Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

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

Continued from Part I.

3rd Movement

Third Movement

In this third volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, we again meet Widmerpool, doggedly rising in rank; Jenkins, shifted from one dismal army post to another; Stringham, heroically emerging from alcoholism; Templer, still on his eternal sexual quest. Here, too, we are introduced to Pamela Flitton, one of the most beautiful and dangerous women in modern fiction. Wickedly barbed in its wit, uncanny in its seismographic recording of human emotions and social currents, this saga stands as an unsurpassed rendering of England's finest yet most costly hour.

The Valley of Bones

Popkiss paused, looked up from his Testament, stretched out his arms on either side. The men were very silent in the pitch-pine pews.

'... Oh, my brethren, think on that open valley, think on it with me.... a valley, do I picture it, by the shaft of a shut-down mine, where, under the dark mountain side, the slag heaps lift their heads to the sky, a valley such as those valleys in which you yourselves abide... Journey with me, my brethren, into that open valley, journey with me... Know you not those same dry bones?"

The Valley of Bones

As the first book of the Third Movement begins, Nick is a newly-commissioned Second Lieutenant in a regiment whose men are mostly made up of Welsh miners. They're sent to Northern Ireland as England prepares for the inevitable outbreak of war with Germany.

The next three books will be all about World War II, but not the battles and the intrigues and the missions, because Nick won't experience any of that. He's a long-in-the-tooth junior officer stuck in a military unit of no importance stationed in a place of minimal significance, and The Valley of Bones is basically one long soldier's gripe. Nick is bored, Nick is unfulfilled by his role in the Army, Nick is doing not much of anything useful, and neither are the officers around him. They don't get shipped overseas, they don't go into battle — the most exciting thing that ever happens is that a sergeant who is despondent over his wife's infidelity gets shot, in circumstances that leave it ambiguous whether he committed suicide or was killed by the Irish nationalists who are supposedly prowling the area.

(In fact, it's not really very ambiguous at all; the "killed by partisans" story is clearly a concoction to offer the poor fellow a little dignity.)

Most striking about this book is that most of the characters Nick met in the previous six volumes are absent, or only mentioned occasionally, including his wife. A whole new set of characters is introduced for Nick's wartime life. And all the rich absurdity, complicated interpersonal relationships, and petty social foibles that Nick observed in such detail before the war are completely unchanged in the military. From his fellow subalterns, all dragged like him from near the bottom of the barrel as officer selections go, to his immediate commanding officer, an earnest but barely-competent martinet, to generals on high, to the grumbling Other Ranks, they are far more motivated by complicated and inexplicable friendships, enmities, ambitions, and obsessions than they are by beating the Germans, who remain a distant, almost abstract menace.

'You know why we are all here, Sayce,' said Gwatkin again, louder this time, his voice shaking a little with his own depths of feeling. 'Come on, Sayce, you know.'

'Don't know, sir.'

'Yes, you do.'

'Don't, sir.'

'Come on, man.'

Sayce made a great effort.

'To give me a CB for being on a charge,' he offered wretchedly.

It was a reasonable hypothesis, but Gwatkin was greatly disturbed at being so utterly misunderstood.

'No, no,' he said, 'I don't mean why we are in the Company Office at this moment. I mean why we are all in the army. You must know that, Sayce. We are here for our country. We are here to repel Hitler. You know that as well as I do. You don't want Hitler to rule over you, Sayce, do you?'

Sayce gulped again, as if he were not sure.

'No, sir,' he agreed, without much vigour.

How can a series of subplots involving the sordid personal problems of accountants and bankers turned wartime officers be so entertaining? Ever see M*A*S*H? The hapless Captain Gwatkin bungles directions during a field exercise, and later becomes obsessed with an Irish barmaid. A drunken sot named Lieutenant Bithel performs a dance that becomes as memorable as that long-ago overcoat worn by Widmerpool. Nick experiences the military in all its droning, bureaucratic minutiae, and occasionally manages to bump up against old friends from his civilian life. The theme of The Valley of Bones is boredom and routine and Nick's increasing disconnection from his wife and his literary career - this is never drawn attention to, it's all inferred.

