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.