Monday, April 9, 2012

Three Hundred Barking Dogs: Why Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time is So Moving to Me Now

Cleaning out my attic recently, I came across a four-foot file box stuffed with drafts of a book I once almost wrote. I had all but forgotten it. The book was a memoir of my early life with a theatrical troupe, a memoir I never finished for reasons beyond my control. Still, being confronted with my own really quite gargantuan efforts to write this story, more important to me then than it is now, was liberating and, to use a word I basically detest, empowering.

Within a few days of discovering the box in my attic I had started work in earnest on my current project, a memoir of my long, winding road to the Catholic Church.

Just being reminded that I once had and that I therefore could again was what did the trick. I’ve written long books before, including the 520-page history of a major Boston hospital. But that was on commission. For cash. To invest such effort in one’s own story, and without the promise of being paid for it, was something I wasn’t sure I would ever do. And now I’m doing it.

Like my hero, Norman Maclean, who began writing a “few stories for my children” when he was seventy, I am writing with my two daughters most clearly in mind, trying to keep any thoughts of acclaim or profit at bay. Maclean ended with the great memoir of his trout-fishing family, A River Runs Through It, and followed that up with my favorite nonfiction book, Young Men and Fire, about the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana that killed thirteen young “smoke-jumpers” (parachuting fire-fighters). 

Coincidentally, as I make headway on this project—is anything ever coincidental?—I have finally rounded the halfway point of Anthony Powell’s astounding twelve-volume cycle A Dance to the Music of Time. Three times before I started reading these books, written between 1951 and 1975, about four friends from an English boarding school growing up and growing old through the middle half of the twentieth century. Templer, Stringham, Widmerpool, and the narrator, Jenkins, start as lads together just after World War I and end as old men surrounded by hippies in the early 1970s.

There are some things that particularly strike me about Powell’s masterwork. First comes the faith the author must have had to undertake it in the first place. It is clear from the very first volume that he had in mind a multivolume work taking as its theme a painting by Poussin, pictured here. According to one source, Poussin’s picture “was meant to represent the passing of time, and the different stages of life on the rapidly revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure.” Jenkins’s three boyhood friends come and go through the twelve-volume cycle, along with 300 other characters.

What if Powell (pronounced pole) had died midway through volume four? Don’t you suppose that possibility occurred to him? (In fact, he lived another 25 years after completing volume 12, Hearing Secret Harmonies.) What if his inspiration ran dry, a calamity feared by most writers? Yet here they are today: four volumes of three novels each, packaged by University Chicago Press A Dance to the Music of Time—1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Movements.

Powell’s work is often compared with Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time). I’ve never finished Proust and suspect I never will, but I’ve read enough to think that Powell wins out over the French novelist on several counts.

First, while Proust is sometimes wry, Powell is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Just today I was reading volume 7, The Valley of Bones, in which Jenkins has entered military service at the beginning of World War II. A general, inspecting a platoon, asks the commanding officer what the men had for breakfast. When he learns that they had liver, bread, and jam but no porridge, he is dumbfounded. He begins asking one man after another whether he likes porridge, and the soldiers, thinking it the right answer, all answer no. Finally—

The General stood in silence, as if in great distress of mind, holding his long staff at arm’s length from him, while he ground it deep into the earthy surface of  the barnhouse floor. He appeared to be trying to contemplate as objectively as possible the concept of being so totally excluded from the human family as to dislike porridge. His physical attitude suggested a holy man doing penance vicariously for the sin of those in his spiritual care.

Finally, one man, a simpleton but an honest one, confesses that he likes porridge.

Slowly General Liddament straightened himself. He raised the stick so that its sharp metal point almost touched the face of Corporal Gwylt. 

‘Look,’ he said, ‘look, all of you. He may not be the biggest man in the Division, but he is a sturdy fellow, a good type. There is a man who eats porridge. Some of you would do well to follow his example.’

With these words, the Divisional Commander strode out of the barn.

Immediately following this brilliant bit of comedy, after the general’s car has disappeared in the distance, Powell hits the reader with a sudden shift of perspective:

We returned from the exercise to find Germany had invaded Norway and Denmark.

“The dogs bark; the caravan moves on,” Jenkins comments in volume 6, The Kindly Ones, and this could be taken as an epigraph for the entire dance. Powell’s focus is almost always on dogs in the foreground, on the foibles and fallenness of the mortals dancing there. But he frequently reminds us that these small and really inconsequential narratives are playing out against a grand backdrop, that the caravan of history inevitably rolls on.

This also sets him in front of Proust, I think. In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel (Proust’s alter ego) is the main character, and much of the interest derives from what is essentially happening inside his head. The other characters—the men and women he loves, often vicariously—are projections of his own self-absorbed consciousness.

Powell’s alter ego, the narrator Nick Jenkins, is almost a nonentity by contrast. Compared with other major characters and even many minor ones, we learn very little about him because he is so interested in others. While religion is almost never discussed in the first seven volumes of Dance, with the exception of a couple of cultish characters in volume 6 and an arguably anti-Catholic parody of a priest in volume 7, the perspective of the Anglican Powell is ironically more Catholic than that of the French Proust.

What strikes me about A Dance to the Music of Time now is Powell’s love for his characters—all 300 of them, in all their brokenness. It is a love for humanity, God’s greatest creation, a love I would dearly like to demonstrate in my own relatively modest project.

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