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: