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.