Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Beauties of Powell--and no, this isn't a post about Pamela Flitton and Matilda Donners

When you re-read a favorite book as often as I re-read Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, you find yourself focusing on different aspects each time through. This time around, as I've been reading the penultimate volume, Temporary Kings, the past couple of days, I've found myself reading it almost as if it's one of those collections from the days of lax copyright enforcement, a "Beauties of" collection, this one not The Beauties of Shakespeare or The Beauties of Sterne, but The Beauties of Powell.

I'm drawn to his frequently memorable turns of phrase, their aphoristic nature softened--even as their effect is heightened--by Powell's habit of putting them in the mouths of specific characters. Take this, for example, from Dr. Brightman, an academic Nick Jenkins meets at a conference in Venice:
Certain persons require a court. Others prefer a harem. That is not quite the same thing.
It's a line that could have come from any number of Nick's closest friends--Barnby, Moreland, and even Isobel come to mind--and its function here is not only make us smile with recognition, but to help us understand the affinity Nick feels, to his mild surprise, for Brightman.

Then there are Nick's own observations, which tend to be more extended and to carry a meditative, worried-over, even self-doubting quality. Here, he's reflecting on some stories provided by a potential biographer of X. Trapnel:
Enormous simplifications were possibly necessary to carry a deeper truth than lay on the surface of a mass of unsorted detail. That was, after all, what happened when history was written; many, if not most, of the true facts discarded.
Then there's this, provoked by meeting a pair of acquaintances whom logic suggests would only be found together if sex is involved:
Ada's immediate assumption of the exaggeratedly welcoming manner of one caught in compromising circumstances was not very convincing either.
Or this, on an old boss re-encountered:
He gave minute instructions, forcibly bringing back the years when I had worked under him, something establishing a relationship which can never wholly fade.
Or his assessment of his father, whose finicky, martinet-by-way-of-habitual-grumpiness marked Nick's childhood:
My father had few friends. The cause of that was not, I think, his own ever smouldering irascibility: people put up surprisingly well with irascibility, some even finding in it a spice to life otherwise humdrum. There is little evidence that the irascible, as a class, are friendless, and my father's bursts of temper may, for certain acquaintances, have added to the excitement of knowing him. It was more a kind of diffidence, uncertainty of himself (to some extent inducing the irascibility) that also militated against intimacy.
Adding interest to this description is the fact that Nick, while alert to his father's faults, is himself diffident, more seen than heard, a quality that makes him the perfect narrative window.

Page after page of Dance offer similar pleasures, presenting the world seen, not, in Browning's sense, plain, but through a distinct sensibility, Nick's, informed by the experience (and gossip) of decades and generous enough to encompass, gratefully, the stories and opinions and judgments of the many other people who make up the weave of a life. There's a reason this is my favorite book in the world, folks; I'll be reading and re-reading it for a long, long time to come.


  1. As someone who embarrassingly recalls both greeting and being greeted in this way, I really liked "the exaggeratedly welcoming manner of one caught in compromising circumstances." Exactly.

    It must sometimes be a challenge to set up the quotes you use: giving enough background without swamping them in the detail. Today your "acquaintances whom logic suggest would only be found together if sex is involved" and "finicky, martinet-by-way-of-habitual-grumpiness" are models of laser-sharp concision. Thank you!

  2. Aw, thanks, Julian. I actually really enjoy trying to concisely put people into the picture before I quote; I'm glad you enjoy it. Powell's particularly tough for me in that regard: even as I'm always wanting to bring new readers to the books, at the same time I tend to assume that anyone who's still willing to bother reading my constant posts about Dance has probably read it. So I refer to old characters as if they're friends, while trying to establish context here and there as it seems necessary.