Message in a Bottle
A Dance to the Music of Time: A Buyer’s Market

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Book two of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time takes narrator Nicholas Jenkins to a series of parties. At a formal dance, he falls definitively out of love with Barbara Goring, who has also been the object of Widmerpool’s affections, at least until she humiliates him by dumping a container of sugar over his head. After that dance, Jenkins bumps into his former schoolmate Stringham and an old family friend, the painter Deacon. The group crashes a louche gathering hosted by Mrs. Andriadis at a house she is renting from the now-married Jean Templer, on whom Jenkins once had a crush. Over the following summer, Jenkins is introduced through Deacon’s antique shop to another painter, Barnby, and spends a weekend in the country visiting the castle of industrialist Magnus Donners, who employs both Stringham and Widmerpool. The latter embarrasses himself again by crashing his car into a driveway urn and, on the rebound from his failure with Barbara, is somehow convinced by the radical bohemian Gypsy Jones to pay for her abortion. In the fall Stringham marries Lady Peggy Stepney, and Deacon celebrates his birthday at yet another party, dying soon afterward due to complications from a tumble down the stairs. After the funeral, Jenkins unexpectedly trysts with Jones.

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I promised a giveaway, so let’s get that out of the way to start. Random selection from among the comments on the first thread gives us Smpbloch as a winner. Congratulations, and a free copy of the Second Movement, courtesy of University of Chicago Press, awaits you. Just drop us a line at info@mercerislandbooks.com to claim your prize. We have one more copy to give away, so I’ll be choosing another winner from this month’s comments, too.

Book two opens with a painting, produced by Deacon many years before the events described in the novel and discovered for sale many years afterward. The first book similarly began with the memory of art, the allegorical painting by Poussin that gives a name to Powell’s fictional cycle. Not sure what to make of that other than art’s role in the relative permanence of recollection. That would seem to be one of the central themes of the entire project.

A somewhat different tone in this installment, I thought. Jenkins remains detached, but is forced by circumstance to be somewhat more involved in the action than he was in the first book. Nonetheless, his motives remain opaque and often surprising to himself as well as to us. He’s been interested in several young women, but falls in and out of love without much understanding of how or why. He’s interpreted each infatuation as progressively more sophisticated and mature, and I’ll be curious to see if his affair with Jones fits that schema or breaks it.

Interesting too to compare the various kinds of socializing going on in this volume. Jenkins is intrigued by the relaxed conventions of the bohemian world, but also somewhat repelled. To this point, he’s thrived on rules and has yet to become comfortable without them. That formal world of debutantes and dances has yet to disappear completely, of course. I was reminded of Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, which examines the vestiges of those traditions with a fond eye. As an aside, there are far fewer troubling ethnic stereotypes to deal with in the movie than in A Buyer’s Market.

Widmerpool continues pricelessly to be Widmerpool, falling down and rising again and again. He’s almost admirable and yet horrific in his single-mindedness. I loved his sudden appearance at the dungeon window, and the way so much of his personality is explained by the simple remark that his father used to sell “liquid manure.”

I’ll be carrying two quotes with me as I proceed through the series. The first comes from page 23: “[N]othing establishes the timelessness of Time like those episodes of early experience seen, on reexamination at a later period, to have been crowded together with such unbelievable closeness in the course of a few years; yet equally giving the illusion of being so infinitely extended during the months when actually taking place.” That seems a good summation of how we live through time at different speeds, and captures the way this series is assembled, too.

The second comes from page 193: “Perhaps intimacy of any sort, love or friendship, impedes all exactness of definition…In short, the persons we see most clearly are not necessarily those we know best.” This applies in life as well as in the creation of literary characters. The most memorable people aren’t always the closest or the most important.

Next up: An Acceptance World on March 28th. Available as part of First Movement or separately as an a ebook.

—James

Photo from Channel 4’s 1997 TV adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time.

Previous installments: