Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 08, 2011

A Dance to the Music of Time

A week or two before MrsDarwin and I got married, my father presented me with a set of four volumes wrapped (in a manner that was quite characteristic of our family, in which gifts might be planned elaborately and yet wrapping paper was invariably a forgotten detail whose lack was only realized at the moment a present was about to be given) in a brown paper grocery bag. These proved to be the four volumes of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, twelve novels organized in four movements. I read the first six novels within the next year or two, then progressed with greater intervals between novels, and finally completed the series just a few days after our tenth wedding anniversary.

This shouldn't be taken to indicate that the novels are difficult or boring, rather (for me at least) the slowness in moving through them is in part a natural result of the theme of the novels, which is in many ways the progress of time. The first novel, A Question of Upbringing, was published in 1951 and describes the experiences of the narrator Nick Jenkins, at school and Oxford in the 1920s. The last novel, Hearing Secret Harmonies, was published in 1975 and takes place in the late '60s and early '70s. Nick remains our narrator (first person) through it all, though in the later novels he is an increasingly reclusive one, being less turbulent in his own life than many of those whom he is observing. Across this 50 year span, several hundred characters (minor, major and recurring) make their way through our view, giving a wide ranging sense of the English upper middle class and bohemian life ranging from the roaring 20s (an extended flashback even takes us back to 1914 and the beginning of the Great War) to the hippies and neo-pagans of the '60s and '70s.

Roughly speaking the first movement (first three novels) of the series covers the 20s and early 30s, the second movement the late 30s with the war looming on the horizon. The third movement covers the war itself. The fourth movement stretches from the late 40s through the early 70s. Given that the first novel was published in '51, Powell would have had a good idea of the world events that shape the first nine novels when he started, but the events that shape the last three were still ahead of him. This was, apparently, part of the plan. In his autobiography Powell wrote:
I had been turning over in my mind the possibility of writing a novel composed of a fairly large number of volumes, just how many could not be decided at the outset. A long sequence seemed to offer all sorts of advantages, among them release from the re-engagement every year or so of the same actors and extras hanging about for employment at the stagedoor of one's fantasy. Instead of sacking the lot at the end of a brief run ... the production itself might be extended, the actors made to work longer and harder for much the same creative remuneration ... instead of being butchered at regular intervals ...

Certain technical matters had to be settled at once for early establishment of a sufficiently broad base ... from which a complex narrative might arise; fan out; be sustained over a period of years. This meant that undeveloped characters, potential situations, must be introduced, whose purpose might be unresolved throughout several volumes ... Perhaps understandably, only very few critics of the opening volumes showed themselves capable of appreciating that, in reality, quite simple principle. ...

At a fairly early stage ... I found myself in the Wallace Collection, standing in front of Nicolas Poussin's picture ... A Dance to the Music of Time. An almost hypnotic spell seems cast by this masterpiece on the beholder. I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be.
The characters of Powell's series are of much the same range of classes found in Evelyn Waugh's novels, and Waugh was definitely one of Powell's fans, describing Dance as being better written than Proust and much funnier. Coming from Waugh, this might lead one to expect something rather raucous. Powell's novels, however, are a much quieter form a satire than such romps as Decline and Fall and Scott King's Modern Europe. The narration is meditative and lushly well written -- the satire (and there is satire) comes as a natural outgrowth of the actions of characters, sharply observed, who are, like real people, prone to do things which end up making themselves look silly.

The first novel opens with a style and approach to narration which is typical of the series:
The men at work at the corner of the street had made a kind of camp for themselves, where, marked out by tripods hung with red hurricane-lamps, an abyss in the road led down to a network of subterranean drain-pipes. Gathered round the bucket of coke that burned in front of the shelter, several figures were swinging arms against bodies and rubbing hands together with large, pantomimic gestures: like comedians giving formal expression to the concept of extreme cold. One of them, a spare fellow in blue overalls, taller than the rest, with a jocular demeanour and long, pointed nose like that of a Shakespearian clown, suddenly stepped forward, and, as if performing a rite, cast some substance -- apparently the remains of two kippers, loosely wrapped in newspaper -- on the bright coals of the fire, causing flames to leap fiercely upward, smoke curling about in eddies of the north-east wind. As the dark fumes floated above the houses, snow began to fall gently from a dull sky, each flake giving a small hiss as it reached the bucket. The flames died down again; and the men, as if required observances were for the moment at an end, all turned away from the fire, lowering themselves laboriously into the pit, or withdrawing to the shadows of their tarpaulin shelter. The grey, undecided flakes continued to come down, though not heavily, while a harsh odour, bitter and gaseous, penetrated the air. The day was drawing in.

For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world -- legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea -- scattered, uncoordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned to the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces, hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.
Yet, lest this opening seem too grave, be assured that within the next hundred pages you will find such incidents as a school master arrested on suspicion of being a con man pretending to be himself, and a race car driver being found late at night walking through the halls of an English country house holding up an old, china chamber pot before him, as if making some sacred offering.

Having immersed myself, for the first time in four or five years, in Powell's characters over the last month, I found myself so engrossed by reading the fourth movement that, having finished it and found, after a week, that it had the same hold upon my mind as before, I turned back to the first one this week and began time's long cycle all over again.

At the same time, I can't help noting what the series is not, as well as what it is. For instance, though you get a strong sense of what changed and vanished in England from the 20s through the 70s, you do so through the very selective lens of the sort of people Nick Jenkins knows. They're interesting and various people, and include personalities focused on very different things, but they are not chosen in the manner of a "Historical Epic" which focuses on having a character present at each major historical event of an era, or typifying each intellectual trend of an era. Virtually all characters are, also, of the sort of educated upper middle class background that Nick himself comes from. This still gets you a wide range of experience, but if you're looking for the definitive novel on coal miners in Wales, this is not it. Try this fellow instead.

This is also not a set of novels which involves results in a deep acquaintance or understanding of the main character. Nick, indeed, becomes increasingly distant through the series -- someone who observes rather than acts -- and many very important aspects of his own life slip by with little mention. One of the novels is framed around a set of chance meetings as he is visiting his old school in preparation for sending his son there -- yet this is virtually the first indication one has that Nick has a son, and the son himself never becomes a character of any sort. While in the early novels you have a sense that you are seeing much of Nick's life activity, as the novels progress you are seeing the continuation of the stories of all the people he knew earlier (plus the stories of additional people who become entangled in their affairs) but you are not particularly hearing Nick's story.

The sense of time, the intricate and almost-but-not-quite-random way in which characters move in and out of the narrative, is fascinating and eventually addicting, and the prose style is one that I enjoy very much, and this is a structure of narrative which I find myself hungry for at the moment, as I realize in my own life that time has passed and a new generation is growing up around me. Yet there is a certain sterility to all this in Dance to the Music of Time, perhaps in part because it is written very much in the English, post-Christian world. (Powell himself was accused, accurately, by Evelyn Waugh of being agnostic, back when this was something which constituted an accusation in England.) This sterility fits well with Powell's classicism -- though it is unspoken one cannot help feeling that Powell, like the Ancients, sees himself as living in a diminished age that is diminishing further. The political trends of the middle of the last century being what they are, many of the characters in Dance are progressives, indeed often socialists or communists, yet one can tell that Powell (who came out of the closet late in life as a conservative) does not believe that the ideologies of the day constituted any kind of progress.

It would be a wholly different sort of project, but I would love to read a similarly sprawling series dealing more explicitly with time and growing older in a set that is more fertile and thus is dealing more with the differences between generations as well as the progress of one's own progress through life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

I read the first novel last year and didn't really get into it. Perhaps I should give it another go.