Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is a series of twelve novellas originally published between 1951 and 1975. Narrated by Nick Jenkins, the story begins during his school days in the 1920s, and continues for more than half a century. The books are not as much about Nick as they are about people he meets, and how their paths repeatedly cross over time. Chicago Press published the series as collections of three novellas they called “movements”. I read the first two movements last year, and discovered a gem of English literature. The Third Movement is set during World War II; the titles of each novella — The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, The Military Philosophers — have a distinct military tone.
This installment opens with Nick assigned to a military unit stationed in Ireland. The war is in its early days, and very few have seen real action. Nick finds himself banded together with a variety of men, many bankers by trade who cannot relate to his work as a writer. And there are some from less educated classes whom he would never meet outside the military. Inevitably, there are connections between new characters and those we’ve met in earlier books, and so the dance continues.
Nick’s military career is a slow one, and almost entirely administrative. He never goes to the front (isn’t that a convenient way for the main character to survive the conflict?), but the war still takes a personal toll. Nick experiences his share of loss, and I was struck by the way he often learned of death indirectly, and long after it occurred. Nick’s personal life advances too, but this is very much in the background. His wife only occasionally enters the picture, and the reader doesn’t learn much about how the war affected her, even though she would have been devastated by one of the more significant losses in this book.
As I’ve come to expect from Dance, there is considerably more talk than action. It’s difficult to describe the pleasure that comes from reading these books. It’s all in the dance metaphor, which is so rich and satisfying. I love the element of surprise when a nameless character is described at great length, and Powell gradually reveals they are a significant player from a earlier novella. When new characters enter the story, I look for clues to their significance: will they enter the dance later? And in what way?
I have only one movement left to read, and I’m torn by wanting to complete the series, and yet wishing it would never end.
My reviews of the earlier books: