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Invitation to the Dance

Kevin Stevens

I had been turning over in my mind the possibility of writing a novel composed of a fairly large number of volumes, [when] at a fairly early stage I found myself in the Wallace Collection, standing in front of Nicolas Poussin’s picture. An almost hypnotic spell seems cast by this masterpiece on the beholder. I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be.
Anthony Powell in 1980

The twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time were first published by Heinemann between 1951 and 1975.

There is nothing in English literature like A Dance to the Music of Time. Or in any literature, I imagine, though the extended fictions of Proust and Robert Musil offer the closest analogues to the scale and ambition of Anthony Powell’s masterwork. Conceived as an integrated narrative and published serially over twenty-five years, Dance’s dozen novels explore English upper class and bohemian life across five decades, from soon after the First World War to the early 1970s. This remarkable sequence gathers up readers and carries them in one great, compelling storytelling wave that, within its overarching theme of time and its vicissitudes, covers war, love, art, politics, family, class, money and death with dramatic appropriateness, emotional exactness and unerring naturalistic detail. It has unity of time and place on a grand scale, and its central characters move from youth to old age as if in real time, with innumerable new arrivals flowing in and out of the leisurely narrative weave like acquaintances encountered throughout a life. The action is consistently surprising, comic and tragic by turns, and the style is subtle, penetrating and capable of the keenest observation. The collection is thoroughly of a piece, yet each volume possesses its own organic theme and structure, and can be read individually. Like Ford’s Parade’s End or Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo TrilogyDance wears its historical and literary ambition lightly, allowing readers effortless immersion in a world that, though so like one we know must have existed, carries us uniquely beyond its milieu as only a great work of literature can.

Powell’s life covered more ground than even his fiction. Born in Westminster in 1905, the only child of an army officer whose family line can be traced to a twelfth-century Welsh chieftain, he died in March 2000, seeing out the century he had chronicled so well. He was educated at Eton and Oxford (where he shared digs with Henry Green), worked in the London publishing and film industries, served in the British army in Northern Ireland during the Second World War, and was married for sixty-five years to Lady Violet Pakenham, Lord Longford’s sister and a formidable literary figure in her own right. Among his friends were Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Augustus John and Constance Lambert. He was on the staff of the TLS, literary editor of Punch for many years and a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery from 1962 until 1976. High Tory in opinion, obsessed with genealogy and class, reflective and melancholic yet possessed of one of fiction’s keenest wits, he is a critical figure in the social and cultural history of England over its most extended period of crisis and decline.

Aficionados like to ask: “When did you first Dance? For me it was in the early eighties, not too many years after the final volume had appeared. A persistent explorer of experimental American fiction, I had, as if in search of a tempering influence, discovered Waugh. I was sailing through his oeuvre when an Anglophile friend recommended Powell (“pronounced Pole”, he was at pains to tell me). I read A Question of Upbringing and then gobbled up the remaining eleven novels like so many fruit pastilles. After the post-apocalyptic cartoons of Thomas Pynchon and metafictional gymnastics of John Barth, I found the piercing humour and stylistic stateliness of these mid-century English masters a kind of blessed relief. And in Powell’s case, I was mesmerised by his creation of a world as convincing as history, as engaging as seventies cinema and governed by an aesthetic intelligence that easily fitted dance, theatre, music and the art of fiction into the lives and dialogue of the cycle’s fascinating characters.

Dance is narrated by Nick Jenkins, who (like those other literary Nicks, Carraway and Adams) is both a key figure in the action and a wry observer on the sideline, describing and commenting on the lives of others either more or less able than himself to deal with the practical difficulties of the world. Similar to his creator in background, temperament and the broad contours of life, he is the basis for the book’s naturalism. One of the sequence’s great achievements is its breadth and variety of experience in spite of this technically limiting point of view being maintained for almost a million words. Powell, when asked in 1978 about the similarity between Nick and himself, was typically arch:

He’s somebody of my sort simply because it’s much easier that way. Supposing, for the sake of argument, I wrote from the point of view of a surgeon. Well, I don’t really know what a surgeon’s life is like. And although I’d read it all up, I’d probably make some fearful howler about what it feels like.

