Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell (Part I)

A one-liner cannot do justice to this long work of a lifetime, but it's damned fine reading and the most nuanced, character-focused epic you've ever read.

A Dance to the Music of Time
Published from 1951 to 1975, approximately 3000 pages in total

This twelve-volume sequence [A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life's poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. Until the last three volumes, the next standard excitements of old-fashioned plots (What will happen next? Will x marry y? Will y murder z?) seem far less important than time's slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers in intricate human arabesques."

[Robert L Selig; Time and Anthony Powell, A Critical Study]

In the books1001 challenge, I have joked that someone has yet to be assigned the longest work on the list, over 3000 pages of Proust. The joke was almost on me when my next random assignment came up as the number two entry: almost 3000 pages of Anthony Powell.

I had never heard of him. The description of A Dance to the Music of Time called it "the English À la recherche du temps perdu." So Anthony Powell is the English Proust.

I looked at a 3000-page assignment and thought...well, shit. I figured if I found the first volume boring and unpleasant, that would be giving it a fair shot.

But I read the whole thing. Because it's actually a really good read. It's long, and slow, and there's not really much in the way of a plot. This epic work is not an "epic" in the usual sense: there is no overarching metaplot except history itself. Individual characters move in and out of the story, appearing and reappearing after intervals of years, and we see each of our central figures develop over time, their lives changing, the characters aging, until they are all old familiar friends (or noxious old relations we can't be rid of).

Very briefly, it's about upper-class society in England, spanning the period from just after World War I to the 1960s. It's a multi-threaded drama about family, business, romance, art, and war, but what makes it a masterpiece of literature is the way Powell makes each character known to us with words that are like delicate brushstrokes on an immense canvas, to which he just keeps adding more and more refinements.

In fact, the title of the series is taken from the 17th century painting by Nicolas Poussin:

A Dance to the Music of Time

So, understand first of all that this is not a single 3000-page novel. It's a series of twelve novels that were published over the course of a quarter of a century. Approached that way, it's not nearly as hard to read the whole thing. (C'mon, how many of you have swallowed the entire Harry Dresden or Wheel of Time series?)

I read the Chicago Press edition, which collects the series in four volumes (sometimes called "Seasons") which each contain three of the original novels.

Spoiler Warning

I'll try not to give away everything, but really, A Dance to the Music of Time doesn't revolve around plot twists. As described in Selig's summary, above, it's a "slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers in intricate human arabesques" over a period of decades. That being the case, it's kind of hard to talk about a twelve-book series without mentioning how someone dies, and so-and-so marries this other person in book five, etc. There are marriages, affairs, career developments, wars, births, and deaths, and I really don't think entering into this series already knowing who's going to marry who and who's going to die will change your appreciation of it. I can't imagine that anyone works their way through the thousands of pages of these volumes because they just have to know whether Nick and Jean will get together again. Either you enjoy the trip or you put this sucker down long before you're finished; the destination is kind of irrelevant.

1st Movement

First Movement

Four very different young men on the threshold of manhood dominate this opening volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. The narrator, Jenkins - a budding writer - shares a room with Templer, already a passionate womanizer, and Stringham, aristocratic and reckless. Widmerpool, as hopelessly awkward as he is intensely ambitious, lurks on the periphery of their world. Amid the fever of the 1920s and the first chill of the 1930s, these four gain their initiations into sex, society, business, and art. Considered a masterpiece of modern fiction, Powell's epic creates a rich panorama of life in England between the wars.

A Question of Upbringing

A Question of Upbringing

The first book (set in the early 1920s) introduces us to our protagonist, Nick Jenkins, who as the book begins attends a posh public school (nameless but based on Eton College, where Powell attended) with a group of classmates who are all pretty well-heeled, though some more than others. His social sphere is the English lower-upper class, which is to say, he and his friends have business magnates, politicians, and minor title-holders among their acquaintances, but most of them aren't dripping with money or having tea at Buckingham Palace. Nonetheless, they have pretty privileged existences which means their day to day concerns are more along the lines of "What am I going to do with my life?" rather than "How am I going to pay the rent?"

