days, would have called bourgeois. The assertions which really count in the book, though, are made through an overall generosity of outlook and a consistent advocacy of sound sense.
What, then, is Powell's stature? It can be unfair and dangerous to blame novelists for what they have left out: the critical focus has slipped on to infinity. All the same, one does feel conscious of large gaps in Powell's work…. [While] Powell believes in and extols feelings he is not good at igniting them on the page so that the reader feels the heat; it does happen, but the moments are exceptional. The books fall particularly short on the emotional lives of women, and a disproportionate number of his females seem brassy, shallow, restless. When, during the later books of ADTTMOT, he attempts something more in Pamela Flitton he resorts to overcolouring. Yet Ortrud Mavrin, portrayed by Powell with such delightful warmth in what was only his second novel, [Venusberg (V)], showed a genuine understanding of women, and it is hard to know why he discarded it.
Possibly related to his failure to involve us in feelings is an inability, or disinclination, to deal with action as if it were taking place while we watch; the reader tends to view from afar, with the aid of first-class field-glasses, it is true, and an amusing commentary, but we are at times conscious of the distance. In Powell's work there is a general flight from immediacy, and notably in ADTTMOT where the narrative method is allowed to fuzz incident and situation. Often this is essential to Powell's intent, but the lack of definition and energy which can result is a disturbing weakness, just the same. (pp. 3-4)
What Powell has is a powerful sense of life through character, caricature and period; fine humour and invention; a largely humane point of view; and unequalled competence at setting down the ways of a small, deeply interesting class of English society. Technically, he has remarkably extended what can be done through the first-person narrative; and he has the control to mix comfortably within one volume very different modes of novel writing: naturalism, fantasy, comedy, farce, occasional tragedy. (pp. 4-5)
[Afternoon Men (AM)] is a book of continuously mannered style whose entertaining surface is broken now and then by the brief but clear sight of some enormously important theme; it is the early form of a method which Powell will follow throughout his work. Like leaping fish, big topics may glint for a second in AM before sinking again beneath the sea of inarticulate if not opaque dialogue. Fotheringham's insight that 'there must be something beyond this sex business' is central to the novel. But it must be spoken by a lightweight, hilariously disorganised character so that the book's sustained tone of farce and inconsequence will not be ruptured by prêchi-prêcha.
Yet the theme is constantly present and AM's apparent shallowness may at any time be touched by sadness and, to risk a more ponderous term, significance. The novel shows a group of mainly young people at a fairly undistinguished level of London society between the wars. (p. 9)
Consistently Powell avoids neatness, symmetry and well-fashioned motivation because these would clamp on to his glimpse of this social group an inappropriate system and order.
Many chapters end in farce or banality, particularly chapters where some deep, possibly poignant, matter has been hinted at. The technique is deliberate and, for the most part, highly effective. Powell is, of course, writing here and in most of his work about a group which conceals, plays down and even avoids feelings. But feelings cannot be entirely excluded from life, nor are they from the novel. (p. 15)
A discussion of style in AM must be mainly to do with dialogue. Powell abandons the heavy reliance on speech after this novel and in ADTTMOT conversation is comparatively sparing. AM's dialogue is almost always laconic and, by intent, generally trite and laborious. Through it Powell conveys much of his amused criticism of this aimless and silly group…. [Sluggish] formula conversations excellently catch the pattern of such lives….
Frequently, too, he can use monosyllabic, repetitious conversation to say far more than appears, a skill crucial in realistic fiction…. (p. 16)
It would be untrue to say that all the writing of AM is pared down and simple. Once or twice Powell turns to a very complicated, parenthetic style, rich in multisyllable words; in fact, a style which foreshadows the prose of ADTTMOT. (p. 17)
AM remains a book of remarkable qualities, despite signs of immaturity…. Above all, the novel is very funny, combining understated wit, farce and what might be called comedy of mannerisms. It also sounds a gentle but clearly heard note of sadness that things should be as they are. (pp. 17-18)
Like AM, Powell's second novel Venusberg (1932), also moves in something of an ironic, deflationary circle, its end similar in mood to its opening. Although V, too, is almost continuously funny, the flavour has become more subtle; and the novel's world is wider and harsher, its personnel socially more various, their lives less confined and less protected.
In a superficial sense the book may be seen as a love story. More conventionally plotted than AM, it contains no elaborate comic set-pieces and skilfully uses several minor characters in linking roles….
The book's irony is remarkably complicated, beginning with the basic agonies of those who yearn only for the lover they cannot have, and developing towards vast strokes of luck—good or bad, depending on who you are—in the conclusion. (p. 19)
The point Powell is making does not become entirely clear. One must beware of … imposing weightily obtuse interpretations on a book where charm and delicacy of touch are so important. (p. 20)
Perhaps V can be criticised for overdoing the irony and becoming a little glib. It is worrying to see the regularity with which incident is shaped towards wryness; at times this seems as much a simplification as would be thraldom to romantic cliché. (pp. 20-1)
Unemphatic, oblique, deadpan, the narrative method of V looks forward to the way in which Powell will present ADTTMOT. Rarely does he seem interested in describing incident with force and immediacy; it is the results which concern him. (p. 22)
[In] a book whose theme is that we are creatures of circumstance there would be little place for a hero bursting with decisiveness. Lushington, on the whole, is someone to whom things happen, not who makes them happen; a character type common enough in twentieth-century fiction.
He is also, of course, an ironic observer and listener, something like Jenkins in ADTTMOT. Passive qualities are implied. Frequently there is not even need for Powell to describe Lushington's reactions: we sense them because we know what sophisticated and worldly values he stands for…. This is an admirably subtle technique but does require a central character here, as in [What's Become of Waring (WBOW)] and, above all, in ADTTMOT, with spectacular powers of self-effacement. Some readers find such shadowiness a let-down, particularly as it affects Jenkins.
