The spines of the four volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, aligned vertically and sequentially, display the Four Seasons suspended in motion and joined in a ring, excerpted from the painting of the same name by the 17th century French artist, Nicolas Poussin. Kudos to the University of Chicago Press for the handsome and appropriate covers.
Poussin’s masterpiece inspired the 20th century British author to publish from 1951 to 1975 a series of 12 novels, divided into four volumes according to the seasons, comprising one “duodecalogy.” The nature of this work is singular enough that searching the term itself yields primarily references to Dance.
Books Do Furnish a Room is the title of the tenth installment, incidentally supporting the centathlete’s aforementioned aesthetic satisfaction in looking at his bookcase next to his faulty, formerly high-fidelity stereo, underneath framed photos he took of a Montana roadside vista, a Costa Rican cloud forest, and the Haleakala crater atop Maui. Without delineating the current symbolic month or season of his own life, as Powell’s series proceeds to do for its narrator, Nicholas Jenkins (and thus for the author and his generation), the centathlete plods along his route, briefly pausing to reflect on Dance, a marvelous, weighty piece of furniture, so to speak, to be displayed and treated respectfully.
Dance presents a collection of Brits who, through and after the two world wars, engage articulately in high-minded colloquies on Art, Nostalgia, Personal Myth and other Topics That Should Be Capitalized; love affairs; dissolution; internecine entanglement; and dubious or emotionally fraught activities. Auberon Waugh, deceased, bilious son of deceased, bilious Top 100 author Evelyn Waugh, dismissed Dance as an “upmarket soap opera,” but the centathlete refuses to be a likeminded player hater. The pleasure in reading these novels was by no means guilty.
In addition to being Quite English, Powell’s characters are essentially aristocratic or loftily bohemian; Dance is replete with peers by legacy or appointment, generals, artists, writers, composers and critics. Eton and Oxford also loom large. Joe Sixpack might be put off by this preoccupation with the elite and the near-total exclusion of the working man and woman. In fact, Powell is ready for this objection. Jenkins asks one American about another’s family history and is met with a laugh:
“‘Why do the British always ask that?’The centathlete doubts that most Brits, their Royals aside, share Jenkins’s and Powell’s obsession with genealogy and titles. Nobility literally occupied the author’s bed and visited his study: he was married to Lady Violet Pakenham and he himself declined knighthood in his later years. A social man and a prolific book reviewer, Powell was no doubt aware of a certain assessment of snobbery, as seen in Jenkins’s exchange with one of the few grungy personages of Dance:
‘One of our foibles.’
‘That’s not what Americans do.’
‘But we’re not Americans. You must humour our straying from the norm in that respect.’”
“‘Why are you so stuck up?’ she asked, truculently.
‘I’m just made that way.’
‘You ought to fight it.’
‘I can’t see why.’”
If you find humor, albeit dry, mannerly and English, in the above two passages, then you will appreciate the main appeal of Dance. Imagine bumping into an old friend, as Jenkins does, who says, “You must inspect my future wife,” instead of, “Meet Peggy.”
Powell further spices his tea by saddling his characters with tragicomic flaws and idiosyncrasies. They combat alcoholism, licentiousness, cynicism and melancholy. The effect is a view of the second tier of England’s Finest, making the rich brew easier on the tongue.
Many of the dozens of significant characters in Dance were modeled partly or wholly on real people. Only two such historical figures would be familiar to Joe Sixpack: George Orwell and Aleister Crowley. The former, two years older than Powell, attended Eton College with him, and they were friendly for years despite divergent political beliefs. Interestingly, one Orwell expert (if not, one wonders at times, a self-styled psychic Orwell channeler), the formidable, indefatigable polemicist Christopher Hitchens, did not see the resemblance of Orwell in the character of Erridge Tolland—as do members of the Anthony Powell Society—in his essay on Dance. A qualified admirer of the saga, Hitchens critiqued Powell’s conservatism for the way it omitted dramatization of key historical realities such as British fascism.
For an American there can be a smug and hypocritical tendency to simplify a foreigner’s politics, even more so when the subject is dead. In this line we boil down Powell as a Tory and therefore “reactionary,” “pro-establishment,” and “upper-crust-clinging.” The centathlete, conscious of his own limitations and detachment, notes an author’s political perspective only as it aids textual digestion and regurgitation.
With cud in cheek, he recalls that North America’s first great literary humorist, Thomas Chandler Haliburton, “…was a Tory of an old and rigorous school—a school so completely overwhelmed by the subsequent triumphs of labour and democratic thought as to be almost a museum-piece now.” That appraisal comes courtesy of Robert McDougall’s afterword to Haliburton’s 1836 uproarious satire, The Clockmaker which the centathlete purchased at the worth-visiting Haliburton house in Windsor, Nova Scotia, a town known as “the birthplace of hockey.”
Haliburton was a Canadian, a judge, and, ultimately a Tory Member of the House of Commons in England. He is considered “the most frequently quoted author in America” on account of aphorisms such as “Death and taxes are inevitable” and others.
