6th July 2007
I have decided to embark on an occasional blog charting the progress of a re-reading (the 10th? 20th?) of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. This is not intended as literary criticism, although there will no doubt be attempts at this, but more of an examination of my relationship with this, favourite, cycle and as a starting point for assorted reflections which a reading may throw up. [not a project I have found the time to continue with]
Chapter One, Book One (of A Question of Upbringing QU) is what may be termed (apologies!) the Eton chapter. But we do not open with Eton. No, we open with the men at work. There was a lengthy debate on the Powell list concerning exactly when we are supposed to think that Nick is looking at the men at work – I cannot recall the conclusion. But it is very clearly at a temporal distance. The tone is reminiscent, indeed almost elegiac. It is a wonderful and extraordinary passage, which not only established this mood but illustrates that detailed observation which will characterise Powell’s writing. It is also, let it be said, a stream of consciousness. We follow the progress of Nick’s thoughts and are therefore instantly illuminated as to something of his mindset. Detached, educated, he moves from the workmen to the ‘ancient world – legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier’. Smoke is important here. As it is in the very last passage of the cycle. The smoke and the snow are sensually described – vision, smell, hearing all appear. But the smoke is also both transient and of course a symbol of destruction – something has been burnt, even if in this case it is mainly kippers. Already loss hangs in the air. And so Nick moves on to Poussin’s painting and ‘The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality’. Once again the mood is elegiac, melancholy. And then ‘Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces, hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear’.
I think I was hooked and am always hooked by those opening paragraphs. Why? It is a matter of mood. Powell catches something very close to my own experience. I certainly would not claim to follow such elevated and intellectual thought- sequences as Nick. It is that mood – that melancholy, that elegiac quality.
This is continued in the opening description of Eton with its mist, until looming up and appearing as a very solid statement comes Widmerpool bringing indeed ‘a painful solidarity’ ( I think, in fact, solidity would be more appropriate!). Running of course; a theme which will repeat itself in the final volume. Widmerpool cuts across and dissolves the mood and we move to a world of action and character – Stringham, Uncle Giles, Le Bas, Templar crowd in on us. Nick is established as by-stander, watching, listening, trying to understand the people and ‘forces’ at work. I think it is a wonderful description of public school. My own recollections are far happier than Nick’s and my memory is mainly of bright sunshine and green woods. Memory is a matter of mood. But still the sense of the completeness of that world, how the outside becomes slightly disturbing, threatening even, is brilliantly conveyed. I suppose this is true of all closed institutions and the only time I have felt it again was in mental hospital. But as experienced between the ages of 13 and 18 it is somehow more vivid, more complete. A large part of the brilliance of this chapter is that almost no mention is made of Nick’s home life. That is as it should be. Boarding school obliterates other realities.
Already by the end of this first chapter I am identifying with Nick. Perhaps the name helps! Perhaps it is the natural process of self-flattery on which Powell counts. But I think it is above all a matter of mood.