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A Dance to the Music of Time ()


Anthony Burgess : 99 Best Modern Novels (1934-84)

A Dance to the Music of Time is a twelve volume series of novels by Anthony Powell, published from 1951 to 1975--A Question of Upbringing (1951), A Buyer's Market (1952), The Acceptance World (1955), At Lady Molly's (1957), Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960), The Kindly Ones (1962), The Valley of Bones (1964), The Soldier's Art (1966), The Military Philosophers (1968), Books Do Furnish a Room (1971), Temporary Kings (1973), and Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975).  Powell, mainly through the narration of Nicholas Jenkins, unfolds the stories of a group of upper class Brits from the 20's to the 70's as the England of Empire and Class and social form expires and yields to the new England.  While not necessarily defending the older England, Powell clearly dislikes the society that replaced it and the series is basically an acerbic deconstruction of the modern world.

I've read several of the novels and for purposes of this review read The Acceptance World.  Set in the years 1931 to 1933, we follow Jenkins as he meets for tea, drinks, dinner or the weekend with a number of the recurring characters from the series.  Finally as Kenneth Widmerpool, the social climbing mediocrity who represents Britain's New Man, is giving an interminable speech, Le Bas, their old Oxford don, collapses into his dinner plate with a stroke, perhaps brought on by the speech.  This finale is one of the set pieces for which the series is best loved. The Acceptance World of the title refers specifically to the business of dealing in debt, but more generally it refers to the characters accepting that their lives are not following the ideal courses that they charted in youth and their acceptance of this disappointment.

Frankly, the epic scope and understated plotting of these novels require more indulgence than this reader is prepared to offer.  I have enjoyed the entries I've read, but in a very minor way.  I'm afraid I share in all of the criticisms that one of the Websites below defends against.  The books are too English, too class conscious, too nuanced, the characters are acid portraits based on actual people with whom I am totally unfamiliar and all of these factors combine to leave me feeling that I'm just barely missing the joke.  Much of the humor lurks just beyond my ken.   I admire the writing and understand the cult status that the work has achieved, but life is too short and reading time too precious to work my way through all 12 volumes.

I suggest sampling the series, but warn you not to anticipate finishing it.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B-)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Anthony Powell Resources Pages
    -OBIT: Anthony Powell, R.I.P. (Timothy Noah, Slate)
    -OBIT: (William Grimes, NY Times)
    -OBIT: (Daily Telegraph)
    -OBIT: The importance of Powell by Christopher Hitchens (Evening Standard)
    -OBIT: (Andrew Buncombe, Independent)
    -OBIT: (Times of London)
    -OBIT: (Norman Shrapnel, Manchester Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Powell dances to the music (The Age)
    -Powell's Way (CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of A Dance To The Music Of Time by Anthony Powell (Hugh Massingberd, The Spectator)
    -In bellowing distance of a genius ( Cassandra Jardine, Daily Telegraph, Sept. 3rd, 1998)
    -An Encounter with Anthony Powell (James Sandiland)
    -REVIEW: Life's Choreographer  A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell (Barbara Wallraff, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Powell, The Fisher King (Mary Beth Dohoney)
    -REVIEW : of A WRITER'S NOTEBOOK By Anthony Powell (Michael Ruse, National Post)
    -REVIEW : of To Keep The Ball Rolling : The Memoirs of Anthony Powell (Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Monthly)

Comments:

Your criticism is fair if you only dip into the series here and there as you say you did. Everyone I know who does that has the same comment you do. On the other hand, if you start from the beginning and work forward, preferably with one of the guides you can get, the Dance is fabulous and by the third or fourth book, you can't stop reading and you will be very disappointed when you finish the twelfth and final volume.

- Tom Berner

- Jan-16-2004, 15:05

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