The book you meant to read

A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75) by Anthony Powell

Plot: A 12-volume roman fleuve narrated by upper-middle-class Nick Jenkins, offering a comic view of the British at play, work and war from the Twenties to the Sixties. There are hundreds of characters. On a winter's day Nick watches some workmen clustered around a brazier. Reminded of Poussin's "Dance to the Music of Time", he recalls the past. At school, Nick's chums were Peter Templer and Charles Stringham. All three scorned Kenneth Widmerpool a hapless "tryer" without style. Nick grows up and embarks on publishing, sex, marriage, and the Second World War. He gains a moderate success and learns to view time's ironies with detachment. Over the years Templar becomes a raddled roue as Stringham collapses into alcoholism. In the War Widmerpool achieves ascendancy and is indirectly responsible for their early deaths. Widmerpool's obsession with power corrupts his judgement and his character disintegrates. In the Sixties he falls victim to a hippyish sect. He dies, breasting the tape on a mystic run. As Nick hears of Widmerpool's demise, he is gazing at the workmen and their brazier. The narrative returns to its beginnings.

Theme: Life is a ritual dance but the characters have no control over the music or the steps that they are compelled to perform. Nick is a survivor because he adopts patience and stoicism. Widmerpool is a failure because he believes in throwing his weight about.

Style: Lofty, pompous and self-deflating. Banal occurrences are pumped by the mandarin prose until they explode into absurdity.

Chief strengths: Powell creates a world which is as addictive as any soap. His control of events is such that the contortions of plot and character manage to be surprising but logically inevitable.

Chief weaknesses: The stiff upper lip approach to feeling can seem like emotional deadness tricked out in tweedy disguise. The female characters tend to dwindle into types.

What they thought of it then: Amis, Burgess, Larkin, Pritchett and Waugh rushed to bestow bouquets as each volume appeared. Woman were more circumspect with their praise.

What we think of it now: Although a respected Grand Old Man of English Letters, Powell's literary reputation is hanging fire. He is politically incorrect on such issues as feminism and the Left..

Responsible for: Those who read the book seeking out potential Widmerpools among their acquaintances. A forthcoming TV series which may try to turn Dance into another Brideshead. Gavin Griffiths

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