The first volume of Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time‘ brought much joy to my spring reading. I love long books that give the luxury of total immersion in a luxurious setting and the aristocratic, privileged world of Powell’s sophisticated characters fit the bill perfectly.
It’s sad to think that I’m already half way through the sequence. It’s also quite hard to believe. Frankly, the characters’ chaotic lives seem, if anything, even less settled than they did hundreds of pages earlier. Even the most ambitious or determined have not yet reached their goals; Widmerpool is neither Prime Minister nor, completely, a captain of industry while Stringham has not yet succeeded in drinking himself into an early grave. Leaving aside death and taxes, nearly all characters busy themselves with falling in and out of love and marriage. The idea of dance is fully brought to life as characters move in and out of relationships in almost choreographed moves. Even our generally featureless narrator has his role, managing to get and stay married in between witnessing his contemporaries’ fraught romances.
As with the ‘Spring’ novels, each of the summer books comes with a brilliantly evocative title and its own new developments to the characters’ live as they make their way through the early decades of the twentieth century:
Volume 4: ‘At Lady Molly’s’, continues the story exactly where I had hoped. In it, Widmerpool gets engaged to an eccentric, older and significantly more experienced woman. The ensuring gut-wrenching embarrassment of the situation should be evident, but the plot twists still manage to surprise.
Volume 5: ‘Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant’ has possibly my favourite title of the whole series. This is partly for personal reasons (I’m a fan of Casanova’s writings, and at least equally fond of Chinese food) but also for the wider connotations of the name, spelled out in Powell’s inimitable prose:
The name Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant offered one of those unequivocal blendings of disparate elements of the imagination which suggest a whole new state of mind or way of life. The idea of Casanova giving his name to a Chinese restaurant linked not only the East with the West, the present with the past, but also, more parochially, suggested by its own incongruity an immensely suitable place for all of us to have dinner that night.
The volume has its own ‘blending of East and West’ or at the very least of parochially exotic incongruities. New characters are introduced, not much happens, and I enjoyed all of it.
Volume 6: ‘The Kindly Ones’. This title is a euphemism for the Furies and the book leads up to the Second World War. Indeed, the coming conflict overshadows the whole volume, bringing a sense that summer inescapably bleeds into the death and decay of autumn.
I am looking forward to getting started on the next part of the series, but I am also a little concerned about the bleakness that lies ahead. The year-long cycle of the sequence suggests that the best is over and that the decline will be slow and painful. The historical period covered could easily follow this pattern – so I’m afraid I’ll be left with only the comforting constant of Widmerpool’s awfulness and Powell’s subtly satirical prose. And the fact that volume 10 is entitled ‘Books do furnish a Room’. I’m looking forward to that one!