A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 5-9

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’ve been working my way through Anthony Powell’s marvellous twelve-part sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, reading the individual novels between other books in my TBR. So far, I’ve posted a detailed piece on book one, A Question of Upbringing, and a summary of some of highlights from books 2-4 – more specifically Powell’s skills with character, attention to detail and meditations on the nature of life.

Continuing in the latter vein, here are a few more things I’ve been enjoying in this series, particularly in books 5-9.

It’s been interesting to revisit some of the main characters in the story at various points, just to see how they’ve changed and developed over time. While the clumsy, pretentious Widmerpool pops up relatively frequently (much to my delight), other acquaintances from Jenkins’ schooldays – friends such as Charles Stringham and Peter Templer – make more occasional appearances.

In this scene from book 6, The Kindly Ones, Jenkins meets Templer again after a gap of some years. From a distance, Templer appears to have changed very little; however, on closer inspection, the difference in his appearance is more marked, not only in build but in demeanour too. (As ever, these reflections are relayed by Jenkins, the narrator throughout.)

It was a warm autumnal evening, so that we were all in the garden when Templer’s car drew up at the gate. The vehicle was of just the kind I had predicted. Templer, too, as he jumped out, seemed scarcely to have changed at all. The car was shaped like a torpedo; Templer’s clothes gave the familiar impression – as Stringham used to say – that he was ‘about to dance backwards and forwards in front of a chorus of naked ladies’. That outward appearance was the old Templer, just as he had looked at Dicky Umfraville’s nightclub four or five years before. Now, as he strode up the path with the same swagger, I saw there was a change in him. This was more than the fact that he was distinctly fatter. A coarseness of texture had always coloured his elegance. Now, that coarseness had become more than ever marked. He looked hard, even rather savage, as if he had made up his mind to endure life rather than, as formerly, to enjoy it. From the first impression that he changed hardly at all, I reversed judgement, deciding he had changed a great deal. (p. 101, book 6)

I love the way Powell blends humour with more thoughtful tones in this passage – the comic image of Templer dancing followed by the wistful observation on the endurance of life, highlighting a sense of sufferance over enjoyment. It’s Powell’s undoubted ability to transition from one emotion to another, seamlessly moving from humour to contemplation, that makes the passage so effective.

As with the previous volumes, Jenkins’ reflections on the nature of life are dotted through the novels, adding a few meditative touches to the narrative here and there – always interesting and nicely judged. The following quote comes from book 5, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant – a passage that captures the mix of emotions triggered by thoughts of love, especially amongst friends and acquaintances.

That old feeling of excitement began to stir within me always provoked by news of other people’s adventures in love; accompanied as ever by a sense of sadness, of regret, almost jealousy, inward emotions that express, like nothing else in life, life’s irrational dissatisfactions. (p. 155, book 5)

There are some gloriously comic scenes throughout the series, perhaps none more so than the incident in which Barbara Goring – a one-time love interest of Jenkins’ – pours a dispenser of sugar over Widmerpool’s head during a party (an episode from book 2, if I recall correctly).

Humour also plays a key role in book 7, The Valley of Bones, when Jenkins is called up for service in the Second World War. (This is the first book in the sequence to focus on the War – a shift from the earlier volumes where the ‘meat’ of the narrative is concerned with Jenkins’ education, various relationships and the ongoing whirl of social activities.)

As a second lieutenant in the Welsh regiment, Jenkins finds himself surrounded by a plethora of flawed and ineffectual characters, particularly where essential duties are concerned. There is Gwatkin, the rather foolish and inept commanding officer whose head is turned by a friendly barmaid; Deafy Morgan, a well-intentioned infantryman whose impaired hearing proves a liability in vulnerable situations; not to mention the infamous Sayce,  a near-criminal and ‘Company bad character’ who manages to make a complete hash of everything he touches.

In one of the funniest scenes from this novel, the regiment receives a visit from the Divisional Commander, General Liddament, who is horrified to discover that the men have not been given porridge for breakfast – possibly the fault of Gwatkin as far as Liddament is concerned. The suggestion that some members of the human race may not even like porridge appears to be anathema to the General.

[General Liddament] ‘No porridge?’

[Gwatkin] ‘No porridge, sir.’

General Liddament pondered this assertion for some seconds in resentful silence. He seemed to be considering porridge in all its aspects, bad as well as good. At last he came out with an unequivocal moral judgement.

‘There ought to be porridge,’ he said.

He glared round at the platoon, hard at work with their polishing, oiling, pulling-through, whatever they were doing. Suddenly he pointed his stick at Williams, W. H., the platoon runner.

‘Would you have liked porridge?’

Williams, W. H., came to attention. As I have said, Williams, W. H., was good on his feet and sang well. Otherwise, he was not particularly bright.

‘No, sir,’ he said instantly, as if that might be the right answer.