The war has not yet started in earnest, and it has yet to substantially alter Nick Jenkins' life. At the end of The Valley of Bones, Nick is abruptly transferred to the Divisional Headquarters, because there is a need for a junior officer in an unspecified role. He dutifully makes his way to Div HQ to find out who his new commanding officer is. And if you've read the entire series up to this point, it will come as no surprise who it is.

Major Widmerpool

He had already begun to speak on the telephone when I left the room. I saw that I was now in Widmerpool's power. This, for some reason, gave me a disagreeable, sinking feeling within. On the news that night, motorized elements of the German army were reported as occupying the outskirts of Paris.

The Soldier's Art

All the same, although the soldier might abnegate thought and action, it has never been suggested that he should abnegate grumbling. There seemed no reason why I alone, throughout the armies of the world, should not be allowed to feel that military life owed me more stimulating duties, higher rank, increased pay, simply because the means to such ends was by no means clear.

The Soldier's Art

Nick Jenkins spends most of The Soldier's Art serving as a lowly subaltern in Divisional Headquarters under (now Major) Widmerpool, who is the DAAG, a position with little glory but plenty of opportunity for indulging in power games and politics. British army politics make up much of this book, with results both tragic and comical, and as usual, Nick has a ringside seat to witness the rise and fall of powers much greater than himself.

When people really hate one another, the tension within them can sometimes make itself felt throughout a room, like atmospheric waves, first hot, then cold, wafted backwards and forwards as if in an invisible process of air conditioning, creating a pervasive physical disturbance. Buster Foxe and Dicky Umfraville, between them, brought about that state. Their really overpowering mutual detestation dominated for a moment all other local agitations.

Much of the book is sparring between Widmerpool and various antagonists: Colonel Hogbourne-Johnson, Sunny Farebrother, and the unfortunate drunken sot Bithel, whom Widmerpool treats as pitilessly as he treats his old schoolmates. After promising Nick that he "takes care of his people" while treating him like a donkey, when Widmerpool's promotion arrives, he reveals that he has no further use for Nick and never had any plans to do a thing for him.

'Have you any idea what will happen to me when you're gone?'


There was something impressive in his total lack of interest in the fate of all persons except himself. Perhaps it was not the lack of interest itself -- common enough to many people -- but the fact that he was at no pains to conceal this within some more or less hypothetical integument.

Of course, Widmerpool's treatment of Nick is nothing compared to his treatment of Nick's old friends, Charles Stringham and Peter Templer, for whom his callousness reaches depths that are perhaps all the more shocking for the fact that there's nothing as human as malevolence behind them, just cold indifferent self-interest. Leaving someone high and dry because you no longer need them, or sending them into harm's way because they're inconvenient in their current position, it's all the same to Widmerpool.

Widmerpool has his ups and downs, but following the pattern of all previous books in which he has appeared, his star continues to rise despite the occasional setback.

There is a lot more to this middle volume of the World War II trilogy, though. The war is now underway in earnest, and London is being subjected to the Blitz. All through this series, Nick states some of the most momentous events in an understated way that suggests he feels nothing about them, when in fact he feels a great deal, he just doesn't spell that out. He's acting almost as a passive narrator describing what the reader might see and hear through his eyes and ears. So when people die in this book, it's like his wife's miscarriage earlier: it takes a moment to sink in. There is a memorable night that starts with more extramarital shenanigans of the type that have characterized all the earlier books, and just when you think this is all another civilian interlude in Nick's military life, two V2 rockets strike with catastrophic timing on the same night, and just like that, some of those names Nick has been dancing through time with are gone. By the end of the Third Movement, Nick will lose more old friends, none in a dramatic eyewitness fashion, just gone, wiped off the stage by the war that is consuming Europe.

There is surprising humor in this book, mostly where Widmerpool and Nick's other military colleagues are concerned. But even between the grotesque comic turns of British staff officers, Powell never lets us forget there's a war on. The laughs begin to take on the tone of gallows humor.

