"A Dance to the Music of Time" by Nicolas Poussin (By kind permission of the Wallace Collection)
I should like to dedicate this essay to the memory of Frank Kermode who died recently, aged 90. Forty years back, Frank hired me to teach English and American literature at UCL, where he was Lord Northcliffe Professor. Admirer of Shakespeare, the Authorised Version of the Bible, Wallace Stevens and Muriel Spark, Frank was one of the last century's great critics. Unlike many who confine themselves to polemic, he was also an unmissable writer. After a couple of years, I left his department to join an honourable, but altogether dysfunctional, administration: the Conservative government between 1972 and 1974. This was an era when a Secretary of State instructed us how to shave in the dark. It has been well chronicled recently by Dominic Sandbrook. Leaving Frank for Ted Heath seems at this distance rather like, were one a girl, leaving Barnby, say, or Hugh Moreland for Widmerpool. Indeed may I also recommend, to the dedicated Widmerpudlians of the AP Society, Philip Ziegler's Edward Heath, one of the great biographies of our time. They will find much there to delight them. Ted was a good man as Widmerpool is not. But there is overlap in mannerisms and manners.
One of Frank's most impressive books is called The Sense of An Ending. I want to talk about some of the ways Anthony Powell steered A Dance to the Music of Time, our supreme roman-fleuve, to the sea; glancing over his shoulder, as it were, at another modern master, Marcel Proust. And I want to do so not least because, in my experience, there are quite a few readers of Dance, fervent fans even, who do not get on as well as they would like with Hearing Secret Harmonies, the twelfth and last novel of the sequence; or, more accurately, the twelfth and last book of the novel. When you grill them, the objection seems to be that an egotist like Widmerpool, each of whose appearances in the proceeding books is governed by the will to power, or the quest for status, authority, and the like, turns himself, unconvincingly in this view, into a 1970s hippie. I have also heard the charge that Powell, who published Harmonies in his seventieth year, was the wrong type, the wrong kind of author to tackle the Abbie Hoffman or Charles Manson or sex, drugs and rock'n'roll era of the previous decade: the years, to adapt Powell's admirer Philip Larkin, between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP. On the contrary, I believe that from our perspective, 40 years on, Powell was absolutely the right author for a time when, as his own story was being brought to its close, an exuberant and anarchic irrationality seized Western culture. Dropping out or doing one's own thing became a social and political imperative. To a classical imagination like Powell's there was nothing surprising, nor unprecedented, in the young dropping out while the old were dropping dead. The music of time always depends on changes of tempo.
Before he embarked on Dance, Anthony Powell was a novelist and professional writer. He had published five novels and written reviews and film scripts as well as journalism and an historical study. His career was interrupted, like so many others, by six years of war. During the quarter century or so of Dance's composition, he continued to earn his living as an editor and reviewer. He was known to his friends as Tony. His narrator also bears a conventionally abbreviated Christian name and a Welsh surname: Nick Jenkins. Powell was always a transparent commentator on his own life and work. In Faces in my Time, third of his four volumes of memoirs, he describes the gestation of his novel. He talks about weighing the pros and cons of organising a continuum of characters, instead of laying them off at the end of each novel; a bad idea given the likelihood, as he puts it, of their continuing to hang around the stage door in search of re-employment. He also concludes that "the first person narrative was preferable in dodging the artificiality of the ‘invented hero', who speaks for the author". This internal debate was transformed by an epiphany, a donné, a bit of luck. A magical mystery moment was given to a mind not much interested in religion (though Powell knew the King James Bible very well and liked English hymns sung by Welsh voices) but always intrigued by myth, coincidence, superstition, the occult — all the sediment cultures accumulate for people to wade through while they conduct their lives. Here, in Dance, is the world of Dr Trelawney, Mrs Erdleigh and Scorpio Murtlock. Powell's own pentecostal moment occurred in the Wallace Collection: "At a fairly early stage in tackling this matter — that is, a long sequence of novels with recurring characters — I found myself ... in front of Nicolas Poussin's picture there given the title of A Dance to the Music of Time. An almost hypnotic spell seems cast by this masterpiece on the beholder. I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be."
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