Jenkins is the first-person narrator of the entire series. A Question of Upbringing chronicles his school years, from public school to university, and his friendship with Charles Stringham and Peter Templer, his two best mates in school who, by the end of the book, are both drifting away. This is the main arc of this first volume: Jenkins slowly becomes aware of a world outside himself as it draws away the people who were once his closest companions while throwing him into new circles. Throughout the series, we will see this constant movement of people drifting in and out of one another's orbits, sometimes with many years passing between.

Of the three boys, Stringham is by far the wealthiest, and Jenkins remains friends with him rather longer than with Templer, who's more of a rake.

While these three might be considered the "main characters" of the book (particularly Nick, since he's the narrator), they really aren't the most memorable. Despite Powell's rightly celebrated gift for characterization, these three boarding school/university boys, all of pretty similar backgrounds and upbringing, are more alike than they are different. It is instead the secondary characters who really come alive.

Widmerpool as a boy

The first notable member of the supporting cast is Kenneth Widmerpool. Widmerpool will recur throughout the series: when we meet him in A Question of Upbringing, he is introduced by way of an overcoat, and then his character is perfectly illustrated via another small incident concerning a banana. These trivial, utterly forgettable details paint a subtle but perfect portrait of Widmerpool; he's that guy who desperately wants to be One of the Gang, who wants to be esteemed, who wants to fit in, but most of all, wants power and recognition. There is nothing precisely wrong with anything he does; he's not evil, he's not stupid, he doesn't do anything immoral, and he's not quite far enough away from the norm to be classified as "weird" or abnormal or anti-social. He's one of those people who deviates just far enough away from the mean that people know there's something "off" about him without knowing precisely why. A large part of it is the sense that every social interaction on his part is a calculation. We've all known someone like this: he doesn't do anything worthy of inspiring active dislike, and he's never picked on, and yet you can't imagine yourself actually wanting to hang out with him.

But each of the other characters, from their priggish Housemaster Le Bas to the deceptively hapless Sunny Farebrother, are illustrated in small scenes and bits of dialog that make all their personalities distinct. There is, for example, Nick's Uncle Giles, perpetually going on about "The Trust," a bit of family money the dispensation of which Uncle Giles is always trying to renegotiate to his advantage. He drops in on Nick at school unexpectedly, goes on about things of no interest to the young man, and then disappears just as quickly, yet the impression he leaves is as lingering as the smell of his cigarette smoke (which gets Jenkins and Stringham in trouble). Jenkins describes him perhaps most aptly thus:

"His mastery of the hard-luck story was of a kind never achieved by persons not wholly concentrated on themselves."

There are probably a dozen other characters introduced in this book, most of whom seem minor. By far the most memorable is Professor Sillery, who is an unassuming but influential fellow at the university that Jenkins and Stringham attend. Sillery has Sunday teas and gathers the brightest, most interesting, and most well-connected young men in the school into his circle. He has an uncanny eye for potential, for friends-of-friends and family members of even the most unprepossessing individuals whose acquaintanceship might be useful to him, or to someone else who is useful to him, in the future. Sillery is a jovial, ever-watchful, ever-active spider sitting at the center of a web of social string-pulling. He is really something to behold, as is Powell's humorous, believable, and subtle description of Sillery's modus operandi, and if you are a Harry Potter fan, you know exactly who I am thinking of, right?

Professor Sillery

You just know someone is going to ask him about Horcruxes.

In fact, Professor Sillery is such a perfect model for Professor Slughorn (or more accurately, Professor Slughorn is such a spot-on caricature of Professor Sillery) that while I don't know if J.K. Rowling has ever mentioned reading Anthony Powell's books or listed them as being among her influences, if she didn't, I'll eat a kneazle. Certainly Harry Potter is largely based on this sort of English boarding school setting, and while I know you literati are wincing that anyone could compare J.K. Rowling to the "English Proust," there really is a great similarity in tone and in the way that both Powell and Rowling make use of vivid secondary characters to populate a story in which the main character is almost colorless by comparison.

After a casual mention of a "Parkinson" among the mostly faceless purebloodsupper-class snobs Jenkins mingles with, I couldn't stop seeing evidence of Potter-inspiration...

This guy agrees with me.

