Naturally, any addicted reader’s greatest pleasure is to discover some new book or author – unexpected, sympathetic, in tune with one’s mood. But there are also times when only an old favourite will do, something one can rely on for enthralled contentment. To qualify as an absolutely prime old favourite a book needs particular qualities. It must be capacious enough to immerse the reader completely. The characters must be like old acquaintances, familiar but never absolutely understood, and the events must become almost one’s own memories. The best of such books are always fresh because, as one grows older, they provide new insights and amusements in the light of one’s wider experience of self and others.
My own prime favourite is Anthony Powell’s sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time: panoramic, sharply observed, farcical, ironic, yet shot through with what Kingsley Amis called an endlessly inquisitive melancholy. We shadow the narrator Nick Jenkins from the callow half-understanding of youth, in the Twenties, through the drastic remaking of lives and relationships by war, to late middle age in the heady Sixties and Seventies – a whole new age of absurdity against which the novel’s various endgames are played out. We see through Jenkins’s eyes the enormous range of people who make up his life as they diverge and reconnect in new and unexpected, comic or disastrous patterns. In fact A Dance has given a label to that area of experience. When friends from distant corners of our acquaintance unexpectedly marry, or turn out to be old enemies, or otherwise rearrange themselves in new and to us surprising combinations, we often talk of life as being ‘just like Anthony Powell’.
A Dance certainly scores on generosity of scale – fifty or so major characters plus four or five hundred others, well over a million words, twelve volumes covering fifty years (nearer sixty if one counts a substantial flashback). Some people find all this too vast an investment of time and attention. For me though its size just gives it a greater gravitational pull. Every few years my eye will fall on the spines of the Powells on my shelves, and suddenly one of them will be in my hand. I’ll start by looking at one of Mark Boxer’s covers, thinking how extraordinary it is that he imagines Powell’s characters exactly as I do myself. But by the time I’m reflecting on his interpretation of Widmerpool, or Mrs Erdleigh, or Rowland Gwatkin, or X Trapnel, I know I won’t be content until I’ve read the whole sequence again.
A Dance to the Music of Time is immense and many-sided, like life itself, and there is surely no other author of recent times who so brilliantly conveys the sense of life as actually lived – inconsequential and directionless at the time, its underlying pattern emerging only in retrospect. Powell gives us the sense that we are reading something wider and less formed than a
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