“A Dance to the Music of Time” by Nicolas Poussin, 1636
I recently finished my third traversal of Anthony Powell’s 12-volume cycle A Dance to the Music of Time. Each volume was published separately, but some critics contend that together they form one novel. That novel would be the longest ever written.
A Question of Upbringing (1951)
A Buyer’s Market (1952)
The Acceptance World (1955)
At Lady Molly’s (1957)
Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960)
The Kindly Ones (1962)
The Valley of Bones (1964)
The Soldier’s Art (1966)
The Military Philosophers (1968)
Books Do Furnish a Room (1971)
Temporary Kings (1973)
Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975)
Dance grows more compelling with every reading. The first time it was the plot, with its many reversals, that held my primary interest. The second time I kept noticing how Powell planted fuses that he later detonated hundreds of pages later. My third time through, I found myself simply enjoying Powell’s astonishing command of metaphor, meditation, and scene—while still occasionally gasping at additional secrets discovered in the narrative’s rich clockwork.
The copious, well-meant, and yet ultimately unexciting blurbage about Dance shows that it’s impossible to explain what’s so wonderful about it to someone who hasn’t yet read it. Those who have read it, however, enjoy the most entertaining conversations with other initiates. A Dance to the Music of Time makes excellent reading for couples.
Here are a few general observations that may encourage or help the curious:
1) Powell begins many of his books with his most abstract writing. It’s almost like he’s daring the casual reader to quit. Persevere! Much between the covers is as funny as P.G. Wodehouse, and almost as easy to read. Unlike Wodehouse, the comedy is counterbalanced by extraordinary moments of tragic drama. It’s the blend of the two that makes Powell an addictive drug.
2) Drama and humor aside, Powell’s insights into art, music, literature, sex, the army, and the occult are intellectually nourishing. While Powell was not a musician himself, his comments on music are profound. Hugh Moreland, a major figure in books four through six, is one of the great fictional composers, and listening to Moreland talk to about aesthetics—sometimes he’s even lecturing music critics—is pure rarefied pleasure.
3) Powell frequently compares his characters to mythic forebears. Likewise, as you read, you’ll find that the people you know in real life begin to remind of you of characters from Dance. My wife and I regularly share “straight from Anthony Powell” moments with with each other, especially after we’ve seen somebody we haven’t interacted with for a few years.
4) The bulk of my reading is genre fiction. I seldom take on the “hard and big” authors like Proust, Musil, Joyce, etc. Powell is unquestionably “hard and big,” but he must have something of the catnip of superior genre work for me to enjoy it so much.
Many crime writers and genre fiction fans share my admiration for Dance. I began reading it because Donald E. Westlake told me that Powell was his favorite novelist. Only a quick step away, publicist and editor Levi Stahl intelligently disseminates both Richard Stark (Westlake’s celebrated pseudonym) and Dance from a pleased perch at The University of Chicago Press. Other notable devotees of both Westlake and Powell readers include the writer/dramatist/critic Terry Teachout and the jazz critic Larry Kart. It’s too bad Westlake passed away shortly before all these connections were revealed, as I’m sure he would have enjoyed knowing how close Nick Jenkins and Parker are these days.
Moving on to other crime writers: Ian Rankin, a bigger best-seller than Westlake ever was, also has said that Dance was one of his desert island books—and even an inspiration for the evolution of DI John Rebus. A decade after writing his excellent 1976 critical study, The Novels of Anthony Powell, James Tucker published his well-regarded police procedurals starring detectives Harpur and Iles under the pen name Bill James. (Incidentally, The Novels of Anthony Powell is a much more helpful resource than Hilary Spurling’s familiar Invitation to the Dance for readers looking to parse and track character names and histories.)
There’s a blog called The Quotable Powell, but, to be honest, most of Dance’s juiciest bits demand context for full readerly understanding and enjoyment. Even the best passages in the first book take on more meaning retroactively once you know the rest. Indeed, Westlake thought the first three books a bit slow, and recommended starting with At Lady Molly’s, suggesting that one would enjoy the first three more after understanding the characters better. I disagree. While the first few pages of A Question of Upbringing are notably abstract, the book surges forward with the entrance of Uncle Giles.
Even though it’s a flawed exercise, I offer a long Powell quote here, not just to encourage new readers but also in the hope that copying it out is worth doing for my own development as a writer. This activity is also contra-Westlake, who warned about the “bad influence” of Powell’s long sentences, which occasionally have a bewildering number of colons and semi-colons.
Mr. Blackhead is a good character to anthologize because he appears only in the following excerpt from The Military Philosophers. It is World War II and narrator Nick Jenkins is working for British military liaison under his intellectual ally David Pennistone.