Yet it is crucial to Powell's ironic campaign: an energetically intrusive central figure, seeking to set people and things to rights, would suggest more moral certainty than Powell wants to show. We are going to find throughout his novels a fascinating variety in his ways of presenting the narrative, and a thorough look at these methods will help us understand his aim, I think. (p. 24)
In general Powell keeps the style of V rigorously simple, sometimes to the point of flatness….
Overall … the prose is a controlled, sensitive instrument capable of holding tragedy and farce in a single grip. (p. 25)
Bare survival is a theme of both AM and V: Atwater will keep going through mere habit, Lushington through a patched-up unecstatic love affair. From a View to a Death [FAVTAD] (1933) concerns itself with durability in a more positive, though not exactly more pleasant, sense. Having shown social hierarchies shifting or already flat in the earlier books, Powell here demonstrates that there are also instances when those with position can look after themselves very capably, even when backed by little money. (p. 27)
Zouch is not … central to FAVTAD as Atwater and Lushington are to the previous books, not the 'eye'. He represents only a partial turn towards the dynamic hero. Powell shifts the narrative between several groups of characters and Zouch and his viewpoint disappear for sizeable stretches. It is this loosening of allegiance to one character which enables Powell to make Zouch a more complicated hero than either of his predecessors, and to excite contradictory reactions to him in the reader: the kind of indecisive response that tallies with our judgement of some people in real life. (p. 28)
Style has become less mannered [in FAVTAD] than in the first two books, a more straightforward instrument for telling a story: brisk, occasionally witty, still off-hand and anti-dramatic. As in AM there is some excellent terse conversation, but in this later book Powell manages now and then to touch surface ridiculousness with menace or sadness…. Overall FAVTAD reveals a growing range of accomplishment but lacks—deliberately avoids for the sake of other intentions—the charm and carefully maintained single flavour of AM and V. (p. 32)
It is not necessary to regard ADTTMOT as a kind of Decline and Fall of the English upper classes—as some do—to see these first three novels as early and variously emphatic treatments of disintegration, with FAVTAD the grimmest in tone and the most effectively ominous. The qualities which Powell prizes—tolerance, humanity, decency—have gone on leave for this novel, and he is showing us the dispiriting result. (p. 33)
As if to compensate for the sombreness of FAVTAD Powell gives each of his next two novels, Agents and Patients [AAP] (1936) and What's Become of Waring (1939), a light, almost inconsequential surface. These last novels before ADTTMOT treat segments of English upper-middle-class and middle-class life with Powell's familiar wit and precision. AAP is often very funny; and WBOW has for at least three-quarters of the book a passably suspenseful and intricately shaped plot, something unique in Powell's novels….
As the title suggests, AAP is concerned, beneath its humour and extravagances, with freedom. (p. 34)
Powell may mean that we are all prisoners of our personalities and will stay so, regardless of efforts to change….
It is a harsh message and may reach out towards Wesleyan predestination. In its brighter, more mannered way the book is as pessimistic as FAVTAD. (p. 35)
WBOW is a very capable lightweight exercise and represents a pause in Powell's progress: it contains few of those deeper implications which can be felt now and then in the earlier novels and throughout ADTTMOT. (p. 37)
Near the start of [A Question of Upbringing (AQOU)] we get an explicit account of what Powell means by his overall title A Dance to the Music of Time.
The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outwards like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable 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.
Life, then, has shape, method, pattern: it would be hard to imagine music or dance without. There is order. What sort? Not only are the dancers unable to control the melody but they may lack power over the steps they perform. (That late 'perhaps' is sizeable.) In Powell's title 'dance' does not evoke primarily rhythm, harmony, gaiety. Instead the word is at least ironic and possibly derisive, echoing the use in a phrase like 'led a dance'. The intricacy of the measure is sad and demeaning, not elaborately beautiful, since those engaged have no choice but to take part, and their responses are like those of a complicated machine. Their lives have some kind of meaning—are only 'seemingly meaningless'—but they do not know what and do not consciously express it. We hear of life as a 'ritual dance' in [A Buyer's Market (ABM)]. Ritual is metaphor so this, too, suggests underlying meaning. Yet it is the other, less heartening aspects of ritual which sound most strongly here, and once more the intent is ironic: people behave as if they can play fresh, original parts in life, whereas really the lines have been laid down from far back, and all the moves are inflexibly formalised, limited and repetitive. Life has some system but it is hard to find comfort in the fact. Patterns exist but they may be utterly destructive of those which people would wish for themselves. The human will can look very feeble. The contrast between how people might want to behave—or might have been expected to in view of upbringing and background—and the actual performance imposed as time calls the tune is a main theme. (pp. 77-8)
[We find] the insistent suggestion that people's lives may be linked in strange, unpredictable, often perverse fashion. Time will secure these couplings, and break them. ('Partners disappear, only to reappear again.') Sometimes the results will be intriguing, sometimes droll, sometimes devastatingly harsh. This provides the 'meaning' of the dance: we shape and condition each other's lives in ways which may seem at the same time spectacularly random and ferociously intense. (p. 78)
Presumably … we are all as unreliable as Powell's narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, at reading the signs of how people will develop and how they will impinge on each other. This is an extension of Powell's view, and an important one: at least some indications of the future are available to us…. But we are often too blind, prejudiced, insensitive or ignorant to take it in; only hindsight makes things clear…. [Here] and there time will take on for a brief while characteristics of fate or chance or destiny: god-like qualities. That is probably as much as we can say. The degrees of contrariness, inevitablity, coincidence and determinism with which time works out its designs in ADTTMOT are so enormously and fascinatingly varied that it becomes dangerous to speculate beyond what we are directly told. Time rules.