Powell was a well-connected man of letters, and so is Nick, but the novels tell us little about his inner life and much about the circles he inhabits – new and old friends, family and extended family, writers and artists, colleagues, fellow soldiers and former schoolmates. In the hermetic world of the English upper classes (and their bohemian reflection), these circles overlap predictably, so that men and women powerful and weak, alcoholics and socialites, tycoons and politicians and aesthetes cross each other’s paths repeatedly, in a pattern dictated by the novel’s narrative rhythms and pleasing coincidences. Powell is a master of the social set piece – family gatherings, parties, class and regiment reunions, concerts and political meetings and art exhibitions – and, like Waugh, he is superb at recreating the crosstalk of multiple characters and using it to dramatic or ironic effect. The result is a prose dance of manners and morals as satisfying as good gossip and as ritualistic as the allegorical figures in Poussin’s painting.

Powell is not a fatalist – he is, after all, an Englishman – but his belief that character is fate is balanced by a longer view: “Nothing in life is planned – or everything is – ,” Nick says early in the series, “because in the dance every step is ultimately the corollary of the step before; the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be.” From the novel’s opening pages we have this double sense that the young men first presented to us, Nick, his schoolfriends Charles Stringham and Peter Templer, and the pathetic but sinister Kenneth Widmerpool, are destined to follow paths dictated by their temperaments while feeling completely free to pursue their desires as privileged members of an empire that, at least at that point, still pretended to dominate the world. The schoolboy actions of this quartet – the future writer, the bon vivant, the ladies’ man and the budding businessman/politician – establish themes to be developed throughout the sequence: the nature of power and will, the elusiveness of love, the tension between pragmatism and romance, and the strange but forceful pull of the occult.

From school to Oxford to careers in the city and the army to late nights in Fitzrovia and travel abroad, the circles of these four men’s lives widen, introducing us to the women with whom they work and fall in love, the public figures they cultivate and, in Nick’s case, the artists who sustain his creative life: the composer Moreland, the painter Barnby, the writer X Trapnel, and the critics Members and Quiggin (based, respectively, on Constance Lambert, Adrian Daintrey, Julian Maclaren-Ross, Peter Quennell, and a conflation of CP Snow and FR Leavis; identifying the real-life versions of characters in Dance is a cottage industry). Nick’s relationships with these men are complex, and their alliances and fallings-out, with Nick and with each other, allow Powell to explore not just the fascinating world of English aesthetics between the wars, but also the theme of male intimacy:

Friendship, popularly represented as something simple and straightforward – in contrast with love – is perhaps no less complicated, requiring equally mysterious nourishment; like love, too, bearing also within its embryo inherent seeds of dissolution, something more fundamentally destructive, perhaps, than the mere passing of time, the all-obliterating march of events.

Not that Powell doesn’t write well about romantic love; Nick’s affair with Templer’s sister Jean and its lifelong aftermath are described with restrained but powerful eroticism, and the sexual lives of the sequence’s many couples make up an important narrative strand (though Nick’s wife, Isobel Tolland, is scarcely described). But many of Dance’s cliques are exclusively male, and long periods of action take place with no women appearing. When they do, however, they are as memorable as the men. If Widmerpool, with his overweening will, lack of empathy and infinite capacity for intrigue, is the most absorbing character in the novel, then Pamela Flitton, Widmerpool’s wife at one point and one of literature’s most compelling femmes fatales, gives him a ferocious run for his money (“she had the gift of making silence as vindictive as speech”). Flitton is based on the novelist and socialite Barbara Skelton, who, as the historian Max Hastings has put it, “achieved the notable double of being divorced by Cyril Connolly citing George Weidenfeld, then divorced by George Weidenfeld citing Cyril Connolly”. When Flitton’s character first appeared in Dance, Skelton wrote to Powell: “Dear Tony, I am suing naturally. In the meantime can you advise me a good publisher for my new novel?”

