Not as bleak as you might expect: ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (part 3 – autumn) by Anthony Powell

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I had been a bit concerned about embarking on the autumn phase of Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’.  The fact is, volume 6 ‘The Kindly Ones,’ which was the last of the summer books, was not my favourite in the cycle.  The novel was about the build up to World War 2 and did not wholly work for me, a fact not helped by the the knowledge that the next three books (‘The Valley of Bones’, ‘The Soldier’s Art’ and ‘The Military Philosophers’) would be set during the war itself and so may be significantly less successful cosy escapism than the wonderful early volumes.

Of course, I should not have worried.  The idiocies of military life provide as many targets for Powell’s barbed wit as I could have wished.  From Captains Gwatkin who ‘loved to find fault for its own sake‘ to Cocksidge of whom we’re told ‘his own habitual incivility to subordinates was humdrum enough, but the imaginative lengths to which he would carry obsequiousness to superiors displayed something of genius,‘ the new characters introduced are as wonderful as any of the scholars or bohemians of the previous books.  Meanwhile, established figures also have a chance to shine, such as Lovel who is now in the marines ‘Although incapable of seeing life from an unobvious angle, Lovell was prepared, when necessary, to vary the viewpoint – provided the obviousness remained unimpeded, one kind of obviousness taking the place of another.’

I had also been worried about a lack of Widmerpool, the socially awkward and obsessively selfish anti-hero of the series.  His frighteningly inevitable rise in society and business are such that he must thrive in the bureaucracy of war and so move beyond our narrator’s bumblingly comfortable milieu.  Fortunately, a society which so cherishes Widmerpool must inevitably reflect his personality, including his ‘exceptional mixture of vehemence and ineptitude.’  Instead of missing him, I found all of the autumn novels infused with a wonderful Widmerpoolish sensibility, the state of war being exposed as risible and pathetic but also unstoppable and destructive.

I’m really excited about what’s to come next.  I no longer expect the winter finale to the cycle to be bleak and depressing, though I confess I’m unable to predict what new twists of fate Powell has reserved for his massive cast of characters.  I also have the warm glow that comes from knowing I’m finally ready to read volume 10: ‘Books do Furnish a Room.’  As if in preparation, Jenkin’s enduring love of literature is increasingly brought out and mocked in the autumn novels; there feels no better place to end this post than with a few of his autumnal reflections on being a reader:

‘”I read quite a lot.”
I no longer attempted to conceal the habit, with all its undesirable implications.  At least admitting it put one in a recognisably odd category of persons from whom less need be expected than the normal run.’ (From ‘The Soldier’s Art’)

Blake was a genius, but not one for the classical taste.  He was too cranky.  No doubt that was being ungrateful for undoubted marvels offered and accepted.  One often felt ungrateful in literary matters, as in so may others.’ (From ‘The Military Philosophers’)

‘I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity.  Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on to those who possess them already.’ (From ‘The Valley of the Bones’)

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9 Responses to Not as bleak as you might expect: ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (part 3 – autumn) by Anthony Powell

  1. junelouise says:

    Hello! I’m doing my PhD on Anthony Powell’s ‘Dance’ series and am delighted that you have enjoyed the ‘Autumn’ war-time trilogy. Powell packs so much into it, doesn’t he, while at the same time injecting a bit of humour (if you are in the UK, you’ll know what I mean when I mention ‘Dad’s Army’ moments). For a spell, the war trilogy were my favourite three novels in the series. I think you will enjoy the final ‘Winter’ trilogy – they are different again, especially the last book ‘Hearing Secret Harmonies’. Plenty of twists and turns and a few more characters to meet. I’m keen to hear what you think when you have finished.

    • What a fascinating topic to be studying! There must be so many avenues for investigation – I’m in the middle of ‘Books do Furnish a Room’ at the moment, and keep feeling that I should stop off to try to read Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ instead so I can get all the references …

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    I did enjoy Spring and Summer most, but I liked Autumn too.
    That BBC adaptation was dreadful…

  3. Izzybook says:

    I’m relieved to learn that the war-time trilogy is so good ! Unfortunately, I’ve fallen so much behind in my reading plan of The Dance…I should have made up a list of all the characters from the beginning.
    Wonderful quotes. Gosh, I can see myself in “the odd category of persons, etc,” and it’s actually painful.

    • I find reading the books is a bit like being at a party with people I don’t know. I start off desperately trying to remember names and interests and relationships and then give up and let it all wash over me. So far, this hasn’t stopped me from enjoying each volume!

  4. Ste J says:

    Autumn was great, it felt markedly different with some of the characters involved but still a wonderful omnibus. I still remember the sadness of turning each page of Winter thinking i will never get to experience this for the first time again and soon it will be at an end but a fascinating finale it is!

    • I’m so pleased I finally started it! You’re right, re-reading won’t ever be the same, but I am enjoying trying Spring again at some point, this time being able to great the characters as old friends rather than getting confused between them all.

      • Ste J says:

        That is a good point, re-reading and discovering again these wonderful characters will be a joy. I am excited to start again already, even though I only finished Winter a few months ago.

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