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Dance to the Music of Time (Review)

great-works-4

A Dance to the Music of Time
Anthony Powell, 1951-1975
214, 724, 736, 804 pp. (vols. I-IV)

 

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
February 2007

This is an overlooked treasure. In fact, it's hard to understand why Anthony Powell's magnificent opus isn't on the tip of everyone's tongue.

Critics and readers agree that Powell, who died in 2000, was one of the finest—and most readable—writers of the English novel. Actually, the work is 12 novels (called a "duodecalogy"... sounds like an ulcer) divided into 4 volumes or "movements."

The volumes recount the lives of four young men who meet at an Eton-like English school in the 1920's and continue to cross one another's paths for the next 20-odd years. The passage of time alters lives, careers, and marriages.

Epic-like, the work has been compared to Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, painting a broad panorama of English life between World Wars I and II. Events move back and forth between London and various country estates, and Powell takes satirical potshots at everything from the pretensions of the aristocracy to the faddish world of the occult. The work vacillates between humor and melancholy, a book of both manners and ideas.

In Dance fictional events intertwine with the 20th-century's great historical events. The overarching question the book ponders is the degree to which individuals are free to shape their destinies when confronted by the great sweep of time. As Proust does with his madeleine, Powell uses Nicolas Poussin's 17th-century painting (from which the title is taken) to trigger his memory and establish his theme:

Human beings...moving hand in hand in intricate measure...unable to control...the steps of the dance.

Reading Dance is a terrific undertaking but, oh, so rewarding. Book clubs could spread it out over several months—or just do the first two volumes over two or three months.

There's also a 1997 TV film version. It's deadly...but if you're curious, you could take a look.

See our Reading Guide for Dance to the Music of Time.

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