Since my last post, I haven’t done a lot of reading–I’ve been plugging away slowly at a couple of mysteries. But I have listened to about 35 hours of Anthony Powell’s 12-novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time (that puts me on book six, nearing the end of the second “movement,” Summer). If you’re wondering how I did that in 2 weeks, well, I listened when I was, could have been, or should have been doing other things. I generally dislike bingeing on an author, I’m increasingly tired of long series, and yet I’m hooked. The only thing stopping me from going straight through another two seasons/movements and 40 hours is that I have to wait for more Audible credits.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the series:
The story is an often comic examination of movements and manners, power and passivity in English political, cultural and military life in the mid 20th century.
And there’s some truth to that, but it makes the novels sound more epic in scope (and duller) than they are. Or maybe they are that epic, but it’s an epic glimpsed indirectly: so far, every scene of this very episodic story has been a social event. Teas, dinner parties, pub and club lunches, dances. Big things happen, but not on the page (I’m just getting up to WW II, though, so that might change). Political, cultural, business and military personages appear, but are known largely through their social lives.
Here is how Powell himself represents what he’s up to, in the opening passage from the first book, A Question of Upbringing. Nick, the narrator, sees a group of workmen around a fire, an image which
suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene 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. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take a recognizable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving patterns to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.
That’s how the book works. Characters weave in and out of its pages, disappearing for years and then suddenly resuming importance in Nick’s life. Events and people that appear insignificant later take their place in patterns he begins to perceive or impose on the world, the life, around him.
There are moments of abstract reflection like that, but for the most part the books can be enjoyed as a flow of lively gossip and anecdote. The “meaning of life” emerges mainly through accretion, the piling up of daily events both trivial and (though only indirectly recounted) profound: births, deaths, marriages, affairs, triumphs, betrayals, they’re all in here amongst the school days and parties. I haven’t been dwelling much on the deeper stuff, just enjoying the sparkling surface of the river as it flows by–in one ear and out the other, perhaps–but I know the river has depths when I’m in the mood to plumb them.
I think I’m enjoying this so much in part because the effect could only be achieved by length and slow accretion, the way the effect of an actual life must be felt. I’ve missed that slower, more reflective pace. I’m tired of spending so much time consuming the tweets and sound-bites and short articles of the internet age. There are things you can’t meaningfully express or consider in a short space. At the same time, each episode (and novel) is fairly short–and full of parties–so Dance to the Music of Time balances the pleasures of the serious Big Fat Book and the quick, undemanding read.
I like books and series that work on a broad canvas, covering decades of a life or aiming to capture the “society” of a particular place and time (inevitably, they leave a lot out–Nick’s world is pretty privileged). Some of my favorites:
- Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (that’s how I think of this “genre” of books–“The Way We Live Now” novels)
- George Eliot, Middlemarch (subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life,” after all)
- William Boyd, Any Human Heart (here’s my post)
- A.S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet
It’s a very British list. I can think of American versions (Dos Passos, Updike) but they mostly don’t appeal to me. But what about non-White/non-Western books of this kind? Maybe Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy? If you’ve got suggestions, hit me up. Or I can just read Powell’s four volumes of memoirs and three of journals.