Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’ve reached the end of my little project to read Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a wonderful twelve-part series which explores the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. It’s been a hugely enjoyable and satisfying experience, easily one of my bookish highlights in recent years. Having ‘lived’ with these characters for the best part of six months, I’m not quite sure what to do with myself now that the cycle is complete. The idea of revisiting it at some point in the future is very tempting indeed.
As with my previous Powell posts, I’m going to touch on some of the highlights from the final volumes in the series – hopefully relatively spoiler-free, although there may be the occasional mention of a key development here or there.
Books Do Furnish a Room (book 10 in the sequence), sees Jenkins in a contemplative, melancholic mood as he returns to his old University to gather material for a forthcoming book on Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. It’s a tone reflected in the bleak and wistful atmosphere of post-war British life, replete with its deficiencies and uncertainties.
This is a very ‘literary’ instalment in the series, one that revolves around books, writers, critics and publishers – in particular, those connected to the newly-established publishing house Quiggin & Craggs. Jenkins is engaged by Q&C to commission and manage literary reviews, a role which brings him into contact with the author X Trapnel, an idiosyncratic character who enjoys perpetuating his own somewhat legendary urban myth. (For the interested, it is well-documented that Powell drew on the figure of the talented but troubled writer Julian Maclaran-Ross, author of the excellent novel Of Love and Hunger, as inspiration for this character.)
X Trapnel – or ‘Trappy’ as he is affectionately known – is a marvellous creation, undoubtedly one of Powell’s finest across the series. In spite of his hand-to-mouth existence and frequent shuttling from one down-at-heel Bloomsbury hotel to another, Trappy gives the impression of being something of a dandy with his tropical suit, grey suede brothel-creepers and flamboyant, skull-topped walking stick.
The walking stick struck a completely different note. Its wood unremarkable, but the knob, ivory, more likely bone, crudely carved in the shape of a skull, was rather like old Skerrett’s head at Erridge’s funeral. This stick clearly bulked large in Trapnel equipment. It set the tone far more than the RAF greatcoat or tropical suit. For the rest he was hatless, wore a dark blue sports shirt frayed at the collar, an emerald green tie patterned with naked women, was shod in grey suede brothel-creepers. These last, then relatively new, were destined to survive a long time, indeed until their rubber soles, worn to the thinness of paper, had become all but attached from fibreless uppers, sounding a kind of dismal applause as they flapped rhythmically against the weary pavement trodden beneath. (p. 106, book 10)
Naturally, Trappy’s preferred mode of transport is the taxi – not only to avoid descending to the undesirable level of the bus or tube but to provide some protection from loitering bailiffs hoping to serve writs for outstanding debts. Irrespective of his precarious financial position, Trappy never hesitates in spending his last few shillings on a taxi, a touch that adds to the air of panache he chooses to adopt when facing the outside world. As a character, he is continually playing a role, always performing to the gallery in one form or another.
Once again, Jenkins’ (or Powell’s) astute powers of observation come to the fore in capturing this individual’s trademark characteristics, complete with all their various tensions and contradictions.
Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, and opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age. Each of these ambitions had something to recommend it from one angle or another, with the possible exception of being poor – the only aim Trapnel now achieved with an unqualified mastery. (pp. 144-145, book 10)
As with previous volumes, humour plays a vital role in these books, balancing the poignant developments with some lighter moments here and there. Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent of sadness running through the twilight of the series, a sense of loneliness and disenchantment in an uncertain, shifting world. Allusions to classical Greek myths also play their part, particularly in books 11 and 12, Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies respectively.
Several familiar faces make welcome reappearances here, most notably Quiggin, Sillery, Widmerpool and Pamela Flitton. There are some classic ‘Pamela’ moments in these books, powered by this character’s unpredictable, fiery nature – a veritable tour-de-force of hostility and disdain. In this scene, Widmerpool (now a member of the House of Lords) tries to capture Pamela’s attention following his arrival in Venice, albeit rather unsuccessfully.
Pamela threw him a glance. Her manners suggested that a man – a very unprepossessing man at that – was trying to pick her up in a public place; some uncouth sightseer, not even a member of the Conference, having gained access to the Palazzo because the door was open, was now going round accosting ladies encountered there. Widmerpool persisted. (p. 105, book 11)
The spectral Mrs Erdleigh – first glimpsed in book 3, The Acceptance World – also pops up again, just when you least expect it.
