A local weblogger has started to wave the white flag over his commitment to read Anthony Powell’s excellent (and very long) novel, A Dance to the Music of Time. I suggested several days ago that this was probably the longest work I have ever read, longer even than Á la recherché de temps perdu. I’d like to offer some encouragement for anyone now reading or contemplating reading Dance, and a few suggestions for augmenting the experience.
First, the statistics: here from Robert L Selig; Time and Anthony Powell, A Critical Study
This twelve-volume sequence [A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life’s poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. Until the last three volumes, the next standard excitements of old-fashioned plots (What will happen next? Will x marry y? Will y murder z?) seem far less important than time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers in intricate human arabesques.”
Notice that Dance is “slowly developing.” I first heard of Dance from a reader who indicated he didn’t really get into the novel until about the sixth book and from then on it was hard to think about anything else. When I read Dance the first time I made the mistake of leisurely reading a book when I needed a filler and by the time I finished (two years) I was spending as much time going back and reminding myself of the earlier events and characters as I was reading about the newer events and characters. So, when we read Dance at my (now defunct) Yahoo reading group (Big Fat Books), we kept the pace to one book a month and that was only because Dance was an adjunct selection and there were other big books being read.
Let’s be honest: A Dance to the Music of Time totals out to over 3000 pages, but it is conveniently broken up into somewhat short novels of about 275 pages. A regular reader should finish Dance in less than twelve weeks, even with other reading on the schedule. Dance is a long, steady slope; it isn’t a lofty mountain (like Finnegans Wake).
Still, when you read Dance, you shouldn’t be in a hurry. Dance is about life and you should sit back and watch it unroll, life as seen by Anthony Powell.
Now some business: there are many wonderful resources available on the internet to help the reader better understand and appreciate Powell’s work. Note that none of these are required reading, the text is quite sufficient; however, if you like to know a bit more about the book, the author, and the periods depicted in the novel, these sites may help:
Those are just a start but you’ll probably find everything you ever wanted to know about A Dance to the Music of Time on the Dance Resources site which also operates the Anthony Powell Society.
One last comment: A Dance to the Music of Time is a roman à clef and if you are interested, the parallels between the historical characters and the characters in the book are readily available online. But unless you are steeped in British society and history, knowing the characters behind the characters isn’t too valuable. Yes, Anthony Powell is making a comment on the British society as he sees it, but it’s still fiction. I found that I knew almost nothing of the basis of the novel and as such, I believe I actually enjoyed it more. Remember this:
“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West