A Buyer's Market

I must have been about twenty-one or twenty-two at the time, and held then many rather wild ideas on the subject of women: conceptions largely the result of having read a good deal without simultaneous opportunity to modify by personal experience the recorded judgment of others upon that matter : estimates often excellent in their conclusions if correctly interpreted, though requiring practical knowledge to be appreciated at their full value.

A Buyer's Market

The tone in book two, A Buyer's Market, becomes a bit more pompous, with wry chunks of verbosity like the above growing longer and denser all the way to the end. Does it strike you as bordering on pretentious, however well-written? Ah, but that's the point. Jenkins is now a young bachelor, "working" to the degree that a man of his class has to work (he has some kind of dilettante come-to-the-office-when-he-feels-like-it job with a publisher that prints art books), while attending society balls and fancying himself a man of the world and a keen observer of his fellow man — when in fact he's an amiable dufus who knows fuck-all about anything. The stuffy, pretentious tone of his voice in this book perfectly represents his elevated opinion of himself coupled with his germinal sense of self-awareness. He's a typical young adult who knows nothing but does not yet know what he doesn't know.

Nick Jenkins

Most of the first half of the book is taken up by the events of a single night in the life of young Nick Jenkins, man about town. He goes to a ball, encountering Widmerpool and Stringham after not having seen either for years, and following various other social mishaps involving the woman he thought he was in love with, he leaves the ball, encounters a "counter-culture" artiste friend of his parents, and goes to hang out at another party populated by a somewhat more "downtown" crew than the people at the marriage-market society balls he's been attending.

Jenkins narrates from the point of view of his older self, hence he makes frequent observations about what he perceived at the time and how totally off-base he was. A less skilled writer might be accused of telling us too much about the character's thoughts, but Powell's third-person narrative shines a spotlight perfectly on our boy, letting us see him both as he sees himself (as a young man) and as he really is, a virginal naif. His encounters with old and new associates represent his slow awakening to a world that is much bigger than himself. This is probably most evident in his encounter with Gypsy Jones, a young libertine leftist who finds herself in "a bit of trouble," said trouble being a problem which is "taken care of" with financial assistance from, of all persons, Widmerpool. Yes, Widmerpool, the awkward, comical schoolmate of Jenkins who keeps shambling in and out of the narrative, and each time the reader, like Jenkins, gets the sense that even if Widmerpool is a little odd, a little off, we're very badly misjudging him if we thought that his role was merely to be comic relief.

He was one of those persons capable of envisaging others only in relation to himself, so that, when in love with Barbara, it had been apparently of no interest to him to consider what other men might stand in the way. Barbara was either in his company, or far from him; the latter state representing a kind of void in which he was uninterested except at such a moment as that at the Huntercombes', when her removal was brought painfully to his notice.

I found myself slogging a bit through A Buyer's Market. Once Nick and his crew are out of school, he spends a few years basically faffing about doing nothing and his life is considerably less interesting. As I mention above, the prose becomes denser in this book, with long unbroken chapters full of long unbroken blocks of text that are as ponderous as they are impressively constructed. There really isn't any plot here, but what there is is a lot of character development, some very slight and subtle, some which the reader can readily perceive as foreshadowing the future.

For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected; so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careering uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity.

The Acceptance World

'This is my nephew Nicholas,' he said; and to me: 'I don't think you have met Mrs. Erdleigh.'

He spoke slowly, as if, after much thought, he had chosen me from an immense number of other nephews to show her at least one good example of what he was forced to endure in the way of relatives.

The Acceptance World

Book three, The Acceptance World, begins with yet another appearance by Uncle Giles, who's starting to become my favorite character. He's such a completely unlikeable yet harmless old prick.

Nick and his friends are now progressing through their 20s, with their 30s on the near horizon. Nick is becoming slightly more aware of, while not really engaged in, politics. His friends are becoming more important, more connected, more powerful. He himself has become a writer, with the publication of his first novel, about which little is said, but the literary world is another sphere added to those in which the characters move. New characters are introduced by way of a contretemps between a best-selling novelist of uncertain reputation, St. John Clarke, his current secretary, a poet named Mark Members, and a Marxist writer named J.C. Quiggins who seeks to supplant Members. This entire subplot is brilliant in all the unspoken inferences about the relations between these men, the personal and professional jealousies and petty maneuvering for prestige. Reading between the lines, there's also a lot of homoeroticism going on.