Powell is showing off a bit here. He takes a familiar trope, the obstructive and objectionable lonely bureaucrat, and goes all out to make it his own.
However, this obviously humorous quote works even better in counterpoint to the devastating costs of war Powell documents elsewhere. “Counterpoint” really is the right word. The title of the final installment, Hearing Secret Harmonies, could also be the author’s epitaph: Powell excelled at unearthing hidden intervals and intersections, the strange and strangely moving ways in which humans act and react.
I’ve left out a section where Nick discusses Blackhead with a senior official at a post-war party. (Nick is always at parties getting gossip about others, and the quote is long enough already.) Also, the moment referencing Diplock may be confusing out of context, but it “harmonizes” with an important chapter in The Soldier’s Art.
There was nothing for it but Blackhead, and restrictions on straw for hospital palliasses.
The stairs above the second floor led up into a rookery of lesser activities, some fairly obscure by definition. On these higher storeys dwelt the Civil branches and their subsidiaries, Finance, Internal Administration, Passive Air Defense, all diminishing in official prestige as the altitude steepened. Finally the explorer converged on attics under the eaves, where crusty hermits lunched frugally from paper bags, amongst crumb-powdered files and documents ineradicably tattooed with the circular brand of the teacup. At these heights, vestiges of hastily snatched meals endured throughout all seasons, eternal as the unmelted upland snows. Here, under the leads, like some unjustly confined prisoner of the Council of Ten, lived Blackhead. It was part of the building rarely penetrated, for even Blackhead himself preferred on the whole to make forays on others, rather than that his own fastness should be invaded.
“You’ll never get that past Blackhead,” Pennistone had said, during my first week with the Section.
“Until you have dealings with Blackhead, the word ‘bureaucrat’ will have conveyed no meaning to you. He is the super-tchenovnik of the classical Russian novel. Even this building can boast no one else quite like him. As a special treat you can negotiate with Blackhead this afternoon on the subject of the issue of screwdrivers and other tools to Polish civilian personnel temporarily employed at military technical establishments.”
This suggested caricature, Pennistone’s taste for presenting individuals in dramatic form. On the contrary, the picture was, if anything, toned down from reality. At my former Divisional Headquarters, the chief clerk, Warrant Officer Class I Mr Diplock, had seemed a fair performer in the field specified. To transact business even for a few minutes with Blackhead was immediately to grasp how pitifully deficient Diplock had, in fact, often proved himself in evolving a really impregnable system of obstruction and preclusion; awareness of such falling short of perfection perhaps telling on his nerves and finally causing him to embezzle and desert.
“Blackhead is a man apart,” said Pennistone. “Even his colleagues are aware of that. His minutes have the abstract quality of pure extension.”
It was true. Closely “in touch” with the Finance branch, he was, for some reason, not precisely categorized as one of them. Indeed, all precision was lacking where the branch to which Blackhead belonged was in question, even the house telephone directory, usually unequivocal, becoming all at once vague, even shifty. The phrase “inspection and collation of governmental civil and economic administration in relation to Allied military liaison” had once been used by a member of one the Finance branches themselves, then hastily withdrawn as if too explicit, something dangerous for security reasons to express so openly. Such prevarication hinted at the possibility that even his fellows by now could not exactly determine — anyway define to a layman — exactly what Blackhead really did. His rank, too, usually so manifest in every civil servant, seemed in Blackhead’s case to have become blurred by time and attrition. To whom was he responsible? Whom — if anyone — did he transcend? Obviously in the last resort he was subservient to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for War, and Blackhead himself would speak of Assistant Under Secretaries — even of Principals — as if their ranks represented unthinkable heights of official attainment. On the other hand, none of these people seemed to have the will, even the power, to control him. It was as if Blackhead, relatively humble though his grading might be, had become an anonymous immanence of all their kind, a fetish, the Voodoo deity of the whole Civil Service to be venerated and placated, even if better — safer — hidden away out of sight: the mystic holy essence incarnate of arguing, encumbering, delaying, hair-splitting, all for the best of reasons.
Blackhead might be a lone wolf, a one-man band, but he was a force to be reckoned with, from whom there was no court of appeal, until once in a way Operations would cut the Gordian knot, brutally disregarding Blackhead himself, overriding his objections, as it were snapping asunder the skinny arm he had slipped though the bolt-sockets of whatever administrative door he was attempting to hold against all comers. Operations would, as I say, sometimes thrust Blackhead aside, and continue to wage war unimpeded by him against the Axis. However, such a confrontation took place only when delay had become desperate. There was no doubt he would make himself felt by delaying tactics when the evacuation got under way, until something of the drastic sort took place.