We may see how in one of the books' chief relationships; the one between three characters we meet first as school-boys in AQOU, four if we include Nicholas. They are Kenneth Widmerpool, Peter Templer and Charles Stringham…. Widmerpool [becomes] fixed in the minds of his contemporaries as a freak, to be treated with amusement or contempt. Against Stringham and Templer he seems particularly blighted. Although these two are graphically differentiated they have in common an aura of unquestioned superiority over Widmerpool…. The reader who takes the narrator's impressions for truth would foresee Stringham and Templer moving easily towards success in later life, while Widmerpool flounders in hard-working mediocrity, at best.
Fiction tends to avoid the predictable and the reversal of these expectations is total. Widmerpool eventually achieves such power that he may certainly be accused of causing Stringham's death; and is possibly also implicated—a far more sombre matter—in the death of Templer. Long before this Jenkins has been forced to see that his school verdict on Widmerpool was faulty. (pp. 78-80)
Powell … is telling us that in the affairs of Widmerpool, Stringham and Templer—and to a much smaller degree Jenkins—time has applied coincidence according to a flagrant and exact scheme. We are invited not to close one and a half eyes to unlikelihood but to watch, wonder at and learn from the ways in which life—the dance—will arrange almost unbelievably interlocked connections and events in order to ensure dizzy and often chilling alterations in fortune.
A qualification is needed. There is one sense in which time changes nothing. Careers and power are important but they are not everything, certainly not in novels. Regardless of what progress Widmerpool may make in business, the army or politics his basic rating as a character remains constant. He begins grotesque and is never anything other to Jenkins or—I think it is fair to say—to the reader: the more eminent the more ludicrous. (p. 82)
Essentially … the question is whether we can take certain cornerstone assumptions—often honestly and directly spelled out—on which ADTTMOT is built. The main one is that characters pass very closely related lives and that this will be true not merely in the limited geography of well-to-do London … but also in the worldwide setting of the 1939–45 war: to take only one instance, Nicholas's meeting with the South American husband of Jean at the Victory Day Service.
On the one hand these nicely fashioned surprises are the entertaining tricks of fiction, and let us be grateful for entertainment. They also represent, of course, elements in the dance thesis: further affirmations of another basic assumption of the books that links between people, once established, may well find ways of reasserting themselves….
Powell has made an entirely believable whole of this. He (or at least Jenkins) holds as a further premise that in all our lives there is someone like Widmerpool who will reappear at crucial stages and around whom key events will form. I am not sure that many of us could think of such a person in real life. That is not the whole question, though. We demand that a fiction writer should by technique or art, and maybe both together, convince us that this is how the world as he sees it might behave. Through a number of skilfully employed devices Powell is able to make us accept the existence of a tight-knit, limited and very tangible world. He establishes, for example, a remarkably dense texture of resemblances and connections between characters by continually comparing their appearances, careers and dispositions. (p. 84)
Given time then truth will out, taking truth here to mean what people were bred up to, or what are their ruling passions…. [A striking instance of obsessive career progress] is seen in Widmerpool, the novel's major character development. He begins as an exemplar of vehemently willed ambition and ends, or at first appears to, deep in self-abnegation, seemingly contemptuous of everything that previously governed his life. Is this, then, one of time's swingeing ironies? Not quite. In fact, Widmerpool, naked, ill and in his sixties, dies while urging a group of cultists to greater speed while out on a ritual run in the early hours of one morning. Widmerpool draws ahead. 'I'm leading. I'm leading', he shouts. Even in self-abasement he had to be the top: time finally asserts what was always there. (pp. 86-7)
What strikes one first about the prose of ADTTMOT is its elaborate texture and seemingly cast-iron poise, qualities suiting the narrator's wisdom, favoured status, knowledge and assurance. Nicholas senior sets the past's uncertainties against the comparative—and only comparative—clarity of hindsight. Above all, the style is a generalising instrument, designed to bring apparently fragmented material into unity. By continually opening its focus wide the writing places incident and feeling of the moment in their background.
We may look at the first two paragraphs of AQOU for early evidence of Powell's method. The prose is smooth, belligerently sure of itself, measured and parenthetical. Simile abounds and especially simile not meant so much to make accurate parallels as to satirise through fanciful, even outrageous, allusion: 'as if', which appears twice in the first paragraph, is a favourite Powell device, often raised aloft when one of these jokes is on the march. It is a technique bringing great pictorial richness, along with a sense of amused, knowledgeable detachment: the writing sees beyond the obvious and actual and can appraise situations by wide-ranging—free-ranging—standards. Only a little later than these opening paragraphs Jenkins describes his housemaster Le Bas standing 'as if he were about to leap high into the air like an athlete or ballet dancer; and in this taut attitude he seemed to be considering best how to carry out his threat, while he breathed heavily inward as if to inbibe the full savour of sausages.'
