In My Earbuds: A Dance to the Music of Time

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.

The painting, of a circle of dancing nymphs, is described in the passage quoted below.

Poussin, The Dance to the Music of Time, c. 1636

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.


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22 Responses to In My Earbuds: A Dance to the Music of Time

  1. Miss Bates says:

    I read it years and years ago when I was doing a final year Modernism course in the liberal arts program I attended, but I LOVED Robert Musil’s three-volume (unfinished I believe) MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES. And of course, you could always tackle, or re-tackle, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (I never made it past the first volume). These are most definitely W&W, white and Western, but at least not English. 😉

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      There are some Proustian moments here, for sure–a lot of the books start with a sight that sends Nick back to the past (the workmen around the fire, a bomb site). The same kind of sense memory. I am deeply resistant to Proust. Maybe, like my dad, I’ll tackle him in retirement.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I recommend the Cairo Trilogy – fascinating and engaging portrayal of a different culture

  3. Ros says:

    Oh, it sounds fab. I have never read it though I did watch the TV adaptation a number of years ago and I think I might have listened to at least some of it on the radio.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, it looks like there were two radio adaptations, and Powell was involved in the TV one. I wonder about that–on the one hand it could work well because the scenes are so social, but the retrospective voice of the narrator is really important to the books. That would be hard to keep in TV.

  4. lawless says:

    I like that slower, more reflective pace that’s more like real life. Rohan Maitzen has already convinced me I need to read Middlemarch. Maybe i’ll try this as well. It also looks as though The Way We Live Now may be a better “in” to Trollope for me than The Warden, which I started but stopped because it required a great deal of concentration for the exposition-to-story ratio.

  5. Clarissa says:

    I know this is still British, but John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga fits nicely with your other recommendations. And I second your comments about The Way We Live Now and Middlemarch: these are two of my all-time favourite Victorian novels! Regarding the last comment about The Warden, I think Barchester Towers is a better entry point for Trollope’s Barsetshire series.

  6. Barb in Maryland says:

    My favorite Trollope series is ‘The Pallisers’–British Victorian era politics. It helped that I had watched all (was it 22?) episodes on TV back in the late 70’s.
    DE Stevenson’s books featuring Miss Buncle are charming bits of WWII era ‘slice of life’ as are the Miss Read books (post WWII). Alas, they are all white and British.
    My other favorite long running series was Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna books. But those cover a long time frame in the course of the series, as opposed to just one life.
    I keep looking at the Powell, but was put off by the number of books and the bare-bones description. I think I may give it a try–you make it sound enjoyable.

  7. Liz Mc2 says:

    Thank you for all the ideas, British or not!

    I agree on the Trollope recs. Barchester Towers is much livelier and funnier than The Warden. And overall I prefer the Palliser series (though I haven’t ever finished it–that’s an audio feat I’m contemplating, because I’ve got the first one already). I also like He Knew He Was Right. I like the more political/satirical side of Trollope.

    Barb, all those Jalna books just showed up in my library’s e-collection, and I was wondering “what ARE these?” so maybe I’ll have to check them out!

    I read the first three or four Powell books in print ages ago and enjoyed them, but the number did seem daunting. For some reason, that was less true in audio (though I’ve had the first “movement” on my iPod for a few years without getting around to them). The narrator is Simon Vance, by the way, and he’s very good. I think the descriptions/blurbs I’ve seen, which tend to be very short and dry, do not do justice to the charm of the books.

    • Barb in Maryland says:

      Oh, I thought that ‘Jalna’ books would be required in every Canadian public library! The author was Canadian and very popular in her day. (she died in 1961).
      Jalna is the name of the Whiteoak family’s estate–somewhere in Ontario. The books span several generations of the family and the hardbacks(which I read long ago and far away) come complete with a detailed family tree!

      • Clarissa says:

        I’ve lived all my life in Canada and hadn’t heard of the Jalna books until a few years ago, when I started researching a new novel set in 1920’s Canada. My theory is that the Jalna books are not literary enough to appeal to Canadian institutions (schools, libraries, universities). We’re pretty focussed on literary fiction here, which became very clear when I began looking for an agent! The Jalna books are fun and should be more widely read (and more widely available).

      • Jorrie Spencer says:

        Jalna! Gosh, what a blast from the past that is. I associate it with my teen reading where I burned through the entire series, though I also associate Mazo de la Roche with my reading Taylor Caldwell and John Jakes. So it seems, if my memory is correct, a different kind of book than DANCE. Though I’ve never read Powell. And I don’t want to go back to Jalna in case it doesn’t hold up for me. That said, my sister and my mother enjoyed reading and rereading the Jalna series. And my library has many if not all of the books.

  8. Chris says:

    I know, it is British again, but you might like the Strangers and Brothers series by CP Snow.

  9. Kathryn says:

    It’s only one volume, like Middlemarch, but what about Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy? I’ve heard that he has completed a companion volume, titled of course, A Suitable Girl, that will be out in 2016. I’m excited about that as I enjoyed A Suitable Boy. Haven’t read it since it first came out, so it’s a good time to revisit it and prepare for A Suitable Girl.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      My husband and I read that one aloud to each other (or most of it) back when it first came out. I thought about it for my list and then forgot! I wonder if it’s on audio? I’m a bit daunted by the physical version now.

  10. The Four Great Masterpieces of the Chinese novel all do what you are asking in one way or another. So does The Tale of Genji.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you, Tom, for both these suggestions and the ones on Twitter. You know, I was thinking that Balzac or Hugo has a different “feel” than Powell (well, of course)–but what I mean is that they seem more socially or politically pointed than Powell. As, for that matter, does Dickens, who also paints on a broad canvas (and my favorite Dickens novels are what I think of as the most “Way We Live Now” ones, like Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend). But I think this says more about what stands out to me as political/social commentary and what appears more politically “neutral” than anything else. So that’s a prejudice I should get over. I have read very little 19th-century French literature, and that’s something I should remedy.

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