“Of course I’m not an officer,” he had once remarked bitterly to Pennistone when a humiliation of just that kind has been visited on him, “I’m only Mr Blackhead.”
I opened the door a crack, but further enlargement of entry was blocked by sheer stowage of paper, the files thickly banked about the floor like wholesale goods awaiting allotment to retailers, or, more credibly, the residue of a totally unsalable commodity stored up here out of everyone’s way. Blackhead himself was writing. He jumped up for a second and fiercely kicked a great cliff of files aside so that I could squeeze into the room. Then he returned to whatever he was at, his right hand moving feverishly across the paper, while his left thumb and forefinger, both stained with ink, rested on the handle of a saucerless cup.
“I’ll attend to you in a minute, Jenkins.”
Not only was Blackhead, so to speak, beyond rank, he was also beyond age; beyond or outside Time. He might have been a worn — terribly worn — thirty-five; on the other hand (had not superannuation regulations, no doubt as sacred to Blackhead as any other official ordinances, precluded any such thing), he could have easily have achieved three-score years and ten, with a safe prospect for his century. Emaciated, though obviously immensely strong, he was probably in truth approaching fifty. His hair, which formed an irregular wiry fringe over a furrowed leathery brow, was of a metallic shade that could have been natural to him all his life.
“Glad you’ve come, Jenkins,” he said, putting his face still closer to the paper on which he was writing. “Pennistone minuted me..Polish Women’s Corps…terms I haven’t been able fully to interpret…In short don’t at all comprehend…”
His hand continued to move at immense speed, with a nervous shaky intensity, backwards and forwards across the page of the file, ending at last in a signature. He blotted the minute, read through what he had written, closed the covers. Then the placed the file on an already overhanging tower of similar documents, a vast rickety skyscraper of official comment, based on the flimsy foundation of a wire tray. At this final burden, the pyramid began to tremble, at first seemed likely to topple over. Blackhead showed absolute command of the situation. He steadied the pile with scarcely a touch of his practiced hand. Then, eyes glinting behind his spectacles, he rose jerkily and began rummaging about similar foothills of files ranged on a side table.
“Belgian Women’s Corps, bicycle for…Norwegian military attaché, office furniture…Royal Netherlands Artillery, second echelon lorries, Czechoslovak Field Security, appointment of cook…Distribution of Polish Global Sum in relation to other Allied commitments — now we are getting warm — Case of Corporal Altmann, legal costs in alleged rape — that’s moving away…Luxembourg shoulder flashes — right out…Here we are…Polish Women’s Corps, soap issue for — that’s the one I wanted a word about.”
“I really came about the question of restrictions on straw for stuffing hospital palliasses in Scotland.”
Blackhead paused, on the defensive at once.
“You can’t be expecting an answer on straw already?”
“We were hoping –”
“But look here…”
“It must be a week or ten days.”
“Week or ten days? Cast your eyes over these, Jenkins.”
Blackhead made a gesture with his pen in the direction of the files stacked on the table amongst which he had been excavating.
“Barely had time to glance at the straw,” he said. “Certainly not think it out properly. It’s a tricky subject, straw.”
“Liaison HQ in Scotland hoped for a quick answer.”
“Liaison HQ in Scotland are going to be disappointed.”
“What’s so difficult?”
“There’s the Ministry of Supply angle.”
“Can’t we ignore them for once?”
“Ministry of Agriculture may require notification. Straw interests them…We won’t talk about that now. What I want you to tell me, Jenkins, is what Pennistone means by this…”
Blackhead held — thrust — the file forward in my direction.
“Couldn’t we just cast an eye over the straw file too, if you could find it while I try to solve this one.”
Blackhead was unwilling, but in the end, after a certain amount of search, the file about hospital palliasses was found and also extracted.
“Now it’s the Women’s Corps I want to talk about,” he said. “Issue of certain items — soap, to be exact, and regulations of same. There’s a principle at stake. I pointed that out to Pennistone. Read this…where my minute begins…”
To define the length of a “minute” — an official memorandum authorizing or recommending any given course — is, naturally, like trying to lay down the size of a piece of chalk. There can be short minutes or long minutes, as there might be a chalk down or a fragment of a chalk scarcely perceptible to the eye. Thus a long minute might be divided into sections and sub-headings, running into pages and signed by an authority of the highest rank. On the other hand, just as a piece of chalk might reasonably thought of as a length of that limestone convenient for writing on a blackboard, the ordinary run of minutes exchanged between such and Pennistone and Blackhead might be supposed, in general, to take a fairly brief form — say two or three, to perhaps ten or a dozen, lines. Blackhead pointed severely to what he had written. Then he turned the pages several times. It was a real Marathon of a minute, even for Blackhead. When it came to an end at last he tapped his finger sharply on a comment written below his own signature.
