Off Piste - Fascinating rhythm
A Dance to the Music of Time offers profound insights into life's contingencies and the nature of Englishness in the 20th century, writes Vernon Bogdanor
What did Roy Jenkins have in common with Tariq Ali? What does Clive James have in common with Christopher Hitchens? All are or were devotees of Anthony Powell, believing, as I do, that his 12-volume roman-fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, published between 1951 and 1975, is the finest achievement in English fiction since the Second World War.
I first read the Dance in the mid-1980s and try to reread it every few years, soaking it up as a sponge soaks up the sea. Each time I discover new subtleties. But it has the effect of a drug. I find it all too easy to get lost in Powell's world, so that everyday existence comes to be superseded and a painful readjustment is needed when returning to "the real world". "All that is wrong with Mr Powell's books," the historian A.J.P. Taylor once said, "is that there are not enough of them and they are too short." What, then, is the source of the fascination of the Dance?
First, one must clear away a main obstacle to enjoyment. The inclusion of Taylor, Hitchens and Ali in the list of admirers should serve to dispose of the standard jibe that Powell's novels are designed for a limited coterie of the upper classes and disfigured by social snobbery. "He knew about only a tiny upper stratum of English society," declared John Carey magisterially in a review some years ago.
In fact, Powell's métier lies in his understanding of creative artists, whether genuine or bogus: the poet, Mark Members; the womanising painter, Ralph Barnby (suggested perhaps by the career of Augustus John); and the composer, Hugh Moreland, who warms to Debussy and Saint-Saëns, but finds himself antipathetic to Honegger and Hindemith and even more to Brahms (Moreland was suggested perhaps by Powell's friend Constant Lambert). The narrator, Nick Jenkins, and X. Trapnel are novelists. Carey might have borne in mind Trapnel's warning: "Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them."
Nor is the Dance fundamentally concerned with social distinctions; indeed, it frequently mocks them as when the anti-hero, Kenneth Widmerpool, makes his contribution to the appeasement of Nazi Germany by suggesting that Hermann Goering "is a bit of a snob - most of us are at heart - well, ask him to Buckingham Palace. Show him round. What is there against giving him the Garter? After all, it is what such things are for, isn't it?"
Powell is far less concerned with social gradations than Proust, but the Dance has this in common with Á la recherche du temps perdu: it seeks to recapture the past through the imagination. There is a key passage in the ninth volume, The Military Philosophers (1968), where Jenkins, a major in the 1939-45 war, finds himself travelling through northern France after the Allied landings in June 1944. His commanding officer asks him to "spell out the name of that place we stopped over last night".
"As I uttered the last letter, scales fell from my eyes. Everything was transformed. It all came back, like the tea-soaked madeleine itself, in a torrent of memory. Cabourg - we had just driven out of Cabourg, out of Proust's Balbec. Only a few minutes before, I'd been standing on the esplanade along which, wearing her polo cap and accompanied by the little band of girls he had supposed the mistresses of professional bicyclists, Albertine had strolled into Marcel's life. Through the high windows of the Grand Hotel's dining-room...was to be seen Saint-Loup, at the same table Bloch, mendaciously claiming acquaintance with the Swanns."
Powell himself rejected any direct comparison with Proust: "The essential difference is that Proust is an enormously subjective writer who has a particular genius for describing how he or his narrator feels. Well, I really tell people a minimum of what my narrator feels - just enough to keep the narrative going - because I have no talent for that particular sort of self-revelation."
Proust's great novel, with its long disquisitions on the nature of love and jealousy, is philosophical. Powell's imagination, by contrast, is pictorial. The past is summoned not by a madeleine dipped in tea but by a painting, Poussin's A Dance to the Music of Time, from the Wallace Collection in London's Manchester Square (to me the most attractive of London's art galleries). "An almost hypnotic spell", Powell said, "seems cast by this masterpiece on the beholder." The painting comes to the narrator's mind at the very beginning of the sequence when he sees a group of workmen huddling around a bucket of coke to provide some warmth amid the snow.
"Something in the physical attitudes of the men...suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality; of human beings facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure...unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces, hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear."
And so the Dance begins with the image of Widmerpool as a schoolboy, "comfortless and inelegant", going for a "run", in a futile attempt to get himself accepted by his fellows in athletics teams - the first of a long series of anecdotal reminiscences, of which the Dance is composed, "told, so to speak," as Powell remarks, "over the dinner-table, rather than as recorded history".