The intersection of life and art works on several levels in Dance. The writing life and the business of literature are thoroughly explored, not only in Nick’s comments about his profession but in the pronouncements of Quiggin, Members and Trapnel and the caustic presentation of the Galsworthian novelist St John Clarke, whose Edwardian attitudes, armchair Marxism and middlebrow works are repeatedly satirised. Given his own political inclination, Powell has much fun with left-wing conceptions of literature in the thirties and the growing academisation of letters after the war. But he is also very good on technical matters, which are interesting not just in themselves but in their application to Dance as an English novel of manners. As Nick observes early in the sequence:

I began to brood on the complexity of writing a novel about English life, a subject difficult enough to handle with authenticity even of a crudely naturalistic sort, even more to convey the inner truth of the things observed … Intricacies of social life make English habits unyielding to simplification, while understatement and irony – in which all classes of this island converse – upset the normal emphasis of reported speech.

Powell shows, even as he has his alter ego define the challenge of the task, how he has long since learned how to handle such complexities with authenticity and high art. By the end of the cycle, the aesthetic questions posed by Nick and others, principally the fascinating Trapnel, have moved to a broader plane. “People can’t get it right about Naturalism,” Trapnel preaches from his seat in a Fitzrovia pub:

They think that if a writer like me writes the sort of books I do, it’s because that’s easier, or necessary nowadays. You just look around at what’s happening and shove it all down. They can’t understand that’s not in the least the case. It’s just as selective, just as artificial, as if the characters were kings and queens speaking in blank verse.

Comparable analysis of music and painting (or, for that matter, politics and business) fills the novels’ many conversations, though it is never tedious and never removed from the lives of the characters. But the literary discussions in particular help us understand Powell’s aesthetic. His style and rhetoric are drawn from the speech patterns and attitudes of his class, and many of his character descriptions hint at his own strategies for conveying the “inner truth” of English life:

Lady Warminster represented to a high degree that characteristic of her own generation that everything may be said, though nothing indecorous discussed openly. Layer upon layer of wrapping, box after box revealing in the Chinese manner yet another box, must conceal all doubtful secrets; only the discipline of infinite obliquity made it lawful to examine the seamy side of life. If these mysteries were observed everything might be contemplated: however unsavoury: however unspeakable.

And there is much in Dance that is delightfully unsavoury, from the detail of Pamela Flitton’s sexual predation to the American tycoon Louis Globus’s penchant for collecting from his conquests snippets of pubic hair. Though Powell liked to suggest that, as his character Hugh Moreland puts it, “All other people’s sexual relations are hard to imagine. The more staid the people, the more inconceivable their sexual relations”, he was in fact very good at imagining the inconceivable. There is a remarkable extended passage in Temporary Kings, the penultimate volume in the sequence, in which most of the cycle’s principals attend a literary conference in Venice and are granted access to the Palazzo Bragadin on the Grand Canal, where they admire a magnificent Tiepolo ceiling that does not exist outside Powell’s imagination – a depiction of the myth of Gyges and Candaules, in which the king of Sardis exhibits his naked queen to his lieutenant without her knowledge or permission.

Flitton, who is in Globus’s company even though the arrival in Venice of Widmerpool, still her husband, is imminent, is fascinated by the fresco:

“Who’s the naked man with the stand?” asked Pamela.
An unclothed hero, from his appurtenances a king, reclined on the divan or couch that was the focus of the picture. One single tenuous fold of gold-edged damask counterpane, elsewhere slipped away from his haughtily muscular body, undeniably emphasized (rather than concealed) the physical anticipation to which Pamela referred, of pleasure to be enjoyed in a few seconds time; for a lady, also naked, tall and fair haired, was moving across the room to join him where he lay.

In the picture, the lieutenant Gyges is watching the queen, while Powell’s characters watch him watching. And we, the readers, are watching all, and remembering Pamela Flitton’s claim that Widmerpool, after they were married, gave up trying to sleep with her after two abortive attempts and was reduced to the voyeuristic pleasure of observing her sexual activities with others. Boxes within boxes indeed.

Though Powell is never as explicit about sexual matters as, say, John Updike, he does, with differing grades of obliquity, cover all the bases, as a naturalistic chronicler of English life during this period certainly must. However, as the passage above illustrates, as the cycle progresses through the sixties and into the early seventies, the writing reflects the relaxed publishing standards of the time, and the descriptions become less and less circumlocutory.

The passage of time also affects the theme of the occult, another seamy side of life that features prominently throughout the sequence. Its handling creates some of Powell’s most memorable characters, including the Aleister Crowley-like Dr Trelawney, who, when we first meet him in 1914 oversees “a center for his own peculiar religious, philosophical – some said magical – tenets, a cult of which he was high priest, if not actually messiah”. Trelawney haunts Nick’s pre-war childhood in the long flashback opening to The Kindly Ones, the sixth volume (and perhaps the finest), which begins with the dawn of one world war and ends with the start of another. He and his followers are colourful and bizarre, but they are also, in their madness and almost military determination, harbingers of war. By the final volume, the menacing late-sixties cult of Scorpio Murtlock, to which Widmerpool falls victim and within which he suffers one last series of humiliations, provides a post-flower-power analogue to the Trelawney sect, though as Powell himself has said, his point here “is the fact that nothing ever changes: that what is now dished up in a supposedly different form is really exactly the same as the thing one was familiar with as a child”.

Plus ça change … As if mirroring the long publishing gap between Dance’s first and last volumes, I returned to the cycle last year, three decades after my first reading. This time I took a more leisurely approach, taking a break after every third volume (a single season, as it were) to read other books, and allowing myself most of the year to finish it. It was even more compelling. Second time around, of course, I noticed different features and qualities. Knowing what was coming, I focused less on who was who and what was happening and more on craft. It is remarkable, for example, how Powell had such a sure grasp of the larger narrative, even at the earliest stage of the cycle. Not only does he know what will come hundreds of pages later, but he plants ideas and foreshadows events that flower organically after many volumes.

In the opening novel, for example, Nick, after leaving school, visits Peter Templer’s family and meets for the first time two characters who will figure significantly in the years and volumes to come: Peter’s sullen sister Jean and Sunny Farebrother, a business associate of Peter’s father. When Nick first sees Jean, who is passing in front of the house gates with a tennis racquet in her hand as he arrives, he feels “suddenly uneasy, and also interested: a desire to be with her, and at the same time, an almost paralyzing disquiet at her presence”. This sentence anticipates with great emotional accuracy the long, bittersweet romance that will flower between them in volume three and beyond. And Farebrother, though he appears somewhat fawning and down-at-heel at this first meeting, also exerts a strange fascination on Nick, who feels throughout the visit that he “should like to know more of Sunny Farebrother”. By chapter’s end, when, after sharing a train journey back to London with him, Nick tells us how Sunny piled his luggage onto a taxi “and passed out of my life for some twenty years”, we have such a strong sense of the connection that we are not surprised when Sunny turns up again in the eighth volume, A Soldier’s Art (published fifteen years after volume one), having evolved in a way that vindicates Nick’s interest decades ago, while remaining entirely consistent with his earlier appearance.

This elastic feel for character, as well as the way in which Powell captures, in Robert Selig’s words “time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers in intricate human arabesques”, has from early in Dance’s history drawn comparisons with À la recherche du temps perdu. And Powell has fuelled those comparisons by referring several times to Proust’s masterwork in meaningful ways. In one long section in volume nine, Nick quotes a page-and-a-half-long passage from À la recherche du temps perdu, followed by his speculation that Proust’s character Prince Oderacer may be a great-uncle of Prince Theodoric, the exiled Balkan royal who appears in several of Dance’s novels. (With dramatic irony, after making this statement Nick wonders if another character in Proust’s passage had “really” existed). Later in the same volume, when Nick travels to France on postwar business with other Allied military attachés, he discovers that, quite by chance, he has been in Cabourg, Proust’s favourite vacation place and the inspiration for the fictional seaside resort of Balbec. As he is leaving, a colleague asks him to spell the name of the commune.

