Speaking Volumes: Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time

September 12, 1997

Martin Cave on Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time.

The summer creates space for self-indulgence, and my almost annual indulgence is to reread not some influential work on economics, but Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, named after a Poussin painting in the Wallace Collection which, expecting disappointment, I have so far avoided seeing. Likened to Proust (although much less hard going), this 12-volume novel describes the progress of Nicholas Jenkins, its unobtrusive narrator, from childhood before the first world war and schooling at Eton to country retirement in the early 1970s as a distinguished writer. As a keen observer of unfolding events, I find Nick's much-discussed passivity very appealing, just as I envy him the variety of events that he witnesses.

Its characters go in and out of the books. The most famous, Widmerpool, is first encountered practising vainly for cross-country honours at Eton, and finally, 60 years later, taking part in a group jog under compulsion from a sinister New Age cult leader. Other characters make briefer appearances or fail to survive: Blackhead, the over-zealous civil servant; Le Bas, the narrator's house master; his Eton friends, Stringham and Templer, neither of whom survives the second world war; the composer Moreland, clearly based on Constant Lambert; the artists, Mr Deacon and Barnby; X Trapnel, the doomed writer; left-wing postwar journalists and publishers such as Bagshaw and J. G. Quiggin. Always in the background and sometimes in the foreground are the narrator's large and aristocratic family - not unrelated to the Pakenhams, of which Powell's wife Violet is a member - with its fair share of eccentrics.

Unusually in the case of autobiographical novels, one can cross-refer to the author's very full memoirs - although I find them unexpectedly tedious, partly because of the author's enthusiasm for genealogy. Much more revealing are the three volumes of published journals covering the years 1982 to 1992, which notably exhibit the insecurity of a famous writer waiting for the next reviews of his work, the deadpan comic descriptions which form such a feature of Dance, and his disapproval of the left-wing dons at Balliol (his and my old college).

The novel has also spawned a cottage industry devoted to associating its characters with real individuals. Particular interest has focused upon the identity of Widmerpool - a complex and by no means attractive personality. In the diaries, Powell notes his astonishment at Lord Longford telephoning him in 1992 seeking endorsement for his "being" Widmerpool.

The diaries also show his touching enthusiasm for fan letters. For example, he writes to Steve Jones, the Reith lecturer, to thank him for choosing Dance for his Desert Island Discs book, in part because, according to Jones, the title is a lovely way to describe evolution. Powell goes on to note in the diary that this is "a good smack in the eyes for reviewers who drivel on about Dance being only of interest to a small upper crust group". This is certainly a common point of observation, the truth of which I concede. The novel provides a panorama of the century, from the angle of the social and literary elite, the latter containing, however, strong elements of bohemianism. I do not feel guilty, as once I might have done, about enjoying its subject matter. I also argue (perhaps not wholly convincingly) that the novel contains a revealing account of broader social changes as well. This can be discerned in the three second world war novels, which, despite their occasional bleakness, are my favourites. It is also evident in the accounts of postwar literary and political life, at the time of the expansion of broadcasting. And Widmerpool's apotheosis as Labour peer, university chancellor and ultimately cult follower is a wonderful vignette from the 1960s.

After many false starts, recorded in the diaries, the novel is finally being televised by Channel Four in the autumn. Enthusiasts will complain about the characterisation and the casting. But others will have an unmissable chance to join the dance for the first time.

Martin Cave is professor of economics and vice-principal at Brunel University.

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