Monday, January 28, 2008

Why I find myself dancing to those same old steps again and again and again

Because I proselytize so relentlessly on behalf of Anthony Powell and A Dance to the Music of Time, I'm always searching for relatively succinct ways in which to explain their virtues. I usually place the novels' attraction in Powell's--and by extension, his narrator Nick Jenkins's--insatiable curiosity about the myriad ways that people choose to live their lives; in the fourth novel, At Lady Molly's (1957), in explaining his decision to attend a country weekend that seems likely to be disastrous, Nick Jenkins accords curiosity its proper, exalted place:
Curiosity, which makes the world go round, brought me in the end to accept Quiggin's invitation.
What raises Powell's curiosity in Dance to the level of art is that he leavens it with a real openness to difference, from ordinary English eccentricity to unexpected sexual predilections to inexplicable fixed ideas. That mix of curiosity and sympathy allows Powell to find nearly any person of at least some interest; his much-quoted response to charges of snobbery--that if there were a Burke's of Bank Clerks, he'd buy that, too--rings true for any close reader of Dance.

In the third novel,The Acceptance World (1955), Jenkins neatly sums up Powell's approach and highlights the way that it opens up our understanding of our own selves as well:
I reflected, not for the first time, how mistaken it is to suppose there exists some "ordinary" world into which it is possible at will to wander. All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.
In a 1951 review of the first volume, A Question of Upbringing, Julian MacLaren-Ross (who would later form the basis of one of Powell's most memorable characters) sets a similar assessment of Powell's technique in a broader context:
Mr Powell is, mercifully, a writer without a "message," either philosophical, religious, or political; he is content to examine without comment, and to illustrate through character in action, the changes in human nature brought about by the changing face of the social order in which we live; in other words, he is attempting to fulfill the novelist's only true vocation.
To reveal those changes in character, Powell doesn't rely primarily on particularly dramatic events (though there are some, especially in the war novels); instead, as Terry Teachout puts it,
[T]hings happen--life happens--to Powell's characters, and as we watch them grapple with each successive occurrence, we realize that his interest is not in what they do but in what they want.
And, as Powell demonstrates, what people want so often becomes who they are. If curiosity drives the world, desire--specifically the desire for power--is what risks ruining it. To say that Powell approaches all characters with sympathy doesn't mean that he refuses judgment; though he lets events and actions speak for themselves, we see multiple times the grievous consequences of betrayal, cruelty, and the self-interest that is determined to carry all before it.

Serving as a bulwark against these, concomitant with simple human kindness, is the creative act. As Jenkins reflects in the second volume, A Buyer's Market (1952),
[T]he arts themselves, so it appeared to me as I considered the matter, by their ultimately sensual essence, are, in the long run, inimical to those who pursue power for its own sake. Conversely, the artist who traffics in power does so, if not necessarily disastrously, at least at considerable risk.
The arts may not be able to defeat the Widmerpools of the world, but they can at least create and sustain a rival way of understanding that world, one that the power-hungry will never begin to comprehend. Tariq Ali, at the inaugural Anthony Powell lecture at the Wallace Collection, located the creative act at the center of the novels:
What, then, is the central theme of the series? Creativity--the act of production. Of literature, of books, of paintings, of music; that is what most of the central characters are engaged in for the whole of their lives. Moreland composes, Barnby paints, X Trapnel writes, Quiggin, Members and Maclintick criticise and the narrator publishes books and then becomes a writer. What excites the novelist is music and painting, literature and criticism. It's this creativity, together with the comedy of everyday life, that sustains the Dance.
Curiosity, sympathy, creativity: three strong pillars on which to rest a novel. Add a baroque, yet balanced, prose style and a fierce eye for comedy, and you've got the music for my very favorite Dance.

1 comment:

  1. allllan3:03 PM

    i too return to dttmot again and again i justfind the world of his so comfortable.some of the descriptive passages so entrancing,and the characters so real...