Message in a Bottle
A Dance to the Music of Time: Hearing Secret Harmonies

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Jenkins receives a visit at his country home from a group of young people that includes Isobel’s niece Fiona. They are neo-nature cultists in thrall to Scorpio Murtlock, who is leading his party to some nearby standing stones called the Devil’s Fingers, evoking memories for Jenkins of Trelawney’s mysticism of fifty years before. Watching TV news that evening, Jenkins and Isobel see Widmerpool, lately returned to England after almost a decade in the US, being installed as a university chancellor; during the procession he is doused with paint by two students, the twin daughters of J.C. Quiggin and Ada Leintwardine. Some time later, Jenkins serves on the judging committee for the Magnus Donners Prize for biography, led by Gibson Delavacquerie, which selects Gwinnett’s newly published study of X. Trapnel as the winner. Widmerpool arranges an invitation to the award ceremony and attends with the Quiggin twins. The committee’s fear that he intends to confront Gwinnett about his affair with the late Pamela Widmerpool is not realized. Instead, the disheveled Widmerpool makes a speech about embracing the counterculture and rejecting all convention; his performance is interrupted by an exploding stink bomb set by the twins. Time passes, and Jenkins encounters Gwinnett near the Devil’s Fingers. The American academic has been documenting bacchanalian rituals enacted by Murtlock and his followers, now including Widmerpool, who has left the university. Delavacquerie sees his relationship with Polly Duport deteriorate as he becomes transfixed by Fiona while trying to extricate her from the cult. Despite his assistance, she rejects him and marries Gwinnett. Interest revives in the paintings of the long-deceased Deacon, and Jenkins attends a gallery showing of his work, there meeting the widowed Jean Duport Flores and her ex-husband. They are accompanied by the newly-married Polly and Delavacquerie. A drunken Bithel arrives with a valuable Modigliani drawing, snatched from a fire set by Murtlock to dispose of Widmerpool’s belongings. Bithel reports that Widmerpool, heavily stressed by various sexual degradations at Murtlock’s hand, has died while exerting himself during an ecdysiastic Trelawney-style morning run.

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Three thousand pages ago, Nicholas Jenkins watched some workers warm themselves around a fire bucket on a street corner. The image of snow falling into the flames “brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons [in Poussin’s painting], 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.” Now, having spent a liftetime observing and participating in that tumultuous dance, he stands alone in front of a bonfire as stillness finally descends: “Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.” Powell completes his full circle so neatly that it seems almost blasphemous to break that silence, but I have to say something, so blaspheme I will. Closing the book, I can almost picture Powell as Christ on the cross, hanging his head and uttering, “It is finished.”

That’s also blasphemy regarding the Dance itself, I think. Though the whole project has a clear ending (as does each part within it—there are endings galore), beginnings are equally emphasized. Even as threads of plot are cut off, new ones become visible, so you can’t reach a conclusion without first talking about the latest novelties. And what could be more novel and unexpected in this series than hippies? I never imagined when I began it that Powell would, as Spinal Tap advised, listen to what the flower people say. He and his stand-in Jenkins certainly aren’t personally sympathetic to the counterculture, but it’s a testament to their artistic neutrality that they don’t judge the younger generation more harshly than their own. Outré fashion and rebellion don’t seem shocking to someone who remembers Victorian-era dandyism and pre-war licentiousness.

That historical perspective is nicely underlined in the scene at the gallery, when Henderson tries to explain Deacon’s importance but can’t process that Jenkins actually knew the man. The business of calling him Bosworth rather than Edgar is a typically deft Powell touch.

I must admit I don’t quite know what to make of Widmerpool’s involvement with the cult. In some ways he seems to have achieved an apotheosis of ridiculousness, but he may also have finally attained some enlightenment. Is his need to atone to Bithel and Akworth sincere? Are we to interpret all his prior actions as driven by repressed homosexuality? Is his death a self-sacrifice or a final failure?

The marriage of Gibson and Polly reminded me of Wuthering Heights, oddly enough, specifically the way Heathcliff engineers a relationship between his and Cathy’s offspring. I couldn’t help thinking of the practical-minded poet Delavacquerie as a younger incarnation of Jenkins, so it seems more than a coincidence that he’d end up with the daughter of Jenkins’ first love.

Gwinnett remains a fascinating puzzle. There’s more than a suggestion that beneath his superficial placidity he’s actually a necromancer of sorts. Though the Dance is primarily a realistic chronicle, there’s another fictional level on which the dark forces that Murtlock, Mrs. Erdleigh, and others are aware of actually function. Whether or not Gwinnett is an evil magus, I like him, largely because we currently share the same obsession: Jacobean drama. The allusions to Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher, and their ilk are among the most apposite in the whole series. The references give me a chance to play the pedant, too. Although Gwinnett (and Powell) think that Cyril Tourneur wrote The Revenger’s Tragedy, today’s scholars know that Thomas Middleton was the true author. Drop that little fact at your next cocktail party and you’re sure to impress.

Speaking of literary references, the long quotation from Burton near the very end was absolutely marvelous, all the more so in context. It almost makes me think that works like the Anatomy exist only so they can have their meaning enhanced by being mined and repurposed in other books.

Can you tell that I really don’t want to end this? Even the internet doesn’t have room for everything I’d want to say about these books, so I have to wrap up somehow. I’ll give you a little more to read before I go, though, in the form of an interview Powell gave to the Paris Review. I can’t believe I didn’t run across it until now, partly because it introduced me to the useful concept of the Dance as prosopography—“the social and intellectual history of a loosely connected group.” That’s the only ten-dollar word in there, I promise. It’s actually quite entertaining and insightful.

To those of you who’ve made it this far, congratulations on your accomplishment and thanks for taking the trip with me.

Next up: I don’t know. Anyone want to tackle another big reading project in 2014?

—James

Previous installments:

A Dance to the Music of Time: Temporary Kings

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A decade has passed since the events of the previous volume, and Jenkins has reestablished his writing career. He travels to Venice for a literary conference, there meeting an American, Russell Gwinnett, who is at work on a biography of X. Trapnel, and learning of the death in London of Ferrand-Sénéschal. Rumor connects him with Widmerpool, lately elevated to the House of Lords, the two allegedly sharing a taste for sexual depravities; press reports scandalously link Pamela Widmerpool with the death of the French philosopher. The attendees visit a palazzo where Pamela is a guest, along with Louis Glober, an American impresario, to view a painted ceiling by Tiepolo depicting the fable of Candaules and Gyges. Gwinnett, seeking information about her relationship with Trapnel, pursues an encounter and she becomes infatuated with him. Jenkins visits the studio of Tokenhouse, an old friend of his father’s, and sees a troubled Widmerpool there, involved in some kind of shady political dealing that may involve espionage across the Iron Curtain. Upon return to England, Jenkins attends a military reunion, discovering more details about Stringham’s death in a Japanese POW camp and listening as Sunny Farebrother relishes the possibility of Widmerpool’s arrest. Gwinnett is also in England, immersing himself in Trapnel’s milieu and alternately resisting and inviting Pamela’s advances, which include haunting his hallway in the nude in the middle of the night. Later, Odo Stevens and his wife, the former Rosie Manasch, host a charity concert. An ailing Moreland conducts the orchestra, and the audience is filled with faces from the past. Widmerpool, having somehow escaped indictment, is also in the crowd and one of the last to depart. In doing so, he is involved in a near-melee incited by shocking insults from Pamela and by her revelation that Ferrand-Sénéschal died in flagrante with her as Widmerpool watched. Months go by, and Jenkins engages in a few final conversations with the dying Moreland in his hospital room. We learn through this epilogue that Pamela has killed herself via overdose in Gwinnett’s hotel room, Gwinnett has fled to the Mediterranean, and Glober has died while racing vintage cars in France.

