And so we’re up and running with volume 1 of the 12-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time. Once I discovered Powell’s prose to be very accessible, in a style similar to Evelyn Waugh, the idea of working my way through 12 volumes lost its capacity to make me run and hide. In fact, I very much enjoyed not only the style but also the era that we find ourselves in as the epic novel opens.
It’s just after World War I and Jenkins, the protagonist, is at boarding school in England with various other individuals who will play greater and lesser roles over the next 3000+ pages. The relationships between Jenkins and each of the boys he describes are here given their foundation. In particular those of Widmerpool and Stringham are described in most detail.
There’s very little plot here, and that’s just fine. This is still very early in the novel and it’s more about the relationships than any
adventure they go on. But there is one episode where those relationships, and their implications for the future, seem to be defined most clearly, namely the framing of the housemaster. From this we learn that Stringham is a potential cad, Widmerpool has more depth to him than we might think and Jenkins a fairly spineless individual who, unless Powell had chosen him for the role of narrator, would probably be instantly forgettable.
After finishing school, the boys go their separate ways with Jenkins ending up in France to learn the language. There, Widmerpool puts in the first of what I feel will be many Cheshire-cat-like appearances. Each of these only serves to make Jenkins more confused in his attempts to box him neatly into contemporary social life. The novel closes with the influence of university.
It’s a little short to call it a coming-of-age volume. There’s precious little time for reflection in just over 200 pages but Jenkins does his best. As a fairly lonely individual, he does spend much of his free time trying to understand those around him. By the time we hit the back cover, we’ve been introduced the characters that the novel will, presumably, be peopled with and the seeds have been sown for them to grow into young adulthood and stumble on into middle-age. So far, so good.
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I’ll not be rating each individual volume of the novel but will give the novel a rating after finishing volume 12.