Age – goodness knows how old she was – had exalted Mrs Erdleigh’s unsubstantiality. She looked very old indeed, yet old in an intangible, rather than corporeal sense. Lighter than air, disembodied from a material world, the swirl of capes, hoods, stoles, scarves, veils, as usual encompassed her from head to foot, all seeming of so light a texture that, far from bringing an impression of accretion, their blurring of hard outlines produced a positively spectrum effect, a Whistlerian nocturne in portraiture, sage greens, sombre blues, almost frivolous grays, sprinkled with gold. (pp. 241-242)
Alongside these regulars, Powell adds some new characters to the mix – most notably two Americans, the biographer Gwinnett and the film producer Glober, both of whom share an interest in X Trapnel’s work. Oddly enough, these two men also become entangled with the infamous Pamela, albeit in their rather different ways.
Another memorable character making his mark is Scorpio Murtlock, the enigmatic leader of a strange cult with a penchant for night-time rituals and various risqué practices. The battles for power, which have always formed an important thematic strand within the series, are in evidence once again, this time with Murtlock’s cult playing a crucial role.
With the final two volumes in particular, there is a sense of the series drawing to a close, of the old guard moving on in mind, body and spirit. The twin spectres of ageing and impending mortality haunt these books with funeral services offering the main opportunities to catch up with old acquaintances and to reminisce about the past.
Widmerpool continues to loom large in the proceedings, although his standing and reputation in society are now very much in decline. The final chapters of the sequence bring a strong sense of closure to his story, culminating in a remarkable denouement that feels at once both shocking and strangely fitting, particularly given this character’s rather idiosyncratic personality. Without wishing to give too much away, there is an element of the narrative coming full circle, harking back to our very first image of Widmerpool emerging out of the mist during an afternoon run at school. A truly memorable end to this richly rewarding series.
You capture the positives of the sequence very well and I have read the 12 volumes twice! Powell was a prose writer of great skill.
Ah, thank you. I’ve been particularly taken with Powell’s ability to create such a vast cast of distinct and memorable characters. Very impressive indeed!
I’m so pleased for you that you enjoyed the series so much – what a great experience. Did you get the whole set in one go, or volume by volume?
Yes, hugely enjoyable. Interestingly, it never felt like a burden or a chore at any stage, just pure reading pleasure from start to finish. I bought them one by one, always ensuring that I had at least the next two lined up on my shelves in case of emergencies. A good friend gave me a couple of them as part of a birthday gift in the spring, which was a really thoughtful touch.
I like that ‘planning ahead’ approach. I have a feeling that if I bought them as a set it would be too easy just to put them all on the shelf and move on!
Ha. They do look rather nice all lined up with their colourful spines!
Congratulations on finishing the series. Completing such a fulfilling and long set of books can leave one feeling at a loss. It is so interesting how we become attached to fictional characters and places. As you say, there is always rereading.
Thank you! Yes, Even though I finished the last instalment back in July, I still feel a little bereft even now. It’s such a big investment in time and mental energy, reading a series of this length; but, as I was just saying to Liz, it never felt like a burden in any way. Just pure enjoyment and admiration for Powell’s skill.
Your final review was well worth waiting for, Jacqui! Beautifully written, if I may say so. You capture the spirit and tone of the final books. I wonder how long it will be before you re-read the series? You can also now have a look at the TV dramatisation! I think Simon Russell Beale captures Widmerpool’s combination of arrogance and vulnerability really well. – Bob
Ah, thanks so much, Bob. That really means a lot coming from you! I’m definitely ready to watch the series now, especially as I’ve posted my closing reflections on the books. Simon Russell Beale is an amazing actor, and it’s wonderful to hear that he nails the nuances of Widmerpool’s character so well. As you say, there’s a lot going on there – not just the insufferable smugness/pomposity but the inherent insecurities too. I hoping the series might be available to view on All 4. If not, I may have to investigate the DVD.
