A Dance to the Movement of Time: First Movement by Anthony Powell
(University of Chicago Press, 1995, 732 pages)
It’s difficult to know where to begin with a review of A Dance to the Movement of Time. Even though finishing the “first movement” involves over seven hundred pages of reading, it still feels like I’m not far enough into this expansive account of twentieth century England to really say much about it. The Dance is a twelve volume cycle of novels collected into four movements, each consisting of three novels. The story is centered on the life, relationships, and careers of the narrator Nicholas Jenkins and several of his friends. The first novel begins with their final days at school in the early 1920’s and follows them through university. The third novel, which completes the first movement, takes place in the early 1930’s and has seen Nick and his friends Charles Stringham and Peter Templar launch successful careers, begin and end marriages, write books, and develop drinking habits. Along with these three friends, the path of another school acquaintance, the awkward and despised Kenneth Widmerpool, is tracked as he gains prominence in political and business circles.
A Dance to the Movement of Time offers a window into the social life of the British upper class. The action of the novels plays out at college luncheons, society balls, formal dinners, gallery openings, and weekends at country homes. Through the eyes of Jenkins, who functions as a kind of everyman, Anthony Powell shows us the elasticity of time. We do not get a full account of all of the years that the novels cover, but rather, we receive extended and detailed accounts of particular conversations, chance meetings, and other seemingly mundane events. Friends and acquaintances appear for a time, and then recede into the background to appear again at an unexpected moment. The significance of these events and characters only becomes evident as their various connections slowly unfold throughout the course of the cycle.
I became interested in reading Powell a while back when I read the late Christopher Hitchens’ enthusiastic recommendation. The novels offer fascinating insight into the British class system – well, to be more accurate, they offer an in depth look at the workings of the privileged class. The story is engaging and Powell employs a dry sense humor that becomes more prominent as the novels progress. The ever expanding and revolving cast of characters can be a little difficult to keep a handle on, and I anticipate this becoming even more difficult as I get into the second movement. The effort is well worth it. Powell creates the sense of getting to know his skillfully drawn characters over an extended period of time and in a variety of settings, giving them a fully rounded quality. There is an element of soap opera in these novels – albeit a very literary soap – which makes me think that it might appeal to fans of the TV miniseries Downton Abbey.