Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, is a masterwork of dry English humor and brilliant characterization. Part of both the TIME 100 and the Modern Library 100 (where it ranked 43rd), Dance is told by Nick Jenkins over a period of nearly fifty years as he moves through the social circles of interwar London, serves in a rather low-risk infantry unit in World War II, and then becomes a distinguished writer after the war and returns to many of the same characters who populated the earlier books. It’s a popular series in the United Kingdom, but it’s not well-known in the United States.
Nick himself is a wry observer but a milquetoast character, and his wife, Isobel, is a phantom in the stories. The main character and antihero is Kenneth Widmerpool, a climber lacking in social skills but not in confidence who always seems to find himself in the right situation, exasperating anyone hoping to see him fail. The series is full of funny, well-drawn secondary characters, from Nick’s alcoholic school-mate Charles Stringham to the “mobile laundry unit” head Bithel to the ice queen Pamela Flitton, who destroys every man on whom she sets her sights. The narrative greed that I look for in every novel isn’t strong here, but the reader is drawn forward simply by the music of time: We’re following Nick as he goes through life, seeing the world through the lens of his professional and personal lives.
Powell’s observations on the rhythms of life display Nick’s interest, but with a surprising bit of dispassion. Broken marriages, personal setbacks, and even deaths are reported as facts intrinsic to life, but by and large unworthy of comment; by the last book, where secondary characters are dropping like flies, their deaths become parenthetical phrases, a reflection (I suppose) on how we perceive the deaths of those with whom we’ve lost touch as we ourselves grow older. Instead, Jenkins (whom Powell admitted was based on himself) prefers to find interest in small stories and little scandals, although as the series advances the scandals do become proportionally bigger and Powell’s writing veers somewhat more towards the risqué and sensational, perhaps a reflection of the various time periods covered by the series.
The twelve novels, comprising roughly 65-70 long chapters over about 3000 pages, don’t quite match Wodehouse for laugh-inducing content, but Powell infuses the writing with wit. His characters names can totter on the line between the ridiculous and the plausible, from the Walpole-Wilsons to Flavia Wisebite (and her ex-husband, Cosmo Flitton) to Scorpio Murtlock. When books written by some of the secondary characters are mentioned, they have glorious titles like Camel Ride to the Tomb and Dogs Have No Uncles. The punch lines, when they do arrive, are funny because of the context; having one character pour the contents of a sugar-bowl over another’s head is not intrinsically all that funny, but when it happens in Dance, it rises to another level of humor. Jenkins plays the Bob Newhart role of the one sane or normal person surrounded by wackos on lunatics, leaving him, with some later help from Isobel, to offer his commentary.
I have a strong feeling that J.K. Rowling has read Powell’s series and paid homage to it through two minor characters in the Harry Potter series. One minor character in the series is a mystic and spiritualist named Dr. Trelawney, who speaks in aphorisms and vague pronouncements, greeting people by saying, “The Essence of All is the Godhead of the True,” and expecting (but rarely receiving) the reply, “The Vision of Visions Heals the Blindness of Sight.” The similarity to Professor Trelawney in name, in bent, and in obsession with visions is unlikely to be a coincidence. I also saw similarities between Powell’s character Sillery and Rowling’s Professor Slughorn; both are slightly unctuous men who ran salons in their college’s houses and seemed to devote significant energy to determining whom to invite, measuring their gatherings’ success by the names and status of the attendees.
If you enjoy English writing, Powell’s depiction of upper-class English society from the immediate aftermath of World War I into the turbulent 1960s is worth the significant time investment. Next up for me: I’m already a third of the way into Emile Zola’s seminal socio-political novel Germinal.