Have you ever taken a long road trip, one where you marveled at the diverse scenery that you passed along the way, crossed the desert, maybe even stopped long enough to explore a cave, a quaint little shop, or for a swim in the ocean? Perhaps you stopped long enough to meet new and interesting people, tried different foods and took in that open air concert at the town square. You've had wonderful experiences and enjoyed the trip immensely, but oh the relief to have the trip over, to put your feet up and give a sigh of contentment that you are back home to once again sleep in your own bed that fits your body perfectly amidst all your belongings that make it your home.
That is how I feel now that my journey through this novel and its 2,940+ pages is over. It was a memorable trip with Jenkins and his friends, watching them as they grew from schoolboys to young men just stepping into that half-way stage between teenagers and adults then on to the beginnings of their careers and adult relationships. A side trip, called the war, derailed their lives for six long years but we met more people on this path, people not normally to be met during peacetime, and most soon out of their lives again.
To give a detailed description of a book of this length with the number of characters introduced is a task far beyond the capabilities of this reader so what I'll present are my highly condensed thoughts. The entire 12 novel sequence, primarily set in England between the two wars, was narrated in the first person by Nicholas Jenkins who drew detailed pictures of his friends, Stringham, Templer, Moreland, Widmerpool and others, their triumphs, their joys, their personalities, and their troubles, so well that we could relate them to people and events we have known in our own lives. We were taken into the world of the arts, literature and fine art with writers, artists, actors, composers, film makers, publishers and politicians and saw their struggles for acceptance and financial success in England, France and Venice as we also watched the overall changing societal culture of the time. Jenkins proved to be a reliable yet dispassionate narrator and a keen observer of events and those people around him. At the same time, other than his career path Jenkins was strangely reticent about his own personal life. Except for his Uncle Giles, we were told little to give us a picture of his own parents and family or his life with them. We know he married a woman named Isobel Tolland but in addition to the name we know nothing of her as a person except as an extension of himself. He spoke often about her aunts, uncles and siblings and their doings but seldom of Isobel herself. Of his offspring we know even less. He mentions a child but never gives its name and except for a few brief references to a son he almost totally ignores his existence. I finished the book learning very little about the man Jenkins himself so was unable to form any emotional attachment to him. This whole saga was written with such seeming dispassion that this reader also felt detached from emotion.
The last two books of the sequence brought a close to the stories of the main characters with happy outcomes for some, less happy for others and truly sad endings for still others. Here Jenkins did also introduce a whole new generation of young adults with their happenings but a whole new novel will have to be written to take us further.
According to Wikipedia, Powell is reputed to have taken inspiration for his sequence and the name A Dance to The Music of Time from the painting of the same title by Nicolas Poissin c 1636 and based many of his characters on actual people of his time including Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley and John Galsworthy. I have read that Powell introduced about 300 characters into the novel and I can readily believe it. Some we grew to know well, others we met with a handshake or a nod of the head, others were brief acquaintances, in and out of Jenkins life rapidly, but each leaving his footprints behind. It is to Powell's credit that he maintained the flavor of his characters as well as the tone of the sequence throughout which was no mean feat considering the time span taken to write the book from the first to the last. Some books I enjoyed more than others with Jenkins war-time life being my least favorite but my interest never waned throughout. Although the quality and enjoyment of each book varied individually, when taken as a whole the novel shines.
Rather than a plot there is a gentle movement of events and people advancing through the years. If you are more interested in good characterization than reading a fast action plot, if you can invest the time required to complete the series then I do recommend it. As each of the 12 books builds upon previous books with no conclusion in each but merely picking up where the last book left off, you might find yourself unsatisfied if you abandon it before completing the sequence. This doesn't mean that it should be read in one fell swoop as I basically did, it would work equally as well if broken up into the various books or movements and read over a longer period of time as it was first published. Myself, I just had to go directly on to the next to find out what was happening to those people I'd grown to know and care for. I'm very glad that I read it, truly enjoyed every page to a greater or lesser degree with my only regret being that I won't be able to experience this book again for the first time.
I highly recommend this book !!
Originally published on www.chapterofdreams.com