Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Dance to the Music of Time: Don’t Stop the Music!

I have just completed Powell's 12-volume cycle of novels, “A Dance to the Music of Time.” While my attention flagged many times during more than 3,000 pages, I had so much enjoyment along the way that a voice in my head is now whispering, Start over from the beginning.

I have never read anything quite like this “Dance,” and I don't want the music to stop.

Starting at an English boarding school and focusing initially on three of his friends there, narrator Nicholas Jenkins introduces us to 300 characters in 12 novels spanning over 50 years, from the end of World War I to the hippie era. Two remarkable things happen in this twelfth volume.

First, Powell brings back at least half of the 300 characters. At a series of parties, receptions, and shows so many unexpected old friends show up, you find yourself thinking, each time there’s a knock on the door, OK, who now? Yet so many of the characters are so well drawn by Powell that you feel an upsurge of affection for many of them as they walk back through the door.

Second, a fictional history of the English upper class during the heart of the 20th century—covering two wars, the depression, and countless imaginary cultural squabbles—ends in a surprising place: in a New Age cult. Headed by the frightening young Scorpio Murtlock, the cult proves to be the last round-up for the antihero of the entire series, Kenneth (Lord) Widmerpool.

Jenkins’s other two friends from school, Peter Templer and Charles Stringham, both died in World War II, somewhere in the middle of the series. But many of their family members and friends show up in volume twelve, Hearing Secret Harmonies. In any event, Widmerpool is Powell’s great creation: an eccentric, unlikable, power-hungry prig, for whom you can’t help feeling pity as he nears his end, if not exactly affection.

Yes, I think I’ll start again.

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