The Military Philosophers

She hardly answered. After a few minutes beside her, it was clear this AT possessed in a high degree that power which all women — some men — command to a greater or lesser extent when in the mood, of projecting round them a sense of vast resentment. The girl driving, I noticed, was able to do this with quite superlative effect. Her rankling animosity against the world in general was discharged with adamantine force, comparable with Audrey Maclintick's ill humours when her husband was alive, or Anne Stepney's intimations of rebellion before she had shaken off the trammels of family life. However, those two, although not without their admirers, were hardly in the same class as this girl when it came to looks. Borrit had been right in marking her down. She was very striking. All the same, after another remark received with little or no response, I gave up further talk.

The Military Philosophers

Book nine introduces Pamela Flitton, the beautiful niece of Nick's boyhood friend Charles Stringham.

Pamela is one of Powell's most awesome creations across this twelve-book series. She is a femme fatale sans pareil. Nick, the perpetual observer, is one of the few men who escapes the rake of her talons. When he first meets her, she's driving (resentfully, grudgingly, and a little dangerously) for Army officers in London while toying with any man in a uniform who even vaguely interests her for a moment. By the end of the book, she seems to be anywhere there is trouble, usually on the arm of her latest high-ranking conquest, leaving a trail of broken hearts, bruised egos, and ruined careers behind her. To call her malevolent would be to completely underestimate Powell's creation; Pamela Flitton isn't consciously evil. She's a vampiric force of nature, something conjured out of chthonian lust to punish mankind for being men. She's too angry to enjoy herself, but she undoubtedly derives a certain amount of satisfaction from wreaking havoc while getting all the sex she can.

Pamela Flitton


Now, you might be thinking "That sounds pretty sexist." And it kind of is; Powell's female characters are as fully-rendered as his males, but they are mostly supporting cast. A Dance to the Music of Time is very much a men's epic. But, what sets Powell apart from the crowd of literary white dudes waxing misogynistic about dangerous women and their dangerous sex is that Pamela Flitton goes about her dangerous business without ever once being judged or condemned by the narrative. There is no direct comment on Flitton being "loose" or anything of the sort, despite the time period. Without question everyone knows about her and talks about her, but all the talk Powell renders is not of anything so gauche as comments about her sluttiness, but almost fearful whispers about who's most recently fallen into her orbit. Everyone wants her (except Nick) and everyone knows she's trouble. She is what she is, and the men who take up with her pretty much know what they're getting. She is a perfect counterpoint to Widmerpool: she is a person of will, driven by her own desires and ambitions and a near-sociopathic disdain for anyone else's.

One of my favorite scenes is the return of Mrs Erdleigh from The Acceptance World. The old broad who reads cards and tea leaves has the steel ovaries to insist on reading Pamela Flitton's palm. The confrontation between these two dames is just a momentary diversion during the Blitz, while they are all huddling in a darkened building, but it has the feel of two samurai staring each other down across a bridge, and you know one will turn aside without drawing his sword.

Pamela held out her palm. She was perhaps, in fact, more satisfied than the reverse at finding opposition to her objections overruled. It was likely she would derive at least some gratification in the anodyne process. However farouche, she could scarcely be so entirely indifferent from the rest of the world. On the other hand, some instinct may have warned her against Mrs Erdleigh, capable of operating at as disturbing a level as herself. Mrs Erdleigh examined the lines.

The final book in the Third Movement, The Military Philosophers will see us through to the end of the war. It ends with Nick mustering out of the army, reflecting on all the old friends who are gone, and Powell's two most fearsome creations, Pamela Flitton and Kenneth Widmerpool, getting married.

4th Movement

Fourth Movement

In this climactic volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, Nick Jenkins describes a world of ambition, intrigue, and dissolution. England has won the war, but now the losses, physical and moral, must be counted. Pamela Widmerpool sets a snare for the young writer Trapnel, while her husband suffers private agony and public humiliation. Set against a background of politics, business, high society, and the counterculture in England and Europe, this magnificent work of art sounds an unforgettable requiem for an age.

