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

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.

Previous Reviews:

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.