It goes without saying that something can’t be all that funny if you need to have the humour pointed out to you. I am faced with this argument every semester when I teach The Death of Ivan Ilych and I need to point out to my students (blank-faced with scepticism) that the first chapter of Tolstoy’s novella is actually quite funny. But maybe their failure to see the humour is more indicative of where we stand as a reading culture (or lack thereof) and our preoccupation with our devices and the never-ending distraction they provide the instant we are bored. Or maybe the failure to see the humour is indicative of one’s own maturity as a reader. I mulled over these ideas as I read the first two books of Anthony Powell’s twelve-part novel, A Dance to the Music of Time. On one hand, I recognized on an intellectual level that much of what he was writing about was humorous, yet at the same time I felt that his novel was marred by stretches of longueur, and I started to think that Powell and the world he depicts is an anachronism, belonging to a world not only long gone and forgotten but also irrelevant (in a way that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is not). Or maybe Powell is simply an acquired taste. Whatever it is, all my former ambivalence about Anthony Powell suddenly went out the window this time as I reluctantly returned to his novel and cracked open the third book in the series, The Acceptance World. It was a book, I discovered, that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish.
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.