This week I began reading A Dance to the Music of Time, a “serial novel” by British author Anthony Powell. I knew nothing about the author or his work until I took part in a rather silly meme to list the New York Times bestsellers during the week I was born. One of my LibraryThing friends strongly urged me to read this series, and after a long wait at my library, the first volume is finally in my hands.
This is already proving to be an unusual reading experience, in a few different ways. A Dance to the Music of Time is a series of twelve novellas, published in four volumes. And they are serious doorstops — the first volume is 718 pages. I’m only 200 pages in, and enjoying it enough to consider reading the entire series, although I’m likely to spread them out over a period of several months.
The story is very British, and that’s not so unusual for me. But it’s also very male, and that’s a very different experience if, like me, your reading focuses mostly on women authors. Surprisingly, this book is quite a comfort read. It begins when the protagonist, Nick Jenkins, is finishing secondary school. He’s at a boarding school of course, and his circle of friends are all young men of a certain social class. They bond in that “boys at boarding school” kind of way, playing tricks on their housemaster and the like. We get glimpses of life beyond school when the boys visit each other during school breaks. I’ve heard these books described as the best portrait of Britain between the wars, and I must say it’s quite enjoyable to immerse myself in that time and culture. Some of the scenes remind me of Brideshead Revisited and I keep expecting Nick Jenkins to round a corner and bump into Charles Ryder or Sebastian Flyte. This is not too surprising, I suppose, since Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh were contemporaries.
And finally there’s the painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), which gave the series its name:
I know next to nothing about art, but love the vivid colors in this work. I found a useful interpretation of this painting, which explained, “Dance to the Music of Time was meant to represent the passing of time, and the different stages of life on the rapidly revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure.” This is the perfect work to represent the series, which also addresses the passing of time and stages of life.
The four volumes of the book, then, are like a dance in four movements. Each movement is named after a season. In the US, The University of Chicago Press published each movement using cover art from the painting.
From left to right: spring, summer, autumn, winter
I absolutely love how the covers re-create a section of the painting when placed side by side. See how the figures all connect? Reading the first movement, I can’t help gazing at the picture of “spring” on the cover. I keep thinking about relationships between the painting and the novel. This is a completely new experience, and it’s giving me unexpected pleasure.
Have you ever found an inspirational connection between literature and art?