Nick's friends are all getting married, getting divorced, and having affairs. The bedhopping antics of the English upper class are described with Nick's wry observer's voice, becoming no less wry or detached when he himself joins in the fun and games. Nick has remained "unattached" throughout this first volume, though it's certainly implied that he's had his share of women by now, but the reappearance of Jean Templer, sister of Nick's old friend Peter and a brief crush of his, introduces him to the world of adulterous love affairs. The two of them make a sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant pair, and you can feel his pangs, his lust, and the looming sense that this will not end well.

The third book in the first volume brings to a sort of conclusion Nick's "young adulthood," while leaving much unresolved. Is Jean going to leave her husband and marry Nick? Will Nick becomes a successful novelist?

There could be no better conclusion to The Acceptance World than the speech by Widmerpool at an annual alumni gathering of Le Bas's boys.

Yet, in some mysterious manner, school rules rather than those of the outer world, governed that particular assembly. However successful Widmerpool might have become in his own eyes, he was not yet important in the eyes of those present. He remained a nonentity, perhaps even an oddity, remembered only because he had once worn the wrong sort of overcoat. His behavior seemed all the more outrageous on account of the ease with which, at that moment on account of the special circumstances, he could force us to listen to him without protest.

"The Acceptance World" refers to a business world in which Widmerpool is a rising star. He proceeds to give his assembled "peers" a speech, and what a speech. You have to hear it to believe it. And Powell is a genius, because he actually writes out most of Widmerpool's words verbatim. Not because they are interesting, but because Widmerpool goes on for a full two pages in this manner:

'Now if we have a curve drawn on a piece of paper representing an average ratio of persistence, you will agree that authentic development must be demonstrated by a register alternatively ascending and descending the level of our original curve of homogeneous development. Such an image, or, if you prefer it, such a geometrical figure, is dialectically implied precisely by the notion, in itself, of an average ratio of progress. No one would deny that. Now if a government policy of regulating domestic prices is to be arrived at in this or any other country...'

Two pages of this. Leavened by descriptions of the reactions of Widmerpool's hapless audience: some of them, those whose professional lives intersect with his and thus make it advantageous to suck up to him however little they think of him personally, are paying rapt attention, or pretending to, some are literally regarding him with jaw-dropping stupefaction and contempt, some are falling asleep. It's as effective a portrait of Widmerpool as his first appearance as the boy with the wrong sort of overcoat. The fact that he can go on in this manner completely oblivious to the fact that no one in the room takes him seriously or can believe that he's actually subjecting them to this, tells us everything about him. Including the fact that no matter how comical he may appear, he really is becoming quite an important person, and you'll laugh at him at your peril.

By the end of the First Movement, we're seeing all of our central figures settling into their adult manifestations. Jenkins is an up-and-coming writer and probably the most sane and balanced of the bunch. Templer is still a philandering playboy, Stringham's childhood antics, fueled by too much money, are becoming less amusing now that he's combining too much money with too much alcohol, and Widmerpool is an increasingly grotesque figure of pure will.

2nd Movement

Second Movement

In the background of this second volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, the rumble of distant events in Germany and Spain presages the storm of World War II. In England, even as the whirl of marriages and adulteries, fashions and frivolities, personal triumphs and failures gathers speed, men and women find themselves on the brink of fateful choices.

At Lady Molly's

Of course you hardly ever meet intelligent people there... And you rarely see anyone whom I call really smart. All the same, you may find absolutely anybody at Aunt Molly's.

At Lady Molly's

The opening book of the Second Movement, At Lady Molly's, introduces us to Molly Jeavons, another one of the many eccentric rich people Nick meets who turns out to be a sort of social nexus in the extended friend-of-a-friend-of-someone-who-knows-so-and-so network that he navigates throughout the series. Lady Molly is a pleasant, slightly daffy old bird with an equally pleasant, slightly daffy husband, both of whom entertain all manner of guests from a broad social spectrum, so it's hardly surprising when Widmerpool makes his appearance here. This time Widmerpool is engaged, to a much older woman who is, unsurprisingly, a step up the social ladder for him. Meanwhile, Jenkins is now a script writer for the British film industry. As this book opens, Jenkins has ended his affair with Jean Templer, which had only just begun at the end of the last book, and has no marital prospects of his own in sight. By the end of At Lady Molly's, Jenkins will be engaged (to Lady Molly's niece) and Widmerpool's own engagement will have ended embarrassingly, but with no change in Widmerpool's utter lack of self-awareness.

At Lady Molly's is more of a comedy of manners than previous books. The true arrival of adulthood for Nick and his generation is looming not on the horizon but right in front of their faces. Nick observes with wry amusement the marital and extra-marital escapades and failures of his peers, and several characters from previous volumes make their semi-regular elliptical reentries back into his life, including the Marxist writer Quiggins, who is now shacked up with Peter Templer's ex-wife Mona, who's already showing signs of fatigue with her latest plaything. Meanwhile, the book is scattered with casual references to the rise of fascism, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and idle chatter about what ought to be done about that Hitler fellow. None of the characters mark the significance of this background noise rumbling like approaching thunder.

Not much happens in this fourth book in the series, but then, not much happens in most of the books in this series. We see that Nick Jenkins is still a young and unproven writer whom we imagine is probably destined to become quite successful, but at the moment he's just kind of dawdling through life waiting for something big to happen in the career and/or romance department. Kenneth Widmerpool grows in professional stature while never becoming less awkward and absurd personally. Besides the returning characters, several new ones are introduced, each one drawn with the same subtle and comic touches Powell uses to illustrate all these colorful birds, although this was really the point in the series at which I started having trouble remembering who's who.

Since At Lady Molly's is a bit more absurdly comic than previous books, it's fitting that Widmerpool, fresh from his broken engagement, has the last line, demonstrating that nothing will ever dent his sense of self-importance, nor will any setback slow his resolution to live by will alone:

'You know, Nicholas, it is wise to take good advice about such a thing as marriage. I hope you have done so yourself. I have thought about the subject a good deal, and you are always welcome to my views.'

Casanova's Chinese Restaurant

'You may have heard that I have been somewhat entangled with a person not far removed from your own family circle.'

'Rumours percolate.'

'So I supposed.'

'But you would be surprised to learn my own ignorance of detail.'

'Glad to hear it. Need I say more? You must surely apprehend the contrast between the sort of thing I have been engaged upon in connexion with poor old Maclintick's mortal remains during the last few days, and the kind of atmosphere one prefers when attempting to conduct an idyllic love affair.'

Casanova's Chinese Restaurant

In Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, the marital and extra-marital escapades of Nick's associates continue, but the tone is becoming notably darker. There is still a bit of the comic tone of At Lady Molly's, but it's not as jolly; it's more cynical, the characters succumbing, to various degrees, to bitterness and regret. Wending its way through this book are several unhappy marriages, two miscarriages, a suicide, and the reappearance of Jenkins's old friend Charles Stringham, now a thoroughly dissolute alcoholic.

'Oh, Mr. Jenkins,' she said, 'dear Charles has arrived, as you know since you have been talking to him. I thought you would not mind if I asked you to keep the smallest eye on him. His nerves are so bad nowadays. You have known him for such a long time. He is much more likely to agree to anything you suggest than to fall in with what I want him to do. He really ought not to stay up too late. It is not good for him.'

Such subtle understatement, and the sort of dialog I adore. Powell never tells us anything. Neither does Nick Jenkins. He observes, he reflects, he even occasionally makes a quip or two, but Powell merely describes people and their behavior, but his descriptions speak volumes.

'Not now,' said Miss Weedon, in the cosmically terminating voice of one who holds authority to decide when the toys must be returned to the toy-cupboard. 'I have my little car outside, Charles. I thought you might like a lift home.'

We're now almost at the halfway point in this epic, and Powell begins skipping back and forth in time a bit, something he will do more of in the following volumes. Casanova's Chinese Restaurant opens with an almost passing reference to locations destroyed by the Blitz, indicating that World War II has now begun, at least for Britain. But then we flash back to an earlier period in Nick Jenkins's life, and are introduced to an entirely new cast of characters, then flash forward again to the present.

