Book of a lifetime: A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

From The Independent archive: Hilary Spurling on illusion and disillusion in a remarkable series of novels

<p>Writer’s life: Powell in his office and library, 1987 </p>

Writer’s life: Powell in his office and library, 1987

I started reading the first of Anthony Powell’s sequence of 12 novels, A Dance to the Music of Time, in my first year at university but stopped almost at once because it seemed too dull and far too lifelike. A few years later I tried again, beginning nearly halfway through with the fifth novel, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant. This time I was riveted from the magical opening paragraph to the memorable last sentence, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Casanova starts with a description of a bombed-out Soho pub reduced to weeds and rubble, an image that still gives off for me a whiff as strong as if I’d somehow managed to bottle the scent of urban transience and decay. The book ends with a trip on a ghost railway at a funfair, remembered by the narrator as a succession of dizzy gradients and precipitous descents through pitch dark tunnels, “rushing headlong towards iron-studded doors, threatened by imminent collision, fingered by spectral hands, moving at last with dreadful, ever-increasing momentum towards a shape that lay across the line”.

The artwork for a volume containing the first three novels of A Dance to the Music of Time

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