Anthony Powell’s twelve volume cycle of related novels was published over a 24 year time span, from 1951-1974. In its entirety, “Dance to the Music of Time” is a major arrow in the quiver of any serious Anglophile. The series chronicles a fifty year period of British culture and manners through the reminiscences of one character, Nick Jenkins
(think Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby.) It’s wonderful fun to see how his chums and acquaintances at University come in and out of his life, in evolving circumstances of their own. From school days, Deb Balls, and country weekends, we start to see the outline of romances and incipient careers that are to define them all. We see The Spanish Civil War, WWII, (with flashbacks to WWI,) through post war changes and evolutions in everyone’s life. It is especially delicious to watch the introduction and rise, of Nick’s great nemesis, the despised Widmerpool. He is originally mocked as awkward and incompetent, and barely tolerated by the group, but of course, rises to great position and power.
In the words of the critic, Robert Selig, ” This twelve volume sequence [ A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life’s poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. The standard excitements of old fashioned plots…seem far less important than time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers, in intricate human arabesques.”
The series is named after the famous painting of the same name by Nicholas Poussin, done in 1638. The painting is considered to represent the passing of time and the different stages of the “wheel of fortune.” These are poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure. The cycle starts with the male in the back representing poverty. He longingly glances at labor, the muscular woman to his right. She eagerly grasps wealth, who is dressed in gold skirt and sandals. She, in turn, locks hands with pleasure, who glances knowingly back at us. Too much pleasure can lead back to poverty, with whom she, in turn, is also bound.
Anthony Powell was an insider in London’s heady, literary Bohemia. He was close to Evelyn Waugh, A. N. Wilson, and Kingsley Amis. Many of the characters in “Dance” are based on real people whose identities were obvious to those contemporaries in the know. The books received critical praise as they were released and were also, commercially successful. Although twelve volumes in length, “Dance To the Music of Time” reads easily. I found myself reading the whole thing in about a year, reading other books at various points in between. Sometimes I would read two or three in a row, other times, interrupting the flow with several other books between volumes. Individually, and as whole, they are uniformly fun reads, with enough substance to maintain a long term commitment. The whole cycle was adapted both as a radio, and later, a TV series. While not as deep, or quite as well written, as “Brideshead Revisited,” ” Dance to the Music of Time” is an absolute must, and a serious pleasure, for anyone interested in 20th century English culture, history, politics and manners.