Seeking to strike a Tory-Labour balance, the centathlete thinks of Martin Amis, a one-time crony of Hitchens, and his left-ish but acerbic take on writers and their affiliations in his 1995 novel, The Information:
“‘Novelist and politician are both concerned with human potential.’
‘This would be Labour, of course.’”
The bitter protagonist, also an author, goes on to observe:
“All writers, all book people, were Labour, which was one of the reasons they got on so well, why they didn’t keep suing each other and beating each other up.”Amis’s sarcasm notwithstanding, the centathlete recognizes the political tension and bias in literary criticism and appreciation, especially when he dimly recalls his own undergraduate classes…
Returning to the Dance floor, Aleister Crowley, the second referenced real-life model, will be known to headbangers via Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley,” a message to the English occultist. That song features the six-string sorcery of the late Randy Rhoads, a trailblazer in “hammering,” the technique of fingertapping up on a guitar’s fretboard as a keyboard player might, now a requirement for any heavy metal axman. In jazz, Stanley Jordan almost exclusively plays in this manner. Listening to his 1985 recording debut, “Magic Touch,” you can’t help but enjoy the elegant adventurism. His web site discusses his current participation in Music Therapy. The centathlete happily conjectures that the practice of this alternative anodyne would have surfaced in a more current version of Dance.
The work’s engine is the perpetual cycle of themes, motifs and situations, as the characters or their proxies meet again and again as they age. These encounters occur by design through balls, chateau weekends and other society gatherings, or, more dramatically and seemingly as frequently, through coincidence. After questioning the likelihood of this recurrent serendipity, the centathlete will defer to Hitchens, who writes,
“…it is very far from improbable that a small and highly stratified island society should find its more educated and leisured members running into each other at successive conjunctures.”The centathlete also grants that half of Americans live within 50 miles of their birthplace. However, it his experience that many, if not the large majority of, friends from childhood and young adulthood and even later, move apart and lose touch. Geographic dislocation, suburban traffic and twelve-hour workdays hinder the will to suspend disbelief on this subject and therefore Dance seems accordingly alien and antiquated.
Jenkins, the stand-in for Powell, naturally participates in most of these meetings. His ubiquity and his retention of names, faces and more, would make a Society Page editor envious. He knows Everybody, which ultimately turns absurd, as in the final novel when he meets a mature woman at a wedding and it is prompted that he knew intimately and independently her brother, her first lover, her deceased daughter, the daughter’s widower, and many of the daughter’s lovers including the man present at her death.
Powell’s style is belletristic (apparently there’s a new, aggressive kind of belletrism), formal and elongated. Like Haliburton, Powell astutely generalizes on aspects of human experience, but he usually shuns the brevity required for an “aphorism.” For example,
“When it comes to recapitulation of what is known of a dead friend, for the benefit of a third party (whether or not writing a biography), remnants transmissible in a form at once lucid, unimpeded by subjective considerations, are astonishingly meagre.”With regard to grammar, he perplexingly employs colons, rather than commas or semicolons, in a series (ex. “The Stourwater passages had by now acquired the smell common to all schools: furniture polish: disinfectant: fumes of unambitious cooking.”). This usage appears throughout Dance and, if elsewhere in modern literature, the centathlete has not yet encountered it. Then there is “rôle,” which Powell insists on adorning with a circumflex; the symbol serves as a synecdoche for the author’s overarching traditionalism. Think of an older gent who wears a cravat at an office where no one has worn a tie for years.
The narration also carries a curious degree of circumspection. Jenkins introduces us to hundreds of people, typically with intricate description and incisive development. Yet he won’t tell us what his own wife looks like, and she is allowed only infrequent, terse statements in concordance with his own sensibility. We vicariously attend weddings and other ceremonies, but not his own. His parents figure in a flashback and recede offstage. Even allowing for tact or loyalty to authorial “objectivity” (apparently achievable only when discussing those outside the immediate family), the centathlete wished for a modest, if subjective, airing of the Jenkins household.
In Dance classical and renaissance images and themes are sounded, considered, and then played out. Other relics—passages from centuries-old texts, song fragments, cars, buildings—resonate for the honestly aging Jenkins, who comments,
“The other mild advantage [of growing old] endorses a keener perception for the authenticities of mythology, not only of the traditional sort, but—when such are any good—the latterday mythologies of poetry and the novel.”Cultivated retrospection—into personal history and beyond— brings resonance to a life. Throughout Dance Jenkins admires artistic creators or mystical aspirants, tortured as they might be, provided they are building on foundations of well-considered tradition. What was written about Poussin seems to hold for Powell, “For him, the one thing that truly sustained creation was the inseminating authority of the past.”
The evocation of Time in the title of the duodecalogy calls attention to the daunting amount needed to read this complete work, the longest leg of the centathlon, an engrossing, erudite, tasteful yet occasionally racy, comedy. Now, the attractive volumes stand, Seasons outward. Looking back at them again, the centathlete is gratefully edified that he had the legs and the time to place them there.
Centathlon vs. Centathlon
# 64 The Catcher in the Rye