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 third volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, we again meet Widmerpool, doggedly rising in rank; Jenkins, shifted from one dismal army post to another; Stringham, heroically emerging from alcoholism; Templer, still on his eternal sexual quest. Here, too, we are introduced to Pamela Flitton, one of the most beautiful and dangerous women in modern fiction. Wickedly barbed in its wit, uncanny in its seismographic recording of human emotions and social currents, this saga stands as an unsurpassed rendering of England's finest yet most costly hour. Includes the novels: The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art, and The Military Philosophers.
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.
©1964 Anthony Powell (P)2010 Audible, Inc.
"Nick's bewilderment, frustrations, and brief moments of joy as he negotiates life in the service are expertly conveyed by narrator Simon Vance. From the pomposity of the newly promoted to the silent acceptance of those assigned to menial labor, Vance captures the surreal world of the noncombatant soldier." (AudioFile)
"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)
"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)
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"Engrave no battle on his cheek..."
BOOK SEVEN ('The Valley of Bones'): We begin the 3rd Movement with the seventh book of 12. If you prefer to think of Anthony Powell's (rhymes with pole's, not towel's) masterpiece cycle in terms of months, 'Valley of the Bones' is July.
'The Valley of Bones' is a war novel that has nothing to do with war. Well, that is not right, there are signals that the war is beginning and the Nazis are invading countries in Europe. Nick Jenkins finds himself in command of a platoon training for war with the Germans. His company is a company whose officers are all primarily bankers and whose enlisted ranks seem filled with miners. Instead of a novel about a battle, or valor, or strategy -- we get a novel about marches, stolen rifles, moldy cheese, drinks, fights, and bureaucracy.
Having two brothers and a brother-in-law, a father-in-law, and a father who have all served overseas during the 1st Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, or the War in Iraq, I can attest from their stories that the introductory quote is absolutely true. One of the biggest parts of war is the sitting, the boredom, the drudgery. It is punctuated by insanity and violence, but the violence is rare often only felt by the tip of the spear. The romance of war is both a myth and a lie.
There is a quote that stuck with me from this novel, "A company commander...needs the qualifications of a ringmaster in a first-class circus, and a nanny in a large family".
If the idea of boredom, duty and bureaucracy seems to persuade you to look elsewhere for your Sunday, literary entertainment, you must not yet understand the full appeal of Powell. He is able to examine this reality of the rearguard of war with an eye that picks up little gems about war, the military, and those engaged in war that seem to transcend time and sides. "Looked at calmly, war created a situation in which the individual -- if he wished to be on the winning side -- was of importance only in so much as he contributed to the requirements of the machine, not according to the picturesque figure he cut in the eyes of himself and others".
Anyway, Powell is able to paint a picture of the boredom of war that reminds me of the literary equivalent of the Flemish masters. This novel is not the equivalent of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade. This novel is a painting of three soldiers, hung-over, pealing potatoes in the rain. And yes, even that has its own majesty.
BOOK EIGHT ('The Soldier's Art'): It seems almost by accident my pacing of Powell's 12 volume A Dance to the Music of Time brings me to book 8 in August. I didn't plan it. I fall into Powell in fits and starts. I'll read a couple books and move on to other books. But I keep coming back.
Anyway, a couple things stood out about this novel. The beginning starts out with Jenkins buying an army coat at a theatrical costume shop in London. The bent, elderly, bearded assistant mistakes Jenkin's motives for buying the coat, believing him to be in a play. It was beautifully done. It was rich, ironic, and anticipated the themes of war as theatre, etc. In the final act/chapter of this movement Powell brings it back around to dress when he is having a discussion with Chessman and remarks "It is a tailor's war, anyway" in response to seeing Cheesman wearing a waistcoat underneath his tunic.
Like every Powell book, this one involves dinners, drawing rooms (this one bombed out), friends rotating in and out of Jenkin's life. Some of these friends, however, leave permanently in this book. It was touching and like most all of the Powell books I've read, infinitely quotable. He weaves into each of his conversations pearls of wisdom, and clever observations about people and motives. It really is an amazing series.
BOOK NINE (The Military Philosophers): This is the last book in the Fall/WWII trilogy (3rd Movement) of A Dance to the Music of Time. It was at once the saddest of the series so far and also the most Proustian, with several direct quotations from Remembrance of Things Past and also several geographies in common with that other monster of 20th Century fiction.
The book had me hooked from the first couple paragraphs. To me, at least, it resembled (in a less funky and mad way) the opening section of Europe Central? You know the part. The very beginning too. Where, STEEL IN MOTION, with a black telephone/Signal Corps octopus vibrating, ringing, somnambulating, sleepwalking, eavesdropping, gloating as Europe Central buzzes.
See, here from the first couple pages of 'The Military Philosophers':
"from the secret radio Spider, calling and testing in the small hours..."
"Endemic as ghouls in an Arabian cemetery, harassed aggressive shades lingered for ever in such cells to impose on each successive inmate their preoccupations and anxieties, crowding him from floor and bed, invading and distorting dreams. Once in a way a teleprinter would break down, suddenly ceasing to belch forth its broad paper shaft, the column instead crumpling to stop in mid-air like waters of a frozen cataract."
Without giving too much away (meetings are held, rockets scream, people die, but the Allies eventually win) this novel centers on WWII from about 1942 to the end of the war. The war, except for the bombs and the V2 rockets is largely fought elsewhere by other friends. Nick is engaged primarily as a liaison officer (first with the Poles and then with the Belgians, etc.) where he learns how to maneuver through bureaucracy and personalities. Widerpool again (and also Pamela) seem to both act as catalysts whose actions impact heavily the lives around them.