Have you revisited the books yourself recently? I’m wondering how long a gap to leave before going back to them again…
Jacqui – the series was certainly available on All4 a few months ago, because I re-watched it then. As I think I said before, it’s worth a look, and there are some fine performances. These include SRB, Miranda Richardson as Pamela Flitton, and Paul Rhys as Charles Stringham. When I re-read the books, I now see Edward Fox as Uncle Giles. A few of the set-piece scenes are handled well. Still, the books really needed a longer series (12 epidodes, one for each book, would be ideal). I guess that I have read the books in sequence four times over about 20 years. My most recent re-read was last year, and there had a been a five year gap before that. I have only ever read a few other favourite novels twice, so re-reading on this basis is certainly not routine for me, and I can only really imagine doing this with Powell. I could easily start again any time soon, and I’m sure that I would pick up new insights and see things I missed on previous readings.
I’ve just checked, and luckily it’s still there. Phew! That’s a particularly fine cast, especially with Edward Fox in the role of Uncle Giles. I shall look forward to seeing him in his natural habitat of The Ufford.
Five years sounds just about right for a re-read of the novels. Long enough to leave a decent gap between readings but short enough to recall enough about the main characters and overall narrative arc. As you say, I can imagine noticing new things on a second reading, little nuances and details that become more apparent second time around.
A lovely reminder of those final books in the sequence. I loved the ending, and the way it harked back to the very beginning. There was a strong sense of closure, things moving forward as the books close. I can definitely imagine re-reading them all one day.
Yes! There’s definitely a sense of closure at the end of the sequence, a very fitting conclusion in many respects. It reminded me a little of the end of the Patrick Melrose novels, a sort of laying to rest of old ghosts and misdemeanours of the past. I feel very grateful to have read and enjoyed the whole series this year. Time and energy well spent, for sure.
Lovely post Jacqui, and you remind me how much I loved these books and how wonderful Powell’s characterisation was. Trappy and Widmerpool are just marvellous and they go from extreme to extreme, which is very entertaining. The changing times were reflected well, too. Such a good sequence of books! :D
Yes, two of the most memorable characters in literature there. I’ve been dipping into ‘Bitten by the Tarantula’ recently, Julian M-R’s collection of stories, essays and literary criticism (super interesting, by the way). What a unique and intelligent individual he must have been!
I have the set and have yet to get to the books. I watched the series and liked it (as much as I remember of it) but some bits were stronger than others.
I’m looking forward to watching the TV adaptation, especially now that I’ve cleared my head of thoughts on the books. With a series of this length, a degree of variation in the pace or quality is almost inevitable. Nevertheless, when viewed as a whole, I do think it’s one of the best things I’ve read in recent years (and possibly in my entire life). A tremendous achievement all told.
Thanks for this – you’ve reminded me how much I enjoyed these books the first time round! It wasn’t too long ago, but you’re tempting me to pick them up again, especially ‘Hearing Secret Harmonies’ because I found something so funny about Widmerpool navigating popularity in the late 60s.
Ah, you’re very welcome. They’re eminently re-readable, I think. So much richness in terms of characterisation, reflections and themes. I’d definitely like to revisit the sequence at some stage.
I’m so disappointed ! Having completed the Summer sequence,I wanted to order The Valley of Bones and suddenly the covers have changed ! They’ve gone and replaced Mark Boxer’s cover art by bland black and white photographs !
Oh, no! I saw a photo of some of those new covers when someone posted them on Twitter a few months ago. They’re quite stark, aren’t they? I’m not sure they really *fit* with my impressions of the novels – or the characters therein. I hope you’re able to chase down some copies in the previous style, especially as they look so beautiful all lined up together with their coloured spines!
You’ve made it. Wow. It does sound like an excellent series and I can relate to the feeling of almost being a bit lost without it. You made quick progress overall. Possibly it’s very readable.
Would you say that any of these books could be read as a standalone? the one about books sounds intriguing.
I know! It does feel like a real achievement, a very satisfying sequence of reading all told. I think the fact that I was laid up at home for the best part of three months made a big difference to the way I read these books. They are very readable, but it probably would have taken me much longer to get through the whole series had I been fitting them around work and various social commitments. As it turned out, I had the luxury of plenty of quality reading time, even though I was dosed up on painkillers for the first couple of weeks.
That’s a very interesting question about the sequence of books. I’m not sure you would get the best out of them if you tried reading one or two of the later instalments as standalones, mostly because you really need a good understanding of the principal characters’ history to appreciate them at their best. I think you’d miss a lot of the nuances — possibly some quite significant ones — if you didn’t have that history to fall back on.
