Some cult writers are admired more for what they mean than for what they accomplish. The works of the novelist, diarist, and prolific reviewer Anthony Powell (1905-2000) enjoyed only modest commercial success; Powell grouched to his British publisher in 1961, “I perfectly realise that I am not an enormous seller, but I am a seller, and certainly give Heinemann’s increasingly unattractive list some prestige.” But the comically understated, not infrequently sinister crew of his 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time—the grotesque “Ken” Widmerpool, industrialist, fellow-traveler, and deranged victim of a Satanic cult (Hearing Secret Harmonies); the impecunious, pill-popping author of no fixed abode, X. Trapnel (Books Do Furnish A Room)—have passed into folklore. As military enthusiasts adopt period costume to reenact Civil War battles to the least detail, so addicts of Dance gather to recite whole scenes involving such characters. Powell himself, whose centenary falls on December 21, remains a unique source of information for 20th-century social history—schooling, clothes, diet, manners, the degradation of religion—and on the working of the British military machine from the inside out—this last, in the words of his fellow veteran and author Simon Raven, achieving “a combination of poetry, reflection, satire and farce which no other living writer could have conceived or carried through.”

Some American readers, even so, have chafed at Powell’s apparent obsession with English upper-middle-class, metropolitan life, especially at a time when some of literature’s more parochial shackles were being blasted away by the likes of Norman Mailer. “Gan we dream of a homegrown war novel without a single battle scene or—even worse—without a single bedroom scene?” asked Melvin Maddocks, one of a new breed of switched-on critics for whom “doing your thing” was fast ceasing to carry any hint of opprobrium, and the concept of delayed gratification seemed as dated as a chastity belt. Yet Powell’s world, where most of the characters, it’s true, are unfashionably pre-Diana—what is today called “repressed”—fairly teems with sex. His first novel, Afternoon Men (1931), aroused both comparisons to Hemingway and, perhaps surprisingly for an author sometimes thought of as writing in the fustian impasto of Victorian English, a threatened prosecution for obscenity. The Dance sequence is so generally imbued with a calm awe that its characters’ lovemaking seems just another form of comic social discourse. The eventual miniseries (reaching the screen shortly before the author’s death) begins with a deft little prologue recreating, with laudable self-control, a leisurely exchange between a young man in spats and his nude mistress—an unimprovable visual symbol of the eight hours that follow. Powell himself, happily married for 65 years to Lady Violet Pakenham, the daughter of an earl, noted cheerfully that he was “always attracted by girls who look as if they’d slept under a bush for a week.”

This was the man who spent much of his early adulthood among Soho’s swingers rather than the pristine ruling class and, consequently, thought nothing of depicting the insane, drugged, or dead in his fiction. As has often been remarked, Powell’s roman à clef is really a form of soap opera, with cyclical themes and characters, and an infallible knack—the envy of many a television screenwriter—of ending each episode with a crisis. (Powell spent the winter of 1936-37 script doctoring for Warner Brothers, an experience, however venal, he claimed was invaluable “when one came to the architecture” of the Dance.) Like the longer-running TV serials, the books are also a prodigious feat of logistics, maneuvering some 500 players through seven decades, from the Great War to the Moon landings. As in Poussin’s allegorical painting from which Powell took his title, recurring patterns abound, as do a generous quota of rank coincidences. When the series’ narrator, Nick Jenkins, joins the army in 1939, he is promptly assigned to the corrosive Widmerpool, his school contemporary of 20 years earlier. Not long after reading this particular twist, I found myself sitting with a young friend in Bertorelli’s restaurant in London, engaged in a lively debate about the peacetime profession of Jenkins’ other army colleague, Odo Stevens. Years later, Stevens becomes an accomplished essayist and best-selling author. Wasn’t it a purveyor of liquid manure? No, that was Widmerpool’s father. Actually, Stevens had traveled in ladies’ undergarments, or was it costume jewelry . . . This was the sort of slightly demented exchange readily familiar to addicts of Powell’s vivid, self-contained world, and the stuff of popular internet quizzes to this day.

