This month the University of Chicago Press is republishing, in ebook format, a landmark of twentieth-century English fiction—Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time. As a teaser, Chicago is offering the first book in the series, A Question of Upbringing, for free. (The remaining volumes sell for eight bucks a throw.) One of the great custodians of neglected fiction, Chicago has kept Powell’s large canvas of English society, inspired by Nicolas Poussin’s 1640 painting (see right), in print for several years in the four large volumes originally published in this country by Little, Brown. However, Powell patiently released his novel in twelve separate books about every other year, and that is how Chicago is marketing the ebooks.
Born in December 1905, the son of an army officer, Powell was educated at Eton, where he ran with the self-conscious aesthetes Harold Acton and Henry Green, and then at Balliol College, Oxford, where his older classmates included Cyril Connolly and Graham Greene. He began his literary career in the ’thirties with five satirical novels. They were duly praised, but next to the two-years-older Evelyn Waugh, who had already satirized the generation of the “bright young things” in two brilliant novels before he had got off his first shot, Powell was a slight figure. After publishing What Became of Waring? in 1939, he did not write another novel for a dozen years.
During the long silence between his last prewar novel and A Question of Upbringing (1951), Powell devised and perfected the unique narrative style of A Dance to the Music of Time. The clue to that style lies in the one book that he published during this period. John Aubrey and His Friends (1948) is a biography of the man who invented the art of biography in English. The Aubrey book prepared him to write in the voice of the biographer, which Powell uses to great effect (and with unbelievable consistency) in his long masterpiece. Although told in the first person by a character named Nick Jenkins, the narrative is remarkably impersonal. Jenkins never tells stories to settle scores.
Although he later wrote a four-volume autobiography and two late-in-life novels that showed enduring keenness of mind and observation, Powell is best known for A Dance to the Music of Time. The novel, which took him nearly two-and-a-half decades to finish, concluded with Hearing Secret Harmonies in 1975. The last installment of the long Dance ends with the death of Kenneth Widmerpool, one of the great villains in English fiction. Although the novel’s ending echoes its beginning so many years earlier, Powell did not spend much time tying up loose ends. “I found I didn’t want an ‘end’ of that sort,” he said. “I was very anxious that one should not be absolutely washed out at the end. It was very important that the reader should not feel there was not a single other word to be said”—an odd statement about a twelve-volume novel of a million words, but one that reveals a great deal about his philosophy of literature and life. Powell was remarkably curious about human personality in all its forms, and did not believe that a comprehensive portrait could ever be drawn. “You can form the basis of perhaps half a dozen people from one human model,” he once said, explaining his methods, but also the degree of his success at illuminating the mysteries of character.
Powell conceived of himself as a satirical novelist first and foremost. Asked by the New York Times Book Review in 1981 to name the book he wished that he had written, Powell replied memorably:
What is more, Powell does not seem nearly so anomalous, wacky, and inimitable as Waugh. While there are no “sons of Evelyn,” Powell has several distinguished literary descendants. Without A Dance to the Music of Time, it is impossible to conceive of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels or George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series. Indeed, Fraser was quite open about the influence, writing a masters thesis on Powell which was one of the first scholarly studies of the great novelist.
Powell died in March 2000 at the age of ninety-four, having lived long enough to see A Dance to the Music of Time turned into a four-part television movie. (Oddly, it was not directed by his son Tristram Powell, who directed TV versions of Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer and Kingsley Amis’s Old Devils.) “Writing a book,” Powell said, “is a question of instinct balanced against contrivance.” Few twentieth-century novelists have shown more exquisite balance for so long.