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 climactic volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, Nick Jenkins describes a world of ambition, intrigue, and dissolution. England has won the war, but now the losses, physical and moral, must be counted. Pamela Widmerpool sets a snare for the young writer Trapnel, while her husband suffers private agony and public humiliation. Set against a background of politics, business, high society, and the counterculture in England and Europe, this magnificent work of art sounds an unforgettable requiem for an age.
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.
©1971 Anthony Powell (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
"Vance's narration captivates listeners throughout this outstanding examination of a life in progress." (AudioFile)
"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)
"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)
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"Imagination must...select and arrange reality."
BOOK TEN ('Books Do Furnish A Room'):
"Imagination must, of course, select and arrange reality, but it must be for imaginative ends: all too often the role of imagination in this sequence is to funny-up events and people whose only significance . . . is that Powell has experienced them."
- Philip Larkins, in a review of 'Books Do Furnish a Room'
'Books Do Furnish a Room' starts with a discussion of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy* and this book (and themes of melancholy and love) reappear frequently throughout the novel.
The central plot thrust of book 10, or the first book of the final season/October (if you will) centers on X. Trapnel a novelist loosely based on Julian McLaren-Ross a writer described by his biographer as "mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent". This novel is the first of the post WWII novels. It takes place in the years immediately after WWII when England is dealing with the social and economic turmoil of the Post war years. Powell describes these changes by describing how the sea and tides will roll certain things back, lose certain things, and propel new things onto shore. I'm obviously paraphrasing because it is late and I haven't the energy right now to find the damn quote. Anyway, it was an interesting brick in this series, not my favorite, but rewarding for some of its dialogue and plot twists.
* An amazingly rich work that I'm almost done with myself (I've got two hundred pages left in the last of the three partitions. I've spent about 3 years worth of Sundays intermittently reading while sitting through church. I'm not sure of my wife is thrilled with me reading Burton in Church, but Burton's explorations of Melancholy seem to almost need an altar or some sacred space to read it near
BOOK ELEVEN ('Temporary Kings'):
"Reading Novels needs almost as much talent as writing them."
- Anthony Powell, Temporary Kings
Temporary Kings opens at an international literary conference in Venice. The literary pot is beginning to boil. Who knew the literary world was such a Casino Royale of intrigue. I really think Powell set this novel's beginning in Venice to make the reader think of the Romantic era, but also of the Doges of Venice and all those dukes and kings that seemed to rise and fall during the period between Rome and the Romantics. Hell, I'm probably way off, but that's my wall and I'm going to lean against it.
More than almost any book, except the series itself (Dance to the Music of Time), Temporary Kings seems dominated and driven by a work of art. Art and music, like food and sex, are scattered in all of Powell's novels, but in this one, a painting of Candaules and Gyges by Tiepolo. In the myth Candaules, the Lydian (Sardis) king has a fatal enthusiasm to show his queen’s naked body to his lieutenant Gyges (without her knowledge or permission). She discovers her husband's peeping sin and invites Gyges to kill him and take his place on the throne. Powell practically beats the reader over the head with this idea. The myth itself is fairly melodramatic (characters in the book discuss the myth as a perfect Opera story), but also seems to parallel some of the activity of some major characters.
BOOK TWELVE ('Hearing Secret Harmonies'):
Hearing Secret Harmonies is the end, the final, the cap of this huge series. Powell reminds me of one of those extreme runners. Those masochists who seem to enjoy running 50, 100, or more miles. The amazing things about writing 12 novels that are together nearly 3000 pages and written over 24 years (1951 - 1971), is how uniform these books are. I'm not saying uniform in a boring way. I'm just saying there isn't a real weak link in them. They are beautifully constructed. I think of big canvasses like the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Certainly, with such a big canvas the risk of a disappointing section or segment isn't linear. A big book, with more pieces and pages, comes with an exponentially growing level or risk. Powell just didn't have a shitty two years anywhere in that 24 years.
"Was England ever thus?"
Originally encountered this book at a Barnes and Noble looking for a present to give to a friend who loves English lit from the post WWI era. I gave her the first volume as a non committed way of letting her know that if she liked it, she could make a comment of any kind and I would buy the rest for her. She never made a comment. This had the curious effect of heightening my interest.