Books Do Furnish a Room

Books Do Furnish a Room

The war is over, and England is still picking up the pieces. Here and there are reminders of the recent conflict, like the jovial German POW who manages to wrangle a place for himself in the house as a butler to one of Nick's well-heeled friends, but for the most part, everyone is moving on. That is not to say that the most destructive war England has ever known is now just a piece of history; Powell once again illustrates deep currents in casual conversations. Though Nick was never anywhere near the front, he has lost friends and seen a terrible amount of destruction, physical and personal, and that's left scars on him just as it's left scars on the landscape.

In the opening book of the Fourth Movement of A Dance to the Music of Time, Nick isn't really old yet, but we can see his twilight years lying ahead of him, and so can he. Books Do Furnish a Room, appropriately enough, begins with a funeral. Nick will be seeing a lot more of those.

However, the last figure in the cortege made the rest seem humdrum enough. At the rear of this wedge-shaped phalanx, a long way behind the others, moving at a stroll that suggested she was out by herself on a long lonely country walk, her thoughts far away in her own melancholy daydreams, walked, almost glided, Widmerpool's wife. Her eyes were fixed upon the ground as she advanced slowly, with extraordinary grace, up the aisle. As centre of attention she put the rest of the procession utterly in the shade. That was not entirely due to her slim figure and pent-up sullen beauty. Another beautiful girl could have created no more than the impression that she was a beautiful girl. It was not easy to see what marked out Pamela Widmerpool as something more than that. Perhaps her absolute self-confidence, her manner of expressing without words that to be present at all was a condescension; to have allowed herself to be one of that particular party, an accepted abasement of the most degrading sort. Above all, she seemed an appropriate attendant on Death.

Although Death is a running companion for the next three books, in Books Do Furnish a Room, Powell the writer indulges himself in writing about writers. Nick is resuming his literary career, initially as a writer for a magazine called Fission, involving many of our old friends: J.C. Quiggins, still a Marxist but now an entrepreneurial one; Rosie Manasch, Gypsy Jones, Professor Sillery, and everyone else who survived the war, plus a small host of new characters.

MP Widmerpool

Powell has fun poking at his fellow writers and the literary scene in this book, but the main character, once again, according to my Widmerpool theory, is Kenneth Widmerpool. Widmerpool, who has now been elected to Parliament, is a financial backer of Fission. One of the promising new writers who is a frequent contributor to the magazine is a man of great talent, many affectations, and no financial management skills named X. Trapnel. Trapnel, who strolls about with a death's head sword cane and hits up anyone who seems a touch for cab fare or drinking money, winds up attracting the deadly attention of Widmerpool's wife. Not because Pamela Widmerpool is bored with her husband or attracted to Trapnel, but because she has an instinctive sense for how best to wreak havoc and calamity, and this time it's to run off with the penniless author immediately after he publishes a vicious parody of Widmerpool in Fission.

This book felt very much like a transitional volume, the set-up before the end, the aftermath of the big battle scene. In it we also see the slow shift to modernism, the war era falling into the past. England is becoming whatever it will be in the future. The dinosaurs haven't kicked the bucket yet, but they can see the writing on the wall. As the beginning of the Fourth Movement, it was notably different in tone from the previous books in the series. Powell's writing is the same as ever: nuanced and completely unabashedly wordy without seeming overwritten, and there are still glints of humor, sometimes light, sometimes dark. But Books Do Furnish a Room seems to take itself more seriously than previous volumes — which may be a strange thing to say when previous volumes dealt with World War II. It was as if Powell was letting the reader know: "These characters will not be with us forever. The end approaches." There was a grimmer subtext to the humor.

Nick is still the perpetual outsider, observing and commenting while only being peripherally involved with events. Widmerpool remains the character around and to whom events actually happen. And in this book, even as he is approaching the height of his power, we can also see, in hints of political troubles to come and the humiliation he endures at the hands of his emasculating erinye of a wife, the beginnings of his downfall.