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We’re ten years further into the story, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Powell took that much time between writing the last book and this one. But no, his clockwork-like regimen stayed on schedule, and Temporary Kings came out in 1973, just a couple years after Books Do Furnish a Room. It’s not as though his style had time to change in between, but it feels to me as if it did. He seems freer and more direct than before. (He’s certainly more expansive, this being the longest installment in the series.) Is this reflective of the narrator’s aging and maturity, or of the changing mores of the era? Or both?

Jenkins, now in his fifties, may well be readier to show his cards, and England itself is considerably different than it was. The economy has improved, and a distinctive new culture is on the ascendant. It’s hard to imagine Powell listening to skiffle music, but he does mention the Teddy boy movement, and we know that skirts are about to shorten and that London is about to start swinging. Maybe that’s why things that used to be hinted at in the text have become explicit: “He produced a pair of nail-scissors from a small red leather case. He told me he carried them round with him in case the need arose.” Those who’ve read the book will recognize that quote, and know why my marginal comment on it was “!!!!” And that’s well before Pamela gets wound up and starts telling it like it is.

Even the artistic metaphors that used to lie quietly on the page without explication are now spotlighted. Candaules, his nameless wife, and Gyges are roles played by various characters in the book as well as the subjects of a fictitious fresco. Jenkins has always loved to drop allusive references, and Moreland and Jenkins have talked in the past about how specific pieces of music and writing can comment on the people around them, but I don’t recall it happening to the extent it does with the Tiepolo mural in Temporary Kings. This shared interest in the intermingling of art and life is what bonds the two friends so closely, come to think of it. The saddest moment in the Dance may occur when Jenkins says, “That morning was the last time I saw Moreland. It was also the last time I had, with anyone, the sort of talk we used to have together.”

That’s not the only lament for the past in the book, by any means. One of the subjects of Temporary Kings is nostalgia, and half of the text seems to serve as a trip down memory lane. In addition to Moreland, a host of other characters who haven’t been seen for a while take cameo turns on stage, apparently just to catch us up on what’s happened to them. Rosie and Odo show off their jointly assumed respectability, Mrs. Erdleigh casts a spell or two, Matilda breezes through a party, and more peripheral figures such as Stripling, Carolo, and Norma (Barnby’s waitress/muse) act as spear carriers. Even Jean has a ghostly presence, seen in the person of her daughter Polly. These appearances are rewards for consistent readers, but must be baffling to anyone who picks up this book cold. I suppose Powell shouldn’t be expected to worry about wooing new fans in the eleventh book of his twelve-volume series, so I can’t really criticize him here.

I expect a bit more wrap-up in the final volume, but beyond that I’m not sure what’s coming. On the one hand I’d love to have this symphony end with a grand climax, but that wouldn’t really be in keeping with the Dance as a whole. It’s impossible to imagine that it can end at all. Powell may have stopped writing, but life will just go on for all his characters, won’t it?

Next (and last) up: Hearing Secret Harmonies on December 26th. Available as part of Fourth Movement or separately as an an ebook.

—James

Previous installments:

A Dance to the Music of Time: Books Do Furnish a Room

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With the return of peace, Jenkins takes up his pen again and goes back to his university library to do research for a book on Burton and his Anatomy of Melancholy. He visits his old don Sillery; they discuss the launching of a new magazine, Fission, and the affiliated book publishing firm of Quiggin & Craggs. The funding for this joint venture is to come from Erridge, Lord Warminster, which plan is interrupted by his death. At the funeral, the publishers appear with Widmerpool, now a member of Parliament who finds it convenient to support the magazine and Erridge’s leftist politics. Jenkins continues work on Burton, but also contributes reviews to the magazine, edited by Lindsay “Books Do Furnish a Room” Bagshaw. Another contributor is the eccentric, indigent novelist X. Trapnel, who satirizes Widmerpool’s articles and runs off with Widmerpool’s wife. The two live together in squalid circumstances and call upon Jenkins for assistance when Trapnel falls ill. During Jenkins’ visit, Widmerpool confronts the adulterous pair and predicts that Pamela will abandon Trapnel. She does so, but not before throwing the only manuscript of his latest book into the river. The publishing firm founders—obscenity charges are leveled against Alaric Kydd’s novel Sweetskin, they fumble their opportunity to print Odo Stevens’ account of his military adventures in the Balkans, and Sillery’s allegedly salacious memoir proves to be a bore. Jenkins finishes his Burton study and travels to his old school to make arrangements regarding his son’s education. He sees his aging master Le Bas there, and bumps into Widmerpool, who reveals that he and Pamela have reconciled.

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At last we come to the book that first drew me into this project. It must be almost twenty years ago that I read a spine in a secondhand shop and loved the self-deprecating sense of humor that inspired someone to name his novel Books Do Furnish a Room. It almost begged to be turned into home decor, so I bought the paperback just for the cover and kept it on my shelf for years without ever reading it. It disappeared eventually, as books tend to do when you don’t pay attention to them, but I always remembered the author’s name and was intrigued when I found out that he’d written a dozen connected volumes, and that the series was more ambitious than I could have imagined.

I’d assumed from this jokey title that Powell had written a broad, Wodehousian comedy, a misperception that has long since been dispelled. Not to slight the man’s more subtle comic knack. The mood has lightened with the end of the war, and Books seems to me one of the funnier installments in the series. The sequence that begins at Erridge’s funeral (attended by a servant who appears likely to drop dead himself) and ends with Pamela’s discreet vomiting into an antique urn (and subsequent discussion among near-aristocrats about how to clean it) is unforgettable. It includes what may be my favorite passage in the entire Dance:

"… as for Sir Howard and Lady Craggs, of course you remember them."

One had to admit that “Sir Howard and Lady Craggs”conjured up a rather different picture from Mr. Deacon’s birthday party, Gypsy lolling on Craggs’s knee, struggling to divert a too exploratory hand back to a wide area of pink thigh. If it came to that, one had one’s own reminscences of Lady Craggs in an easy-going mood.

Out of context, this isn’t a punchline to floor a reader, but having vicariously experienced that birthday party and all the rest of Jenkins’ slowly-accreting story, I thought it was awesome. What is the point of one’s writing a monumental autobiographical novel if one can’t reminisce about the easy-going escapades of youth?

Speaking of Gypsy Craggs, it was pleasant to find out that she’s landed on her feet in later life. She’s just one of a number of women who come closer to the fore in this volume. She, Ada Leintwardine, and Rosie Manasch seem to have control of their own lives in a way that few female characters previously have. The former Mona Templer might also be numbered in this group, and even Isobel has a slightly greater presence and personality here. Is Powell suggesting that female autonomy is on the rise in the post-war period, or that women must reach a certain age before they can fully express themselves? Or am I imagining all of this?

I mentioned that the tone is lighter in book ten than it was in Third Movement, but it’s not completely sunny. England is still undergoing general deprivation, and Trapnel’s penury is a particulary severe example. Jenkin’s unshockable eye and Powell’s willingness to abandon the drawing room for the street are what make the Dance ultimately worthwhile—without drab threads to set off the shiny ones, this wouldn’t be a very rich tapestry. The exploration of the seamier side of Trapnel’s life did lead to one jarring moment for me, however. That he stumbles across his sodden and ruined manuscript as though it were waiting in the river for him was just a bit too convienent. I’m not complaining, though. We’ve traveled over 2000 pages without encountering a plot device this gimmicky, which is a hit streak worthy of DiMaggio. I expect no less consistency over the final couple of innings.

Next up: Temporary Kings on November 28th. Available as part of Fourth Movement or separately as an an ebook.

