Thursday, January 24, 2013

Guide to the “Dance”: Quick Thoughts to End Book Two

I put the thick paperback down on the counter at 5:05 this morning, having just completed the second of twelve books in “A Dance to the Music of Time” for (at least*) the third time, and muttered to no one in particular (I was alone in the kitchen), “A masterpiece. A freakin’ masterpiece.” It was language that author Anthony Powell would have found rah-ther crude, I’m afraid.

I am dancing this “Dance” all over again after only just finishing the twelve volumes at the beginning of January. I had read (at least*) the first two or three books in the series (at least*) twice before.

This may tell you two things.

(1) It was a hard series for me to get into, and may be so for you.

(2) Once I did get into it in 2012 and finished it in 2013, I wanted to restart it immediately. And so might you. It’s that great.

I probably bought my paperback set of four “Movements” (containing three books each) as early as 2005. For the next few years, I restarted the “Dance” but never got beyond book four or five. Then I restarted again and got to book three. And so on. Hence the asterisks (*) above. I don’t know how many times I restarted or how far I got each time.

But now that I am where I am, here are some “quick” thoughts about why I spluttered this morning that “A Dance to the Music of Time” is a freakin’ masterpiece.

1. Book two ends with a great couple of paragraphs, which I will not spoil for you, but which begin to capture the mystery of the entire series, which boils down to the mystery of life and why the things in our life that happen to us happen to us.

1b. Please note: This is not a Catholic series or author, and neither the Church nor the Holy Spirit takes part in Powell’s equation of why life happens as it does. In fact, there are certain references to things like “an enormously fat priest” and “a mysterious, politically-minded cardinal” here and there that sound positively—though not virulently—anti-Catholic.

1c. But also please note: My reader and now fellow reader, EPG, as well as CL friends like Suzanne and Tom, would all chime in that a book doesn’t have to be Catholic to be catholic, and furthermore, what you are passionate about often provides a key that unlocks a door behind which you may discover something worth discovering. 

2. The last two paragraphs of book two flow from the third-to-the-last in which, having gone through several revelatory experiences in the course of a single day, narrator Nick Jenkins suddenly makes a connection seemingly having nothing to do with any of these experiences. He realizes that the hostess of a party he attended eighteen months before, Mrs. Andriadis, reminds him of two women associated with a friend of his, Mrs. Stringham and “Tuffy” Weedon. And somehow this is important to him. Which is to say that “A Dance to the Music of Time” explores, among other things, the mysterious connections among the many people we encounter in the passage of our earthly lives.

3. Among those “other things” explored by Powell, two themes ring clear in book 2.

(a) Power and art—In book two, Nick attends social events and gatherings in two opposed but interconnecting worlds. First is the world of power, of wealthy, aristocratic society in between-the-wars England encountered first at “the Huntercombes’ dance” and later at Stourwater, the medieval castle owned by Sir Magnus Donners, a business tycoon with kinky tastes. Second is the sometimes seedy and definitely downmarket world of art, represented by Mr. Deacon, a bad painter of genre pictures, and Barnby, a younger, possibly better painter, and their various hangers-on, especially the slut Gypsy Jones. The fetching Ms. Jones, who beds down wherever she can find a willing male, is actually the key to two important developments in book two, which I also won’t spoil for you.

(b) Love and class—Leaving the party at Mrs. Andriadis’s, Nick comments: “From the point of view of either sentiment or snobbery, giving both terms their widest connotation, the night had been an empty one.” Sentiment=love and Nick’s desire to find it. Snobbery=the social climbing world and Widmerpool’s desire, in particular, to clamber up it. The odd anti-hero of the whole series was a “grotesque” figure at boarding school but is already surprising Nick by the end of book one with his ability to negotiate his way to influence.

4. Apparently, though he never says so definitively, our narrator finally loses his virginity in book two. Definitely on the side of art (3a) and love (3b), Nick learns faster about 3a than 3b, like another artsy guy I am particularly close to (i.e. me).

5. All of these themes, including Nick’s love life, crisscross in a way that surprises him. This surprise arises precisely at the party hosted by Mrs. Andriadis, whose lookalikes he thinks about at the end of book two. Some surprising people show up at Mrs. Andriadis’s, including Sir Magnus Donners, who can afford to get his jollies in much wealthier venues.

But, well, anyway, I’m trying with these posts to interest a few more of you in joining the “Dance.” And I’ll keep trying while tapping my foot to Powell’s music.

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