I think it is also worth posting the Nestor poem in full that I (and Powell) borrowed a verse from:
Vulcan, contrive me such a cup,
As Nestor us'd of old;
Show all thy skill to trim it up,
Damask it round with gold.
Make it so large, that, fill'd with sack,
Up to the swelling brim,
Vast toasts on the delicious lake,
Like ships at sea, may swim.
Engrave no battle on his cheek,
With war I've nought to do,
I'm none of those that took Maestrick,
Nor Yarmouth Leaguer knew.
Let it no name of planets tell,
Fix'd stars, or constellations;
For I am no Sir Sidrophel,
Nor none of his relations.
But carve thereon a spreading vine,
Then add two lovely boys;
Their limbs in amorous folds entwine,
The type of future joys.
Cupid and Bacchus my saints are,
May Drink and Love still reign!
With wine I wash away my cares,
And then to love again.
In war time it is always interesting to see the interactions between the soldiers in the field and the POGs* (persons other than grunts). Powell plays with this a bit. Jenkins and Widerpool aren't exactly "safe" but their positions during the war keep them primarily in London. The war is being fought by other men. There is also tension between the above ground and below ground (secret) elements of the war. Again, towards the end of these war trilogies we see clothing used to convey the idea of the war as a play. One costume is exchanged for another as Jenkins is demobbed.
* this was a term I was first introduced to by my little brother who served as a "foot" or a "grunt" with 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.
"Lose Yourself in Time"
I made it through all 12 of the Powell novels, and I found myself enjoying this set of three as much as any of them. The war years put Nick's experiences against a backdrop I feel I know, and the war itself brings a casual violence to the proceedings that I missed in some of the other dinner-party and art gallery scenes of the other movements.
That said, I think you have to start with the First Movement and move forward. These ultimately aren't independent novels so much as a continuation of what's come before.
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.
"Hang in there"
Well, I was trying to write a review for the first book in this series but when I clicked on it I was sent to the 3rd book, but no matter. This is one of the better audio books I have listened to. I like a lot of bang for my credit and this series has it at about 20 hours each book. Plus there are interesting characters and a great story. In fact there are a massive number of characters, but don't get overwhelmed you will be able to keep track of them by the end. This story starts out a little slow but after you get into it a little you become addicted, so hang in there through the beginning.
This story is different than most books in that it is more of a chronicle of a subsection of upper middle class England in the mid 20th century. Don't expect a lot of action or suspense, that is not to say it is not interesting, just different. The reader becomes entwined in the lives of the characters so that one wants to know what is going on in their lives with the same curiosity as if a friend was telling a story. To finally answer the question asked, character development is what I consider the best part of this story.
He does a marvelous job with all the accents, and with keeping characters voices separate.
This is not a book of extremes, but of subtleties.
"Masterpiece of Modern Literature"
A Dance to the Music of Time, inspired by the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin, was rated by Time magazine as one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Written by the English novelist Anthony Powell, who took almost 25 years to create the 12-volume set, provides a highly-literate and highly-amusing look into the English upper-middle class between the 1920s and the 1970s. Told through the eyes of Nick Jenkins (the author), the book covers politics, class-consciousness, society, culture, love, social graces, manners, education, power, money, snobbery, humour, and more. Students of British history will no doubt recognize the real-life persons thinly disguised as characters in these novels.
Although daunting in terms of length, the absolutely brilliant narration by the talented Simon Vance rewards the reader over thousands of pages, hundreds of characters, and twelve installments of gorgeous prose. This is a not-to-be-missed collection of novels for any serious reader of English literature.
It is hard to imagine a better or more appropriate reading of this extraordinary timeless book.Powell's seemingly endless line of colourful people are all invested with their own voice by Vance.What a dance to share!
"Story gets better and better"
You may have to stick out the beginning when so many characters are introduced and seemingly endless character points are discussed but it's worth it. Once you know the names and the backgrounds the story becomes very satisfying.
My review for this, is with the Second Movement, my error.
Great reader in Simon Vance and very good story.
"The dance enters the war"
I have stayed the course of all three Movements of this recording of the12 books that comprise A Dance to the Music of Time. After over 60 hours of listening I feel immersed in the lives of the many characters that the fictional narrator (a lightly veiled Anthony Powell) loves, socializes and works with in the years between the First World War until he is demobbed after the Second World War. This Third Movement has more dynamism as the characters play out their lives against the turmoil and uncertainty of the latter war and having got to know them better one cares more what happens to them.
It's been a pleasure to listen to such fine writing which suits being read aloud. A great deal of credit for the success of this mammoth recording is due to narrator, Simon Vance, who brings the characters alive with different voices so that I felt I was listening to conversations between real people.
Possibly the best "movement" out of the 4.
For full review of the series - see Part 4.
"A privilege to have read it"
The simple, clear, narrative style.
The range of voices.
A journey through life.
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.
"A comedy but also an elegy"
I have listened to the first two movements. This third offering changes the tone as it describes the war years. While it retains its sharp wit it recognises the changed concerned of the culture.
There was a delightful extended metaphor early in the book (which is actually three books) when a tailor, seemingly cut off from the world's affairs in a London shop, believes he is providing Nicholas Jenkins with a military uniform for a play rather than the "theatre" of war. This is remarkably effective and echoes through the book.
"A world lost forever"
I had previously read all 12 novels twice, and enjoyed them, but listening to them really brought them to life, with the expert help of Simon Vance. the writing is superb and truly evokes a world gone by much better than a thousand Downton Abbeys. The descriptions and pen portraits are superb, and you spend your time wondering who the model for Widmerpool really was. One thing is for sure, and that is that we all know someone with the attributes of a Widmerpool, and we are all a little curious, like Nicholas Jenkins.
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