Monday, January 28, 2013

Guide to the “Dance,” End of Book 3: Who Needs “Downton Abbey”?

For 2013, I set myself to read one volume a month of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time.” The idea was to re-read all 12 books and 2,800+ pages in 12 months, having only just finished the series at the beginning of January. I even explained why.

Now, I’ve already finished the First Movement (books 1–3), and when I head to Florida tomorrow, I’ll be packing the Second (books 4–6).

I’m also packing The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, often started but never finished; Ian Ker’s bio of John Henry Newman, recommended by my CL friend Matt; H. W. Brands’s new bio of U. S. Grant, because he’s simply the greatest general, though possibly worst president, in US history; the two books in the Ender Quartet that I have not read, namely Xenocide and Children of the Mind—and the eight-hour British TV miniseries, “A Dance to the Music of Time,” on DVD, starring just about everybody, including John Gielgud.

Because somehow I want to share the “Dance” with Katie, and it’s not the sort of thing you read aloud to your sweetie.

Florida is a great place for reading and for croquet. Mostly reading, though on Thursday, I begin a four-day tournament at the Sarasota County Croquet Club; and generally I hope to haunt the SCCC while in town because it’s the greatest game going, and the only game a 60+ guy can hope to get much better at.

Ah, but the “Dance”—

The first three books in the 12-book series take narrator Nick Jenkins from his last year in boarding school (1921–1922) to the summer of 1933 and the bottom of “the slump,” as he and his cronies call the financial collapse we call the Great Depression. The end of Nick’s youth and the dawning of his social and sexual awareness coincide with much partying in the 1920s and a narrowing of horizons in the early 1930s.

In the third book, we see the fall of the economy and the rise of isms—from the spiritualism of Myra Erdleigh, Uncle Giles’s fortune-telling mistress, to the communism, socialism, and whateverism of J. G. Quiggin and crazy-coot novelist St. John Clarke, whose secretary Quiggin becomes.

Nick’s youth ends definitively at an Old Boy Dinner honoring his boarding-school housemaster Le Bas (the butt of jokes in book 1), where Le Bas has a stroke and old friend Charles Stringham is incapacitated by drink. By this time, another old friend and womanizer, Peter Templer, has been through his first divorce (his ex showing up as Quiggin’s mistress) and the mysterious Kenneth Widmerpool continues his slow rise from the swamp (his late father had a small business in fertilizer made from liquid manure) to the seat of power as the series’s mysterious, monstrous antihero.

Who needs “Downton Abbey” when we have the “Dance,” have had for forty years?

We run into Uncle Giles again, living his “aimless, uncomfortable, but in a sense dedicated life” in the seedy elegance of the Ufford residence. The place has the feel of Miss Havisham’s. It even has “a clock, so constructed that pendulum and internal works were visible under its glass dome, stood eternally at twenty minutes past five.”

Visiting Uncle Giles, Nick has his cards read by Mrs. Erdleigh, and her auguries prove spot-on.

Nick’s frustrated efforts to get St. John Clarke to write a foreword to a survey on a minor painter, Horace Isbister, become a unifying thread for some of the encounters in book 3. Old schoolmate Mark Members is St. J’s secretary when the book begins, but he is supplanted by Quiggin. By the end of the book, St. J. has become a Trostkyist, Quiggin has left, and his place taken by a German, Werner Guggenbuhl.

Meanwhile, the model or mannequin or perhaps callgirl Mona makes the rounds of the men surrounding Nick, the innocent observer. We meet the somewhat talented painter Barnby, who marries Stringham’s ex-sister-in-law. Nick begins an affair, which appears to be ending when the book closes. And house guests of Templer play a disconcerting round of Planchette (popularized in the USA as the Ouija Board).

Near the end of book 3 and the First Movement, Powell and Jenkins begin our introduction to the Warrington clan (aka the Tollands). This sprawling family with a peerage and an estate and an eccentric, left-leaning leader will be the focus of many scenes in subsequent volumes, and will provide Nick with a wife, his one and only.

On to Florida! On to book 4!

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