Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement, by Anthony Powell

I approached the fourth movement of A Dance to the Music of Time with mixed emotions.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three volumes (rating each 4-5 stars), I was ready for more of the same.  But I was also a bit sad to be coming to the end of the series, knowing I would have to leave Nick Jenkins and many, many other interesting characters behind.  And things started off pretty well.  The first novella, Books do Furnish a Room, was set in the post-war period, with Nick entering his forties.  On a return visit to his university, he realizes:

The probability was that even without cosmic upheaval some kind of reshuffle has to take place halfway through life, a proposition borne out by the autobiographies arriving thick and fast — three or four at a time at regular intervals — for my review in one of the weeklies.  … their narrative supporting, on the whole, evidence already noticeably piling up, that friends, if required at all in the manner of the past, must largely be reassembled at about this milestone. The changeover might improve consistency, even quality, but certainly lost in intimacy; anyway that peculiar kind of intimacy that is consoling when you are young, though probably too vulnerable to withstand the ever increasing self-regard of later years.  (p. 3)

Reading these opening pages prompted reflection on the past decade of my life, having just left my forties this year.  I found I could relate to Nick in a different way than before.  Books do Furnish a Room brought new characters into the dance, along with familiar faces like Kenneth Widmerpool, who was introduced in the very first novella and has reappeared in unusual situations, usually when you would least expect it.

Unfortunately, Anthony Powell wrote two more novellas after Books do Furnish a Room.  I found them a slog.  Reading Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies was a lot like watching a favorite television series that has gone past its prime.  The dance metaphor failed to work as well, mostly because so many important characters were lost in the war.  Powell brought in new characters Nick supposedly knew twenty years before, but being unknown to the reader these encounters lacked spark.  In addition, Powell’s writing was strongest in the earlier books, which covered the 1920s through 1940s.  In Hearing Secret Harmonies, published in 1975 and set in the 1960s, Powell comes across as a crotchety old man who couldn’t understand what those crazy hippie kids were up to.  The plot became outlandish, I lost interest, and the last book became a forced march to the finish.

However, when I step back and think about the twelve novellas in their entirety, this is an amazing body of work depicting a specific slice of England in an enormously readable and enjoyable way.

My reviews of the other books in A Dance to the Music of Time:

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11 thoughts on “Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement, by Anthony Powell

  1. I have had Anthony Powell’s 12 novellas on my tbr list for at least 2 years after I read about them in anovel and then looked them up. I am impressed you read all of them..I have been too intimidated to start. Reading your post and the passage from p.3, which I just loved, I think I’ll read the first volume and see how it goes. It’s too bad the last 2 novellas ‘jumped the shark’ as too many tv shows do, but I agree that this is an amazing body of work and deserves to be read. Thank you for a wonderful post and review!

    • Amy, I definitely recommend beginning the series. The “first movement” was a 5-star read for me. And the novellas are relatively short, so if it doesn’t grab you, you can move on. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. That’s a pity about the last few, but (this is probably heresy) there were some sections of Proust (which the Dance is often compared to) that I found a bit of a slog too. But not enough to detract from a wonderful read overall. I’m inspired now, I’m going to get back to the Dance (2 vols to go) as soon as I’ve whittled the immediate TBR a bit:)

  3. I tried reading Dance, but just couldn’t get along with Powell, and I’m not sure why. I’m not sure if it was his style, the story lines, or what, but he was one of those writers I felt I should like, and didn’t – it wasn’t that I hated him, it just didn’t gel. However, it is a god many years since I looked at him, so maybe it’s time for another visit.

    • Christine, I was very surprised how much I liked these books. I read a lot of English lit, but usually not so male-centered. So I “should” have been turned off it, and yet I wasn’t. Go figure! I definitely think these books would be received differently by people at different stages of life. I wonder whether I was better able to relate to earlier volumes because I’d been through those stages of life. All that to say, if it’s been many years you may enjoy it more the second time around.

  4. I see the Dance as the story of Widmerpool, a kind of everyman/Horatio Alger, who thru hard work and over the top effort rises to the highest levels of society and prominance, and ultimately finds noting there. It seems a very dark vision taken at its conclusion. Perhaps that’s how the journey of life is played out – There must be joy in the journey, because journey’s end must ultimately disappoint.

    PatH – Durham NC

    • Very interesting point of view, Pat. While Widmerpool is a central character, I had not seen the book as primarily his story. You’ve given me something to think about!

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