—James

Previous installments:

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Military Philosophers

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The Military Philosophers begins in early 1942 with Jenkins as a liaison officer smoothing relations between Britain and its ally Poland, working as Pennistone’s assistant in Finn’s office. Substituting for Pennistone at a meeting, Jenkins encounters Widmerpool and an embittered Templer, as well as Sunny Farebrother, now organizing clandestine operations. Jenkins visits the headquarters of Polish forces in the UK, which turn out to be housed in the same hotel where his late Uncle Giles had long resided. The driver who takes him there is the surly but striking Pamela Flitton, a niece of Stringham now about twenty years of age, who reports that her uncle has been imprisoned by the Japanese in Singapore. Jenkins is promoted to Major and becomes liaison officer to the Belgian military. Templer, after a disappointing affair that Jenkins later learns was with Flitton, vanishes into Farebrother’s secret service. Flitton moves through a series of relationships; her partners include Odo Stevens and Norah Tolland. V-1 flying bombs pummel London, but the war progresses well and the Allies land troops in Normandy. Some months later, Jenkins tours France and Belgium, meeting first Field Marshal Montgomery and then Bob Duport, who relates Templer’s death on a mission in the Balkans. By summer of the following year, Flitton has attached herself to Widmerpool and the two are engaged. News comes that Stringham has died in Asia, and during an argument, Flitton accuses Widmerpool of murdering Templer through bureaucratic indifference. Despite their fight and the essential truth of her assertion, the two marry. The war ends, and at a victory ceremony Jenkins meets a South American colonel. The man introduces his wife, who is the former Jean Duport, Jenkins’ onetime lover.

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Tough sledding in the early stages of this one. As if we didn’t have enough names to keep straight in our heads already, now we’re supposed to sort out the internal politics of the Polish army in exile. The significance of it all escaped me for some time, but it eventually proved fascinating. The trickling of Poles over the Persian border, the uncovering of the mass grave—really, all Jenkins’ liaison work—points out how messy and confusing the Good War was. Between raids on the Nazis, partisans and resistance members fight each other, and characters such as Prince Theodoric angle to defeat their rivals as much as the Germans.

Szymanski is the perfect emblem of this. He seems ultimately to be a positive force, but also an agent of chaos and trouble as he operates behind the scenes and between the lines of The Military Philosophers. If he’s anything like his British counterpart in special operations, Stevens, he’s a hero who has personal ambitions that outweigh his patriotism. Even Templer fits this model. He doesn’t volunteer to further the war effort, but to prove something to himself or simply to escape his despair. Powell is very clear about the psychology that motivates these commandos, but shares nothing of their exploits. There’s an entire Alistair MacLean-style thriller hidden here, ready for someone to bring it to the surface in a spinoff novel. Powell’s reputation should be able to survive one such book; Jane Austen’s continues to thrive despite being co-opted for dozens of lesser romances.

Speaking of romance, or at least of affairs, did you notice what else those three soldiers of fortune have in common? That’s right, Pamela Flitton. There’s a notable misogyny in the way Powell presents her as being immediately unpleasant (did he really need to bring “the curse” into a discussion of her dark mood?) but the little we see of her in action suggests that she may be a more grotesque and dangerous figure than Widmerpool himself. Their marriage will undoubtedly be a race to determine who will use the other up first.

Despite the continuing carnage of the war and exposure to all these corrosive personalities, Jenkins appears to be more upbeat than in the last installment. His work is more rewarding, and he’s in closer proximity to home and family, apparently making fortnightly visits, though the details of these are characteristically unmentioned. Instead, he expresses his feelings by making a great many literary references—he’s at his happiest when he’s living in an imaginative world rather than a power-hungry one.

The confrontation between Art and Power that seems to be at the heart of this series is as explicit and pervasive here as it has been anywhere. It’s in the first few pages, as Jenkins describes the meeting in the War Office: “The power principle could almost be felt here, humming and vibrating like the drummings of the teleprinter.” It’s there at the end, too, when Widmerpool quite frankly admits his developing taste for power. Art makes a strong case for itself throughout, of course. In the middle of war-ravaged France, Jenkins has time for an extended meditation on Proust, which I partly suspect is present only so Powell could address comparisons between À la recherche du temps perdu and his own fictional cycle. Many of those must have been made during the course of its publication. I didn’t think Proust had appeared in the series yet, but a little research uncovered an oblique reference in The Valley of Bones. I also noticed something I’d forgotten in The Soldier’s Art, a seemingly throwaway mention of an obscure character called Szymanski. Powell set up l’affaire Szymanski at least one book and a couple of years before it came to fruition in The Military Philosophers. One step ahead of us, as usual.

One step (or more?) behind us but catching up fast is Sarah, the commenter on our last post who is the winner of our final giveaway. Sarah, you may not be up to speed on your reading, but your timing is perfect—claim from us your free copy of Fourth Movement, courtesy of University of Chicago Press, and you won’t miss a thing.

Next up: Books Do Furnish a Room on October 31st. Available as part of Fourth Movement or separately as an an ebook.

—James

Previous installments:

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Soldier’s Art

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Second Lieutenant Jenkins, now stationed at Divisional Headquarters, recalls his entree into the army and chafes under Major Widmerpool’s command. He witnesses contentiousness between Colonels Pedlar and Hogbourne-Johnson (and is amused by their assonant first names, Eric and Derrick), also seeing Widmerpool dressed down by the latter. Jenkins converses with General Liddament about authors and shocks him with a low opinion of Trollope, but apparently impresses through his knowledge of Balzac, and so receives a recommendation to meet with Major Finn while on his next leave regarding a transfer. Stringham, a lowly private, slips briefly onto stage as a waiter in Jenkins’ mess. On leave in London, Jenkins’ French proves inadequate for Finn’s needs, and he learns that sister-in-law Priscilla has left Chips Lovell and taken up with Odo Stevens. At dinner, Jenkins finds that Moreland has moved in with Audrey, the abrasive widow of their mutual friend Maclintick, and their party of three expands to five with the surprise appearance of Priscilla and Stevens. That budding relationship fails to bloom, as she walks out on the meal and on Stevens. Later that night, she and Lovell are killed in separate air raids. Jenkins returns to Div HQ and despite Stringham’s assistance, fails to hide Bithel’s drunkenness from Widmerpool; Bithel is sacked and Stringham’s unit is reassigned to the Far East. Widmerpool’s various machinations lead to embarrassment before his fellow officers, but he successfully arranges a transfer and likely promotion for himself. Now without a position, Jenkins is on the verge of being sent to the undesirable Infantry Training Center, but is instead called to the War Office. 

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Am I right that Jenkins’ imagination is growing wilder? Still disconnected from his writing and intellectual life, it’s as if his imagery has turned feral. His description of the brass at dinner, with the general as pharaoh and his two colonels as Horus and Osiris, is positively lurid, almost surreal. The dialogue between the two colonels is like vaudeville banter, as absurd as any in the series so far, and Stringham’s conversation verges on the unhinged. Reality hasn’t entirely loosened its hold, though—the comic first section ends with a strong reminder that death hovers over the whole Third Movement.

The second section features more awkwardness and fear than comedy, neatly capturing the strange combination of annoyance and dread that is life under the Blitz. When Moreland’s ex-girlfriend (and Jenkins’ current sister-in-law) shows up with her new flame (not Jenkins’ brother-in-law), I was almost as uncomfortable reading about it as the participants were in experiencing it. Although perhaps less embarrassed, not being British myself. My tension was quickly dispelled by a lovely description of darkened London streets that comes near the end of that scene:

In the utter blackness, the tarts, strange luminous form of nocturnal animal life, flickered the bulbs of their electric torches. From time to time one of them would play the light against her own face in self-advertisement, giving the effect of candles illuminating a holy picture in the shadows of a church.

