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A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement Paperback – May 31, 1995
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From Library Journal
Powell's epic of 20th-century England is actually composed of 12 novels divided into four "movements," although they can be read individually as separate works. The novels were originally published from the 1950s through the 1970s.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Again, a triptych of novels (At Lady Molly's, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant and The Kindly Ones) depicts Powell's late 1930s. Nick Jenkins, hero and narrator, has moved on to screenwriting and from debutante balls to the more mature haunts of the drawing room. He continues (at first to my dismay--now I am simply resigned to the device) to continually and "coincidentally" bump into old acquaintances. ALM literally is a laundry list of these run-ins, and told with perfect comic pitch. Widermerpool resurfaces and is as great a buffoon as ever. The buffoon of youth, who seemed so hopeless before is still appallingly clumsy socially-- but successful otherwise. Love affairs that seemed so passionate and exciting have dissipated, and from the outset we are aware that Nick will get himself a wife before long. Why? Because that's what people do.
Casanova's Chinese Restaurant is less comic. More a meditation on art, relationships and trying to find happiness. In my opinion it is the best in the series thus far realistically and plaintively depicting that ache of first love and the subsequent disenchantment that inevitably follows. The composer Moreland is depicted from the first stages of infatuation to the brink of an affair that could reck his marriage. What he decides and why is beautifully wrought. Jenkins's in-laws provide the comic relief in this volume, but here Powell is happier to stay focused on the more serious. The aside of Erridge going off to the Spanish Civil War anchors us in time, provides some amusing remarks about Lefties but doesn't really create concern for his fate. The focus stays on the Moreland marriage throughout with an ending that is and is not surprising. Very well done, indeed.
The Kindly Ones abandons the melancholic for Powell's more jocular tone. Indeed the first chapter is one of the best send-ups of English Uppper Class life I have ever read. Quite hilarious and btw the only glimpse in six novels of Nick Jenkins's parents or his childhood. The comic tone is a bit "now or never" as we are teetering upon the onset of WWII. There won't be much to laugh at for years to come. The Kindly Ones though is no misnomer-- it's the name the ancient Greeks gave to the Furies, the bringers of disease, war and strife. And TKO does the same. It brings us to the beginning of the end--when empire and centuries' old ways are all threatened. We know it will all be swept away--the only question of course is how it affects the dozens of people we have met thus far in these splendid novels.
The first three parts of the story take place in the post World War I era of the 1920s and early 1930s. The characters are associated with British socioeconomic levels that include very wealthy (Templeton), wealthy (Stringham), upper middle class (Jenkins) and middle class (Widmerpool). After university, the characters go their separate ways determined by their economic classes but end up meeting in London while pursuing different individual goals.
Nicolas Jenkins, the narrator of the novel, gets a job at a firm that publishes "art books" and uses free time offered by his relatively unstructured job to write novels. Like Robert Musil's character in A Man Without Qualities, Nick is a keen observer who seems to be continually on the edge of the social dance, jumping in on occasion but content to ruminate about the motives and behaviors of others. As he focuses on his three school acquaintances, Nick's commentary becomes increasingly reliable as he compares current incidents to reinterpret collective experiences of the past. He learns to abandon simplistic rules for understanding of the choices of his friends and others. He also learns his station in life and the limits of his ability as observer to discover immutable standards of acceptable social actions. Life is just too complex and changeable to maintain superficial and immature interpretations of the dance of life.
Each volume of the first movement is self-contained as Powell gives readers descriptive reminders of characters and events that preceded the current action. The writing style is simple and direct and the pace is slow and deliberate. Powell presents many allusions to art, philosophy, and history like James Joyce in Ulysses with much less tangential writing. Using the Kindle dictionary and an iPhone, I enjoyed looking up each reference.
The tone of the first three works is humorous and satirical without being overly cynical (except for the spoof of John Galsworthy). Readers can visualize Poussin's painting and observe the dance of the four main characters. Economic, political and social parallels can be seen with our own turn of the century culture.
I highly recommend the first movement of Powell's omnibus work to readers who love to observe the dance of life. I have not encountered a contemporary writer who is such a good chronicler and analyst of the unfolding and interacting lives of realistic rather than stereotyped characters. I feel fortunate to have 9 more volumes in 3 more movements to read in the 4 paperback edition published by the University of Chicago press (1995). Though life is beautiful and upsetting, comical and tragic, expected and catastrophic, Powell shows readers the worst action they can take is to drop out of the dance. As in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, the social isolate is irrevocably self-centered forever missing the chances of a lifetime to listen to the music of time and in Powell's words move "hand in hand in intricate measure" with others.