Anthony Powell's universally acclaimed epic encompasses a four-volume panorama of twentieth century London. Hailed by Time as "brilliant literary comedy as well as a brilliant sketch of the times," A Dance to the Music of Time opens just after World War I. Amid the fever of the 1920s and the first chill of the 1930s, Nick Jenkins and his friends confront sex, society, business, and art. In the second volume they move to London in a whirl of marriage and adulteries, fashions and frivolities, personal triumphs and failures. These books "provide an unsurpassed picture, at once gay and melancholy, of social and artistic life in Britain between the wars" (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.). The third volume follows Nick into army life and evokes London during the blitz. In the climactic final volume, England has won the war and must now count the losses. In this third volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, we again meet Widmerpool, doggedly rising in rank; Jenkins, shifted from one dismal army post to another; Stringham, heroically emerging from alcoholism; Templer, still on his eternal sexual quest. Here, too, we are introduced to Pamela Flitton, one of the most beautiful and dangerous women in modern fiction. Wickedly barbed in its wit, uncanny in its seismographic recording of human emotions and social currents, this saga stands as an unsurpassed rendering of England's finest yet most costly hour. Includes the novels: The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art, and The Military Philosophers. As an added bonus, when you purchase our Audible Modern Vanguard production of Anthony Powell's book, you'll also receive an exclusive Jim Atlas interview. This interview – where James Atlas interviews Charles McGrath about the life and work of Anthony Powell – begins as soon as the audiobook ends.
"Nick's bewilderment, frustrations, and brief moments of joy as he negotiates life in the service are expertly conveyed by narrator Simon Vance. From the pomposity of the newly promoted to the silent acceptance of those assigned to menial labor, Vance captures the surreal world of the noncombatant soldier." (AudioFile) "One of the most important works of fiction since the Second World War. . . . The novel looked, as it began, something like a comedy of manners; then, for a while, like a tragedy of manners; now like a vastly entertaining, deeply melancholy, yet somehow courageous statement about human experience." (The New Yorker) "Anthony Powell is the best living English novelist by far. His admirers are addicts, let us face it, held in thrall by a magician." (Chicago Tribune)
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BOOK SEVEN ('The Valley of Bones'): We begin the 3rd Movement with the seventh book of 12. If you prefer to think of Anthony Powell's (rhymes with pole's, not towel's) masterpiece cycle in terms of months, 'Valley of the Bones' is July.
'The Valley of Bones' is a war novel that has nothing to do with war. Well, that is not right, there are signals that the war is beginning and the Nazis are invading countries in Europe. Nick Jenkins finds himself in command of a platoon training for war with the Germans. His company is a company whose officers are all primarily bankers and whose enlisted ranks seem filled with miners. Instead of a novel about a battle, or valor, or strategy -- we get a novel about marches, stolen rifles, moldy cheese, drinks, fights, and bureaucracy.
Having two brothers and a brother-in-law, a father-in-law, and a father who have all served overseas during the 1st Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, or the War in Iraq, I can attest from their stories that the introductory quote is absolutely true. One of the biggest parts of war is the sitting, the boredom, the drudgery. It is punctuated by insanity and violence, but the violence is rare often only felt by the tip of the spear. The romance of war is both a myth and a lie.
There is a quote that stuck with me from this novel, "A company commander...needs the qualifications of a ringmaster in a first-class circus, and a nanny in a large family".
If the idea of boredom, duty and bureaucracy seems to persuade you to look elsewhere for your Sunday, literary entertainment, you must not yet understand the full appeal of Powell. He is able to examine this reality of the rearguard of war with an eye that picks up little gems about war, the military, and those engaged in war that seem to transcend time and sides. "Looked at calmly, war created a situation in which the individual -- if he wished to be on the winning side -- was of importance only in so much as he contributed to the requirements of the machine, not according to the picturesque figure he cut in the eyes of himself and others".
Anyway, Powell is able to paint a picture of the boredom of war that reminds me of the literary equivalent of the Flemish masters. This novel is not the equivalent of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade. This novel is a painting of three soldiers, hung-over, pealing potatoes in the rain. And yes, even that has its own majesty.
BOOK EIGHT ('The Soldier's Art'): It seems almost by accident my pacing of Powell's 12 volume A Dance to the Music of Time brings me to book 8 in August. I didn't plan it. I fall into Powell in fits and starts. I'll read a couple books and move on to other books. But I keep coming back.