Colons do heavy duty in ADTTMOT. In these opening two paragraphs, and throughout, the prose is largely appositional: to borrow the mode, plain statement followed by commentary or modification or conjecture, so that the reader feels himself presented with a very wide choice of possible responses; the uncertainties of real life are caught. Colons give Powell the ferry between immediacy and perspective, between events and their interpretations…. (pp. 89-90)
[The] style of ADTTMOT helps establish the novel's basic duality: the poise of hindsight against the intransigence of fact and actuality. There is, of course, detachment and assurance, but they are not absolute; the prose can be high-flown but it will often be reeled in again pretty sharply…. This modulated dignity, mandarin with the skids under it, gives Powell's style its distinction. (pp. 90-1)
We will often meet this comic method in ADTTMOT: the presentation of fatuously trivial or even degraded subject matter in elevated language. (p. 91)
This contradiction of style by subject matter is one way towards deflation, perhaps the simplest. There are others. Throughout ADTTMOT we come across instances of highly-fashioned and, or, potentially dramatic and earnest prose tugged sharply back on the short leash. Jenkins first takes Jean Duport (Templer) in his arms during a drive along the Great West Road, in TAW [The Acceptance World]. The writing is intermittently sonorous and passionate; but both qualities are kept in check—at least that—by a description of the locale: an 'electrically illuminated young lady in a bathing dress dives eternally through the petrol-tainted air' as part of an advertising display. And there is an unglamorous doubt: were Nicholas and Jean thrown together by complicated psychological and emotional causes or by pot-holes in the road? (p. 92)
[The] first two books are the most liable to over-blown complexity; but the novel is never altogether free of it…. (p. 96)
Although occasional uneasiness with Powell's style on these grounds is inescapable, we do need to keep in mind what his intentions are. Perspective on what happens is as important to him as what happens; and he has evolved a prose which will quite calculatedly lower or even kill the impact of some potentially exciting situation for the sake of reflective comment or allusion. It is deflation …: a deliberate reduction of vivid, sharp, perhaps even pacey writing to the less lively language of analysis and interpretation. The technique is particularly apparent in Powell's treatment of love and sex, and one can see why. The overall attitude to love—Jenkin's marriage and a couple of others excepted—is anti-romantic and ironic. (p. 97)
The style is, then, trying to say in its texture what has to be said about love, and saying it on the whole honestly and effectively. Most of us would be prepared to concede that the fictional treatment of sexual love is habitually glamorised. Powell avoids that, while also avoiding cynicism, in a style shaped to suggest amusement, melancholy, pain and heartfelt uncertainty.
Although the writing can lose its balance, for the most part it is a subtly controlled means of setting against each other immediacy and retrospect, surface and substance, incident and theme, impulse and perspective, social poise and the signs of powerful change. (p. 99)
Powell's narrative method in ADTTMOT is, of course, crucial to the novel's shape, a uniquely subtle and complicated device. More than a little arbitrarily, I would like to break it into three elements …: the relationship of sheer, basic story-telling requirements to those of commentary and reflection; the personality of Nicholas, Powell's narrator; and the means by which Powell brilliantly widens, varies and extends what can be done within the 'I' formula.
Like most first person narrators, Nicholas Jenkins participates in the action; he observes and comments; and he reminisces, from a position often decades ahead. It is the degree of tilt towards comment and retrospective judgement which makes Jenkins exceptional. (p. 100)
We often find Jenkins as narrator looking back on Jenkins the protagonist looking back: both AQOU and ABM open like that, as if Powell wished from the start to give the 'present' of the book fluidity and a time context….
The effect of such roving narration is, inevitably, to catch in the construction of the books the theme of time's sameness beneath seeming change. It is as if it does not much matter from which chronological point we view the incidents and characters. (p. 102)
The description of events as they occur tends to be less important than the placing of them in the overall scheme, a scheme we are constantly reminded about. It is only one of Powell's objectives to convey the flavour and freshness of a moment, and possibly not the chief objective. As a result, he needs a specially devised style,… a style which rarely strives for narrative pace, and which may down-play and blur the impact, edge and immediacy of events as they happen. He needs, also, of course, a carefully devised narrator. It is time to look at the character of Nicholas.
There is more than one Nicholas. Jenkins, the elderly narrator, is a lavishly developed character, opinionated, learned, prosy, philosophical, reflective and copiously articulate. There is also Jenkins a participant in the events recalled; though 'participant' may be putting it rather strongly. Jenkins senior keeps Jenkins junior pretty well battened down except for occasional exercise spells and airings…. [Very] important aspects of feeling and behaviour are left out almost altogether; Nicholas's relations with his wife, both before and after marriage, are treated with glaring economy, for instance. (pp. 102-03)
Where Jenkins is most alive, and then considerably and interestingly alive, is in friendship, in devotion to his work and art (though we should note that even this is muted: he speaks of 'that hard, cold-blooded almost mathematical pleasure I take in writing and painting'), in wit, in the gossip's curiosity about odd sexual habits (Sir Magnus's primarily), and in an occasional sharp animosity towards people he feels have fallen below standard….
Nicholas, the participant, is then a character whose actions, thoughts, attitudes and emotions are given to us through the filter of retrospection and which are therefore short of vividness, actuality, suspense. The younger Nicholas will have some of the characteristics of an exhibit. On top of that, he is not by nature a raucous, swashbuckling or aggressive figure. Of a recognisable upper-class English type, he is endowed with considerable self-control and calmness and a notable taste for understatement. I say English. This restraint—so often used in lampoon portraits of, say, the Foreign Office man—does have its counterpart elsewhere. An Italian word—sprezzatura—best sums up Nicholas's qualities. (p. 108)
Inevitably there is a certain amount of tolerated duplicity in this kind of narrative stance. A man looks back over his life; many of the uncertainties and imponderables of a particular time are so no longer: he knows the upshot. But where the 'I' of the story is an active central figure we accept that he will recount his adventures as they unfolded for him at the time, with all the unknowns and obscurities of that period kept in. This the technique of, say David Copperfield, or Jane Eyre. Powell is not quite in this category, though. He is not telling an unfolding story. Although by and large the books advance in time and finish about fifty years later than the sequence began there is no straight, chronological flow from beginning to end as in a more conventionally plotted novel…. It is, in fact, crucial to Powell's purpose that the novel should be able to move about in time, so that he may show the complex relationships of one period with another. As Proust puts it in Time Regained, reality is a relation between sensations of the moment and 'those memories which simultaneously encircle us'. There will be flashes forward and back.
