Saturday, June 16, 2007

Happily ever after?, part two

Part one is here.

My favorite novel, Anthony Powell's twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time also suffers from this same conflict between expectations and, for want of a better term, artistic integrity: many readers—even among Powell's biggest fans—find the ending of the sequence disappointing.

Over the course of three thousand pages, Powell's narrator, Nick Jenkins, gives us entree into the lives of dozens of characters as they move about in English high society through the first sixty or so years of the twentieth century. Jenkins and his friends and acquaintances grow up, meet, marry, have careers, live through (or die in) a war, and generally make their way in the world. Patterns repeat, characters recur, themes are drawn out, but the overriding sense of the novel is that time moves on, and we all are swept along in its currents—able, if we're lucky, to occasionally catch hazy glimpses of our hoped-for destinations.

More than any other novel I can think of, A Dance to the Music of Time thrives on the constant change inherent in real life, but Powell's willingness to accept change—in fact, to present it as his ultimate theme—leads, I think, to some of the frustrations people feel with the book’s closing volumes. Following the novel's undoubted high point in the war volumes, Powell closes the sequence by grappling with the first rumblings of the counterculture, which seem to put him off his footing a bit. His perceptions of the nascent New Age movement seem received rather than fully considered—even as he nicely links it to the spiritualism craze of Nick’s parents’ generation—and his overall understanding of the younger generation and their motivations seems a bit thin in comparison to his keen perceptiveness about his own cohort.

But though I accept that as a failure on Powell’s part, I still think that that distance and lack of clarity can be seen to make sense within the structure of the story. Dance is, after all, built around its narrator’s life, and as Nick ages, Powell allows him—and his story—to draw in a bit. Nick moves to the country and begins to circumscribe his life, as people tend to do as they get older. Always more an observer than a participant, he is now more than ever separate from the action he relates, no longer in the thick of the artistic and cultural moment as he was when young. As his friends and acquaintances move away, retire, or die, their positions are taken up by people whom Nick cannot possibly know as well. If he fails to fully apprehend this new generation (and their movements), isn’t that typical of the playing out of a generational shift? Powell could have artificially kept his older, more established characters at the center of the action and forced some sort of climax. Instead he simply allows us to watch them yield the floor, watch as the world Nick has known—and in which he has a defined place—begins its slow fade.

At the same time, the change has to do with more than just the misunderstanding of youth by their elders; as with so much else in the novel, it is also bound up with time itself. Like Nick, we fervently miss the old characters, while the new characters are not with us long enough to acquire the force of their antecedents. We simply don’t have time to get to know them as well. But that, too, is like life, I suspect: dominated by the intense friendships of youth, we seem never to have quite enough time for those we encounter in later life. And in that sense, even the less-memorable characters of the later books represent one of Powell's greatest strengths, his exploration of the ways in which friends and relations leave the stage of our lives, their places—if not their actual lines—eventually filled by new people; understanding and coping with those inevitable changes is one of the great challenges of life.

Dance does have a logical end point—the death of Jenkins's perpetual antagonist, Widmerpool—and Powell uses that death to bring the novel to a close, if not to the climax many readers are looking for. (In the style of Greek tragedy, Widmerpool's death happens offstage; like so much else in the novel, we hear about it rather than see it.). Jenkins dips into Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (an infinite book if ever there was one), and, sustained by its fecundity, its sense of the overwhelming richness of human existence, he reflects, looping back to the thoughts on time and the seasons with which he opened the book. We get no closer to an ending than the reminder Burton provides that this pageant has happened before, with different names and faces, and that through those we leave behind it will certainly happen again.

Despite surely realizing that for many readers this ending would rankle, Powell resists anything more neat. We never learn even the whereabouts, let alone the fates, of dozens of characters, major and minor. Instead we are left with, essentially, an affirmation of Powell's themes: while we seek for—and can find—patterns in our lives, the overall weave is too complicated to fully comprehend, and the skein is forever being rolled out in front of us, unknowable. Powell will provide no ultimate summing up because there can be none; all we can do is look closely and tell the story as we see it happen.

A final installment tomorrow, including, believe it or not, some thoughts on how I see this sort of ambiguous or forward-looking ending playing out in The Lord of the Rings.

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