Saturday, July 18, 2009

The End of the Dance

I didn't realize how sad this was moment was until I wrote the title for this post. The End of the Dance. This isn't just the end of a book. Powell's million word, 12-novel, 4-volume work could never be called "a book." To some extent, it feels like the end of a chapter in my own life. I've been reading it for more than a year and a half now, and so much has happened in that time. And all along, every night, there was Nick Jenkins. It's not a book - it feels more like a relationship. And my "relationship" with A Dance to the Music of Time has lasted lasted longer than some actual relationships.

I began this book in November or December of 2007. It's been so long ago now, I don't remember. I complained, incessantly, about this novel in the beginning. I was beginning to fear he would be like Henry James, as Powell is prone to comma use and long-windedness. But I've been very wrong about books before, and I learned (with Things Fall Apart specifically), that you can absolutely detest 75-90% of a novel and then something happens at the end that makes that whole experience worth while. That's why I never give up on reading something, even if I can't stand it. Even if I find myself throwing it against the wall. The only exception was Suite Francais. But that was just bad writing.

Anyway. It really wasn't until I saw the first part of the BBC version that I really "got" it. Somehow seeing it all come together in a 2-hour visual presentation allowed me to put the pieces together. Oh - that's what was going on. It suddenly made sense.

Perhaps if the second volume (comprised of the fourth, fifth and sixth novels in the series) wasn't as fabulous as it was, this review would have taken a different tone...I might have had an entirely different opinion about Dance. These novels really were fabulous: Fitzgerald's parties set in London instead of America. It was kind of like that. There wasn't dancing in the fountain, but people were falling down stairs and dying, drunk butlers getting bit by monkeys, and their fair share of drinks...though probably much more sipped politely than glugged.

I didn't particularly like the third volume, which dealt with World War II. It was really here, however, that the genius of Powell's work comes to light. It would seem that an author would put his character at the center of all action, that he would be present for everything important that happens in the course of the novel. But that isn't Dance. It's the exact opposite. Nick is never involved in anything really exciting during the war. There's the Blitz, but Nick is never in a building that blows up - though a number of his friends unfortunately are. Death mostly occurs "off screen", and is casually mentioned or learned through here say. And that's what makes Dance to the Music of Time really unique - the narrator is not the central character. We barely know anything about Nick. Powell tells us just enough to move the narrative forward. That was the most frustrating thing about these novels at first...I wanted to know more about Nick. But once I was able to accept that this was what Powell was giving wasn't Nick's story, it was the story of everyone around him - once I let go of my need to know Nick, the novels were much more enjoyable.

The fourth volume was really mixed - some of it I enjoyed (poor X. Trapnel), some of it I wasn't thrilled with (Scorpio). But overall, it was good. And I don't know that I'll ever get the image of Widmerpool jogging into the mist - "I'm leading, I'm leading..."

Though occassionally likened - rightly, I believe - to Jane Austen, Powell is most often compared to Proust. I've never read Proust...I'm afraid of In Search of Lost Time, but then again I was afraid of Powell (whose name is pronounced like "pole" and rhymes with "Lowell", which may or may not be the same thing, probably depending on whether or not British or not). But having never read Proust, I imagine that the comparison is simply in the shere ambition and volume of their two masterpieces, not necessarily in style. In an interview for the Paris Review in the 1970s, Powell briefly addressed the comparisons with Proust: "the essential difference is that Proust is an enormously subjective writer who has a peculiar genius for describing how he or his narrator feels. Well, I really tell people a minimum of what my narrator feels – just enough to keep the narrative going." Nick is much more the eye of the hurricane than the center of action - all the important stuff that moves the story along is happening to other people, happening around Nick, not to him. The things that do happen to Nick aren't important in terms of the plot. As I said earlier, what happens to Nick only happens to move the story that he can meet someone else, or run into someone he hasn't seen in a while, or be told an interesting story about someone.

But I don't want you to think the series, or any individual component of it, has a plot. Because it doesn't. Stuff happens, but like life, there isn't a sequence of events leading to a climax. So this whole level that fiction has typicall engaged on is just left out. What it is replaced by is perhaps unsurpassed in literature, or maybe surpassed only by Proust. You get to know an awful lot of people. You spend 100 pages or so with someone, then they go away, only to be reintroduced in another context - as someone's new wife or business partner. And this is where the book becomes rich, where it is funny and tragic. And that's also why you can't give up after the first section, or why you can't "dabble" or read some here, some there. As a review for the Times wrote,

He is a writer who should be read in bulk, however. Dipped into at random, any one of these books can seem bland at best. But several together reveal rich patterns in the caperings and transformations, the pairings and partings, the exits and reappearances of Powell's more than 300 characters.