Another point: as we have seen, Jenkins is not in any simple sense the hero of this novel. He is an observer more than a participant; much more. He does not put before us simply a series of adventures in which he figures, but describes an incident or a relationship and reflects upon it, drawing from many sources, some of them natural to the Jenkins of the period we are seeing, some not. Many first-person narrators do this, it is true, but not on the same scale.
What this means is that we are given continual reminders that Jenkins is at once a participant in the events described, or, at least, a contemporary witness; yet someone, virtually omniscient, looking back from anywhere up to fifty years ahead. The result is a narrative method which is not completely logical—or to use a word more often applied to detective story writers—fair. (p. 109)
In Powell's hands the first-person narrative is, in fact, an extremely elastic and varied device. It is a form of storytelling which has, in principle, certain very obvious limitations: we are largely confined to the judgments and experiences of one person…. Powell very successfully skirts or utilises the limitations. One of his chief methods is explicitly to imagine Jenkins viewing events through the eyes and mind of someone else, and particularly through those of Uncle Giles, who becomes at times a kind of second-string narrator. This is a most remarkable technique. It is not simply a matter of augmenting the chief narrator's information by getting reports from temporarily better placed characters, which goes on all the time in first-person novels. Nicholas will actually surrender his point of view, his judgment, to Giles for a while. That, in itself, brings a notable complexity. It is more than this, though. 'To look at things through Uncle Giles's eyes would never have occurred to me.' Jenkins reflects in ABM. The book then, naturally, goes on to do exactly that: look at things as Giles might have assessed them, had he been present at the time; it would be difficult to get more notional. It is the mature—indeed, elderly—Jenkins who gives us what he takes to be Giles's way of judging matters, while pointing out that the younger Jenkins would never have considered such a stratagem. What we are getting here is a narrative viewpoint from fifty or so years on, based on a hypothetical version of what someone other than the story-teller might have felt about people and events he did not even see. (pp. 111-12)
This is fiction, so perhaps one should not speak of hypotheses as a departure from the rule. The whole world is make-believe and there is a sense in which the author can just as validly see matters as Uncle Giles as he can see them as Jenkins. Within the limitations which he has set himself, though—those of the 'I' narrative—this is a fascinating means for an author to secure himself more elbowroom. (p. 112)
It is worth spending a little time examining how Powell does make use of uncertainty and imprecision as a narrative aid. The aim, of course, is naturalness, realism: many of our impressions in life are fragmentary, partial, faulty, either at the moment of receiving them or in retrospect. Powell catches this quality. Jenkins will continually express doubts about his own reading of a situation or assessment of a character…. Where Jenkins requires to pass on others' impressions the possibility of mistake is greater still; tentativeness in the narrator's version becomes obligatory.
Powell gives Jenkins explicit, and far-reaching, reflections to make on the problem in [Temporary Kings (TK)]. Pamela Widmerpool has been discovered naked at night in Bagshaw's house, where Gwinnett was a lodger. Pamela was seen in what was probably the downstairs hall by Bagshaw's father, a short-sighted, elderly, retired insurance employee who had got out of bed to go to the lavatory. The description of this extraordinary event comes to us, then, from an original source of questionable reliability (Bagshaw we know to be older than Nicholas, who is in his fifties; so Bagshaw senior must be well on); via Bagshaw himself to Jenkins…. For a moment here Powell raises explicitly the whole question of how a novel is told, quoting Trapnel, as a matter of fact, though it could as easily have been Henry James or Percy Lubbock. Trapnel believes that every novel must come from 'a point of view'. Jenkins takes this thought further and says that the reader of a story, or the listener, must adjust his responses to the known or suspected prejudices of the teller. This is, of course, Powell commenting on his own method in ADTTMOT. If anything, Powell actually emphasizes the unreliability of his narrator's perceptions; and the continual eruption of comment from Giles, Barnby, Sillery and others is to stress Jenkins's limitations and partialities. Overall, the effect is of a naturally fallible, many-faceted presentation of truth. (pp. 115-16)
By recognising from the outset this possibility of uneasiness in the reader, Powell attempts to forestall criticism. It is another example of an author using his technique—tolerably, I think—to get things two ways. He wants the drama and comedy of the incident; at the same time he knows he is pushing us a little hard and so has Jenkins say that the account is not put forward as what actually happened. The debate about truthfulness or not is conducted in weighty, solemn language … which, although possessing a facetious undertone, is also intended to distract the reader into wondering whether the incident was mechanically possible, rather than whether it is acceptably likely as a piece of serious writing. (p. 116)
[Two] of the most striking examples of what one might call second-hand narrative occur in TK, a book dominated by Pamela. She is unique to ADTTMOT in that she continually produces moments of lurid dramatic force. She carries her own purple patch with her. To accommodate such a character within the generally subdued tone of his novel Powell will distance her by deflected reports of her behaviour. He will blur her in doubts. It is a notably shrewd recognition of a problem, of a limitation, in fact; and a notably skilful way out. He knows himself to be not well equipped to deal with direct versions of forceful action and, in finding a means to compensate, has usefully extended the capabilities of the 'I' narrative. (p. 118)
Sexual passion is treated mainly from the point of view of an observer, not a participant, in ADTTMOT. Of course, the narrative method ensures this: Jenkins can tell us at first hand only about his own love affairs, and on those aspects of his life he tends to close up. It is not simply a matter of narrative method, though; or, to put it another way, Powell chose the method and with it the limitations: these include a distanced, ironic treatment of most characters' sexual behaviour, interest in the social effects of liaisons taking a higher priority with Powell than their emotional content….
