The Dance to the Music of Time is a 12 novel, four volume social comedy, telling of a Mr Nicholas Jenkins’ life. Written by Anthony Powell over 15 years the work covers some forty years of Mr Jenkins’ adulthood, from his late schoolboy days to university his his career, army life and high middle age.
In surprising contrast with its length, Dance to the Music of Time is a light, flowing, highly focused work. The story never sprawls out of control - you never feel that Powell is battling with too many subplots, nor are you ever lost in a bewildering ever growing cast list.
Instead, the story is a series of long, elaborate anecdotes and scenes. Through Jenkins’s narrations we explore the daily drama of our casts lives. Powell captures each nuance and subtlety of the interactions.
The writing has a dry wit and Powell is the master of the awkward encounter or conversation powerplay.
On one level it is a series of books about nothing. A light drawing room comedy, perfect for reading on the beach or on an airplane. A series you can pick up and put down and be entertained no matter what. There is very little plot in each novel - the series is much more a ‘series of interesting things that happen to Mr Jenkins, his friends, family and acquaintances’ so they can be enjoyed on their own.
On another level, between the flowery prose, desert-dry wit and mis-communications, Powell actually makes two important points. The first is on the nature of history, the second on relationships.
The background for the Dance through the Music of Time is era Powell himself lived through (the novels are very autobiographical) Starting after the First World War the series jumps quickly through the 1920s and ponders its way through the 1930s. The Second World War gets three novels, one whole volume, however the chronology of those works is at times very hazy. The last volume springs through the 1950s and 1960s.
With much of the high drama of the 20th century has a background for the series Powell powerfully makes the point that even in historic times people care about their own lives. History is exclusively a backdrop to this series, something that happens at the edge of stories. Character’s describe historical events in vague, muddy and misunderstood terms.
Powell reminds historians skillfully that those in an era have no historical narrative, they are just living their lives, which means they care much more about who has just run off with whose niece and not the rise of Hitler or Mussolini. (Hitler is only named twice, Mussolini never. Many of the specifics of the war, of which Jenkins is part, are unstated)
Yet Powell does not ignore history. When the Second World War participates in the novel, it does so in a gutting, cutting fashion. The Valley of Bones is typical Powell - a series of anecdotes about army life. At the end of one chapter, in the last paragraph the reader is informed casually that Barnaby, a key friend of Jenkins, has been killed. His plane was shot down. It is shocking striking brutal end to a rather enjoyable character.
Then the reader turns the page and a new anecdote starts. Life goes on.
The best example is a scene in which an army friend of Jenkin’s picks up one of Jenkin’s sister in laws at the same social gathering at another sister in law announces her engagement and the message comes that a brother-in-law has been killed in France. Death literally crashes the party, but life continues.
Powell’s second talent is capturing a social world, with all its connections beautifully. Take the above described scene for example. A total mash of characters and connections - blood, by marriage, by friendship and by chance. All people with social obligations to each other.
That is Powell's skill. He can describe perfectly the interactions between people obliged to interact with other, who's social interactions are determined by codes and conventions that they follow or ignore.
No other author I’ve read has captured the part thrill, part awkwardness, part confusion that is running into an old acquaintance by surprise in an unexpected street corner.
Dance to the Music of Time at its best is entertaining, enlightening and relaxing in a way few of Powell’s contemporaries are. It is neither as silly as Waugh can be, (nor as bitter) nor is it as ponderous as Orwell. It with its light, deft writing, clever satire and dry humour captures the most important lesson of the short 20th century - life goes on. In face of historic times most people, most of the time will be driven by their domestic dreams and desires. It is those domestic affairs that will shape, alter and stay with us. We keep dancing.