The General was taken aback. It would not be too much to say he was absolutely staggered.

‘Why not?’

General Liddament spoke sharply, but seriously, as if some excuse like religious scruple about eating porridge would certainly be accepted as valid.

‘Don’t like it, sir.’

‘You don’t like porridge?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then you’re a foolish fellow – a very foolish fellow.’ (pp. 95-96, book 7)

Alongside the dry humour, this book is tinged with notes of tragedy, the challenges of living through the war juxtaposed with the absurdity and horror of the situation – a theme that is continued into book 8, The Soldier’s Art.

The fire-engines had driven away. The street was empty. I thought how good Eleanor was in a situation like this. Molly had been good too, when it came to disaster. I wondered what would happen to Ted. The extraordinary thing about the outside of the house was that everything looked absolutely normal. Some sort of a notice about bomb damage had been stuck on the front-door by the wardens; otherwise there was nothing to indicate the place had been subjected to an attack from the air, which had killed several persons. (p. 165, book 8)

And then, just when you least expect it, Widmerpool appears again at the end of book 7, much to Jenkins’ (and the reader’s) surprise. There are some classic Widmerpool moments, particularly in book 8, where he is confirmed as an unfeeling, self-centred individual of the highest order.

By book 9, Jenkins – now a Major – has secured a role in the War Office, acting a point of liaison with those in charge of various Allied forces. This volume also sees the proper introduction of the infamous Pamela Flitton, briefly glimpsed at Stringham’s wedding in an earlier novel. With her trademark air of rage and despair, Miss Flitton proceeds to create merry hell in all manner of romantic entanglements, a characteristic typified by the following passage.

‘Giving men hell is what Miss Flitton likes,’ he said. ‘I know the sort. Met plenty of them.’

There was something to be said for accepting that diagnosis, because two discernible features seemed to emerge from a large, often widely diversified, canon of evidence chronicling Pamela Flitton’s goings-on: the first, her indifference to the age and status of the men she decided to fascinate: the second, the unvarying technique of silence, followed by violence, with which she persecuted her lovers, or those who hoped to be numbered in that category. She appeared, for example, scarcely at all interested in looks or money, rank or youth, as such; just as happy deranging the modest home life of a middle-aged air-raid warden, as compromising the commission of a rich and handsome Guards ensign recently left school. In fact, she seemed to prefer ‘older men’ on the whole, possibly because of their potentiality for deeper suffering. (p. 74, book 9)

By the end of book 9, even Widmerpool – now a Colonel and hungry for power – has fallen under Pamela Flitton’s spell. I am very much looking forward to seeing how this situation develops in the post-war instalments, books 10-12. What a remarkable series this is turning out to be.

45 thoughts on “A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 5-9

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s actually quite a bit of humour in these books, especially with the likes of Widmerpool and other eccentric characters along the way. Powell has such a knack for capturing the comedy in the most unlikely or ostensibly serious of situations, it’s a real delight.

      I couldn’t help but laugh at the General’s denouncement of the soldier with a dislike of porridge, especially as I’ve only just developed a taste for itself myself after more than 50 years. :)

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    The series sounds both ambitious and worth the read. As you describe it the books also sound very funny. The reflections on life and tragedy that you allude to are almost necessity to add balance to such a story. I find such things can be extra effective on the kind of story that spans decades.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the blending together of all these different facets is one of the great triumphs of the series. In spite of the comic moments (many of which revolve around Widmerpool and his penchant for arrogance and pomposity), there’s an underlying sadness in these books — a sense of loneliness or wistfulness, especially as the series progresses.

      Reply
      1. Rosemary Kaye

        Yes. what i remember about it most is the sadness – but as you say, there are plenty of funny bits too.

        Reply
  2. Rosemary Kaye

    When you’ve finished you might want to watch the DVD of the 1997 TV series, which I thought absolutely brilliant ( did read the books first.). Miranda Richardson is an outstanding Pamela, and Simon Russell Beale is just perfect as Widmerpool. Alan Bennett and Adrian Scarborough also feature. It’s pure joy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m keen to watch it at some point, maybe later this year once I’ve finished reading the series (I agree, best to finish the books before embarking on the adaptation, just to avoid any blurring between the two). In the meantime, I’m glad to hear you liked it so much.

      Simon Russell Beale sounds like an inspired choice for Widmerpool! Oddly enough, the image of Jacob Rees-Moog pops into my mind whenever Widmerpool appears on the page, so the idea of Simon RB in the role seems eminently preferable to me!

      Reply
    2. Bob Pyper

      Agree that the 1997 TV series is excellent. Great casting, acting, and music. Slight drawback is that the production condenses the books into the ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’, ”Autumn’ and ‘Winter’ sequence over four episodes. I would love to see a full twelve-part series at some point.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Ah, yes. I’m a little worried about the amount of filleting required to condense the books into four episodes. Mind you, the cast list looks excellent, full of top talent.