This book, like all the others, still mostly features Nick moving from one diverting social engagement to another, talking to people, and reflecting on what he thinks of them. Nick is now married, so you'd expect his wife, Isobel, to join the cast of characters. She does, but only in the most tertiary way; in fact, for the rest of the series, Isobel will be practically a ghost, rarely present in any of the scenes, and saying and doing very little even when she does appear. We learn more about Nick's in-laws than we do about his wife.

I liked Lady Warminster, although at the same time never wholly at ease in her presence. She was immaculately free from any of the traditional blemishes of a mother-in-law; agreeable always; entertaining; even, in her own way, affectionate; but always a little alarming: an elegant, deeply experienced bird — perhaps a bird of prey — ready to swoop down and attack from the frozen mountain peaks upon which she preferred herself to live apart.

Ye gads, look at that sentence! Multiple semi-colons combined with colons combined with emdashes! If I wrote a sentence like that, my beta-readers would break all the punctuation keys off my keyboard! But... it's a fine sentence, innit? Sigh. Would that we all could be Anthony Powell.

One might say this book is about married life and its discontents, told not through the marriage of Nick and his ghost-wife Isobel, but the more interesting ones of Nick's friend Hugh Moreland, and the contentious lockhorns the Maclinticks. I spent quite a while wondering what Powell's purpose was in rendering Isobel into a cipher. Early in the book Nick goes to pick up his wife from the hospital, an event he mentions quite in passing, and likewise in passing, we eventually learn that she was in the hospital because she'd had a miscarriage. Hardly another word is written about it; Nick never mentions his feelings about this, and there isn't a single line of him and his wife talking about it. Surely it was an important event, and while Nick Jenkins can be a bit of cipher himself, he's not represented as the sort of man who wouldn't care. It's almost as if Powell is letting the book itself take that British attitude of sweeping awkward private matters out of sight, though there are plenty of awkward private matters not involving Nick and his wife that are brought into full view.

This will continue; while all the other people in Nick's life, and their relationships, will be observed and wryly dissected at length, the degree to which he and his wife love each other, engage in meaningful conversations, or have any kind of normal married life, can only be inferred.

With the addition of an entire roster of new long-time friends and associates of Nick in this book, and the passing parade of old acquaintances, I at this point developed my Widmerpool theory, despite the fact that Widmerpool has a more insubstantial role in this book than in most of the others: the main character of A Dance to the Music of Time is not, in fact, Nick Jenkins, but Kenneth Widmerpool.

The Kindly Ones

'Never driven one in my life,' said Uncle Giles. 'Not to keen on 'em. Always in accidents. Some royalty in a motorcar have been involved in a nasty affair today. Heard the news in Aldershot. Fellow I went to see was told on the telephone. Amazing, isn't it, hearing so soon. They've just assassinated an Austrian archduke down in Bosnia. Did it today. Only happened a few hours ago.'

Uncle Giles muttered, almost whispered these facts, speaking as if he were talking to himself, not at all in the voice of a man announcing to the world in general the close of an epoch; the outbreak of Armageddon; the birth of a new, uneasy age. He did not look in the least like the harbinger of the Furies.

The Kindly Ones

Uncle Giles was one of my favorite characters. He popped up as persistently as Widmerpool, if not as often, and he's just as reprehensible, though in a different and less ominous way. Unfortunately, he does not make it to the end of the series, nor even to the end of the 2nd Movement. In The Kindly Ones, it is his death which sets off another string of encounters between old and new acquaintances, as his nephew Nick is the one stuck putting his uncle's affairs in order.

Like the previous book, The Kindly Ones does not follow a linear timeline. The above passage, those of you who passed history in high school will realize, is referring to the precipitating incident of World War I, in a flashback to Nick's childhood. This is also where we meet Dr Trelawney, and if the name alone isn't enough to convince you of my Harry Potter theory, his description should leave no doubt:

Dr Trelawney conducted a centre for his own peculiar religious, philosophical — some said magical — tenets, a cult of which he was high priest, if not actually messiah. This establishment was one of those fairly common strongholds of unsorted ideas that played such a part in the decade ended by the war. Simple-lifers, utopian socialists, spiritualists, occultists, theosophists, quietists, pacifists, futurists, cubists, zealots of all sorts in their approach to life and art, later to be relentlessly classified into their respective religious, political, aesthetic or psychological categories, were then thought of by the unenlightened as scarcely distinguishable from one another: a collection of visionaries who hoped to build a New Heaven and a New Earth through the agency of their particular crackpot activities, sinister or comic, according to the way you looked at such things. Dr Trelawney was a case in point.