Not a detail likely to be encountered in a history book, but exactly the kind that makes fiction uniquely insightful.

I hadn’t finished savoring those phrases when the bombs hit the nightclub and the Jeavons home, the most shocking occurrence in the series so far. I think my mouth actually hung open. The deaths are unexpected, oddly enough, because Powell actually builds up to the announcement. Several characters have dropped permanently out of the Dance, but until now their absences have been introduced offhandedly. Powell returns to this technique to relate Biggs’ suicide and Barnby’s ill-fated reconnaissance flight near the end of the novel, indicating that the loss of Lady Molly, Chips, and Priscilla has struck home to Jenkins like no others have.

Even with those final arbitrary flourishes of the reaper’s scythe, section three is something of an anticlimax. While it’s always a pleasure to watch Widmerpool flounder, for me the highlight is Stringham’s dialogue. As a self-confessed failure, he seems to have abandoned social convention along with hope, and can speak unrestrainedly. In his rambling he comes across as a Holy Fool, and he’s more interesting now than he’s ever been.

(Irrelevant aside: What’s with the cover art above? I get that the publisher might aim for an inappropriate mood of romantic drama, but who are these people? The only woman in uniform I can think of in Soldier’s Art is Eleanor Walpole-Wilson, and this painting isn’t close to matching her description, even allowing for artistic license. Those look like corporal’s stripes on the man comforting her; is there anyone in the book who holds that rank and gets mentioned in more than a sentence or two?)

A copy of Fourth Movement goes out to Mary C., commenter on our last post. Congratulations, Mary, and contact us to arrange collection of your book. We have one more copy to give away, courtesy of University of Chicago Press, so don’t hesitate to participate. Just share your thoughts below to get a chance to win, and remember, this offer is open to all. Even if you’re not caught up on your reading, tell us why you dropped out or how you’re responding to these updates. I’ll announce a random winner in our next post.

Next up: The Military Philosophers on September 26th. Available as part of Third Movement or separately as an an ebook.

—James

Painting by Max Ginsburg from the cover of the 1980s Warner Books edition of The Soldier’s Art

Previous installments:

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Valley of Bones

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In the early days of World War II, Jenkins is a second lieutenant helping to train troops on the home front. His superior officer is the punctilious Captain Gwatkin, and among his fellow officers are the companionable Kedward and the feckless Bithel. Their battalion is reassigned to the English-controlled north of Ireland, where Gwatkin falls head over heels for a barmaid and badly falters during an exercise. Jenkins returns briefly to England for further military education, bumping into Barnby (still chasing skirts but now in the army as a camouflage artist) and meeting a very erudite soldier, David Pennistone, on a train. With Odo Stevens, a young barracks-mate, Jenkins rides on leave to the country to visit with his pregnant wife, Isobel, and her family. Upon arrival he learns that his sister-in-law Frederica Tolland plans to marry the many-times-wed Dicky Umfraville, and that his brother-in-law Robert is about to embark for the continent with the Intelligence Corps. Stevens flirts with another Tolland sister, Priscilla, but he and Jenkins are forced to depart just as Isobel seems to begin labor (we learn later that she has given birth to a boy). The war progresses poorly for England (this is the spring of 1940, as British Expeditionary Forces are evacuating Dunkirk), and later, back in Ireland, Jenkins hears of Robert’s death. Bithel drunkenly kisses a private, but escapes serious censure when unexpected orders put the company on maneuvers. Gwatkin, distracted by having caught his barmaid with another man, again fumbles as a leader; he is shortly afterward relieved of command and replaced by Kedward. Jenkins, no standout as a field officer, is reassigned to a staff position in the Deputy Assistant Adjutant General’s office, which turns out to be occupied by none other than Widmerpool.

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It’s not getting easier to write about this series, as more and more often I want to say nothing more than “Wow, that was good.” Starting off The Valley of Bones, I again had the familiar twinge of disappointment that comes from meeting new characters when what I really want is to find out what’s happened to the ones I already know. But it lasted only a moment, because by now I’ve accepted that Powell has me in good hands, and that the new faces will quickly become as compelling as the old ones.

The first section paints a vivid picture of boredom, insofar as such a thing is possible. It does an excellent job of depicting the deadening nature of life in the military without much resort to cliché. Gwatkin, for example, could easily come off as a stereotypical martinet, but Jenkins sees deeper and comes to appreciate the man’s nuances.

My other main takeaway from the barracks scenes was a sense of loneliness. Jenkins would never come out and admit something like that directly, but I thought there was an almost palpable feeling of him being cut off from the people and things that feed him. He’s a curious enough person that he wants to understand and analyze those around him regardless of circumstance, but it’s clear that his fellow officers aren’t providing him with anything other than narrative fodder. When he uncovers his captain’s secret interest in Kipling—“the first evidence come to light that anyone in the unit had read a book for pleasure”—I caught a whiff of desperation in the air. I may be projecting my own book fetish onto Jenkins, of course. In his meeting with Pennistone, though, Jenkins is undeniably intoxicated by a taste of intellectual conversation. Their encounter is nearly romantic. It’s obvious that we’ll see more of the two together in later volumes.

Likewise with Odo Stevens. I’m sure all of us have Powell’s routine down well enough by now to know that Stevens’ connection to Priscilla hasn’t been permanently broken by his reassignment. The scene where they meet, with half the Tolland family and a multitude of hangers-on in attendance, was so chock-full of names and information that it pushed close to the edge of intelligibility for me, but Powell keeps it all in control, and I think it ends up being perhaps the richest, most satisfying section of the book. In particular, Robert Tolland’s brief, rather mysterious turn on stage serves to make the later news of his death remarkably affecting. (Powell’s actual military experience was in the Intelligence Corps, incidentally.) We also get our most extended view yet of Isobel Jenkins, neé Tolland. She’s become a real presence in the series, even though—obligatory Jenkins reticence alert—he says at another point, “It is hard to describe your wife.”

Just like the Dance, we can’t have an entry that doesn’t include a mention of Widmerpool. He’d completely slipped my mind until the moment he swung his chair around in the DAAG’s office, but after the fact, it’s impossible to imagine that he wasn’t always waiting there like a spider in the center of a web. He’s a comical figure, yet he always carries such foreboding with him that I almost picture him in a Nazi uniform. Still not sure how Powell combines those effects.

Housekeeping: according to the multi-sided coin we always flip, this month’s winner of a copy of Third Movement is commenter Karen. Contact us to claim your prize! Thanks to her for participating, and thanks to the University of Chicago Press for making these giveaways possible. Include your remarks below, and you might be randomly chosen as the recipient of a free copy of Fourth Movement. I’ll announce the winner’s name in the following post.

Next up: The Soldier’s Art on August 29th. Available as part of Third Movement or separately as an an ebook.

—James

Previous installments:

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Kindly Ones

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Book Six of the Dance finally presents scenes from narrator Nicholas Jenkins’ childhood, set in the remote manor where his military father is assigned in the days before World War I. Jenkins describes the petty intrigues and peccadilloes of the household, culminating in a visit from longtime family friends General and Mrs. Conyers, which is interrupted first by the nude appearance of a disturbed housemaid, then by the appearance of Trelawney and his flock of robed cultists, and finally by the arrival of the abrasive Uncle Giles, who bears the news that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Serbia. Leaping ahead to 1938, Jenkins relates a stay at the cottage of his friend Moreland; from there the two men and their wives are collected by Jenkins’ old schoolmate Templer and taken to dinner at Stourwater, the massive estate owned by industrialist Magnus Donners. Having lately taken up photography, Donners shoots the guests as they drunkenly enact tableaux of the Seven Deadly Sins. The dissolution overwhelms Templer’s wife, and Widmerpool, clad in military costume, further dampens the mood when he plods onto the stage to discuss business. Time passes, and in the summer of the following year comes the report that Giles has died at a seaside resort. Jenkins travels there to see to the arrangements and encounters Bob Duport, the ex-husband of Jenkins’ former lover Jean. Also in residence at the hotel is the now-decrepit Trelawney. The funeral coincides with the signing of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, which virtually guarantees that England will be drawn into war. As the nation mobilizes, Jenkins’s expectant spouse moves to the country, and he seeks an officer’s position, first petitioning General Conyers, then Widmerpool, to no avail. Moreland reveals that his wife has left him for Donners, and a distant relative promises to get Jenkins assigned to a regiment.

