Tag Archives: A Dance to the Music of Time

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.

A Dance to the Music of Time, book 1 – A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

First published in 1951, A Question of Upbringing is the first novel in Anthony Powell’s masterly twelve-part cycle, A Dance to the Music of Time, a series which explores the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid-20th century. It’s been on my radar for quite a while, mostly due to conversations with MaxJonathan and Ali who have written about the books in some detail. The final push came towards the end of last year when the Backlisted team covered book ten in the series, Books Do Furnish a Room, on their Christmas podcast.

Having drawn a line under my three-year Classics Club project, I now have the headspace to read a long sequence of novels – hence my decision to begin the Dance. While I can’t promise to write about every book in the series, I will try to post some thoughts every now and again, just to capture a few observations. In the meantime, here are a few reflections on the first instalment, A Question of Upbringing.

As the novel opens, the narrator – a man named Jenkins – is observing the movements of some workmen in his street when he is reminded of Poussin’s great painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the Seasons move in rhythm to the notes of the lyre.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. (p. 2)

It’s a striking image, one that prompts Jenkins to think back to his youth, a time when so many things, hitherto unfathomable to him, were starting to become a little clearer.

Immediately we find ourselves back in the 1920s where Jenkins is in his final year of public school, destined to progress to a notable University, almost certainly Oxford. Most of his spare time is spent messing around with two companions, Stringham and Templer, whose temperaments, Jenkins observes, appear to represent two different facets of life in spite of their outward similarities. Stringham is something of a romantic and an eccentric, perhaps destined to play a somewhat different role from the one he truly desires. Templer, on the other hand, is more practical, valuing the tangible things in life, though he is not particularly ambitious.

The boys enjoy a feisty relationship with their punctilious housemaster, Le Bas, a situation which prompts Stringham to devise a devious joke at the tutor’s expense. The incident culminates in Le Bas being mistaken for a petty fraudster who is wanted by the police. Rather amusingly, Le Bas believes Templer to be the orchestrator of the prank, especially once the boy’s tobacco pouch is found near the scene of his arrest. It’s a very funny story, one that soon spreads around the network of boys as the episode becomes public.

While at school, Jenkins also encounters Widmerpool, a rather isolated, awkward boy who cuts a lonely figure marked by an air of greyness. A year or two older than the other boys, Widmerpool is destined to reappear in Jenkins’ orbit in the years to come.

Following these reflections on the boys’ schooldays, the novel then goes on to shadow Jenkins as he pays visits to Stringham’s home in London and the Templers’ residence near the sea. While staying with the Templers, Jenkins comes into contact with Sunny Farebrother, an amicable business associate of Templer senior. Farebrother also finds himself the butt of a joke when Templer’s brother-in-law, the rather objectionable Stripling, attempts to place a chamber pot in Farebrother’s hat box before the businessman’s departure. However, the plot is foiled when Farebrother surprises Stripling in the midst of enacting the trick.

When reading the novel, we view everything through Jenkins’ perspective, observing the movements of the other characters in relation to each another. It soon becomes clear that Jenkins is a little naïve, certainly more so than many of his peers. Nevertheless, there is a sense of him maturing as the novel progresses, a feeling that he is beginning to understand a little more about the business of life.

Clearly some complicated process of sorting-out was in progress among those who surrounded me: though only years later did I become aware how early such voluntary segregations begin to develop; and of how they continue throughout life. (p.69)

It is during his stay at the Templers that Jenkins first becomes aware of the possibilities that love might offer in the course of one’s existence – not just in terms of a physical attraction to someone, but a deeper, more emotional force too. This realisation is sparked by his observation of another of the Templers’ guests, the intoxicating Lady Reith. Although Jenkins is not seriously tempted by the prospect of Lady Reith, he does recognise her magnetism and power over the opposite sex. Instead, Jenkins considers himself to be in love with his schoolfriend’s sister, the somewhat remote Jean Templer.

Before heading off to university, Jenkins spends the summer in France, staying with a wartime friend of his father’s, Commandant Leroy. Also visiting the Leroys that summer is Widmerpool, who in spite of a little window dressing still retains much of the aura of the odd-boy-out from school.

Widmerpool had tidied himself up a little since leaving school, though there was still a kind of exotic drabness about his appearance that seemed to mark him out from the rest of mankind. […] His familiar air of uneasiness remained with him, and he still spoke as if holding a piece of india-rubber against the roof of his mouth. He also retained his accusing manner, which seemed to suggest that he suspected people of trying to worm out of him important information which he was not, on the whole, prepared to divulge at so cheap a price as that offered. (p. 118)

There is something rather secretive and unpleasant about Widmerpool at this stage, a feeling that leaves me interested to see how his character evolves over time. Currently articled to a firm of solicitors, it is clear than Widmerpool believes himself to be destined for greater things – either in the way of business or politics or both.

Once again, there are some beautifully observed scenes in this section of the story, particularly the amusing tennis matches involving two somewhat idiosyncratic Scandinavians – one from Norway, the other from Sweden – who clearly dislike one another.

The final chapter of this novel sees Jenkins in his first year at University, attending Sunday afternoon tea parties hosted by the wily Sillery, an influential don whose primary aim is to uncover and exploit any connections that might be of use to him. Stringham is also studying at the same University, although his arrival is delayed by an accident which puts him out of circulation for several months. Unlike Jenkins, Stringham is unhappy at the college, and it is not long before he convinces his mother and stepfather to allow him to depart. Other young undergraduates float in and out of Jenkins’ orbit during this period, although the significance of these figures remains to be seen.

As the novel draws to a close, Jenkins parts company with Stringham, and there is a sense that a particular chapter in his life is coming to an end.

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period. This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. (p. 229)

It is observations like this that really stand out for me – Jenkins’ (or Powell’s) reflections on the nature of life alongside his wry asides. How relationships develop and then dissipate over time; how complex and powerful the business of love can be; how our personalities are often formed in the years of our youth, thereby setting the pattern for much of our lives. These are just some of the points that strike me on reading this book, but there are many more. Above all, it is not what you know, but who you know that seems most important here: a person’s social class and background; which school and college they went to; their network of influencers. These are the things that appear to matter most.

I’m looking forward to seeing how these individuals develop over time as they move in and out of one another’s lives. No doubt several new characters will be introduced as the Dance takes shape. I do hope we see Jenkins’ Uncle Giles again, a man whose liaisons with various members of the opposite sex are as dodgy and indiscriminate as his business dealings. I’ve run out of space to say any more about Giles in this piece, but maybe another time; he is a marvellous creation.

A Question of Upbringing is published by Arrow Books; personal copy.