Just as in real life, knowing the context of relationships is important. Knowing that Widmerpool essentially sent Stringham to his death isn't quite as tragic if you don't know the back stroy from when they were at school together. And knowing Bithel's interactions with Widmerpool during hte war make their interactions in the cult much more meaningful. Barbara Wallraff wrote in the Atlantic,

"One becomes more and more bound up in Powell's parallel universe, until the novels begin to seem like a long, long, long letter by a witty and kindly old friend, filling one in on what has become of other old friends. I have a number of firends in the real universe who I felt would be susceptible to Dance's charms, and having encouraged them to read it, I find that we can talk about the characters almost as if we were discussing people in our own circles.

In fact, curiously, no books have ever made me feel more as if I were living someone else's life along with him. As one reads A Dance to the Music of Time, one looks forward to meeting certain characters again as much as one does to seeing favorite people in life; one looks forward to parties in the books as much as to real parties."

I wholeheartedly agree.

When Time Magazine put this novel on it's top 100 list, the reviewer stated that "Powell's real triumph is in the way he catches the rhythm of ate itself, the way it brings people together, only to spin them apart, then reunite them later as near-stranges, transformed in unexpected ways by the intervening years." If this book is going to be said to be about anything, it is about coincidence. You meet someone at school, and then 10 years later you are re-introduced to them as a friend's business partner. Everything is just getting Powell points out in the beginning of the novel:

...These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, 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 recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.

My friend Steve once asked me if the commitment it takes to read Powell's 3,000+ page magnum opus was worth it. At the time, I was hesitant to answer. And maybe I really need to wait until I'm further away from the experience to say for definate one way or the other. But my reaction right now is - yes. It definately was worth it. Powell is an excellent writer (even if his comma use annoyed me at first), and the characters he created really came to life. I'll never forget them, and I'm sure even if I never read another sentence out of it, decades from now I'll be running into people that I will only be able to describe as Widmerpool-like...or Pamela Flitton-like. As Powell himself said, "A couple of years ago, I stepped down from a very crowded railway carriage in Westbury, and a fellow came up to me, and said, 'I had dinner with my Widmerpool last night...' Everyone has their own Widmerpool."

In the way these characters have entered my consciousness, they are on par with Jay Gatsby and Jordan Baker, Almasy, Hanna and Kip (from The English Patient), Ignatius from Confederacy of Dunces and Edna from The Awakening. (They are, in fact, on par with the characters from my favorite novels. Does this mean that A Dance to the Music of Time might be a new candidate for that honor?) While in most novels, you only get to know a character at a particular instance in their life, in Dance, you know them their whole life. The sheer expanse of the whole thing - 12 novels spanning a half century, written and published over the course of 25 years; 3,000 pages, a million words...makes it much more than a book, as I said when I started this review off. It's not a book, it's an experience - an invitation to live life along with Nick Jenkins. It's a chance to be allowed into a world as vast and richly detailed as Tolkien's Middle Earth, even if it is much closer to reality. Yes, I do think it was worth it. And I am not counting out someday reading it again.

In one of the articles I read while researching A Dance to the Music of Time for this post, the author stated that probably less than one million people have read the series. I'm proud and happy to say that I'm one of them.

Some Interesting Dance Links:

I also enjoyed this review:


Grapeshot/Odette said...

Wow! Your blog post makes me want to read Dance over again. I first read it about 25 years ago and couldn't get enough. By all means try Proust and Swann's Way. You have to get past the first 50 pages and then you are on your way. Thanks for the great treatise of time. Love the title, "End of the Dance."

Kristin said...

I personally look forward to some day revisiting Dance to the Music of Time. It's definately a book that rewards rereading. But then again, I share Oscar Wilde's opinion: if a book isn't worth reading over and over again, it really wasn't worth reading to begin with.

In the last year (probably thanks to the influence of Powell), I have come around to accepting that someday I will come around to reading Proust.