Anthony Powell’s 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time is a work I’ve had in mind to look into for decades without ever having done so, until the publication last year of Hilary Spurling’s biography (reviewed in this issue by Derek Turner, the Lincolnshire man of letters) of the late English novelist, a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and George Orwell who succeeded in outliving most of them to create a social portrait in one million words of British society from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, renewed my interest. It was Derek, indeed, who, during an afternoon together in London last fall, unwittingly inspired me over dinner to start in at last on Dance, beginning at the beginning with the first of the novels, A Question of Upbringing, which introduces the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, and one of the sequence’s principal personae, the contemptible but pathetic Widmerpool: the epitome of the contemporary world’s go-along-to-get-along type who ends by becoming a victim of the society he surrendered himself to.
In addition to his fervent admirers, Powell had his bored and rather dismissive detractors who found the author (as he said of himself) too “buttoned up” and constrained as a man and as an artist, too formal, rhetorical, and orotund in his literary style, outdated in his social views and interests, too reactionary in his disinterest in politics and in his willingness to accept the world for what it is, even as he scrutinized and dissected it in the most minute and nuanced detail. Powell’s critics are justified in many of their complaints. A Question of Upbringing is formidably formal in style and in tone, and Jenkins is arguably less a narrator and character than he is an attitude. Powell’s prose tends toward loose construction, and some of his sentences are syntactically faulty. Nevertheless, the writing has real charm, the milieu is inviting, and the novelist’s rare ability to invoke the feel of an historical era is undeniable. His England of the 1920’s not only lives but remains perceptible in the England of the 21st century. One million words over 12 novels make a formidable challenge, but I suspect that I’ve enlisted for the duration anyhow.