Sunday, January 20, 2013

Guide to the “Dance”: Stirrings of Love in Volume 1

I am rushing another post into the breach before a second morning of croquet on Cape Cod, because comments say that I have not one, but count ’em three companions now on my re-read of “A Dance to the Music of Time”! I didn’t know there were that many old fogeys left in the world.

Welcome EPG, debbie, and Kentish Man!

In Volume 1, we meet narrator Nicholas Jenkins—and learn almost nothing about him. We learn less about his family except that he has an eccentric, hard-pressed, bigoted, womanizing, and unreliable uncle named Giles. (In Volume 2, we will learn a bit about his father’s career; for the life of me I can’t recall now if we ever learn about Mum.)

Jenkins seldom uses the word I. Many observations are couched in long downriver meanderings of the passive voice, sometimes with the impersonal subject one. I’ve never read a voice like this in any novel. Readers have compared Anthony Powell’s “Dance” to Marcel Proust’s “Search,” because each is a meditation on the past in which memories are triggered by chance impressions (Proust’s madeleine).

But as I once wrote they are almost polar opposites. Powell is the anti-Proust. Proust is all about Proust (somewhat fictionalized as “Marcel”); Powell’s “Dance” is all about his narrator’s dancing partners. There’s something very Catholic about this, or catholic, as commenter EPG noted. Proust’s drama seems forever played out in the corridors of his own mind, Powell’s in the real-world corridors of power, prestige, the arts, and love affairs.

About love: In the first section of A Question of Upbringing, Jenkins’s schoolmate Peter Templer returns by train late from a day in London, where he has taken a “tart” to bed for a “quid.” He is grilled by another student, Charles Stringham:

“Was it a well appointed apartment?”

“I admit the accommodation was a bit on the squalid side,” said Templer. “You can’t have everything for a quid.”

“That wasn’t very munificent, was it?”

“All I had. That was why I had to walk from the station.”

“You seem to have been what Le Bas would call ‘a very unwise young man.’”

“I see no reason why Le Bas should be worried by the matter, if he didn’t notice the scent.”

“What an indescribably sordid incident,” said Stringham. “However, let’s hear full details.”

The conversation is interrupted when Le Bas, their housemaster, enters. Jenkins is not initially aroused by this account of Templer’s whoring, though a bit later it brings Templer’s character into better focus for the narrator:

“Templer’s adventure indicated the lengths to which he was prepared to go, and behaviour that had previously seemed to me needless—and even rather tiresome—bravado on his part harmonised with a changing and widening experience. I found that I suddenly liked him better.”

About that “changing and widening experience”: Throughout volumes 1 and 2, Jenkins awakens to the attractions of young women. Near the end of the second section of Question (there are four sections), after visiting Stringham’s household and giving us some back story on Uncle Giles, Jenkins visits Templer’s household and meets his sister Jean. (Spoiler alert, though it’s hardly a spoiler in a series that is less about what happens than it is about the human beings to whom things happen: Jenkins will have an affair with Jean in volume three, The Acceptance World.)

Nick’s sexual awakening is the kind I used to have on school vacation: He sleeps in as long as possible. It is triggered briefly when an older woman in the Templer household, Lady McReith, grabs him to try out a dance step:

“The extraordinary smoothness with which she glided across the polished boards, the sensation that we were holding each other close, and yet, in spite of such proximity, she remained at the same time aloof and separate, the pervading scent with which she drenched herself, and, above all, the feeling that all this offered something further, some additional and violent assertion of the will, was—almost literally—intoxicating. The revelation was something far more universal in implication than a mere sense of physical attraction towards Lady McReith. It was realisation, in a moment of time, not only of her own possibilities, far from inconsiderable ones, but also of other possibilities that life might hold; and my chief emotion was surprise.”

That passage is, for me, almost perfect Powell. The I does not come in until the my of the last clause, in which he encapsulates his impression, in not love, passion, or arousal, but surprise. What a surprise!
I enjoy listening to the stirrings of passion in Jenkins in these first volumes. He will observe Templer and Lady McReith “carrying on some sort of mutual conflict” under a “motoring rug” in the back seat of a convertible; he will learn the following morning that Templer and McReith slept together; he will begin to fall for Jean while (in the third section) indulging a marvelously frustrated fantasy for a French girl on holiday in the Loire Valley.

Freud would have laughed Jenkins and Powell out of book as repressed post-Victorians, but I identify. Heterosexual emotion stirs in Nick long before he ever recognizes it as sexual; he scarcely recognizes it as love. I was once such a schoolboy, though choirboy is closer to my point.

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