The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 2 August 2016

Casanova's Chinese Restaurant

A Dance to the Music of Time, No. 5

by Anthony Powell

It is the mid-1930s, and, after an economic downturn, the characters who people the life of the narrator, Nick Jenkins, are settling in to the routines of their lives. Many are now married and most have pretty stable careers in journalism and the arts. Indeed, Nick, himself, is now married to Isobel Tolland, though the story of their marriage rests in the background to the point almost of neglect. This is especially notable in the fact that much of the discussion that takes place in this volume of Powell's 12-part epic is about marriage and how it changes these characters' lives. Still, there are glimpses into Nick and Isobel's married adventures, as, when this book opens, Isobel is in a hospital, recovering from an initially unnamed ailment. But here Nick also encounters Widmerpool, the touchstone character of this long reflection on life through the decades. We start out at Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, where Nick and his friends discuss marriage and its possibilities. We go to the premiere of a musical piece, and the party that follows. We have a little tea with St. John Clarke, a mediocre writer with outsized place in social life. And we have a few drinks with Stringham (who we've known since school) and depressed critic McLintick (who is new to the story). In the end, we're almost anxious to pick up volume 6.

Each chapter break is a leap forward, sometimes by years, as we encounter people who have become familiar to us through four previous volumes. This book would hardly stand on its own without the reader having first read the previous instalments. And yet, there is something brilliantly effortless in Powell's evocation of a time and a place, character and social environment. Despite so little apparently happening on the surface of things, as we pass through a handful of eminently British and heavily populated social occasions, the book glides and remains engrossing. There are inevitible comparisons to Proust, but the French author was something of a hand-wringer. His prose was often overwrought with is sentences of famously epic length. There is something more casual and yet deeply crafted and complex in Powell's multi-volume journey.

Nick watches as the men and women around him put together their lives, expose secrets small and large, and put on brave faces for their friends and family. Meanwhile, there are rumblings from the Continent. The Spanish Civil War rages on and the Nazis are rising to power in Germany. By the next book, this journey, which started just after the First World War, should be embarking on the Second. As in the earlier volumes, art and music are threads that tie the lives of the characters together. Here, the touchstone is Bernini's unfinished sculpture Truth Revealed by Time. The truth here seems to be that people seem to change little, though buffetted by circumstance. They plod forward, and respond to an indifferent world as best they can.

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Also by Anthony Powell: [A Question of Upbringing] [A Buyer's Market] [The Acceptance World ] [At Lady Molly's] [The Kindly Ones] [The Valley of Bones] [The Soldier's Art]