        As you say, there must be scope for a full 12-part adaptation to do justice to each volume, maybe in the future to celebrate a notable anniversary of Powell’s life? We’ll see…

        Reply
  3. Bob Pyper

    Enjoying your further reflections on Powell, and glad that you are still enjoying the books! Liddament on porridge! Of course he also has decidedly fixed views on literature, and is astonished that Jenkins is ambivalent about Trollope:

    ‘You’ve never found Trollope easy to read?’
    ‘No, sir.’
    He was clearly unable to credit my words. This was an unhappy situation. There was a long pause while he glared at me.
    ‘Why not?’ He asked at last.

    Jenkins takes time to set out the limitations of Trollope’s style, and receives the responses:

    ‘Rubbish’
    ‘All I can say is you miss a lot’
    ‘Whom do you like if you don’t like Trollope?’

    The subsequent interrogation convinces the General that Jenkins is a man of substance who needs to be assigned to a more appropriate military posting. In the space of a few pages, Powelll captures the idiosyncracies and kindness of Liddament.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts. It’s always tricky to write about a landmark series like this without revealing too many spoilers, hence my decision to try to focus on aspects of Powell’s technique and more general reflections on the series. (Hopefully I haven’t given too much away here.)

      Liddament is quite the character, isn’t he? As you say, his pronouncements on Trollope are just as entertaining as those on porridge, with the added benefit of revealing a more understanding side to his nature – a most unexpected development given those earlier scenes. It makes me wonder whether the General was modelled on anyone in particular, someone Powell ran into during his time in the military during WW2? He certainly seems sufficiently lifelike for this to be true!

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Wonderful review, you’re making me very nostalgic for these books. I remember the porridge scene very well, and Widmerpool’s sudden unexpected reappearences. Whenever I see BoJo on TV I think there he is again bloody Widmerpool.
    😂

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The porridge scene is marvellous, isn’t it? Definitely one of the highlights from that section in the series.

      You know, I’d heard others say that the ‘war’ books were somehow less interesting than others in the series, but I’ve actually found them very absorbing – and, dare I say it, very entertaining. Perhaps even more so than some of the earlier books on party-going, social gatherings and other interactions. There’s actually quite a lot of humour in the war books, especially given the somewhat ramshackle nature of Jenkins’ regiment in the early days of his stint in the military. I also think Widmerpool is made for the forces environment. All that political manoeuvring and game-playing with his opposite number in another section – it’s the perfect context for his arrogance and small-mindedness to come into play.

      Reply
  5. Tredynas Days

    I too enjoyed the porridge scene. Can’t believe you haven’t tried it, Jacqui: I love it. I remember Simon RB well in the tv series – probably the first time he came to my attention in an acting role – and he was outstanding. Don’t know when I’ll get round to this sequence, but I will, I hope, one day. Interesting extract about Trollope, who I’ve recently come to appreciate for the humour underlying the social drama.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great scene. As is the one on Trollope, which Andy Miller quotes on the Backlisted podcast episode covering Powell’s series. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I would definitely encourage you to do so. It’s pretty free of spoilers as far as I recall, but the discussion about Powell himself is well worth a listen.

      As for my own troubled relationship with porridge, I’d tried it in the past but never really got on with it until I reached my fifties. It might be a bad-experience-in-childhood thing for me, along with school milk and boiled eggs. Now that I’ve switched to almond milk, anything porridge-related is fine. In fact, I’d actually go as far to say that I enjoy it, especially when pimped up a bit with dried fruit and nuts :)

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post Jacqui and you remind me of all the elements I loved in the series. The characterisation is just marvellous, isn’t it? And Widmerpool is a treat – I love how he pops up just when you least expect him. Have to agree with Ali – BoJo is the perfect Widmerpool! Powell was quite brilliant at balancing humour and pathos.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I love the fact that Widmerpool keeps appearing in the most unlikely of places, like a bad penny turning up again and again. He really is one of literature’s great characters, as is Pamela Flitton, like a slow-motion car-crash unfolding before your eyes. They were clearly made for one another.

      It’s interesting how we all picture Widmerpool as a Tory MP – it’s Jacob Rees-Moog for me, but I can see where you’re going with BoJo. And yet, I think I’m right in saying that he’s actually in the Labour Party (unless I’ve got lost somewhere along the way). How times have changed!

      Reply
      1. Bob Pyper

        Yes, Widmerpool is in the Labour Party. Apparently partly modelled on the public school types who drifted into and moved around within some of the outer reaches of left-wing politics. Like most of the characters in the book though, (including Liddament, presumably), something of a composite. With a few exceptions, Powell was reluctant to admit that his characters were based on single, specific individuals.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah…thanks, Bob. That makes sense given the dynamics at the time the books were written.

          Your point on composites is an interesting one too. I can imagine Powell cherry-picking various character traits from a number of different sources. He seems to have a wonderful eye for observing human nature, complete with all its idiosyncrasies and foibles.

          Reply
          1. Bob Pyper

            Jacqui – your thought on models for Powell’s characters prompted me to look at an article on this topic by Julian Allason and Keith Wright on the website of the Anthony Powell Society. Some interesting material there. They reckon that Liddament was based partly on General Sir Michael West, with elements of Field Marshall Montgomery. West was apparently a rather unconventional character in many respects. Drove around in a London taxi …

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              How fascinating! I just looked up General West on wiki and he does sound rather characterful – a man with a taste for partying and jazz, apparently. Very interesting. Oh, and thank you for reminding me about the Anthony Powell Society website. I keep meaning to have a good root around over there, so it’s a very timely nudge. Cheers.

              Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear you’re enjoying these pieces, Gert. It’s always challenging to write about a series like this, especially one so rich in characterisation and detail. I’m currently in the midst of book 10 and enjoying it hugely, particularly X Trapnel with his sinister walking stick and grey suede shoes.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, you’re right about Maclaren-Ross being the inspiration for X Trapnel (well, as far as I can tell). I loved his novel, Of Love and Hunger, one of my favourites from the 1940s. Have you read it by any chance?

          Reply
      1. Bob Pyper

        I love the line about those who were in Trapnel’s company always knowing that the best of an evening was over when he launched into his impersonation of Boris Karloff.

        Reply
  7. Izzy

    I had to skim through your review because I haven’t read the Autumn section yet. Looking forward to picking it up. As a matter of fact, I’m reading Trollope :-). Also looking forward to seeing the mini series. I was delighted to see that Jonathan Cake plays Templer. I have a bit of a crush on both of them !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’ve so much to look forward to in the Autumn season. I was saying to Ali earlier that I’d formed the impression the ‘war’ books might be less interesting than others in the series, but in reality I’ve found the opposite to be true. There’s actually a fair bit of humour in this section, especially given the somewhat ineffectual nature of some of Jenkins’ comrades in the military. Plus, it’s the ideal environment for some classic Widmerpool manoeuvring, always a joy to observe when you’re watching from the sidelines. Enjoy!

      Reply
  8. Radz Pandit

    From your reviews I am getting the sense that the books keep getting better. That’s good to know. Your enthusiasm has spurred me on to give this series a try, sooner hopefully:)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. There is a kind of cumulative effect, especially as you get to know the main characters more deeply with each instalment. I’m halfway through book 10 at the moment, and it’s probably my favourite so far – not least because of the focus on the publishing world with all its quirks and foibles.

      Reply
      1. bookseekeragency

        Absolutely right. I believe it’s from ‘Hearing Secret Harmonies’, and yes it was used by someone about Widmerpool, though I can’t remember by whom… possibly Duport, the bloke in the wheelchair.

        Anyhow, the BBC radio drama adaptation of the novels is now available on YouTube!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Interesting. Something for me to look out for when I get to book 12. I didn’t realise there was a BBC radio version of the series – thanks for the tip!

          Reply
  9. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    I got waylaid after book 4 the other year – I really ought to pick this series up again, there is so much to enjoy in it. I remember enjoying book 4 so much, that the fifth was hard-going to get into, so your comments are very encouraging! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, do go back to it! There’s so much to enjoy as the series progresses, particularly as the characters begin to change and develop. I think the war novels (books 7-9) are some of the most interesting in the series. They’re actually quite amusing in some respects – and then the horrors of war erupt quite suddenly, just to remind us of the fragility of our lives.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s absolutely worth the investment in time and effort involved (probably one of the highlights of my entire reading life). That said, I do know what you mean about the four-volume set feeling somewhat daunting – they do look rather chunky. If it’s any encouragement, the first book is one of my favourites in the sequence. Plus, I think it’s sufficiently representative of the whole to give you a pretty good feel for the style and tone of the series. So, you’ll know relatively quickly if it’s for you.

      Reply
  10. shoshibookblog

    You’re reminding me of how much I love these books (and how strongly I’m contemplating a re-read of the pre-war books this summer). Personally my favourites were the first 3 books and the war section – but I do appreciate quite how odd the series becomes as it moves into the second half of the 20th century, especially as the narrator’s world meets the swinging sixties towards the end. You’ve got a lot to look forward to!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s lovely to hear – thank you! I thought the war book were excellent too, much more involving than I had expected them to be from feedback I’d picked up elsewhere. I also loved the very first book in the series with its focus on Jenkins’ schooldays and the battles with Le Bas – Stringham’s prank with the police was a highlight, for sure.

      I think a re-read sounds just the ticket for you. These books are incredibly rich in characterisation and detail, so much so that they’re bound to stand up to a second reading.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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