Friday, January 18, 2013

Guide to the “Dance,” Vol. 1, A Question of Upbringing

Here I am banging away at a “Catholic” blog, beating the drums for a completely (?) non-religious cycle of novels by Anthony Powell, “A Dance to the Music of Time,” and probably absolutely positively none of my readers is ever even going to crack volume 1. What kind of way of “building readership” (for my blog, for novels, for anything) is that, Frank?

Correction: well, maybe one reader. My longtime commenter ECG (longtime since “Why I Am Catholic Days” of yore) states that he is going to give the “Dance” a go. He writes:

Real readers love to re-read. I didn’t always know this. I just knew that I had favorite books — books I loved to pick up again, and again, and again.

And then, when I was about 12 or fourteen, someone asked me how I could enjoy re-reading a book, since, after all, I already knew how it turned out.

Real readers read for many reasons – finding out what happens is only one.

On your recommendation, Webster, I will try Powell. I may not have your taste for tales of the products of upper crust boarding schools, or for the convoluted prose you quoted, but the astringent humor embedded in that excerpt is appealing. 

Well, huzzah and hoo-ray.

If only for the sake of ECG, one reader, one sheep, one lost lamb, this good shepherd, so busy tending to his flock, is stopping here by the wayside to offer some notes on the first volume in the series.

These notes will be neither comprehensive nor academic, I promise you. I’m sure there’s a whole subindustry of Powell scholarship out there, and I’m not in it. This is just a series of tips, questions, fascinations, and (just to show I can use the word) aperçus by a lay reader on A Question of Upbringing. It is for me, for ECG, and for you, if you’re mad enough to care:


1. It’s Pole, OK? Don’t pronounce the author’s last name to rhyme with growl. Instead, think of the thing a flag sits on, and elongate the sound in a plummy King’s Speech sort of way. And I suspect that if you want to sound truly Elizabethan, you should pronounce the first name Antony, without the aitch.

2. If the first two pages scare the hell out of you as they did me, go to the third. In the first two pages, Powell describes a group of men doing roadwork under a light snowfall, and in the way of novelists with nothing better to do, he mind-trips from this scene to a painting by Poussin “in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays.”

2b. Now, for me, I figure Powell was smoking something. But it turns out that this image is a sort of frame for the whole 12-volume, nearly 3000-page series, in which characters dance through fifty years of time, leaving and then rejoining the circle as in one of those great old communal dances where you work your way around the room and keep being surprised by your next partner, who suddenly swings into view.

2c. But you can ignore it here, because the langauge in the first two pages is the most difficult in the entire series, and here you are, just trying to get in rhythm with Powell’s diction and you’re screaming, What the —?

2d. And here’s the painting:

3. You will be introduced to many characters in volume 1—first at narrator Nick Jenkins’s secondary, or “public,” school, then at the homes of his friends Charles Stringham and Peter Templer, and also at a summer home in France, where Nick runs unexpectedly into another schoolmate, Kenneth Widmerpool. Then, in the final section, just when you think you’re getting a handle on things, Nick moves on to college, and you’re at a Sunday afternoon tea hosted by an old-maid sort of don and influence broker named Sillery. Now suddenly you’re going to meet a whole new flock of characters, and you may decide to give up right here.

4. Don’t. Instead, keep this crib list by your bedside and concentrate mostly on these characters, who will recur with above-average frequency as the “Dance” tumbles on:

4a. Widmerpool—You may think that all three of Nick’s school friends will play important roles for twelve volumes. If so, you will be wrong. No further spoilers provided. Widmerpool survives (almost) everything, and his character is the great enigma at the center of the Dance floor. Why, you may find yourself wondering in volume 7 or 9 or 12, did Powell make him exactly so important? Is he a representative man, or just the most detailed oddball in the history of literature?

4b. Uncle Giles—The relative nobody wants keeps turning up like a bad penny. He’s the kind of uncle everybody loves, except those unfortunate enough to be related to him by blood.

4c. Jean Templer, Peter’s sister—She becomes important, and others in the Stringham and Templer households will return too, like Sunny Farebrother and Miss Weedon, known as “Tuffy.”

5. The Walpole-Wilsons and their relations with Lord Aberavon and Barbara Goring and… OK, there are several families whose characters keep recurring and it will be frustrating if you don’t know roughly who is related to whom, but if not, no biggie. The Tolland family will be another later. And having written that last sentence, I am frankly not sure if the Tollands aren’t related to the Walpole-Wilsons, as they are to the first wife of Stringham’s mother, but whatever. That’s one reason I am re-reading.

6. Members and Quiggin—At Sillery’s tea, you will meet a whole roster of undergraduates, but these two less advantaged students, embarrassed by their lower-class origins, will play important roles going forward. As will Sillery, the don, and even Le Bas, the boys’ housemaster in the opening section.

Well, students, that’s enough for now. I may offer more notes on volume 1 in a later post.

Happy reading, happy dancing.


  1. Webster wrote (in part) "Here I am banging away at a “Catholic” blog, beating the drums for a completely (?) non-religious cycle of novels by Anthony Powell, “A Dance to the Music of Time,” and probably absolutely positively none of my readers is ever even going to crack volume 1."

    You've really hit on something here (and I bet you did not even know it). The amazing thing about Christianity (and Judaism as well) is the proposition that the material world is good. Fallen, yes. Hurt, yes. Subject to pain and death and evil? Yes, yes and yes. But it is not an illusion (see the Buddhists), it is not a mistake (see the Gnostics), it is not a mere accident (see the scientific materialists).

    And, even in its wounded state, it, and the humans in it, can produce marvelous things. Not all of them need to be explicitly religious. In fact, some of the worst crap out there is explicitly religious (think of the "Left Behind" series).

    So, there is more truth in the song "Cold Missouri Waters" (which you wrote about not too long ago) than there is in much of the "Gather Hymnal." There is beauty in Michelangelo's Pieta, and in Rodin's The Thinker. One may profit more from reading Shakespeare than from seeing the film version of "Left Behind." Wendell Berry's "Hannah Coulter" ( which I just finished on your recommendation) is closer to truth than most homilies I have heard.

    Think about it, Webster, you are not just Catholic. You are also catholic (and that is a good thing).

  2. Just so you know I am reading the first one here in Amarillo as well. I love Wendell Berry and all of his books so when you suggested these I thought they would be worth a try. Thank you.


  3. Make that 3. I started "A Question of Upbringing" last week. Not what I would have normally picked up off the shelves of my local library. I'll let you know in 3000 pages (about a year given my poor reading habits) how it went.

  4. Many thanks EPG for the thoughtful comments, and welcome Debbie and Kentish Man! And then there were three . . . I will be writing another post on book 1, hopefully by end of the weekend. Cheers!


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