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At the beginning of this series, I was slightly troubled that the narrator spoke so little about himself and his background, but as it went on I adjusted to its rhythm so much that I was almost disappointed when Powell unexpectedly flashed back to Jenkins’ childhood. The brief pause in the progress of the narrative was worth it, though, for the carefully constructed comic tour de force that provides a climax to the opening chapter. The alleged haunting and the millenarian activities of Trelawney establish a mood that comes to perfect fruition when Jenkins’ mother assumes the Rapture has arrived in the person of her naked housemaid: “I thought it was the end of the world.” Powell almost immediately dispels the fun with bad tidings, of course. Jenkins is obviously choosing this moment to reminisce about the start of the first World War because the second is so close.

(Passing notation about Jenkins’ youth: He was as much a cipher then as he is as an adult. He’s happy to elicit an opinion from Bracey, but not to give one: “I accepted this … without expression of praise or blame.” The child is truly the father of the man.)

Throughout The Kindly Ones (and by the way, I love that euphemistic title—there are so many Furies in the book to be appeased) I kept thinking of our earlier discussion about Art vs. Power. The web of relationships in the series has grown thick, and Powell seems to be saying that all of those relationships, even the loving ones, are ultimately about power. Remember Jenkins’ remark in At Lady Molly’s about the institution of marriage? He said it was “a form of action, of violence almost: an assertion of the will.” Certainly, the marriage of Hugh and Matilda Moreland can be seen as an ebb and flow of control, as first she uses her managerial instincts to take him in hand, and then his extra-marital dalliance leaves her vulnerable, and finally (?) she leaves him helpless. Even Miss Weedon’s caregiving is interpreted as a power display. Maybe Powell is growing more frank about this view as the rulers of Europe begin to move armies around the map to exercise political power.

Art seems to be the only thing that stands outside this framework. Painting, music, and literature can be created and appreciated without expressing either dominance or submission; people can have a pure relationship with art that can’t be achieved with other people. The characters that Jenkins, our Powell stand-in, admires most all have this artistic sensibility. He is aware that artistic creations can also be commodities, of course, and can become part of the power game. Donners, for example, is more interested in acquisition than in art for its own sake, and most of the other characters are only interested in art to the extent that they know what the “right” kind is. The knowledge helps them maintain a pecking order.

I’m not sure it rises even to the level of a sub-theme, but I was also struck by the number of times Jenkins admits to misreading the women he knows. The whole episode with Bob Duport seems to exist just so Jenkins can realize how little he knew Jean. His surprise at Matilda’s actions is also considerable. Does this foreshadow something about his understanding of his own wife, Isobel? Your thoughts on this, or anything else, are invited, as always.

We’ve reached the midway point of our twelve-month trip—congratulations to everyone who’s made it this far. Some bonus halftime entertainment:

  • Author trivia: Anthony Powell didn’t say his name with a short O, but a long one. That is, it’s supposed to rhyme with “vole,” not “vowel.” I can’t bring myself to say it that way, though, because it sounds weird and I’m afraid no one will know who I’m talking about. If we all start using the nickname “Anthony ‘Telephone’ Powell,” maybe we can popularize the correct pronunciation.
  • Concurrent with my posts here, English science fiction writer Adam Roberts has been blogging about the Dance himself. In his series of posts he parodically reads it as a Harry Potteresque epic fantasy. The results are funny and a little bit insightful, too.
  • GIVEAWAY! To win a free copy of Third Movement, courtesy of University of Chicago Press, just comment here. Tell us what you thought of this book, or the entire series thus far, or just make an excuse for not reading the whole thing. I’ll choose one person at random and announce the winner in next month’s post.

Next up: The Valley of Bones on July 25th. Available as part of Third Movement or separately as an an ebook.

—James

Image credit: “Dance to the Music of Time” by Darren Coffield

Previous installments:

A Dance to the Music of Time: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant

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The early part of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant fades back to the late 1920s, as narrator Nicholas Jenkins befriends composer Hugh Moreland. Over the next several years, the two men, members of the same quasi-Bohemian circle, converse at length about art, love, and life while they progress from pub to pub and from youth to (relative) maturity. The group includes the bilious music critic Maclintick and the artist Barnby, who demonstrates his knack for womanizing by picking up a waitress at the titular restaurant. Moreland marries actress Matilda Wilson at around the same time Jenkins marries the socially elevated Isobel Tolland. The narrative returns to the novel’s present in the middle ’30s as Jenkins lunches at the Tolland house with his wife’s large family, learning there of his brother-in-law Erridge’s plans to travel to Spain, then in the thick of civil war. Jenkins leaves to visit his wife in the hospital, where she’s recuperating from a miscarriage and the pregnant Matilda is also seeing her doctor. Widmerpool makes a typically unexpected appearance there as well, undergoing treatment for boils. Moreland and Jenkins later visit Maclintick at home and are exposed to to his argumentative wife and their corrosive marriage. Matilda loses her baby, and Moreland throws himself into his work. He completes and premieres his symphony while simultaneously becoming emotionally (and perhaps physically) entangled with Priscilla Tolland, Jenkins’ sister-in-law. Maclintick loses his job and is abandoned by his wife, thereafter gassing himself to death. Moreland breaks off his affair, and Priscilla almost immediately becomes engaged to another man.

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These synopses are getting more and more difficult to write, as the further I read into the series, the more important each detail seems to become. Passing references have accumulated from volume to volume until there’s no such thing as a minor character any more. Take Erridge as an example—he inherits a great estate, turns to radical politics, toys with the notion of starting a newspaper, absconds with Mona to China and abruptly drops her, flits off on an unsuccessful Spanish campaign and returns racked by illness, and then inherits a second fortune. Tracing the odd course of his life could be a novel unto itself, but his story is instead woven thread by thread into the background of multiple novels. The same could be said for Stringham, or Deacon, or any number of others—they’re all worth exploring in detail.

That said, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is clearly Moreland’s book. Powell devotes more continuous narrative time to the Moreland/Jenkins relationship than he has to any other in the series so far, and Moreland is the first person Jenkins treats as a friend rather than a subject for observation. Their lives proceed in remarkable parallel. Both are accomplished, if not widely acclaimed, artists, though they work in different fields such that professional jealousy is not a factor. Both appear to occupy a middle ground where romance is concerned, less calculating and aggressive than Barnby but also less hapless than Widmerpool. And in a more general way, both are fascinated by gossip and the emotional lives of other people while remaining reticent about their own. Powell’s attention to Moreland seems like a method for casting oblique light on the otherwise obscure character of his narrator.

Just as Moreland tells us something about Jenkins, the Moreland/Wilson marriage and the many other romantic pairings in the book seem to tell us something about the Jenkins/Tolland alliance. Jenkins is characteristically mum about the specifics of his own relationship, but his reaction to those around him indicate how preoccupied he is with the subject, and what he does or doesn’t value in the institution. When his friend’s marriage turns shaky, his own seems likewise at risk, at least potentially. There’s a sense of danger present that I haven’t noticed in the preceding volumes.