Although a few central established upper-class marriages seem to survive without the remotest menace—notably those of Jenkins and his father—they are small rocks of stability among acres of shifting sand. Such volatile relationships are basic to the music of time theme…. What one has to ask, I think, is how far sex—love might be putting it high—is utilised in the novel simply as a means of keeping the patterns of the dance in a constant, interesting state of change.
It is not by any stretch a simple question. For one thing, we have learned from the pre-war books that Powell's view of sexual love—the happiness it can bring, its stability, its authenticity—is sceptical. (pp. 119-20)
[One] result of Powell's fascination with the externals of fragile sexual relationships is that ADTTMOT offers a large number of women who, although of expertly differentiated personality, seem, as to their feelings, all made to similarly tough, shallow or even negative pattern. They move between men without showing what impels them; at least, what beyond mere acquisitiveness or whim. (p. 120)
Pamela Flitton [is] by far the most ambitious piece of female characterisation attempted by Powell and the only woman projected with the thoroughness of the novel's chief men. (p. 122)
Pamela emerges suddenly in [The Military Philosophers (TMP)] as a woman of exceptional sexual éclat and ruthlessness, the impression growing in the books that follow, until she dies in TK. As a means of contriving the extraordinary turns of time and the dance she is supreme. (p. 123)
Yet although her function as creator and tangler of relationships is so patent—even blatant—and although she shares with some of the other roving women a surface personality of startling toughness and consistent aggression, Pamela receives a degree of character development unequalled among other women. This is not to say that she is entirely convincing. The portrait is perhaps tinged with sentimentality and its psychology over-simple. But it has some very accomplished features. As a result, Pamela can hold some of our sympathy, and a good deal of our curiosity, even when she appears at her most pugnacious or sullen. She has enabled Powell to break away from what had become almost a female stereotype and create someone who is a complicated living woman with elaborate emotions. One feels blistering energy whenever she is present, combined with a sense that she is looking, hopelessly, for a fulfilling response somewhere in life, and chiefly through love. Her promiscuity is a symptom of despair, as is her marriage to Widmerpool. (pp. 123-24)
On the face of it then she is not merely of a pattern, but the most startling model produced from it. We are required to look deeper in her case, though. Her sexuality is part of the essence of her personality, not an incidental, and it is accounted for in both physiological and psychological terms. (p. 125)
Intimidating, poignant, honest, Pamela is a fine creation, particularly in BDFAR [Books Do Furnish a Room] (matters grow a little strained in TK). The relationship with Trapnel is treated like a real love affair, not as a symbolic, intriguing, passionless, jokey coupling. And yet it is symbolic and intriguing all the same. (p. 127)
[One] should recognise that sexual passion in ADTTMOT is treated with something other than absolute realism. In Powell's view, desire—for someone, for status, for the quiet domestic life, for change—transforms people; so sharpens and emphasises this one impulse that they become for that time single-dimensional characters, swift-moving counters on a board. These movements themselves may then be fascinating and exciting to watch; the causes, though, are secondary, banal, scarcely worth talking about: simply what the dice dictate.
There will be effective departures from this method, as with Pamela above all. And the method itself is generally all it needs to be in a work of irony, more concerned with social patterns than with feelings. When, though, as in Nicholas's and Isobel's case, a love affair is ostentatiously exempted that irony; and when this particular pair of counters do not speed separately around the board but settle together snugly in their square, we are bound to ask why this should be. (pp. 127-28)
AQOU circles, seeming to leave Nicholas pretty well where he started and this helps bring an almost emphatic shapeliness to the book. In the first chapter, Nicholas's Uncle Giles, nosy, aggressive, a little shady, calls on him at school to discuss family business, centred on the Trust from which Giles draws an income…. [Near] the end of the volume, he meets Giles again, this time in a London restaurant: once more the atmosphere lacks conviviality, once more the conversation is the Trust. (p. 129)
Between these two cheerless meetings, Nicholas has observed vivid changes in others and believes that 'a new epoch' is starting for himself. In those closing moments, though, as he eats with Giles, faute de mieux, at the Trouville, we are most conscious of a similarity between the young man and the senior schoolboy, as we are meant to be. Like Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, Powell has posted his hero to a transit camp: that painful, confusing, absurd, anxious and, for some, protracted waiting time between late youth and full adulthood…. As if to contradict [the] signs of change he turns to Giles again; but we are to take it that, while things may look the same, essentials have begun to alter: the surface seems as ever but in fact a great deal of water has gone under the bridge. Gradualism, tentativeness and occasional reversals attend Nicholas's development in a fashion which seems exactly right. (pp. 129-30)
It is, of course, the ambiguous advance of Nicholas—an impression of lingering childhood seen against signs of emergence as an adult—which makes AQOU seem at the same time symmetrical yet about to move into an enormous future: important attributes in a book which must be able to stand alone as well as provide the start to a sequence…. This first volume illustrates well the high skill with which Powell can give a book remarkable solidity of structure—a sense of entity and completeness—while suggesting that all has not been said. (pp. 132-33)
In other words, AQOU is put together with such architectural finesse that apparently tentative, imperfectly resolved matters can be comfortably accommodated and cause the reader no unease. We can see functioning within the comparatively small scope of the single volume Powell's theory of pattern and system in life, while sensing at the same time that these tendencies will show themselves over the full sequence. (p. 134)
We leave Widmerpool as we first met him, out on a run; vain, grotesque effort the chief quality now as then. During those clumsy jogs in AQOU he was trying for an athletic competence that would never come, though as an exercise of will his dogged sorties showed the kind of toughness that would help him later. Complicated ironies tie his final ludicrous, tragic sprint in [Hearing Secret Harmonies (HSH)] with our sight of him as a schoolboy hopelessly training in AQOU. Now, he is elderly, sick, naked, a dropout who has dropped as far as he could. Under orders, Widmerpool is running with a group from the commune who, with his permission, have moved into his house, and who seem to provide all he now seeks in life. (p. 188)
After HSH there can be no doubt that ADTTMOT is primarily about Widmerpool. Simply, he is the only character of any sizeable previous development left alive. There had seemed—to me, I mean—a chance that as the period of the novel approached the present the retrospective and contemporary Nicholases might coalesce, as images can in trick photography, and become a rather more positive force; though, of course, he is elderly by the time we reach this volume, not altogether in shape to emerge as a vivacious hero. If anything, he is less personally involved in HSH than during any of the previous books. His reporting duties have grown weighty. (pp. 188-89)
The chief secret harmonies … are those sounded now and earlier in Widmerpool's life. Time leaves him with his yearning for eminence still powerful. (p. 189)
We are to make of Widmerpool at the end of HSH what we have made of him all through: he is a fool, knave and bore. He sought treasure on earth for the wrong reasons and now gives it up for the wrong reasons. So much in Powell is contradicted, half-contradicted, left in doubt that it would be foolish to enunciate with any pretence at certainly what the whole novel is 'about'…. Looking at Widmerpool in HSH I think one can say that his course through these books demonstrates that an absence of style, moderation, sense and imagination, coupled with devotion to will, egotism and materialistic push, will result in at least fatuousness, possibly disaster, probably evil; 'so called right and wrong' not being illusory concepts at all. The world has beaten Widmerpool and driven him towards bizarre supernature because the natural is too much for him….