Temporary Kings

He sighed, more exhaustedly than regretfully, I thought. That morning was the last time I saw Moreland. It was also the last time I had, with anyone, the sort of talk we used to have together. Things drawing to a close, even quite suddenly, was hardly a surprise. The look Moreland had was the one people take on when a stage has been reached quite different from just being ill.

Temporary Kings

Temporary Kings, published in 1973, skips forward more than any of the previous volumes have done. Taking place about ten years after the end of Books Do Furnish a Room, the first part of the book is set in Venice, where Nick is attending a literary conference. Naturally, it's the sort of place where all sorts of characters from earlier volumes appear, and the Dance continues.

X. Trapnel, the epicenter of the drama in the previous volume, passed away some years ago, and Nick meets an American writer named Russell Gwinnett who wants to write Trapnel's biography. Nick also meets an American film director named Louis Glober.

She had, so she related, stayed on after the rest of the party had gone home. Glober, it seemed, had been more attractive to her, far more attractive, than outwardly revealed by her demeanor at dinner. In admitting that, she went so far as to declare that she had greatly approved of him at sight, as soon as she entered the room where we were to dine. Glober must have felt the same. The natural ease of his manner concealed such feelings, like Mopsy's exterior reserve. Later that night mutual approval took physical expression.

'Glober did me on the table.'

'Among the coffee cups?'

'We broke a couple of liqueur glasses.'

'You obviously found him attractive.'

You don't say, Nick old man?

I found one of Powell's few stumbles here, in his rather caricaturized descriptions of Americans that harken back to British novels of the 19th century when so much was made of blood and breeding, as if fine gradations of character and intellect could be determined from the shape of one's forehead and by the precise acre in which one was born. William Koven's essay Stereotypes: An American's Reaction to Temporary Kings describes Powell's odd stereotyping well: Gwinnet and Glober are certainly believable characters as fully realized as all the others, but Powell's "sallow" Americans with "violent consuming nervous American energy" reminded me a bit of the occasional American I see portrayed on British TV: always wearing "Western" clothing and inevitably mentioning the 2nd Amendment, no matter how irrelevant to the plot, because that's how Americans roll, yo.

Nick is still the wry observer of other's peccadilloes; now that everyone is getting older, it seems they're all getting randier (though sexual misadventures have been a part of this saga from the beginning), and the prurience of this aspect of the Dance is foreshadowed by a painting of Candaules shewing his wife to Gyges, which is referred to repeatedly throughout the volume. (Note: the painting in that link is by William Etty. In the book, it's a ceiling fresco by Giovanni Tiepolo, who was a real painter but who never painted the fresco described by Powell.)

Of course, powered by the sort of serendipity that has ruled Nick's life since the beginning of the series, Kenneth and Pamela Widmerpool appear in Venice as well. Pamela is still as lethal as always, and in this volume, she ensnares both Gwinnet and Glober, and the vendetta which she has for the past few years been exercising most furiously against her husband reaches a climax. Widmerpool is accused of being everything from a voyeuristic pervert to a Communist double-agent.

While several more characters will pass away in this volume, it continues the theme that pervades the Fourth Movement: if the first three Seasons were the Spring, Summer, and Autumn of Widmerpool, then this one is surely his Winter.

Hearing Secret Harmonies

The thudding sound from the quarry had declined now to no more than a gentle reverberation, infinitely remote. It ceased altogether at the long drawn wail of a hooter - the distant pounding of centaurs' hoofs dying away, as the last note of their conch trumpeted out over hyborean seas. Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.

Hearing Secret Harmonies

The final volume. Nick is an old man now, he and his wife heading genteely into their elder years. Hearing Secret Harmonies was written in 1975, twenty-four years after the series began. The opening chapter features a visit from one of Isobel's nieces, who is a hippie chick accompanying several fellow travelers on a cross-country trip of mystic portentousness that Nick takes in stride with his usual wry amusement.

Aggressive activities against crayfish might be, by definition, excluded from an afternoon's programme devoted to Harmony. Who could tell? Harmony was also Power, he said. Power would be exercised over crayfish, if caught, but possibly the wrong sort of Power. He pretended to be puzzled.

'You mean that without blood there is no vehicle for the spirit?'

'I mean that you might not like killing.'

'I do not kill, if not killed.'

He seemed glad to have an opportunity to make that statement, gnomic to say the least. It sounded like a favorite apophthegm of a luminary of the cult to which they all belonged, the familiar ring of Shortcuts to the Infinite, Wisdom of the East, Analects of the Sages. For some reason the pronouncement seemed also one recently brought to notice. Had I read it not long before in print? The Murtlock standpoint, his domination over Fiona and the others, was becoming a little clearer in a certain sense, if remaining obscure in others.

'I don't think we'll be killed. Deaths crayfishing are comparatively rare.'

'Murtlock' is a young man named Scorpio Murtlock. Yes, Scorpio. While it might be a stretch to call him a 'wizard,' he's certainly an otherworldly young man, full of enigmatic mystic proscriptions, leading his flock from one ancient Druidic site to the next. The connection may be a little abstruse, but my theory that J.K. Rowling deliberately scattered little tributes to Anthony Powell throughout her books was strengthened as Murtlock took on an increasingly sinister role throughout the final volume. He is a charming, charismatic sociopath who manages to wrap wealthy and powerful people around his finger by force of will. He leads a cult in which he maintains power by compelling his followers to do unspeakable things.

Scorpio Murtlock?

Okay, it's a stretch. But not much of one. Seriously, if you read this volume, you will easily see how it could have inspired Rowling's creation of Voldemort.

Now, surveying the personage in the blue robe picking his way slowly, almost delicately, over the grass of the hockey-field, I felt for some reason that, if ever the arrival of Apollyon was imminent, the moment was this one. That had nothing to do with the blue robe, such costume, as I have said before, if it made any difference to Murtlock at all, softened the edge of whatever caused his personality to be a disturbing one. Henderson must have seen Murtlock too. His high squeak became a positive shout.

'Look—he's coming!'

Of course, Scorpio Murtlock doesn't lead a genocidal terrorist movement to take over the government. He just leads a nasty hippie cult that ensnares in its web... Kenneth Widmerpool.

I didn't like Hearing Secret Harmonies very much. It didn't surprise me that the ending of Powell's saga was anti-climactic. It would have been surprising if there had been a grand finale. It practically trumpets its anticlimacticness when Jean makes her final appearance. Now the widow of an assassinated South American dictator, having been through multiple husbands and many more love affairs, she and Nick meet in a roomful of other old acquiantances... and move on.

But I found it unsatisfying. Not just because so many character arcs simply ended with characters dying off-screen, their obituaries mentioned in passing. No, my real problems were (1) Widmerpool; (2) If Anthony Powell didn't "get" Americans, he really, really didn't get the Sixties.

The first appearance of Bohemian counterculture characters was way back in A Buyer's Market, when he introduced Edgar Deacon and Gypsy Jones distributing communist literature in pre-War London. Powell seemed to have a genuine comprehension for these sorts of iconoclasts.

But when it came to the counter-culture of the Sixties, Powell imagines.... girls throwing paint and setting off fireworks at conferences with vaguely disruptive rebelliousness, sinister robed wizards, and hippies dancing naked around standing stones. Nick Jenkins' bemused incomprehension is, finally, the author's. There's never any sense of motive or even anything beyond their flat tuned-out generational disconnect.

But the real weakness in Hearing Secret Harmonies was Widmerpool's final descent. Not anti-climactic, not climactic, not the logical end result of decades of self-important pomposity driven by will, but... a grotesque, obsequious thrall to a New Age huckster. Had this been a more traditional fantasy epic, then Scorpio Murtlock would have made an impressive new villain, rising to dominate the once-formidable chief adversary of the series. But instead, Widmerpool's slide into counter-culture looniness and occultism seems like a cruel revenge served by an author who's stopped respecting the character entirely. Widmerpool, throughout the series, has been an oblivious blowhard, an amoral bully, treacherous and toadying and domineering by turns, but always he's been a creature of will, propelling his mediocre self to the heights of power with pure ego and divine favor. His final act is a descent into pathos. Powell may have meant something tragic or profound by it, but I read it with a big WTF?

