The “second movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time is a collection of three novellas: At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones. Set in England during the years just before World War II, this dance includes many characters familiar to readers of the first movement. The protagonist, Nick Jenkins, is now an established writer working for a film company. In At Lady Molly’s, Anthony Powell sets the stage by introducing readers to several new characters who will figure prominently in Nick’s life. They include the Tolland family (several brothers & sisters, and their stepmother), and Chips Lovell, a professional colleague whose literary role is to introduce Nick to other people and situations. Social themes are introduced as well, particularly political developments in Germany, and society’s preoccupation with psychoanalysis during this time period.
While the first novella has a seemingly endless cast, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant focuses on Nick, his new wife, and their close friends the Morelands. But the dance continues, with familiar characters moving in and out of their lives, including Nick’s school friends Widmerpool, Templer, and Stringham. Finally in The Kindly Ones, Powell begins in Nick’s childhood, providing a complete “back story” on certain characters and lending new context to their role in the dance.
There is very little “action” in these novels. Instead, there are a myriad of social situations where the dialogue moves the action along. For example, one character will tell a story about another, and in this way we learn of marriages, affairs, deaths, and so on. One of the intriguing aspects of this series is the way Powell conveys the passing of time. It’s such a critical element, and yet is only expressed indirectly. Months and years are never mentioned, and rarely do we know someone’s age. We get a sense of elapsed time primarily through historical or cultural cues (i.e.; the Abdication), and only occasionally by specific mention (i.e.; “several years passed …”).
I also love Powell’s turns of phrase, like this bit:
She was immaculately free from any of the traditional blemishes of a mother-in-law; agreeable always; entertaining; even, in her own way, affectionate; but always a little alarming: an elegant, deeply experienced bird — perhaps a bird of prey — ready to sweep down and attack from the frozen mountain peaks upon which she preferred herself to live apart.
And, at the close of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, this powerful paragraph:
I thought of his recent remark about the Ghost Railway. He loved these almost as much as he loved mechanical pianos. Once, at least, we had been on a Ghost Railway together at some fun fair or on a seaside pier; slowly climbing sheer gradients, sweeping with frenzied speed into inky depths, turning blind corners from which black, gibbering bogeys leapt to attack, rushing headlong towards iron-studded doors, threatened by imminent collision, fingered by spectral hands, moving at last with dreadful, ever increasing momentum towards a shape that lay across the line.
A Dance to the Music of Time is a unique work, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series.