To make a long story short, I listened to the whole thing on audiobook while traveling on my car. It split my life in two. On the one hand, real life, on the other, Nick's life. Although not as "deep" as say, Henry James, the cumulative impact is substantial. One truly gets a feel for a country in transition from a limited and somewhat detached person's point of view. More than that, I feel like I understand a little better how an englishman of a certain class and era thought.
Not a great thought, or earth shattering revelation, but of such small details a life is made, which I think is the point of the author's summation at the end of the book.
"Beautiful treatment of a great work"
This is one of the great novels of the 20th century, and this audio version does full justice to Powell's writing.
I'd invested too much in this series to stop before the end, but I did start to wish it would come more quickly than it did. Powell's great achievement in the earlier novels is to place Nick in his time, in an Englad transforming from a predictable, tradition-laden place into a world he helps to author. By the time of this movement, though, Nick is already a man past his time. Most of his original characters are gone, and even many of the fill-in characters have imploded young. That puts all the more weight on Widmerpoole, who transforms from prig to full-blown deluded New-Age lost soul. At a political level that's a disappointing move because Powell's politics come through most admirably elsewhere in his restraint, in the dignity that grows naturally out of his conservatism; here there's no restraint at all. At an aesthetic level that's disappointing because it seems to signal that Powell's simply run out of real ideas.
I would not have made it through these books without his sustained excellence. He does different voices with staggering subtlety and he reads with unusual speed, a definite plus when you're talking about more than 80 hours of listening.
"The end of the epic"
"A Dance to the Music of Time" draws to a close with these three novels, and that's probably a good thing. I loved the first 9, and I even like number 10 (the first part of this installment). But 11 and 12 are not as fresh. It's probably silly to even review these, though -- if you've listened to the first three volumes, you're going to listen to this one, and, even if it's not as solid as the earlier ones, it's still very good.
Simon Vance's portrayals are, as always, excellent. With so many characters coming and going, his voicings often give me additional context to remember who some of the characters are.
"A six month affair ends..."
After around 6 months, and over 80 hours of listening, it is hard to say goodbye to Nick Jenkins, narrator of the 12 books that make up "A Dance..." and his 300 or so friends and acquaintances- although by the end, many of them have made their last live appearances, echoes of them continue to reverberate through the story after their deaths.
While the series has limited foreground dramatic incident, it is the development of, and evolving relationships between, the large cast of characters that makes the series so appealing. A portrait of upper middle and upper class English life, primarily between the wars, with a focus on the world of arts and letters, and lesserly politics, the books paint a portrait of a class, and a way of life, that the author and narrator clearly sees as changing, and sometimes disappearing, even as the lives are being led, often lending it a muted elegaic quality. It does, also, have a strong vein of (gentle) humor throughout, in its regard for the eccentricities and quirks of the characters and their behaviour.
Of the 12 novels comprising the 4 parts, I particularly enjoyed "Books do furnish a room" and "Temporary Kings" in this part, and "Casanova's Chinese Restaurant". But for me, it was the whole journey that made "A Dance to the Music of Time" special
Listeners who complete the series can test their retention of the minutiae of the plot and characters on the web site anthonypowell.org (Dance quiz). Were you really paying attention when Mr Deakin met his unfortunate end?
The reading is terrific, the main characters (especially the men) clearly delineated from each other, with their own endearing speech habits and accents, the tone very apt for a chronicle of a bygone era.
"Wonderful picture of England between the two wars"
This book started slowly but grew on me. The characters are fascinating, the narrator is good, the plot keeps moving but is not particularly exciting. I actually ended up reading the entire 12-volume series. I liked it all except for the last book, in which the 1970's hippies made everything ridiculous.
"A privilege to have read it"
I have not read the print version.
I felt huge sympathy for a character called Charles Stringham, who turned up fairly frequently in the books but who was by no means a major character. Nevertheless I kept wishing that reports of his death had turned out somehow to have been a mistake because I felt so sorry for the waste of his life. Powell would not get involvement like that from his readers without some very skilful and crafty writing. I still don't know why Stringham was so important to me.
His range of voices was astonishingly good. I recognised the voices of people who had appeared in previous books even before they had been named.