A very slow Dance on film

A Dance to the Music of Time

This 8-hour British TV miniseries was broadcast in 1997, and is now available on DVD (and Netflix). It's not a BBC/Masterpiece Theater production, as is made obvious in the opening scene, which features Nick being greeted with full-frontal nudity by his mistress, Jean Templer.

So how do you compress a 12-volume series spanning six decades and 3000 pages into 8 hours?

Widmerpool and Barbara Goring

I was rather surprised at how much of Powell's storyline was preserved. The exact sequence of events was not always the same, many minor scenes and characters were omitted, and much of Nick's childhood is told through flashbacks. But all the most memorable bits were there, the bits that weren't so important in the greater scheme of things but which resonated throughout the series in the memories of the characters: Barbara Goring dumping sugar on Widmerpool's head, Nick meeting Stringham again in the Army, the enactment of the Seven Deadly Sins at Magnus-Donners' estate... and the more important things, like Nick's wife's miscarriage, and the night of the Blitz that sweeps so many characters off the stage, and the car crashes and assassinations and suicides that claim others.

That said... this is lavishly filmed and reasonably well-cast, but the richness of Powell's prose is in his prose, and that is a thing no film can really capture. The miniseries strives to capture the sweeping sense of time and the Dance that Powell choreographed throughout twelve volumes, but while a certain amount of understatement can be conveyed via filmography, most nuance must be carried by the actors. The actors are good — Miranda Richardson is all deadly glowering lipstick as Pamela Flitton, Simon Russell Beale is comical, blustery, pathetic, and ominous as Kenneth Widmerpool. Some decisions seemed odd, like letting Beale play Widmerpool from his school days (where dressing him up in a schoolboy outfit just makes him look like a comical SNL sketch) to the end, while casting James Purefoy as younger Nick Jenkins, then abruptly replacing him with the much older John Standing in the last part.

Pamela, Nick, and Kenneth

But the pace of this drama is like compressed Powell, so it's both slow and languid by TV standards and hurried and disjoint compared to the novels. Some scenes were included that happened entirely off-page in the books, for no apparent reason than the producers thought A Dance to the Music of Time really needed more bloodshed.

You will get a sense of what Powell's novels are about from watching this miniseries, but I doubt watching it would really inspire anyone to want to read them. Having read them first, it was a pleasure to see some characters and scenes executed on-screen, and I'll bet Powell (who passed away in 2000) got a kick out of it too. But it's just not a production that readily explains its value to someone who's not already a Powell fan.

Verdict: Holy shmoly. It took me all year to work through this ponderous British doorstopper. To summarize this series in a few words is easy, to convince you that you might actually want to read three thousand pages about a Limey swell spectating his way through the middle of the 20th century, not so much. Powell has been called the English Proust, and this was his magnum opus. Maybe that's more likely to make you run screaming. Okay, if you can read a gazillion Wheel of Time or Harry Dresden novels, you can read twelve books that are actually literary art. These books are not airport reads or bathroom reads or snatch a chapter here and there reads — they are books to immerse yourself in and luxuriate in and forget about worrying where the plot is going. There isn't much driving excitement between the pages, no suspense and few surprise twists, but I have never seen an author create and maintain characters with such mastery, or use prose with such delicacy, and Powell's ability to orchestrate over a hundred characters moving in and out of focus over the course of half a century is not something many other authors would even attempt.

Plus, these books totally inspired J.K. Rowling. Read them and tell me I'm wrong.

3000 pages of high-falutin' Lit'ra-chure that is way more impressive than reading War and Peace.

If anyone else has read this whopper, please, please comment, 'cause I don't think I've ever met anyone who has!

A Dance to the Music of Time is on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and was my 2012 assignment for books1001

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: anthony powell, books, books1001, literary, movies, reviews

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