Dr Trelawney is a long-haired bearded mystic quack who wanders about in robes and responds to any random question or greeting with sayings like, "The Essence of the All is the Godhead of the True," and "The Vision of Visions heals the Blindness of Sight."

Come on now. Tell me J.K. Rowling isn't an Anthony Powell fan.

Moving forward to the present (that is, the 1930s), war has been building up for the past three books. In Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, there were references to the Blitz, as well as the Spanish Civil War, but in the The Kindly Ones, talk about war with Germany actually begins moving to the forefront. Good old Kenneth Widmerpool, a sausage stuffed into an officer's uniform, opines that the outbreak of real hostilities are probably at least five years off, which since we know this is completely wrong, tells us that he's still a blustering pedant whose acquisition of power and authority remains unimpeded by his absolute mediocrity.

Nick himself is trying to get an officer's billet in anticipation of the imminent conflict, and having great difficulty due to the fact that, though he's only in his 30s, he's too old to pick up any of the desirable slots now that everyone else is doing the same thing. By the end of the book, at the end of a long chain of seemingly-random connections which culminate in Nick meeting exactly the right person at the right time, he gets his billet — no thanks to Widmerpool.

The Kindly Ones, then, is basically a prologue to World War II. But as with all the world events taking place as the Dance continues, it's really just a backdrop to the arabesque of encounters. As Nick is aging, so does the humor become more protracted, more mellow, and something to savor at greater length, as when Nick, looking through his deceased uncle's papers, finds Giles' original papers of commission:

'VICTORIA by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India &c. To Our Trusty and well-beloved Giles Delahay Jenkins, Gentleman, Greetings. We, reposing especial Trust and Confidence in your Loyalty, Courage, and good Conduct, do by these Presents Constitute and Appoint you to be an Officer in Our Land Forces . . . '

Trusty and well beloved were not the terms in which his own kith and kin had thought of Uncle Giles for a long time now. Indeed, the Queen's good-heartedness in herself greeting him so warmly was as touching as her error of judgment was startling. There was something positively ingenuous in singling out Uncle Giles for the repose of confidence, accepting him so wholly at his own valuation. No doubt the Queen had been badly advised in the first instance. She must have been vexed and disappointed.

Such delicious, dry snark, and about the recently deceased at that. Another highlight of this volume is Dr Trelawney's reappearance, years after Nick's first encounter with him. But possibly the real heart of this volume is Nick's encounter with Bob Duport, the ex-husband of Jean Templer, with whom Nick had been carrying on an affair in a previous book. Jean is a sort of distaff Widmerpool, who entered Nick's life at a young age, is not exactly a positive presence, and yet keeps reentering his life at the least opportune times.

It is Duport who happens to show up and have a conversation with Nick and Dr Trelawney at the guest hotel where Nick's Uncle Giles had been living and left his belongings. Nick goes out for drinks with Duport, who begins to tell Nick about how he knows his wife had been carrying on an affair with someone else, some years ago, completely unaware of Nick's own role in said affair. But just as Nick is mentally bouncing between smugness and discomfort, Duport lets slip the name of his wife's former lover...

And it's not him.

'Nothing like facing facts when you've been had for a mug in a big way,' said Duport. 'I was thinking that this morning when I was working out some freight charges. The best one can say is that Jimmy and the third party - if there was a third party - were probably had for mugs too.'

I agreed. There was nothing like facing facts. They blew in the face hard, like a stiff, exhilarating, decidedly gritty breeze, which brought sanity with it, even though sanity might be unwelcome.

Now that we're at the midpoint of the series, Powell has introduced a large cast of characters, and he's playing them like notes in a symphony, moving them in and out of the story with perfect timing, foreshadowing here and bringing long-dormant seeds to fruition there. The Kindly Ones brings the second movement, and the midpoint of Nick's life, to an end, setting the stage for the beginning of children, middle age, and war.

Review continued in Part II.
Tags: anthony powell, books, books1001, highly recommended, literary, movies, reviews

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