Having said that much, though, we must then go on to recall that life has defeated others, too: Templer, Trapnel, Pamela, possibly Stringham. We do not find a thesis here that the decent or talented or imaginative or emotionally questing shall inherit the earth. As a matter of fact, though, the meek do seem to do pretty well, if we may use that word about someone as tough in outlook, though not in action, as Nicholas. (p. 190)
And Nicholas? At the end he is working peaceably in his garden and, one assumes, continuing his writing (we hear of 'all those books' he has produced), without too much worry; without in this volume even very much irony. Quarry developments are afoot near his home and these stir a brief token movement of self-assertion in him, the rural conservation thing, but nothing frenetic. If we look to Nicholas to tell us anything at the end of this sequence it is this: keep calm, keep steady, keep individual—that above all. Hear the secret harmonies if you can; listen to the music of time and observe the dancers. That will do. Otherwise, we should cultivate our garden. (p. 192)
James Tucker, in his The Novels of Anthony Powell (© James Tucker 1976; reprinted by permission of Columbia University Press and MacMillan, London and Basingstoke), Columbia University Press, 1976.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 118
The pace of Anthony Powell's very graceful novels in A Dance to the Music of Time is almost imperceptible; by contrast, his autobiography, Infants of the Spring, is a kaleidoscope of jumbled figures, piled together, emerging like members of a very large cast taking individual bows…. (p. 278)
The book goes only to the end of Powell's Oxford days, though there are many flashes forward. It can be tedious and trying—especially the genealogical Appendix—but it can also be sprightly and amusing. It will have its strongest appeal for those who already know the time and the literary figures in it. (pp. 278-79)
William B. Hill, S. J., in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), December, 1977.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383
It is one of Anthony Powell's most disarming characteristics that his anecdotes exist for themselves, at most illustrating some nuance in the custom and fashion of an epoch: 'the period flavour of the incident must excuse its triviality,' as he remarks in his leisurely way, or 'social hairs are the most enjoyable ones to split.' His fiction draws its subtle contentment from highlighting such trivialities, as in their different style do his current series of memoirs, [Messengers of Day]….
Fascinating in themselves, Powell's memoirs suggest that, in shaping social acquaintance and episode for the uses of fiction, he never goes beyond the anecdotal, resisting any temptation to concoct figures at all 'representational'. Where most novelists who use real-life models elevate them vertically, as it were, into more than life-sized archetypes (Charlus, Natasha, old Karamazov), Powell manipulates his on the lateral plane, into a world of art in anecdote on the same scale as in life. Thus Constant Lambert moves sideways into Moreland, Aleister Crowley into Trelawney, an acquaintance called Basil Hambrough into Dicky Umfraville. One trouble with Widmerpool is that he is really a minor character whom the reader is apt to interpret as a major one—even one with 'representational' significance—and in the concluding volumes [of A Dance to the Music of Time] this may possibly occur with the connivance and encouragement of the author.
Powell's art depends on his own idiosyncratic shaping of the fact that life is lived mostly in the minor key, and this logically extends even into the artistic tastes of characters and narrator. Thus there are enthusiasts for Tourneur or Modigliani, never for Shakespeare or Cézanne; painter and composer characters are in some none the less colourful way not very good; quoted verses by de Tabley have more resonance than anything by Yeats or Tennyson could have. This helps to give the whole series its superlative coherence in terms of form, and in a chapter in Messengers of Day called 'Set Books', Powell throws light by commenting on his lukewarmness about Tolstoy, his admiration for The Sun also Rises and A Hero of Our Time, his preference for L'Education Sentimentale over Madame Bovary.
John Bayley, "The Artist as Raconteur," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Bayley), May 11, 1978, p. 615.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1285
'Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them' is a favourite saying of X. Trapnel's, and one perhaps specially appropriate to the work in which he figures. For one could hardly find a work of fiction which more clearly demonstrates what Trapnel himself calls 'the heresy of naturalism' than this sequence of novels in which, for the reader, the deepest satisfaction comes less from character and incident than from the structure that supports them both: a structure so contrived that, as it flows, straggles or jerks itself along, by turns farcical and grim, sombre, tumultuous, absurd, reaching out through almost infinite varieties of egotism to embrace the furthest shores of crankiness and melancholia, it seems not so much to shape as to contain the disorderly process of life itself. It is not for nothing that Nicholas Jenkins takes his first name from that specialist in rhythm and design, Nicholas Poussin, whose painting provides both the title and the model for A Dance to the Music of Time.