Anyway, a couple things stood out about this novel. The beginning starts out with Jenkins buying an army coat at a theatrical costume shop in London. The bent, elderly, bearded assistant mistakes Jenkin's motives for buying the coat, believing him to be in a play. It was beautifully done. It was rich, ironic, and anticipated the themes of war as theatre, etc. In the final act/chapter of this movement Powell brings it back around to dress when he is having a discussion with Chessman and remarks "It is a tailor's war, anyway" in response to seeing Cheesman wearing a waistcoat underneath his tunic.
Like every Powell book, this one involves dinners, drawing rooms (this one bombed out), friends rotating in and out of Jenkin's life. Some of these friends, however, leave permanently in this book. It was touching and like most all of the Powell books I've read, infinitely quotable. He weaves into each of his conversations pearls of wisdom, and clever observations about people and motives. It really is an amazing series.
BOOK NINE (The Military Philosophers): This is the last book in the Fall/WWII trilogy (3rd Movement) of A Dance to the Music of Time. It was at once the saddest of the series so far and also the most Proustian, with several direct quotations from Remembrance of Things Past and also several geographies in common with that other monster of 20th Century fiction.
The book had me hooked from the first couple paragraphs. To me, at least, it resembled (in a less funky and mad way) the opening section of Europe Central? You know the part. The very beginning too. Where, STEEL IN MOTION, with a black telephone/Signal Corps octopus vibrating, ringing, somnambulating, sleepwalking, eavesdropping, gloating as Europe Central buzzes.
See, here from the first couple pages of 'The Military Philosophers':
"from the secret radio Spider, calling and testing in the small hours..."
"Endemic as ghouls in an Arabian cemetery, harassed aggressive shades lingered for ever in such cells to impose on each successive inmate their preoccupations and anxieties, crowding him from floor and bed, invading and distorting dreams. Once in a way a teleprinter would break down, suddenly ceasing to belch forth its broad paper shaft, the column instead crumpling to stop in mid-air like waters of a frozen cataract."
Without giving too much away (meetings are held, rockets scream, people die, but the Allies eventually win) this novel centers on WWII from about 1942 to the end of the war. The war, except for the bombs and the V2 rockets is largely fought elsewhere by other friends. Nick is engaged primarily as a liaison officer (first with the Poles and then with the Belgians, etc.) where he learns how to maneuver through bureaucracy and personalities. Widerpool again (and also Pamela) seem to both act as catalysts whose actions impact heavily the lives around them.
I think it is also worth posting the Nestor poem in full that I (and Powell) borrowed a verse from:
Vulcan, contrive me such a cup, As Nestor us'd of old; Show all thy skill to trim it up, Damask it round with gold.
Make it so large, that, fill'd with sack, Up to the swelling brim, Vast toasts on the delicious lake, Like ships at sea, may swim.
Engrave no battle on his cheek, With war I've nought to do, I'm none of those that took Maestrick, Nor Yarmouth Leaguer knew.
Let it no name of planets tell, Fix'd stars, or constellations; For I am no Sir Sidrophel, Nor none of his relations.
But carve thereon a spreading vine, Then add two lovely boys; Their limbs in amorous folds entwine, The type of future joys.
Cupid and Bacchus my saints are, May Drink and Love still reign! With wine I wash away my cares, And then to love again.
In war time it is always interesting to see the interactions between the soldiers in the field and the POGs* (persons other than grunts). Powell plays with this a bit. Jenkins and Widerpool aren't exactly "safe" but their positions during the war keep them primarily in London. The war is being fought by other men. There is also tension between the above ground and below ground (secret) elements of the war. Again, towards the end of these war trilogies we see clothing used to convey the idea of the war as a play. One costume is exchanged for another as Jenkins is demobbed.
* this was a term I was first introduced to by my little brother who served as a "foot" or a "grunt" with 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.
- Darwin8u "I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - Salinger ^(;,;)^"
Masterpiece of Modern Literature
A Dance to the Music of Time, inspired by the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin, was rated by Time magazine as one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Written by the English novelist Anthony Powell, who took almost 25 years to create the 12-volume set, provides a highly-literate and highly-amusing look into the English upper-middle class between the 1920s and the 1970s. Told through the eyes of Nick Jenkins (the author), the book covers politics, class-consciousness, society, culture, love, social graces, manners, education, power, money, snobbery, humour, and more. Students of British history will no doubt recognize the real-life persons thinly disguised as characters in these novels.
Although daunting in terms of length, the absolutely brilliant narration by the talented Simon Vance rewards the reader over thousands of pages, hundreds of characters, and twelve installments of gorgeous prose. This is a not-to-be-missed collection of novels for any serious reader of English literature.