The Dance broadly polarises two conflicting attitudes to life, contrasting those who live by the will and those who live by the imagination. It is the creative artists who are more likely to enjoy satisfactory lives. Widmerpool, who had imposed upon himself "the severe rule of ambition", symbolises those who live by the will. He has little time for the arts: "Even if artistic matters attracted me - which they do not - I should not allow myself to dissipate my energies on them." "In the aesthetic field," the narrator declares, "he was a void."
By the end of the Dance, Widmerpool's ambition has taken a sinister turn. Having been created a peer by the Attlee government, he becomes chancellor of one of the new universities of the 1960s - Sussex perhaps. When a degree ceremony is disrupted by student protesters, Widmerpool, whose hunger for power is accompanied, as is so often the case, by masochism, begins to identify with his persecutors.
He falls in with a New Age cult run by the sinister Scorpio Murtlock, born Leslie but reinventing himself in accordance with his zodiac sign. Going for a naked run in the woods with his guru, Widmerpool ignores warnings to slow down. At the end of the Dance as at the beginning, he is striving. "I'm running, I'm running. I've got to keep it up." Then "I'm leading, I'm leading now," before he collapses dead in the woods. The Dance concludes with the smell of a bonfire, reminding the narrator of "the workmen's bucket of glowing coke" and bringing to mind "Burton's torrential passages from The Anatomy of Melancholy", after which "even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence".
The metaphor of the dance, of life as a pattern, pervades the whole sequence. "In the dance," the narrator comments, "every step is ultimately the corollary of the step before; the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be." The dance, as literary critic John Bayley has noticed, is spontaneous but at the same time collective and interdependent. Men and women cannot step outside the dance nor call a halt to it. They find themselves "stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle". The pattern of life is determined by the rules of the dance; rules that, driven as we are by our furies, we cannot alter.
Yet even the casual reader will gain a quite different impression from the Dance, an impression that life is governed not by rules but by contingency. "You must come and lunch with me one of these days," Jenkins is told by a fellow guest after a weekend party. "He piled his luggage, bit by bit, on to a taxi; and passed out of my life for some twenty years."
"There were no limits", we are told in The Military Philosophers, "to the sheer improbability of human fate." In The Kindly Ones (1962), the sixth volume in the sequence, Moreland, the composer, asks "why one has been summoned to this carnival", and answers: "It's more like blind man's buff. One reels through the carnival in question, blundering into persons one can't see, and, without much success, trying to keep hold of a few of them." Elsewhere, the narrator compares life to a game of musical chairs when "the piano stops, suddenly, someone is left without a seat, petrified for all time in that attitude of the particular moment".
No pattern is discernible. The quotation from Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy that concludes the Dance refers to a "vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances". Powell is the poet of the contingent, charting the seeming accidents and coincidences that shape all our lives. Much of the appeal of the Dance lies in the tension between the pattern and the coincidences. But are they really coincidences? Freud once said that there are no accidents in the unconscious. Novelists, fortunately, do not have to provide answers. Nevertheless, the questions posed by the Dance are permanently intriguing and we cannot escape from them.
The Dance, however, is about more than a variegated collection of individuals. It constitutes also a panorama of England and Englishness from the First World War to the 1960s. "I began to brood", the narrator tells us in the third volume, The Acceptance World (1955), "on the complexity of writing a novel about English life, a subject difficult enough to handle with authenticity even of a crudely naturalistic sort, even more to convey the inner truth of the things observed...Intricacies of social life make English habits unyielding to simplification, while understatement and irony - in which all classes of this island converse - upset the normal emphasis of reported speech." The very absence of self-revelation is a reflection of Englishness. "Read that novel of Anthony Powell's you lent me," says a character in Simon Raven's The Sabre Squadron. "I didn't realise you English could be so oblique."
As a political historian, I am bound to admire Powell's skill in capturing history through the short vignette. In the fourth volume, At Lady Molly's (1957), the following dialogue occurs: the year is 1934.
"Declare war on Germany right away," said Jeavons. "Knock this blighter Hitler out before he gives further trouble."
"Can we very well do that?"
"No government would dream of taking it on. The country wouldn't stand for it."
"Of course they wouldn't," said Jeavons.
"Well, we'll just have to wait," said Jeavons.
"I suppose so."
Has the dilemma facing British governments in the 1930s ever been more succinctly described?
In his book John Aubrey and His Friends (1948), Powell asks the question: "What are the English like?" He replies: "Worse answers might be given than 'Read Aubrey's Brief Lives and you will see'."
Perhaps someone who asks "What were the English like in the 20th century?" might be given the answer, "Read A Dance to the Music of Time."
Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at the Institute for Contemporary History, King's College London, and author of The Coalition and the Constitution (2011).