Garrison Keillor‘s Writer’s Almanac mentioned Anthony Powell‘s A Dance to the Music of Time in December and I was intrigued. How could I pass up a book Evelyn Waugh compared to Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time? Waugh says Powell’s 12 volume masterpiece is “dry, cool, humorous, elablorately and accurately constructed and quintessentially English. It is more realistic than A Recherche du Temps Perdu, [trans. In Search of Lost Time], to which it is often compared and much funnier.”
So far I’ve read the first two novels, A Question of Upbringing and A Buyer’s Market. Set in the 1920s, A Question of Upbringing introduces readers to Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator. He’s attending boarding school with the churlish, bothersome Kenneth Widmerpool, and the “cooler kids” Stringman and Templer, with whom he hangs out conniving pranks, and sharing a jaded view of their teachers and peers. After graduation, Jenkins is sent to France for six weeks to polish his language skills and whom should he run into but Widmerpool. Finally, the novel concludes with Jenkins at university attending a tea at a unctuous social climbing professor’s rooms. Here he meets Mark Members, JG Quiggin, Bill Truscott, who’re sure to factor into the rest of the story. I was surprised at how little time university would play in a 12 volume work.
Here’s a sample insight:
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 Question of Upbringing, p. 229)
In A Buyer’s Market, Jenkins has finished his education and is living in London. Though work is the topic of many conversations and status is determined by one’s employment to a degree, the emphasis is on debutante balls, loves and faux loves, and friendships that are ill-advised, dead, or comatose.
The strength of these novels isn’t what happens, but how Jenkins thinks about events, relationships, and perceptions. That’s where the power and the humor come into play. The descriptions are trenchant and witty. As I read them, I envy Powell’s talent and skill. Ah, to write so well.
The book does center on the upper crust of England and that’s not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, but if you like Downton Abbey, I think you’ll like this.