As I uttered the last letter, scales fell from my eyes. Everything was transformed. It all came back – like the tea-soaked madeleine itself – in a torrent of memory … Cabourg …We had just driven out of Cabourg … out of Proust’s Balbec. Only a few minutes before, I had been standing on the esplanade along which, wearing her polo cap and accompanied by the little band of girls he had supposed the mistresses of professional bicyclists, Albertine had strolled into Marcel’s life.

The nostalgia, of course, is different – Nick is not remembering his own experience but Proust’s, and the rush of emotion is not a response to the inaccessibility of a personal past but an acknowledgement of the magic of literary experience and how it informs a life over and over again, not just in memory but in geography and history. These passages are part of a subtle relationship between the two extended novels and make literal the link between them, at least in terms of character and spirit. But Powell grew tired of being called the English Proust and was good at defining the difference between the writers:

I’m a great admirer of Proust and know his works very well. But the essential difference is that Proust is an enormously subjective writer who has a peculiar genius for describing how he or his narrator feels. Well, I really tell people a minimum of what my narrator feels – just enough to keep the narrative going – because I have no talent for that particular sort of self-revelation. Like movie-writing, it’s a very particular sort of talent, but people often speak as if every writer had it.

There are many ways of revealing character in fiction, however, and Powell does it as well as anyone in his own fashion. His assured naturalism is deepened by his skilful use of mythology, especially in his references to art. Among his finest set pieces are descriptions of paintings, real and imagined, such as the Tiepolo ceiling, which add colour and tone to the narrative and parallel the action in ways that run from the sentimental to the mock heroic. And there are many throwaway allusions that suggest with flair and precision those distinctively English moments when a classical training confronts the realities of an England very different from the one in which Nick had been raised:

The London streets, empty of traffic, looked incredibly bright and sophisticated, the tarts in Picadilly dazzling nymphs. This was before the blitz. I knew how Persephone must have felt on the first day of her annual release from the underworld.

Powell uses mythology in much the same way he uses the occult – as a way of enriching the realism of social interaction with the dreamlike feel of the arcane. But classicism and ritual aside, Powell is essentially a comic writer in the English tradition. As VS Pritchett said, Powell was the first of a group of writers in the fifties “to revive the masculine traditions of English social comedy”. The eccentricities and distinctive behaviours of men and women of the English upper classes drive these novels. And there are so many great characters – as I come to the end of this appreciation I find I have said nothing about the quirky Uncle Giles, the necrophiliac Russell Gwinnet, the cello-playing General Conyers, Jean Templer’s several husbands or the various members of the Tolland family. These characters give us a sense of the time as no history book can. In the words of Christopher Hitchens, “There is no other work in the annals of European fiction that attempts meticulously to recreate half a century of history, decade by decade, with anything like the emotional precision or details of Powell’s twelve volumes.”

History is most relevant when its cycles are related to the eternal patterns of human action. Powell’s art captures these patterns with grace and depth. A Dance to the Music of Time is terrifically entertaining and wonderfully funny and historically detailed. But what puts it on my list of great novels is the way in which the characters and events and forces – so well captured – become part of something larger. “The time” becomes “Time”, and event is lifted to the timeless.

Powell knew what he was doing from the start. So let me end as he begins, with a passage invoking Poussin, from the opening pages of this great cycle of novels:

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 … while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle; unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the dance.


Kevin Stevens writes jazz and literary criticism and fiction for children and adults. His superhero fantasy The Powers was a UNESCO Dublin Citywide Read for 2014. His next novel, A Love Supreme, will be published by Little Island in September. He divides his time between Dublin and Boston.



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