Time, in that painting, smiles a sinister smile as well he may considering that in life and art he has the upper hand. In fiction, or at least in this particular fiction, Time is to the writer what Space is to the painter. Time may be empty or so densely packed that the reader can barely take in more than a few sample details in a hectic corner of the canvas. Time may dawdle or work fast, stretching forward or doubling back to shift a perspective, change an angle, open up one vista, close another, superimpose a further twist on a design already loaded or tweak skew-whiff a whole connecting system of supports. It is Time who disposes of the characters, causing them to topple and collide, tangle, scatter and regroup in new and unexpected couplings. Almost any character will serve to illustrate Time's role. (p. xi)
[Not] the least disconcerting thing about The Music of Time is … its humorous tone. Jenkins himself notes at one point that Shakespeare found it necessary to alternate tragedy with comedy largely because people in everyday life will insist on acting without due regard for procedure; and any reader of Jenkins' own narrative will find again and again that events which seemed hilariously funny at the time become steadily less so in retrospect. A case in point is the scene at the Huntercombes' ball when Barbara Goring drenched Widmerpool with sugar: a surprise attack still sharply etched on Jenkins' imagination thirty years and nine volumes later…. [Humour] can go to almost any lengths, given that it works in conjunction with Jenkins' constant awareness of 'the tricks Time can play within its own folds, tricks that emphasize the insecurity of those who trust themselves over much to that treacherous concept'.
The combination governs every part of the design, above all the long series of jolts which make up Jenkins' relationship with Widmerpool. But it can be seen perhaps most clearly in the career of such a relatively minor figure as Stringham's stepfather, the polo-playing sailor, Lieutenant Commander Buster Foxe. (pp. xv-xvi)
Stringham … loathes Buster's guts; their rivalry supplies a minor theme in A Question of Upbringing, provisionally resolved in victory for Stringham. It runs underground for the next three volumes in which Buster disappears from view …, only to surface again in foul play at Mrs Foxe's party in Casanova's Chinese Restaurant which ends with game, set and match to Buster. But the origins of this feud are disclosed only long afterwards by Buster's old enemy Umfraville, telling the ghastly story of his life and incidentally of Buster's marriage in The Valley of Bones. So that it is not until well into the second half of the sequence that the reader is at last in a position to unravel the tensions sensed by Jenkins as a schoolboy…. (p. xvii)
[Jenkins' uneasiness] in Buster's presence changes to horror at his part in Stringham's disintegration, itself a prototype of the lives of other romantics—Roland Gwatkin, X. Trapnel, to some extent Hugh Moreland—shipwrecked in the gulf between their dreams and an obdurate reality…. Whatever the underlying cause of Stringham's troubles—a Hamlet-like temperament exacerbated by his mother's domination, by Buster's machinations, perhaps by the wrongs of his own divorced father—there can be no doubt that they exert a powerful pull on the whole structure of The Music of Time: so much so that it is something of a shock when the reader realizes on looking back that, as a friend, Stringham has effectively dropped out of Jenkins' life by the end of the first volume. His disillusionment, his captivating liveliness, his melancholy wit are already so securely established that though from now on he appears at greater intervals—and falls out altogether just over half way through the sequence—large stretches of the action will take place in his shadow.
If Stringham is one of several characters who define the basic framework, others, more often heard than seen, serve so to speak as filters, constantly available to change the lighting of a particular scene or modulate from one incident to another years before or still to come. (pp. xvii-xviii)
Indeed Jenkins himself may be seen in much the same way, as a convenient device for the adjustment of perspective. It is a device especially noticeable at the beginning of the sequence, where behaviour and events which caused Jenkins no small perplexity at the time—Mrs Andriadis' Hill Street party is one of many instances—are more clearly scrutinized in the light of an understanding arrived at only many years later. It means that the reader sees much of the action in the early volumes as it were in double focus, through the eyes of the narrator and simultaneously through the eyes of his naive younger self: a character hopelessly out of his depth in matters like sex, power and the literary life, equally at sea in his estimate of other people's motives, for ever stubbing his toe on mysteries he is unable to resolve, developments he hadn't anticipated, problems with which he can't begin to cope. The flexibility of this multiple approach is plain in the case of someone like the novelist, St John Clarke, to whom Jenkins' attitude veers through four successive phases (initial dislike, succeeded by a kind of adolescent infatuation which gives way first to the extreme intolerance of youth, later to a more complex mistrust), any or all of which may be called into play at a given moment in the narrative.
It is also perhaps worth noting that there is one unique element in this particular portrait, arising from Jenkins' account of the novelist's work: a technical analysis which in itself amounts to a short course in the art of writing as instructive as it is diverting. (pp. xviii-xix)
Jenkins writes somewhere that he takes a 'hard, cold-blooded, almost mathematical pleasure' in writing and painting. The reverse side of this pleasure is his attitude to Clarke's novels, a rejection framed according to the uncompromising laws of an aesthetic rather than moral or emotional system. It strikes a note not heard elsewhere in a work devoted to exploring, in all their painful and preposterous diversity, the workings of that general rule laid down at a fairly early stage in The Music of Time: 'All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary'. (p. xix)
Hilary Spurling, "The Heresy of Naturalism: Some Notes on Structure," in her Invitation to the Dance: A Guide to Anthony Powell's "Dance to the Music of Time" (copyright © 1977 by Hilary Spurling; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown, and Co.), Little, Brown, 1978, pp. xi-xix.
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