Saturday, October 11, 2008

Steps in the Dance

{Photo from the Auckland City Libraries' Anthony Powell Collection.}

If I continue writing this blog long enough, eventually I'll have enough disconnected observations about Anthony Powell's work to fill a book. I suppose if I were a more rigorous thinker that's what I'd aim for: some sort of organized, detailed account of how and why Powell's fiction works. Instead, every time I dip into A Dance to the Music of Time I notice something new that seems worth sharing . . . if along the way I manage to convince a few readers to open Powell's masterpiece, I'll be satisfied.

Today's post is prompted by my re-reading the closing pages of the third novel in the Dance sequence, The Acceptance World (1955), which follows the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins (who is now in his twenties) to an Old Boy dinner for his school, then to an assignation with his problematic paramour, Jean Templer. The Old Boy dinner is a masterly set piece, bringing together figures of Nick's youth in such a way as to make inescapably clear the vast changes that a decade has rendered in their relative positions. Nick's two closest friends from school days, Peter Templer and Charles Stringham, who used to seem so worldly and capable, have both been tested by adult life and found wanting: Peter's marriage is a shambles and his career as a stockbroker in the City has been less than stellar, while Charles seems utterly unmoored and "has been drinking enough to float a battleship." On the other hand, Widmerpool, who in school days was an object of cruel fun, has--while losing none of his awkwardness and unpleasantness--become a surprisingly successful businessman, on the verge of becoming a figure of some renown. Nick, who is slowly finding his feet in an artistic milieu, quietly marvels throughout the dinner at these unexpected alterations of what had hitherto seemed immutable social relations; the dance has barely gotten underway, and its movements have already proved surprising.

What particularly struck me on this reading was the paragraph below. Stringham, burning with a low blue flame from a pitcher of martinis and a magnum of champagne, has decided that the base of the fence around Green Park is a good place to sit for a prolonged spell, and he's resisting Nick's entreaties to rise and stumble home. Widmerpool happens upon the scene, assesses the situation, and acts:
Widmerpool acted quickly. He strolled to the kerb. A cab seemed to rise out of the earth at that moment. Perhaps all action, even summoning a taxi when none is there, is basically a matter of the will. Certainly there had been no sign of a conveyance a second before. Widmerpool made a curious, pumping movement, using the whole of his arm, as if dragging down the taxi by a rope. It drew up in front of us. Widmerpool turned towards Stringham, whose eyes were still closed.

"Take the other arm," he said, peremptorily.
You often hear writers describing the simple mechanics of movement as among the most difficult tasks they face; getting a character out of a room can be surprisingly difficult and awkward. That's essentially Powell's task in this paragraph: he simply needs to get Stringham into a cab and on his way home. Yet in the space of a paragraph he not only accomplishes that task, but also allows Nick a moment of meditative observation about the newly capable, even powerful, Widmerpool. Then he adds that wonderfully vivid image of Widmerpool's physicality, showing the sort of attention to the oddities of motion that makes some of Kafka's scenes so powerfully, comically grotesque. By the time we reach Widmerpool's order to Nick, what could easily have been a throwaway paragraph has instead become another building block in Powell's slow explication of Widmerpool's character, and Nick's worldview.

I've quoted the following passage from The Acceptance World before, but it bears repeating, summing up as it does Nick's central characteristic of an engaged, curious, contemplative attention:
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.
That insatiable interest in the details of human experience, as played out over twelve novels and nearly 3,000 pages, is what keeps me going back to the Dance, and what makes it ever-rewarding.

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