That would not have been possible in this case.
If I were Powell, perhaps I would be able to write well enough to describe how fantastically good this cycle of books is—but I am not. What I can say is that it is an astonishing work of literature. The writing is simple and clear, it is by turns humorous and tragic, just like life. I enjoyed every sentence; when I had to stop I was irritated by the interruptions; I was sorry when it ended and I feel that reading it was my time best spent.Simon Vance, who narrated the entire twelve books, gave voice to a whole world of men and women, all with their own vocal affectations, habits and accents, all distinct and recognisable. He is obviously a truly talented artist but that sort of reading needed far more than just talent, it required the sort of application that most people would have trouble holding for a few hours, let alone the weeks or even months that recording this massive work would have involved.The irony is that both writer and actor put so much work into the Music of Time books and they are so skilled at their jobs that the whole thing appears completely effortless.
"The final curtain on an epic listen"
After over 80 hours accompanying Nicholas Jenkins (believed to be a lightly-veiled depiction of the author) through his life and loves I feel I've been on an epic journey of social changes with the backdrop of historical events from the First World War to the 1960s. Though the society depicted is one of privilege that few enjoyed I nevertheless became engrossed in the minutiae of the characters' lives. There's a WikiPedia page that lists the real people that each fictitious character was based on many of whom, by now, have faded from the limelight. There are a lot of characters and I sometimes couldn't remember who was whom but the main ones are so well drawn I could recognize them when they appeared again.
This final Movement takes the story through from the privations of life just after Second World War to the turbulent times of the late 1960s and is more melancholy in tone as age and infirmity take their toll and death thins out the players.
Having listened to all four Movements I would say that the First and Third were marginally the better parts as the former had the exuberance of youth and the latter the drama of the Second World War. However, one needs to listen to all four Movements in sequence to get the impact of this monumental work. It's not a riveting listen as it progresses at a leisurely pace with many digressions tangential to the main story, but these enrich the experience.
Simon Vance has done a magnificent job of bringing this series to life in his superb narration and also being the driving force behind the production.
On finishing Part 1, I was only just convinced to invest in the the whole series. The whole is unlike anything else that I have read and I learnt to love it. Sadly it is an incomplete life story of a very likeable character who plays a relatively minor part in the action. Nicholas is an observer rather than a prime player.
The narrator's voice suits perfectly the main role and does a great job on the over 300 other characters.
The books are consistently very funny and not infrequently sad. I can imagine listen to them again.
"Eleven Brilliant Sounds On A Twelve Note Scale."
I was absolutely engrossed by Widmerpool's machinations in the Second World War, I loved the sense of punctured fate that the survivors of the conflict experienced, I was wrapt by the literary shenanigans, and Pamela Flitton is an effortlessly drawn monster. Then along comes book twelve. What's that about? Powell suddenly spends chapters talking about mysticism and cult life as though it matters, and as though he understands it. Stick with Old Boy's Dinners and literary back-stabbing Anthony. That said, eleven out of twelve ain't bad.
"Excellent but less satisfying that the first three"
Yes. It rounds off a magnificent work of 'documentary' fiction.
Vance's performance has been wonderful and steady through the whole of Powell's huge work. The narrative voice of Nick Jenkins has been dry, almost aloof, and terribly funny.
"Worth the effort"
When I finally got to the end of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time I found myself going back to the beginning to revisit the entire series armed with foreknowledge of the characters. First time through I decided that there no likeable characters and I just revelled in the sheer craft of Powell's writing. Second time through and I found I had gained sympathy with even the most unpleasant characters having discovered how they were a product of their surroundings shaped by the world they inhabited rather than being inherently malign. The 'dance' became an interaction of characters rather than a performance and gained enormous depth. The series requires effort but it really is worth getting involved turns out a brilliant exposition by a master of writing.
"It's all over"
I can't believe I saw the Dance through to the end, but something must've compelled me. There is absolutely no likeable character, or an unlikeable who I could relate to one little bit. I could go on about this, but then remembered that this is an audiobook and this review should be about the listening experience. So maybe more than 3 stars are due? No - because the end left me flat. The author's intention undoubtedly but there: I've voted.
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