Dance to the Music of Time (Powell)

A Dance to the Music of Time: Movements I-IV
Anthony Powell, 1951-1975
University of Chicago Press
pages (see below.)

Anthony Powell's universally acclaimed epic encompasses a four-volume panorama of twentieth century London. Considered a masterpiece of modern fiction, Powell's epic creates a rich panorama of life in England between the wars. Hailed by Time as "brilliant literary comedy as well as a brilliant sketch of the times."

1st Movement (214 pp.; ISBN-13: 9780226677149)
Opens just after World War I. Four very different young men on the threshold of manhood dominate this opening volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. The narrator, Jenkins—a budding writer—shares a room with Templer, already a passionate womanizer, and Stringham, aristocratic and reckless. Widermerpool, as hopelessly awkward as he is intensely ambitious, lurks on the periphery of their world. Amid the fever of the 1920s and the first chill of the 1930s, these four gain their initiations into sex, society, business, and art.

Includes these novels (written, 1951-55):
—A Question of Upbringing
A Buyer's Market
The Acceptance

2nd Movement (724 pp.; ISBN-13: 9780226677163)
Set in London, where in the background the rumble of distant events in Germany and Spain presages the storm of World War II. Even as the whirl of marriages and adulteries, fashions and frivolities, personal triumphs and failures gathers speed, men and women find themselves on the brink of fateful choices. These books "provide an unsurpassed picture, at once gay and melancholy, of social and artistic life in Britain between the wars" (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.).

Includes these novels (written, 1957-62):
At Lady Molly's
Casanova's Chinese Restaurant
The Kindly Ones

3rd Movement (736 pp.; ISBN-13: 9780226677170)
Follows Nick into army life and evokes London during the blitz. We again meet Widmerpool, doggedly rising in rank; Jenkins, shifted from one dismal army post to another; Stringham, heroically emerging from alcoholism; Templer, still on his eternal sexual quest. Here, too, we are introduced to Pamela Flitton, one of the most beautiful and dangerous women in modern fiction. Wickedly barbed in its wit, uncanny in its seismographic recording of human emotions and social currents, this saga stands as an unsurpassed rendering of England's finest yet most costly hour.

Includes these novels (written, 1964-68):
The Valley of Bones
The Soldier's Art
The Military Philosophers

4th Movement (804 pp.; ISBN-13: 9780226677187)
The climactic volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, in which England has won the war and must now count the losses—physical and moral. Nick Jenkins describes a world of ambition, intrigue, and dissolution. Pamela Widmerpool sets a snare for the young writer Trapnel, while her husband suffers private agony and public humiliation. Set against a background of politics, business, high society, and the counterculture in England and Europe, this magnificent work of art sounds an unforgettable requiem for an age.

Includes these novels (written, 1971-75):
Books Do Furnish a Room
Temporary Kings
Hearing Secret Harmonies

(Adapted from publisher

Author Bio
Birth—December 21, 1905
Where—Westminster, England, UK
Death—March 28, 2000
Where—Somerset, England
Education—Oxford University
Awards—James Tait Memorial Prize.

Powell was born in Westminster, England, to Philip Powell and Maud Wells-Dymoke. His father was an officer in the Welch Regiment, although by happenstance rather than from pride in his rather distant Welsh lineage. His mother came from a land-owning family in Lincolnshire with pretensions, though no incontrovertible claim, to aristocratic descent.

After World War I, Powell attended Eaton, a career marked by what he recalled as "well-deserved obscurity" in "the worst house in the school." He felt no enthusiasm for the games that brought popularity and prestige. In 1923, he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, to read history. He later said that he experienced a loss of intellectual vitality rather than stimulation from his new environmement. Shortly after his arrival he was introduced to the Hypocrites Club, a lively and bibulous gathering that did not attract the aesthetes or the conspicuously well-behaved.

In 1926, Powell went to work in London in a form of apprenticeship at Duckworth publishing house and lived in a small, rather seedy enclave tucked away among the grand houses of Mayfair. His social life developed around attendance at formal debutante dances in white tie and tails at houses in Mayfair or Belgravia. Without telling his friends he joined a Territorial Army regiment in a South London suburb and for two or three evenings a week dined in mess, then spent a couple of hours under instruction in the riding school. He renewed acquaintance with Evelyn Waugh, whom he had known at Oxford and who introduced him to the Gargoyle Club, in Soho, which gave Powell a foothold in London's Bohemia. Between 1931 and 1940, Powell published four novels, married Lady Violet Pakenham, moved to a flat in Bloomsbury (where E.M. Forster made a quick surreptitious inspection of the new arrival), and tried his hand as a film studio script writer, and became a father.

