Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time

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After having read Proust, I was told I now had to read the “British Proust,” Anthony Powell. At first, I demurred: reading a million-word novel once was enough, thank you. But when I was recently in a used bookshop and happened upon the twelve volumes that constitute Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, I thought I’d give him a shot.

So far I’ve only read the first two volumes, A Question of Upbringing and A Buyer’s Market. Like Proust, Powell’s novel is also semi-autobiographical, beginning with the narrator’s youth and progressing through his life. Set in Britain in the years not long after WWI, A Question of Upbringing, largely focuses on Nicholas Jenkins’ years at boarding school and later at university, the various friends and acquaintances he makes throughout that time (and who reappear throughout the novel), and an especially malicious prank they play on their housemaster Le Bas. Much attention is also paid to one student in particular, Widmerpool, a bit of an oddball who is the object of much teasing, yet someone who seems destined for some kind of greatness. Volume II, A Buyer’s Market, begins with Jenkins reminiscencing on a certain Mr. Deacon, an artist whose paintings are considered rather old-fashioned. Jenkins has now graduated from university and works at a publishing house in London, and much of this novel, in very Proustian fashion, focuses on the events of one night during which Jenkins goes to a dinner party and happens to meet Widmerpool there. At one point, Barbara, the woman Jenkins is in love with, pours sugar over Widmerpool’s head, a cruel act that causes Jenkins to fall out of love with her. On their way home, Jenkins and Widmerpool encounter Mr. Deacon and Gypsy Jones, a crass, ill-mannered young woman, both of whom are out late peddling a socialist newspaper. Stringham, an old acquaintance of Jenkins’ from boarding school, also runs into them and invites all four of them to Mrs. Andriadis’s party. By the end of the night, Mr. Deacon makes a fool of himself by causing a scene with the piano player and is kicked out of the party. Some time later, on the night of his birthday, Mr. Deacon dies; and the volume closes with Jenkins having finished dinner with Widmerpool and his mother.

I’m ambivalent about Powell. He’s not exactly a household name—certainly not on the level of Proust—and I can see why. (Indeed, I’d never even heard of him until my friend recommended him.) The novel is seemingly directionless, the story is slow going, and very little happens. At times, I confess, I found myself a little bored. And yet, I say that and I’m still interested in him. He is quite the stylist, and his exacting prose style is just that: exacting: a bit of a slog at times—work. But there’s pay-off, because Powell is actually quite funny, but in a very dry, subtle way. And if there’s one thing that Powell is very, very good at, it’s his ability to employ incredibly brilliant, humourous, and hugely illuminating metaphors and similes that give insight onto the true and selfish motivations behind human behaviour. Without entirely realizing it at first, his prose style began to affect my own (in a positive way, I hope) while working on a new story.

Unlike Proust, in which each volume is no less than an intimidating 600 pages, the twelve volumes that constitute A Dance to the Music of Time are each around the much more digestible 200-page mark, making his novel certainly more approachable and something I hope to turn to and report on every few months or so.