Customer comments on this Youngstown Ohio Book
An Anglophile's Delight
Very dry social comedy, very English, not terribly profound, but lots of well drawn characters, one or two of whom stand comparison with the best of Shakespeare and Dickens. The style is lapidary, like Evelyn Waugh's, but without that writer's gift for wild farce. You don't have to be an Anglophile to enjoy these books, but it certainly helps.
The first volume of a massive but worthy literary effort
Anthony Powell's twelve-volume sequence "A Dance to the Music of Time" tracks wealthy Englishman Nicholas Jenkins and his social circle from youth in 1921 to senescence in 1971 and features a cast of over four hundred characters. The title and concept behind the work are expressed through Jenkins' reminisces while watching constructionmen at work on a winter's day:
"Something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire suddenly suggested Poussin's scene which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard places. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: 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."
The grand theme of Powell's work is nothing less than life itself--specifically, how our lives are defined by our relation to other people. In A QUESTION OF UPBRINGING, we are introduced to Nicholas while he is in his final years at Eton, along with his roommates Templer (a young man desirious of women and money) and Stringham (a melancholy soul with a tumultuous family life). Widmerpool, who eventually becomes the villain of the cycle, is an awkward and little-liked boy who exists on the edges of this world. As the novel progresses, Jenkins finishes school, stays for a time with both of his former roommates, spends a summer in France, and experiences the first year at university. It may seem like there is little to it, but Powell's observations about life and growing up are more than substantial enough to make for a novel.
In A BUYER'S MARKET we catch up with Jenkins three years or so later, when he's finished with university and working at a firm that publishes art books. Here he and his peers are entering society, attending numerous parties and balls meant to facilitate this process, and already having some taste of power. A large portion of the novel takes place in the course of a single night as Jenkins goes from dinner to ball to low house party, a homage to Joyce's ULYSSES. He runs into Widmerpool again, who starts to show something of his true nature, and a few other characters already known to the reader, as well as a host of new associates who play major roles here and in the future.
The main topics of THE ACCEPTANCE WORLD, set at the end of the 1920s not long after the Great Depression, are the literary world and Marxist politics. Two men known to Jenkins at university have become writers and are vying for favour from the elder statesman of literary life, St. John Clarke. Quiggin, one of the promising writers, a fervent supporter of the Party (later dismayed that another character has become a Trotskyist). Jenkins begins his first serious relationship--while his friends are already married, some already divorced--and feels that he has finally come of age.
My only real complaint about this thoroughly entertaining set of novels is that Powell is quite imprecise about chronology, favouring expressions like "a year or more earlier", "eighteen months or less", "ages ago", etc. to relate one event to another. I felt that with a little great effort he could have made the reader more certain of what happens when.
"A Dance to the Music of Time" is not accessible to many readers simply because of the concentration and spare time required to get through it. Still, if you are taking a long sea voyage or boarding the Trans-Siberian, this is a good book to take along. Few writers have been capable of so massive a work with so grand a theme.
The Fall of the British Empire
Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, First Movement introduces us to Jenkins, the writer, Templer, the sex addict, Stringham, the rich man, and Widmerpool, the aspiring but inept businessman. The excitement of the 1920's gives us insight into a world of hope and idealism amidst rapidly changing dynamics of 20th century British society.
Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement continues the story at the eve of World War II. The idealism and hope of the 20's is muted amidst the growing fears of war, and the even greater fear of a loss of an empire.
Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, Third Movement reminds us that there is no center to any war, especially World War II. Instead there are literally thousands of events which still present just a glimpse of the horrors of the war. The idealism of the 1920's is gone, replaced with uncertainty as to the post-war world on the horizon.
Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, Fourth Movement introduces us to the notion of a social melancholy, a lost empire. Orhan Pamuk, author of Istanbul describes the state of huzun, translated as melancholy, as he describes the social emotions in Istanbul between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the uncertainty of the embrace of western values. As Powell concludes his epic, "it might be much worse," we wonder in the context of the 21st century, when the horizon suggests an even deeper huzun as the culture of the west and the east both face uncertainty.
As we witness the encounter between the western culture, past its apex, and the new Islamic culture, on its ascendancy, one only wonders how Powell and Pamuk may be describing the same melancholy or huzun. While often compared to C.P. Snow's epic Strangers and Brothers, Powell's portrayal of the fall of the British Empire is sloppier and filled with a greater variety of social characters, more like Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. In this it is more realistic and compelling in its presentation of a dynamics of social emotions.