Perhaps it’s the nearing threat of war, or their transition into real adulthood, or both, but it feels like the characters of Jenkins’ generation are finally playing for real stakes. Deacon’s death in A Buyer’s Market was sad, but also a bit absurd, coming after a pratfall down some stairs. Maclintick’s, on the other hand, is suffused with a sense of despair and lost promise. Even when the narrative repercussions don’t prove fatal, they’re more significant than before—Stringham seems not just reduced, but defeated by his alcoholism, and the rampant marital discord that affects nearly everyone produces real pain, not just fodder for amusing anecdotes. A passing cloud, or is twilight descending on the dancers?

Rather than ending on a down note, let me finish with a word or two in praise of the first section of the novel. Up till now, the narrative of the Dance has been like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond, setting off dozens of ripples that we read as they intersect. At the beginning of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, though, it’s as if Powell has let the water still and we can look clearly into the depths for a while. The old pub framed by a ruined doorway, the soundtrack of an old song—it’s a nearly cinematic opening, and it leads into an extended character study that for my money is the best thing in the series so far. We know already that Moreland is dead and an era is over, but the banter of true friends and the tinny sound of a mechanical piano play on in memory. It’s wonderfully done.

No giveaway this month, but in June I’ll pick another random commenter to win a free copy of Third Movement. It’s a great time to pick up the thread again if you haven’t been holding onto it the whole time. Don’t worry about catching up with the reading. You can reintroduce yourself to Powell’s gang at any point—they’ll be happy to see you, and so will the other members of our online club.

Next up: The Kindly Ones on June 27th. Available as part of Second Movement or separately as an an ebook.

—James

Painting by Max Ginsburg from the cover of the 1980s Warner Books edition of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant

Previous installments:

A Dance to the Music of Time: At Lady Molly’s

At Lady Molly’s begins with Nicholas Jenkins, having broken off his affair with Jean and now concocting “scenarios” for the film industry, being introduced through a studio colleague to the slackly-run home of the titular Lady Molly Jeavons, where he meets various members of the sprawling Tolland family (of which Molly is a part) and hears the news of Widmerpool’s engagement to an older woman, Mildred. Jenkins later lunches with Widmerpool, who quizzes him awkwardly on the propriety of premarital intercourse with one’s intended. Quiggin invites Jenkins to weekend in the country with him and Mona, who have been cohabiting since she divorced Templer. While there, Jenkins meets Quiggins’ landlord, the wealthy but left-leaning eccentric Erridge, who heads the Tolland family, and his sisters, realizing instantaneously that he’s fated to marry the younger one, Isobel. Jenkins then dines at a night club with a group that includes a jaundiced Widmerpool and his fianceé. Mr. Jeavons confidentially reveals to Jenkins a long-ago connection he has to Mildred, and dances her off as Widmerpool retires from the scene because of his illness. Erridge travels to China to investigate the political situation there, bringing Mona with him and creating a minor scandal. Widmerpool’s engagement founders, and Jenkins’ is made public. During another party at Lady Molly’s, Mildred’s brother-in-law discreetly reports to Jenkins that she dropped Widmerpool after a fumbling failure in the bedroom, immediately followed by the appearance of the jilted fiancé, who offers Jenkins advice on marriage.

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Either the books are getting better or I’m becoming more amenable to Powell’s style (or both), because At Lady Molly’s was probably my favorite in the series so far. Long out of school, the characters seem to be playing for higher stakes, and their gossip is juicier than ever. I have to keep reminding myself that the Dance was written well after the period that it describes, as it feels so authentically of that era. That’s why its fairly frank treatment of sexuality, especially alternative sexuality, is refreshing. Witness the interesting ménage that Norah Tolland and Elizabeth Walpole-Wilson establish. Powell is no radical, but neither is he judgmental, and I can think of few other novels of the 1930s that would have presented that sort of material at all.

Jenkins, as Powell’s stand-in, continues to display the same refusal to condemn anyone or anything completely. When interrogated by prospective in-laws about Widmerpool’s fitness for marriage, Jenkins conveniently and typically finds a way to politely duck the questions. Widmerpool, despite his obnoxiousness, is actually growing more respectable in Jenkins’ eyes, apparently because he’s so consistently himself. Jenkins even seems to be seeing Widmerpool as a kind of reverse doppelganger when he considers how the two of them have shared affection for the same women. I get a sense that Jenkins is wondering if there’s not something to Widmerpool’s forcefulness.

He’s not alone, either. I’m realizing that many of the most ridiculous, grotesque characters are the most strong-willed, while the ones with initially appealing personalities are vague and malleable, even unformed. Compare Widmerpool, Erridge, and even Gypsy to superficially better-mannered, socially-adept figures such as Stringham and Templer. The former achieve their desires more often than not, while the latter squander their promise and become increasingly confused about what they should be doing with their lives. Add Truscott to that list, too. Once pegged as an up-and-comer who would star in any field he chose, he still hasn’t accomplished anything and has now lost his business position. He’s the poster boy for what we talked about in earlier installments, the tendency of bright young things to fade and fall out of contact. You never know with the Dance, though—he may express some willpower and stage a comeback yet.

Speaking of the importance of will, what do you make of this from page 203, narrated by Jenkins on the topic of his own impending nuptials?

Marriage, as I have said, is a form of action, of violence almost: an assertion of the will.

How romantic. And I loved this bit from page 136 as well:

Would it be too explicit, too exaggerated, to say that when I set eyes on Isobel Tolland, I knew at once that I should marry her? Something like that is the truth; certainly nearer the truth than merely to record those vague, inchoate sentiments of interest of which I was so immediately conscious. It was as if I had known her for many years already; enjoyed happiness with her and suffered sadness. I was conscious of that, as of another life, nostalgically remembered. Then, at that moment, to be compelled to go through all the paraphernalia of introduction, of “getting to know” one another by means of the normal formalities of social life, seemed hardly worth while. We knew one another already; the future was determinate. But what—it may reasonably be asked—what about the fact that only a short time before I had been desperately in love with Jean Duport; was still, indeed, not sure that I had been wholly cured? Were the delights and agonies of all that to be tied up with ribbon, so to speak, and thrown in a drawer to be forgotten? What about the girls with whom I seemed to stand nightly in cinema queues? What, indeed?

You can’t say he’s going into this with his eyes closed.

One last quote from page 97, which I share only because I had trouble making heads or tails of it:

Later that evening, I found myself kicking my heels in one of those interminable cinema queues of which I have already spoken, paired off and stationary, as if life’s co-educational school, out in a “crocodile,” had come to a sudden standstill: that co-educational school of iron discipline, equally pitiless in pleasure and in pain.

“That co-educational school” would seem to be life, and as best I can tell, “out in a ‘crocodile’” just means “walking in a pair.” So the metaphor says that life is a way of proceeding into the world in gendered pairs, but it’s temporarily ground to a halt? A lot of weight being placed on waiting in movie lines in this book. I’m surprised Powell didn’t call it Standing Nightly in a Queue.

Oh, I almost forgot to give a prize. The winner of a copy of Third Movement, courtesy of University of Chicago Press, is Mary C. Mary, contact us at info@mercerislandbooks.com to claim your book. We’ll take a hiatus from handouts next month, but resume the freebies in June.

Next up: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant on May 30th. Available as part of Second Movement or separately as an ebook.

—James

Painting by Max Ginsburg from the cover of the 1980s Warner Books edition of At Lady Molly’s.

