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

A Dance to the Music of Time follows a group of British men as they move from school to university to adulthood.  The story begins in the 1920s when the narrator, Nick Jenkins, is at boarding school with his friends Stringham and Templer.  Their school days are coming to an end; will they go up to university or go directly to work?  As they contemplate their next phase of life, they also spend countless hours mocking other students — especially a boy named Widmerpool — and playing pranks on their  house master.

The “first movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time consists of three novellas spanning just over a decade: A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World.  Jenkins and his friends come of age, finding their adult footing and struggling with love and loss.  Several other characters move in and out of their lives, like partners in a dance.  A woman appears initially as one man’s girlfriend, later as the wife of a second man, and still later as a third man’s lover.  Other characters have recurring roles in the dance, taking the floor every so often and then fading into the background.   As Jenkins muses in the second book:

I certainly did not expect that scattered elements of Mrs. Andriadis’s party would recur so comparatively soon in my life … their commitment was sufficient to draw attention once again to that extraordinary process that causes certain figures to appear and reappear in the performance of one or another sequence of what I have already compared with a ritual dance.

The dance metaphor works very well in this book.  The sequence and pacing reminded me of a ballroom filled with people gracefully stepping through a minuet.  And while it is obvious that time is passing, precise measures of time are rarely mentioned, giving the book a languid, leisurely feel.  Yet every so often Powell sums things up with powerful prose, like this paragraph towards the end of A Question of Upbringing:

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period.  This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. … A new epoch was opening: in a sense this night was the final remnant of life at school.

A Dance to the Music of Time is very British, and very evocative of the period between the wars.  Every time I sat down to read, I was instantly transported into that world, while simultaneously reflecting on the “dance” representing my life.  While this “first movement” was more than 700 pages long, I never tired of it and was sad to say good-bye to characters who have inhabited my imagination for over a week.  I will most definitely be reading the rest of this series.

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

  1. “The sequence and pacing reminded me of a ballroom filled with people gracefully stepping through a minuet. And while it is obvious that time is passing, precise measures of time are rarely mentioned, giving the book a languid, leisurely feel. ”

    Just love those two sentences! This series really appeals to me. Certainly hope to make the time for it before too long. Will you read the second book right away or wait a while?

    • Thanks JoAnn! I hope you enjoy this whenever you get to it. I won’t be reading the second book right away — I have a few other books to read in April — but I think I’d like to read it in May or June.

  2. Hmmm….I know you recommend this, and I do love a chunkster, but it seems a bit man-centric for me. Plus, the summary reminds me a bit of the Masterpiece film Any Human Heart that aired last month; I watched the first episode and was completely disgusted. If you watched it, how would you compare the two?

    • Eva, it’s funny you mention its man-centricity (is that a word?! LOL) I found myself dithering over this very aspect: should I rate it 5 stars, since most of what I read is woman-centric? And then I decided 5 stars is 5 stars.

      Yes it is rather male, since all the main characters are men. But I enjoyed the overall mood of it, it reminded me of Brideshead Revisited which I haven’t read but loved the series with Jeremy Irons. If you’ve seen it, that’s the sort of imagery I had in my head while reading this book.

      I watched Any Human Heart and that was another man-centric production. But it grew on me, mostly because I really like Matthew MacFadyen and Jim Broadbent in just about anything they do.

      Have a great day!

  3. Hello Laura, thanks for dropping by my blog review of this one, I’ve added the links to your reviews in the comments and looking forward to eventually adding the 3rd and 4th movements:)
    BTW I agree with JoAnn, you have a wonderful way of expressing your ideas about the books you review, I love reading your musings.
    Lisa

    • How kind of you Lisa, thank you so much! And I’ll definitely stop by your blog and leave links to the rest of the series as I work my way through it.

  4. Pingback: A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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