Those of us who have attended the conventions and subscribed to the newsletter know that Powell, if temporarily left behind by fashion, remains the single most readable chronicler of English 20th-century life. Arrayed for the opposition are those who never bought into the Dance‘s more baroque style and apparent pretension, among them Evelyn Waugh’s son Auberon, who wrote this of the series’ narrator: “I see him as an odious poseur, a ponderous and conceited public-school show-off whose ludicrous one man act can appeal only to the socially and intellectually insecure.” When, in 1990, Waugh reviewed Miscellaneous Verdicts, Powell’s best-selling collection of his assorted journalism, he took the opportunity to denounce the author’s “tortuous style” and—as if there could be anything worse—”unbridled snobbery.” This seems inadequate. Snobbery abounds in 20th-century literature, and not only that of the 1920’s and 30’s. True, Powell had (or, rather, acquired) an affinity for the sort of Englishman whose chief characteristics are a gentlemanly self-deprecation, along with that faint suggestion of bumbling and general air of one born to the “incestuous bartering house for vested interests,” as John Osborne termed the ruling class in 1960, in a hint of the coming end of deference. Powell’s prose style could also lapse into the self-parodic, a third party being “an additional personage,” a simple request for a lift “ill becom[ing] a native of this country to seek transport from a transatlantic visitor, guest to our shores.” Waugh, as did many others, thought that “ultimately” Powell’s appeal lay in such brazen gymnastics, along with the attendant parade of “extras from P.G. Wodehouse.” When some of these remarks appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, Powell, a 30-year veteran of the paper’s sister title, quit on the spot.

The Dance, then, may have an old-fashioned roll to it, reveling in such terms as “sun spectacles” and “gramophone” and “omnibus,” but beyond the dowager manner, Powell’s genius was to sustain a vibrant, and highly credible, imaginative world. (In this, perhaps, he approaches Waugh senior’s Sword of Honour trilogy.) Although Powell deplored the habit of identifying “real-life” models for his characters —deflecting, with unfailing civility, the most earnest enquirers—he was not above scattering a few artful clues when it came to his memoirs. Hugh Moreland is plainly based on Powell’s close friend Constant Lambert (190 5-51), the briefly celebrated composer and author of Music Ho! X. Trapnel bears striking sartorial affinity with the indigent and thirsty dandy (and woefully neglected writer) Julian Maclaren-Ross. The monstrous Widmerpool mines a rich seam of Reginald Manningham-Buller (known at the bar as Bullying- Manner), Lord Chancellor in the Macmillan government, along with trace elements of Powell’s brother-in-law Lord Longford, who always claimed the role for himself Most contemporaries were convinced that Powell drew the figure of Erridge from George Orwell, who also spent time posing as a tramp in a gesture of class goodwill. The fictional Pam Flitton and Mona Templer clearly echo Sonia Brownell, an artist’s model known fondly as the Euston Venus, who eventually married Orwell on his deathbed. The equally libidinous Sir Magnus Donners doffs a hat to the first Lord Beaverbrook, relentlessly vulgar Canadian billionaire proprietor of the Daily Express. Dr. Trelawney, who opens and closes the series in an obvious frame, almost as though Powell saw him as embodying the century, is the diabolist Aleister Crowley.

If not exactly required reading these days, Powell’s masterpiece is one of English literature’s enduring feats and might be one of the few things that nurtures an awareness of an older, reticent England, not dead but gone into hiding until the present tabloid version self-destructs. The author himself lived long enough to see such bracing developments as punk rock and Sarah, duchess of York, as well as a modern idiom in which domestics would come to refer to assaults, not servants—all recorded in his wonderfully mordant diaries. A modest man with a profound dislike of reckless informality and self-publicity, Powell continued working almost until the end, publishing the final volume of the Journals in 1997, the year in which Dance was finally filmed. The sheer vitality of the characters survived even this tepid adaptation. It all remains good, dirty, literary fun, a brilliantly contrived escape from the banality of the real world.