Previous installments:

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Acceptance World

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Book three of the Dance takes place in the early 1930s, a few years after the events of the preceding novel. Narrator Nicholas Jenkins, while visiting his Uncle Giles, meets the dramatic Mrs. Erdleigh and has his fortune told, with a special emphasis on his so-far unfulfilling romantic life. Later, Jenkins attempts to solicit an introduction for a book through Quiggins, a collegiate acquaintance. At that appointment, Jenkins bumps into another old friend, Peter Templer, and meets Templer’s wife Mona for the first time.This leads to a reconnection with Templer’s sister Jean; the torch Jenkins has carried for her on and off since his teen years is rekindled and he embarks on a secretive relationship with her. Meanwhile, Mona leaves Templer, seduced by Quiggins’ literary prospects and exciting radical politics. Mrs. Erdleigh makes a surprising appearance on the arm of the obnoxious Jimmy Stripling, and Jean reveals an old affair with him to Jenkins. Pondering these various domestic complications, Jenkins attends a reunion dinner honoring his former headmaster Le Bas, along with Templer, the now-divorced Charles Stringham, and others. Widmerpool, once an object of scorn but fast becoming a force in business and politics, there launches into a tedious speech that concludes only when Le Bas collapses of a stroke.

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Once again, business first. The winner of our latest giveaway is Karen, who made some of our most astute comments yet on our last post. Congratulations, Karen, and contact us at info@mercerislandbooks.com to claim your prize, a free copy of the Second Movement. We’ll be giving away copies of the subsequent volumes in the series as we go, so let’s hear from the rest of you. All it takes to win is an opinion.

Back to the book at hand, I realize that it’s not very analytical of me to say, but I think this was my favorite section so far. The Acceptance World felt somewhat more concise than books one or two (book three is slightly shorter than the others, so this may not be an illusion), and in it Jenkins shifts closer to being an actor than an observer. He actively seeks a meeting, first with Members, then with Quiggins, about his art book project, and he’s instrumental in the dissolution of the Templers’ marriage, at least inadvertently. There’s a bit of his old vagueness when he describes his initial grappling session with Jean in the back of the car—“All I knew was that I had not thought it all out beforehand”—but he does actually admit to taking her intentionally into his arms. And we learn that he’s published a novel! So he’s not just sitting at home waiting for invitations.

Uncle Giles once again bookends the story. To me, there’s something appropriately familial about his presence in the series. He’s not around often, and he doesn’t figure prominently in the events that concern the narrator day to day, but he always returns as a constant against which the fluctuations of friendship can be measured. If Powell intends this interpretation, then I expect an increasing role for Jenkins’ family as he ages in later books. After spending his twenties (and the roaring 1920s) out of their orbit, it seems natural that he’d spin back their way as he moves into his more somber thirties and beyond.

Not just the narrator’s age suggests a new seriousness. The characters know that the market is slumping and we know even if they don’t that another war is on the horizon. Inklings of it are already here in the background, with much talk about “the situation” in one country or another and how it will or won’t affect economics at home. It’s refreshing to read from this historical perspective, about a time when Communism could be fashionable and Fascism could be comical and neither ism was very consequential.

On the level of the prose itself, Powell once again finds a neat way to sum up what he’s attempting in the series. The second paragraph on page 32 consists of Jenkins’ thoughts, but also Powell’s, I suspect:

I began to brood on the complexity of writing a novel about English life, a subject difficult enough to handle with authenticity even of a crudely naturalistic sort, even more to convey the inner truth of the things observed … Intricacies of social life make English habits unyielding to simplification.

Thus we have a complex sequence of a dozen books instead of one brief novel.

My vote for funniest line in this book goes to one from page 108. Jenkins is conversing with Gavin Walpole about the present habits of his aristocratic daughter:

"I expect she finds plenty to do," I offered.

"Her breeding keeps her quiet," said Sir Gavin.

He spoke almost with distaste. However, perceiving that I felt uncertain as to the precise meaning of this explanation of Eleanor’s existing state, he added curtly:

"Labradors."

What highlights were there for you? Don’t be afraid to mention lowlights, either. Positive or negative, comment below. I’d love to hear what you think.

Next up: At Lady Molly’s on April 25th. Available as part of Second Movement or separately as an a ebook.

—James

Previous installments:

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:

A Dance to the Music of Time: A Question of Upbringing

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The first book of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time introduces us to narrator Nicholas Jenkins and a handful of his friends and relations. We meet Stringham and Templer, his roommates at school, and then their officious headmaster Le Bas, who becomes the subject of a prank orchestrated by Stringham. As the young men leave school and head into adulthood, they start to move in different directions, with the cynical Templer taking a finance job in the City. Jenkins summers in France, where he dabbles in unrequited romance and re-encounters another fellow student, the dogged but inelegant Widmerpool. Jenkins returns to England to take a place at university alongside Stringham, who quickly grows disenchanted with academic life and enters the business world with the encouragement of his glamorous mother, brusque stepfather, and Sillery, a don more interested in establishing social and political connections than in teaching. The novel closes as it began, with the appearance of Jenkins’ itinerant Uncle Giles, as ever obsessed with the imagined injustice he suffers at his family’s hands.

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Well, what did you think of it, fellow readers? Hope you liked it—I did. This is intended to be a forum for voices other than my own, so I don’t want to monopolize opinion, but I’ll get us started by sharing a few thoughts I had as I turned the pages.

The newest season of Downton Abbey began airing in the US just as I was reading the book, and it coincidentally takes place at almost the exact same historical moment that A Question of Upbringing does, the first years of the 1920s. The twin subjects of the television show are society’s elite and the servants who support them, so it was interesting that Powell’s novel mainly covered the experiences of the more middling classes, relatively speaking. It occurred to me that Jenkins, the narrator of QU, comes from approximately the same milieu as Downton's Matthew Crawley. Before the latter inherits vast wealth and a title, of course.

One of the things I most enjoyed about the book was Powell’s understated humor, as on page 21 when the narrator says, “I spoke more about Stringham, but Uncle Giles had come to the end of his faculty for absorbing statements about other people.” Such an apt, devastating way to sum up Giles’ solipsism. Even though QU is full of meditative insight about human psychology, it also contains many scenes of what could be played as broad, even slapstick, comedy, as when Jenkins misdirects a declaration of love toward his landlady instead of the sweet young thing he’s had his eye on. As Powell handles it, the description is dry and self-mocking, and all the more hilarious.

I’ll be curious to see how the series develops from here, and how many of the characters we meet in the first book reappear in Jenkins’ life. Clearly, some relatively minor figures will, and others who briefly play vivid, seemingly important roles won’t. That’s a very lifelike quality, I find. The odd, inscrutable Widmerpool will certainly be seen again. After he leads the Scandinavian tennis opponents to rapprochement for motives that are unclear to Jenkins, the narrator says, “Even then I did not recognise the quest for power,” and I noted, “More of Widmerpool anon.”

Jenkins himself is probably the most fascinating figure in the book despite how little we really learn about him. He’s at the center of all the action without taking the center of the stage, and is almost staunchly noncommittal in attitude throughout. He seems to have a chameleon-like ability to convince others he’s on their side even when their points of view are diametrically opposed. Is he of Stringham’s party or Templer’s? Or neither? Does he laugh along when Stripling concocts plots to torment Farebrother or frown? It’s hard for us to tell, and it’s hard to tell whether Jenkins knows his own mind about these things.

For me, the narrator’s most emblematic moment of detachment occurs on page 57, when he and Stringham discuss Templer’s suitability for domestic life. Stringham asserts that Templer has none, and asks, “You agree?” to which Jenkins merely replies, “I see what you mean.” It’s a very non-confrontational, Seattle-style response. Sympathy for everyone is ideal in a fictional narrator, but I suspect it’s a detriment in the real world.

But enough of what I think. It’s your turn. Do you agree or disagree? Don’t just say, “I see what you mean.” You can react to what I’ve said or raise a topic of your own. (Those of you who read these posts in your email will want to click the headline at the top of the message to go to our blog site where you can leave a comment.) As an incentive for you to participate, the generous people at University of Chicago Press have agreed to donate some copies of the subsequent volumes in the series. I’ll be randomly choosing winners from among the comments, so if you’d like a FREE BOOK, speak up. Comments will remain open until our next Dance to the Music of Time post (and beyond, if you want to keep talking), so keep the conversation going.