When war arrived, was called to duty as a Second Lieutenant at the end of 1939. The war, he recalled, "led not only into a new life, but entirely out of an old one, to which there was no return. Nothing was ever the same again." At first, serving as a trainer in a regiment posted in Northern Ireland, he eventually was attached to a division in military itellengence, carrying out various posts. When the war ended he was 39.

After several fits and starts, Powell recieved a small legacy, purchased a house, called The Chantry in Somerset (not far from Bath), and returned to writing. He began to ponder a long novel sequence. At an early stage, he found himself in a museum in London standing before Nicholas Poussin's painting "A Dance to the Music of Time," which struck him as conveying graphically the rhythms and complexities of relationships and events as he wished to describe them.

In parallel with his creative writing, he served as the primary fiction reviewer for the (London) Times Literary Supplement, and in 1953 was appointed Literary Editor of Punch, in which capacity he served until 1959. From 1958 to 1990, he was a regular reviewer for the Daily Telegraph, resigning after a vitriolic personal attack on him by Auberon Waugh was published in the newspaper. He also reviewed occasionally for the Spectator. He served as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery from 1962 to 1976. With Lady Violet, he travelled to the United States, India, Guatemala, Italy, and Greece.

Through his writings, Anthony Powell would go on to international fame. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1956, and in 1973 he declined an offer of knighthood. He was appointed Companion of Honour (CH) in 1988. He published two more freestanding novels, O, How The Wheel Becomes It! (1983) and The Fisher King (1986). Two volumes of critical essays, Miscellaneous Verdicts (1990) and Under Review (1992), reprint many of his book reviews. Powell's Journals, covering the years 1982 to 1992, were published between 1995 and 1997. His Writer's Notebook was published posthumously in 2001, and a third volume of critical essays, Some Poets, Artists, and a Reference for Mellors, appeared in 2005.

He died peacefully at his home, The Chantry, aged 94 on 28 March 2000. (Author bio adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
An often overlooked treasure. 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....In Dance fictional events intertwine with the 20th-century's great historical events. The overarching question the book ponders is .... Read more
A LitLovers LitPick (Feb. '07)

A book which creates a world and explores it in depth, which ponders changing relationships and values, which creates brilliantly living and diverse characters and then watches them grow and change in their milieu.... Powell's world is as large and as complex as Proust's.
Elizabeth Janeway - New York Times

One of the most important works of fiction since the Second World War.... The novel looked, as it began, something like a comedy of manners; then, for a while, like a tragedy of manners; now like a vastly entertaining, deeply melancholy, yet somehow courageous statement about human experience.
Naomi Bliven - New Yorker Magazine

Anthony Powell is the best living English novelist by far. His admirers are addicts, let us face it, held in thrall by a magician.
Chicago Tribune

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to help you get a discussion started for A Dance to the Music of Time:

1. Talk about how the four young men we meet in the first volume suggest "types" in society, i.e., artist, romantic, cynic, and man of will. What characteristics do each of the four possess that follow "type"? Are those types still relevant today? Are there other "types" you might add?

2. Widmerpool is one of the work's most interesting, if unpleasant, characters. What do the incidents of the banana smashed in his face and, in France, his scolding of Jenkins about his poor manners reveal about Widmerpool and his future career in business and politics?

3. Take any one or number of the individual book titles and talk about its (symbolic) meaning or relevance to the events of the story. For instance, what is the "buyer's market" in the second novel? What are the "commodities" being offered at all the social gatherings Jenkins attends? Or at the work's end... who are the"military philosophers" and what philosophy gets espoused?

4. Discuss the title, A Dance to The Music of Time, and its artistic provenance from Nicholas Poussaint's painting. What does it suggest about the quality of life—does it hint at life as a series of random events or the unfolding of an orderly plan? Refer to Jenkin's thoughts about the painting and how it reflects his version of life.

5. During the first two Movements, how do the events of two world wars, one past and one on the horizon, shape the lives of the main characters? From our vantage of historical hindsight, it is hard for readers not to see characters' destinies as already charted (or fated) by the historical events that hang over them. Do you feel that way, or not?

6. Jenkins rejects a life or career based on an exertion of will (as we see in Widmerpool or Sir Magnus), preferring instead a more "romantic" inaction or passiveness. But once he meets Conyers, he recognizes a different type of willfulness—an "introverted will," which he approves. What does he mean by introverted will and how does it differ from Widmerpool's type of willfulness?

7. Talk about the role of women in A Dance—how do they reflect the men who become involved with them. Consider, for instance, Mildred and Conyer's remark that the man who marries her must be "a man with a will of his own." Or what about Jenkins' affair with with Gypsy Jones and his later marriage to Isobel. Do women have any real concrete role in this work at all...or are they merely reflections of the men who surround them?

8. Over the course of this opus, how does Nick Jenkins change? The war, in particular, changes his life, destroying many of his connections with the past. If we define ourselves by our previous experiences, the past, how does Nick learn to compensate, how does he come to redefine his identity?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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