“Look at this,” he said.
He spoke indignantly. I leant forward to examine the exhibit, which was in Pennistone’s handwriting. Blackhead had written, in all, three and a half pages on the theory and practice of soap issues for military personnel, with especial reference to the Polish Women’s Corps. Turning from his spidery scrawl to Pennistone’s neat hand, two words only were inscribed. They stood out on the file:
Please amplify. D. Pennistone. Maj. GS.
Blackhead stood back.
“What do you think of that?” he asked.
I could find no suitable answer, in fact had nearly laughed, which would have been fatal, an error from which no recovery would have been possible.
“He didn’t mention the matter to me.”
“As if I hadn’t gone into the matter carefully,” said Blackhead.
“You’d better have a word with Pennistone.”
“Word with him? Not before I’ve made sure about the point I’ve missed. He wouldn’t have said that unless he knew. I’d thought you’d be able to explain, Jenkins. If he thinks I’ve omitted something, he’d hardly keep it from you.”
“I’m at a loss — but about the palliasse straw –”
“What else can he want to know?” said Blackhead. “It’s me that’s asking the questions there, not him.”
“You’ll have to speak together.”
“Amplify, indeed,” said Blackhead. “I spent a couple of hours on that file.”
Blackhead stared down at what Pennistone had written. He was distraught; aghast. Pennistone had gone too far. We should be made to suffer for this frivolity of his. That was, if Blackhead retained his sanity.
“What would you like me to do about it?”
Blackhead took off his spectacles and pointed the shafts at me.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I could send it to F 17 (b) for comments. They’re the only ones, in my view, who might take exception to not being consulted. They’re a touchy lot. Always have been. I may have slipped up in not asking them, but I’d never guessed Pennistone would have spotted that.”
“The thing we want to get on with is the straw.”
“Get on with?” said Blackhead. “Get on with? If Pennistone wants to get on with things, why does he minute me in the aforesaid terms? That’s what I can’t understand.”
“Why not talk to him when he comes back. He’s at Polish GHQ at the moment. Can’t we just inspect the straw file?”
Blackhead had been put so far off his balance that his usual obstinacy must have become impaired. Quite unexpectedly, he gave way all at once about the straw. We discussed the subject of palliasses fully, Blackhead noting in the file that “a measure of agreement has been reached.” It was a minor triumph. I also prepared the way for papers about the evacuation, but this Blackhead could hardly take in.
“I can’t understand Pennistone writing that,” he said. “I’ve never had it written before — please amplify — not in all my service, all the years I’ve worked in this blessed building. It’s not right. It suggests a criticism of my method.”
I left him gulping the chill dregs of his tea.
(UPDATE: fall 2015)
It’s best for artists to be politically aware, but I’m also suspicious of art that seeks approval through political correctness.
Somehow, Powell’s conservative and Tory perspective never ceases to not bother me.
Usually, when I sniff out this kind of political atmosphere I give up on the author. When both P.D. James and Ruth Rendell died recently, I learned from the obituaries that James was conservative and Rendell liberal. The penny dropped: suddenly I understood why Rendell was so much more compelling than James.
At the conclusion of a fourth go-round with Dance, I had a minor revelation about Powell’s politics. If “reactionary” means “closed to discussion,” then there is nothing reactionary about Powell. Powell is always interested in the internal dialogues of every single character. In his understated and ironic way, Nick Jenkins is willing to think well of nearly everybody: that they’re just trying to live the life they want, as best they can, while pursued by furies. I identify with this liberal sentiment.
One caveat: you must be interested in art. All is forgiven if you can make an intelligent comment about a painting, a book, or a piece of music. Widmerpool, the big villain of the series, seems to fail in the end because simply lacks any kind of critical faculty about art.
Powell repeatedly makes fun of those who march under the banner of the Left—in particular, those who see a mid-century version of political correctness as the final arbiter of worth.
I myself can dislike the narcissistic self-righteousness of some lefties these days. It was a revelation to find an echo of our contemporary culture of finger-pointing and Internet outrage in Powell’s comic, Communist-leaning characters of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties.
I don’t mean to suggest that Powell lacks political failings. But I suspect a certain class of liberal will always find ways to excuse Powell, just as easily Nick Jenkins excuses, say, Mark Members. Recently I discovered two long essays by Christopher Hitchens that are well worth the attention of Powell fans.