Next up: A Buyer’s Market on February 29th. Available as part of First Movement or separately as an ebook.

—James

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

Shall We Dance?

Whew. The flurry of Thanksgiving is behind us, we’ve concluded a very successful book fair season, and the tsunami of the December holidays hasn’t quite made landfall. So we at Island Books have a few spare minutes to dream about the future before we climb into our bunker and spend the next month responding only to the most basic needs of the moment—food, sleep, and gift wrapping. I should be thinking about having mai tais on a beach somewhere, but instead I’m doubling down on literature by planning a reading project for 2013. Bear with me while I explain it, because it might involve you.

There’s a book, or series of books, by Anthony Powell that I’ve had my eye on for a while. Collectively the work is known as A Dance to the Music of Time, and it consists of twelve books that were published separately between 1951 and 1975. It’s all designed to hang together as one long story, and looked at in that light, it’s one of the longest novels ever written. Now, don’t get daunted yet. Each piece can stand on its own, and for purely arbitrary reasons, the Dance is usually considered as a twelve-volume cycle of fiction. Sounds less threatening that way, doesn’t it?

Even better for those of us poised to take on this monument is that it is by all accounts a supreme entertainment. Powell surveys the London social scene between the world wars in such amusing style that Time magazine referred to his opus as “brilliant literary comedy” when adding Dance to its list of the best fiction of the 20th century. He has the sophisticated eye for manners of an English Proust, but also a masterly sense of episodic pacing—the eagerness to find out what happens next in his writing is as pronounced as it is for fans of cultish, cliffhanger-filled TV shows such as Mad Men or Game of Thrones. If that doesn’t sell you, how about this? An acquaintance of mine at another bookstore described her time with the series as “the greatest reading experience of [her] life.”

There’s no time like soon, I figure, so I’m proposing to start reading with the new year and finish before it ends. Each step in the Dance is small, and taking one each month sounds manageable to me. Why am I telling you about my plan here? Two reasons, really. First, by making it public, I’m putting a little pressure on myself to stick with the project. Second and more important, I’m hoping to drag some of you along with me into my madness. We can check in with each other through the blog to make sure we’re keeping up with the reading, and talk about it, too. A virtual book club, so to speak.

This concept is entirely positive, as far as I’m concerned. You can attend in your pajamas and no one will care (or know). You don’t have to clean your house before you take a turn hosting or worry about other people’s allergies when you’re making snacks. This is the perfect book for us to read, too. If you have to miss a month or two, you won’t have to play catch-up—skip ahead to the next installment and keep going without missing a beat. And if it’s a drag, I just stop posting about it and we pretend it never happened.

Not that I expect that to be the case. I’ve sampled some of Powell’s other books in preparation, and my confidence is high. I’ve already splurged and brought home the full set, which is currently in print in a lovely edition from the University of Chicago Press. Each of the four chunky volumes has a trilogy of the original titles between its covers, comprising one movement of the Dance. When placed next to each other on a shelf, their spines form a panoramic view of the painting by Poussin (pictured above) that inspired the books and gave the series a name. You don’t have to commit to the whole thing at once, obviously. Try the First Movement on for size, or if even that’s too bulky, you can sample the series in smaller slices. Each of the dozen components is available as a separate ebook (for next to nothing, I might add). Give A Question of Upbringing a spin on your iPad or Kobo and see what you think.

As I said, I’ll be pressing on regardless, but it’ll be more fun if I’m marching forth at the head of a convivial bibliophile army rather than making a daring, Lindbergh-like solo flight. Who’s with me?

—James

People Say That Life Is The Thing, But I Prefer Reading

Do you know the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun? The capsule version goes like this: It’s 2005 and a Syrian-American contractor is living with his family in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hits. His wife and children evacuate, but he remains behind to guard his home and help whoever he can. In the aftermath of the storm, while the city awaits federal assistance, he spends days paddling alone in a canoe through the flooded streets, rescuing trapped neighbors and bringing food and supplies to others, becoming in the process a civic hero. Suddenly, heavily armed and armored National Guardsmen burst onto the scene, and Zeitoun is summarily arrested, interrogated by Homeland Security agents, and held without counsel or contact with the outside world. Two weeks elapse before his wife even knows he’s still alive, and a full month goes by before he’s charged with the oxymoronic crime of looting his own property and released on exorbitant bail. It’s a harrowing tale (a fuller version of which is told in the Guardian newspaper) and it’s a perfect demonstration of how wrongheaded the official response to the catastrophe was, as the government hunted imaginary Islamic terrorists instead of providing aid.

He’s no symbol, though, and the story isn’t fiction. For all it sounds like something dreamed up by a novelist looking to score political points, it really happened. Dave Eggers provided the most rigorously researched and complete account in a 2009 book simply entitled Zeitoun, which was an Island Books bestseller as well as a national one. In addition to being a clear-sighted look at a city in crisis, it’s also a moving study of family strength. The relationship between husband Abdulrahman and wife Kathy is what gives the book much of its poignancy and power. Early reviewer Andrew O’Hehir of Salon said, “At first, as a reader, I felt some resistance…—could the Zeitouns possibly be as wholesome and all-American as Eggers depicts them?—but the sheer momentum, emotional force and imagistic power of the narrative finally sweep such objections away.” Zeitoun won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize as “a book with the potential to bring change to our lives,” and it brought tangible change to New Orleans. Profits from its sale were (and still are) funneled to a foundation dedicated to rebuilding the city and promoting “understanding between people of disparate faiths around the world.”

Now comes the news that Abdulrahman Zeitoun has been arrested again, this time on three counts of solicitation of murder. The alleged targets include Kathy Zeitoun. The two divorced earlier this year, and these latest charges follow multiple reports of his violence toward her. He was already in jail on charges of assaulting her with a tire iron when he reputedly solicited a fellow inmate to kill her, her son, and another man. Some hero. So is Zeitoun another case, the most sordid and depressing yet, of hyperbole and hoax in journalism? I don’t think so.

The consensus, both of those who knew the Zeitouns during that time and those who investigated afterward, agrees that Eggers reported it right. While it’s always hard to believe that upstanding, even revered, members of the community can commit such despicable acts, on rare occasions they do. Abdulrahman performed those noble deeds and suffered those trials and as far as anyone can tell, lived an exemplary life—until recently. In other words, the story is true. It’s just not the whole story. In the movies, the cowboy rides off into the sunset after saving the town and we all walk out of the theater, but in the real world there are no credits to roll. If the spirit so moves him, the good guy has time to switch his white hat for a black one and return with guns a-blazin’. A happy ending takes a twist into tragedy, followed by healing and a new beginning, on and on until there’s so much change we don’t know what to think.

Which is to say that the problem is with reality, not its representation. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously claimed “there are no second acts in American lives.” Like much of what he wrote, that’s beautifully expressed and dead wrong. Americans (and people from everywhere else) are constantly rewriting their roles and breaking character. Any given life has dozens, if not hundreds of acts. Although to be more accurate, I should probably say that life is a play in one long act—a single, messy, complicated act that scoffs at the notion of consistency. There’s an innate human impulse to make sense of that blooming, buzzing confusion by narrating it, and those narratives enable us to navigate our world. They’re essential for existence, but they’re not the thing itself. They’re more perfect than that.

One master of such narratives, Anthony Powell, author of the epic human comedy A Dance to the Music of Time, put it like this:

People think that because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that.

Truer than true, fiction can never disappoint the way people can.

—James

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