PS I’ve just see your piece on The Driver’s Seat pop up in my WP reader, so I’m going to save it till I’ve posted my own. It might be quite a while as I’ve got several half-written pieces to tidy up before my Spark post goes live. (I usually do a rough cut as soon as I’ve finished the book, but then hang fire for a few weeks until it comes up in the perpetual queue!)
I had the feeling it’s a series that can’t be read out of order. I wonder if a book/series like this would still have a chance to get published today. Publishing has changed so much. You were lucky to still be able to read in spite of your pain.
No worries about my post. It will be interesting to compare notes.
I think the nearest thing to it in terms of contemporary fiction is Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. There are five of those — the first three came out in the early 1990s, followed by a gap of about 10 years before the series was extended with the fourth, Mother’s Milk. (The fifth and final volume, At Last, was published in 2012.) I think there are some similarities in style too, with a focus on pivotal events or social gatherings which end up shaping the protagonists’ lives. (One or two other readers commented on this aspect in a previous conversation about the series.)
You’re right to say that publishing has changed so much now. Maybe there’s less of an appetite for an extended sequence of books these days? That said, there’s been a lot of interest in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in recent years. I think there are six of those in total, some of them quite chunky in size!
I’ll definitely catch up with your Spark piece as soon as I’ve finalised and posted my own. It’s a pretty extraordinary book, isn’t it? A little like watching a slow-motion car crash unfold right before your eyes. You know you really ought to look away, but some inexplicable force keeps drawing you in…
I thought it might be comparable to St Aubyn. I’m glad you’re confirming it. I’ve got Mother’s Milk which I heard can be read on its own.
Knausgaard seems to satisfy a certain voyeurism. But, yes, some chunky series can still be published but usually might not be huge successes – unless it’s fantasy, of course.
I’m not going to say anything about Spark for the moment. But definitely a train-wreck thing.
I’ll be interested to see how you get on with Mother’s Milk if you decide to start there with St Aubyn. It is somewhat different to the first three novels which form a sort of trilogy in their own right. (I recall Andy Miller saying that part of him wishes St Aubyn had stopped there as the final chapters of book three, Some Hope, felt like a natural end point. Either way, it’s a brilliant written sequence of books, almost cathartic in certain respects.
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This sounds absolutely masterful and so enjoyable too! Congratulations on finishing Jacqui and I’m sure I’ve said already, but you’ve absolutely convinced me to read this.
Marvellous. I very much doubt you’ll regret it! Definitely one of my most rewarding reading experiences in recent years.
Jacqui, I obviously have a lot of catching up to to on your blog, but wanted to start here with congratulations on finishing Anthony Powell. I’ve been following along here and there with mounting curiosity about this series, and your final post on them here, through which your enthusiasm shines clearly, has fully convinced me I must read it. Cheers!
Thank you! I feel as if I used my additional reading time quite well when I was laid up at home earlier this year. It certainly gave me the capacity and headspace to read a few ‘big’ series, this included. There’s such a richness of detail in the characterisation here, particularly with the key figures such as Widmerpool, Pamela Flitton, Templer and Stringham. A highlight of my reading year, for sure.
PS It’s lovely to see you on the blogosphere again. I’ve missed chatting to you about books, so I’m hoping you’ll be able to find the time to post something of your own pretty soon!
I still think my best blogging moment was writing about all these without including spoilers for earlier volumes in reviews of later volumes. You’ve managed the same thing and it’s been great to be reminded of them.
So, still avoiding spoilers, he does pull off the ending doesn’t he? It all seems kind of fitting, and I thought managed a clever sense of the ancient and modern, the workings of fate (or, perhaps better, appropriateness) yet with no predestination. It’s clever stuff. I do hope to reread them one day, but probably not for ages yet so they can be a rediscovery.
Thank you! I tried, where possible, to avoid any spoilers by focusing on other things – in particular, certain aspects of Powell’s style and skills with characterisation alongside one or two of the overarching themes. So, it’s good to hear that you feel I’ve pitched it about right. And yes, that ending! It felt weirdly appropriate in a way, very much in line with the overall trajectory…I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Widmerpool in the end, in spite of his many flaws and failings.
As for your Powell reviews, I really must go back and have a proper read of the whole lot, especially now that I’ve posted my own pieces. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to do that over the Christmas holidays when things are a little calmer. (Work is a bit crazy at the moment, albeit in a good way!)
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