Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Dance Begins

It has been about a decade since I read Proust's In Search of Lost Time, but I still remember the power of the novel and the discussions I had with the small group that read it with me in our University of Chicago Basic Program class.
This memory was rekindled by my recent reading of A Question of Upbringing, the beginning section of A Dance to the Music of Time.
Written by Anthony Dymoke Powell, CH, CBE (December 21, 1905–March 28, 2000) who was an English novelist best known for this twelve-volume work, published between 1951 and 1975. Powell was regarded by such writers as Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis as one of the greatest British novelists of the 20th century, and has been called the English equivalent of Marcel Proust. Powell's major work has remained in print continuously, and has been the subject of TV and radio dramatizations. He apparently wrote his lengthy novel, or series of novels, with Proust in mind; however his approach to memory and time is more analytical and classical than Proust. He said the following in his memoirs, "I had been turning over in my mind the possibility of writing a novel composed of a fairly large number of volumes, just how many could not be decided at the outset. A long sequence seemed to offer all sorts of advantages, among them release from the re-engagement every year or so of the same actors and extras hanging about for employment at the stagedoor of one's fantasy." (To Keep the Ball Rolling: Faces in My Time (Heinemann, 1980))

The opening section of the Dance introduces the reader to four young men at Eton on the verge of setting out in life which for the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, and one other, Stringham - though only briefly, will mean going up to Oxford. The narrator's other two friends, Templer and Widmerpool, go in different directions but you never doubt that they will meet again over the course of this lengthy series of novels.
Powell succeeds in taking you back to a time and place, Britain and France in the 1920s, that no longer exists, describing a class structure and culture that is unfamiliar to this reader who grew up in the Midwest. He does this with a prose style and a structure that, through episodes in the lives of four boys on the verge of adulthood, slowly builds a story that seems very true to life. These episodes, many of which are somewhat comic, proceed in a way that has a cumulative effect building your familiarity with, and ultimately your interest in, the lives of these young men, their families and friends, and the impact of history on those lives. The evolving nature of the story line can easily be seen as representing the "dance" of the series title. By the time the narrator says goodbye to his Uncle Giles at the end of A Question of Upbringing you have become engaged with these individuals, their loves and dreams for the future.

A Dance to the Music of Time - First Movement by Anthony Powell. University of Chicago Press, 1995 (1951-5)

Images: 1) The Dance to the Music of Time by Nicholas Poussin. Wallace Collection, London.
2) Aerial view of Oxford.


Lisa said...

I have most certainly noted this book. I started reading In Search of Lost Time in January. I've read the first three books and hope to finish with all of them this year. I'm a bit torn because Penguin Classics published new translations of the first four volumes, but I don't know when to expect the last three. The UK versions have been published, so it won't be a tragedy if I finish with those.

I decided to read Proust after I read Alain de Boton's, How Proust Can Change Your Life. It is true that Proust really has changed my life. It's only since I started to do so that I've been driven to read Stendhal and Flaubert and Ruskin and Racine and dozens of others. Each experience only lengthens the list, but I certainly know that for as long as I live, I'll never be bored!

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Proust is worth the investment and I have been intrigued by the thought of returning to him with the new translations to which you referred. Botton is also fun to read as he shares his passions with us.

andrea said...

As "Dance" goes on, Jenkins is surprised at the force with which Widmerpool insinuates himself into different situations, but I'm not sure that I would call him his friend.

Agreed that it's a very engaging series.

James said...

Interesting observation. Powell is successful in portraying complex relationships that do not often fall into simple categories.