Saturday, January 15, 2022

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975)

There are two problems that one could justly raise about this series: first, that it has absolutely no sense of drama, very few character or plot arcs, not a whole lot of cause and effect, even.  There's something that feels almost postmodern, or possibly like outsider art, about this series of events happening without a lot of rhyme or reason.  There IS one overarching plot--Widmerpool's Progress--but if plot is what you're looking for, I doubt that would be enough.

The other objection would be to Nick's complete inscrutability as a person.  Maybe it's unfair to call that a flaw, since it's obviously an intentional choice, but sometimes you just realize how little you know about this long-term narrator, and it makes you a little itchy.  Or does me, at least.  By the end we still don't know any of his children's names or even how many of them there are.  There's one part in one of the war books where he's, like, on a patrol or something, and then he finally gets somewhere where someone has managed to scrounge up some tea and chocolate rations for him, and he expresses deep gratitude ("I could've kissed him," or something to that effect).  In another book, that wouldn't stand out, but here it did because I'm pretty sure it's the most passionate he ever gets about anything--including the deaths of quite a few friends and acquaintances--in the entire series.  It's weird, and not necessarily in a good way.

And yet, man.  And yet and yet and yet--maybe it's just by sheer repetition that it gets pounded into you, but I was kind of captivated, ultimately.  This article claims he was contemplating fifteen volumes at one point, and, masochistic as it may sound, I sorta-kinda wish I had those three extra books to read.  Even if the characters don't always feel particularly memorable in the here and now of reading, but somehow they get under your skin.  It seems weird to say it, but I'm still kind of shocked and bummed thinking about the deaths of Stringham and Templer in the war.

Anyway, if nothing else, it definitely offers a vivid portrait of a certain segment of society (how big that segment is is up for debate) over the course of fifty-odd years.  Certainly, there's more of a distinct sense of time and place here than there is in Proust.  Also, unlike Proust, the thought of rereading Powell doesn't make me break out in a cold sweat.  I'm sure all of the best authorities will tell you that Proust was a better writer, but there is something to be said for readability, I think, and it's hard for me to imagine even a distinguished Proust scholar disagreeing with that assessment, even if they think Proust has other redeeming features, which he probably does.  Who can say?

Anyway, there are a handful of other meganovels that I've always wanted to try my hand at, but first, probably something shorter.  


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