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Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The refuge of a scoundrel? Pt. 1

I had three goes at Anthony Powell's twelve-volume series, A Dance to The Music of Time, and failed each one. Mainly due to his appalling writing style (eg, His manner of asking personal questions was of that kind not uncommonly to be found which is completely divorced from any interest in the answer.), an upper middle-class avalanche, and a huge cast of characters.

The key turned with vol. 10 (Books Do Furnish a Room), once I discovered how that memorable title came into being. Since then I've read the series two or three times.

Why did I persist? Well, Evelyn Waugh liked the books and reviewed the later volumes as they appeared. For another they are genuinely funny but indirectly, as with Proust's great series which Powell admired. Funny in an English (note: not British) way, often very cruel: for instance, an academic has a stroke at a formal dinner and comedy emerges from the way others react. Vols. 6 - 8 (The Kindly Ones, The Valley of Bones, A Soldier's Art) contain a sharp and frequently mordant account of our country at war. And, overtopping everything else, the series gives birth to one of the greatest fictional creations ever: Widmerpool.

It's a decade since I last read the books and my judgment may be deliquescing. But - how peculiar! - they make me quietly proud to be English. Foreigners (and many Anglos) who have tried and failed may be astonished and outraged by that. In my defence I can only say I am not and never have been a natural patriot; National Service taught me not to be.

Would I recommend the series? Only I fear after receiving satisfactory responses to a set of questions/tests. In short: no. But if your curiosity is aroused, well, let's take partners. 

8 comments:

Sir Hugh said...

You don’t have to be a patriot to say you have enjoyed Dance, and in any case I think Johnson was referring to a false patriot, so that lets you off the hook a bit. I don’t think you would ever be a false anything.

For me Dance is in my top five or so reads. Although the saga is epic it is a serious attempt at social history with a light touch, and I found I could read it for longer periods at a time than most other novels. Because of the length Powell has scope to show us the development of many characters from youth to old age. Wildmerpool progresses convincingly from being an ostracized schoolboy to a man of power, albeit still with his traits of clumsiness and lack of tact.

Stringham starts as a witty prank playing youth admired by his contemporaries to become alcoholic and a figure of tragedy. There are many other examples, and the changes they take on could only be described given the length of this opus, and that is achieved without boredom

Humour, as you have said is consistently prevalent and memorable.

I reckon Powell failed when he came to the hippy/flower power revolution.

Your aversion to aspects of Powell’s style were not evident to me, but I intend to have a look and identify your reasoning.

Sir Hugh said...

Were you inferring that maybe Powell was a scoundrel?

Roderick Robinson said...

Sir Hugh: Re patriotism. Re-read it. It's the existence of the books that makes me proud to be English. An assertion, once made, I felt I had to retract since I'm not usually given to patriotic utterances. As I explain. Working from memory I thought Dr J's aphorism was unequivocal: Patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel.

I'm glad you were straight into Dance. So was VR, following Mother's recommendation. Apart from the reasons cited I think I test-read the least congenial volume then published. It was At Lady Molly's. Even when I started reading properly I think I regarded it as lacking substance, but I may be wrong.

Terrible style. It took me two minutes to find that sample I included (from At Lady Molly's, as it happens) and I assure you there are many more. At one point I concluded that these tortuous sentences were deliberately inserted for some literary reason. But I couldn't work out what this might be. Then I assumed they came naturally. I'm not the only person to have noticed this.

Implying (suggesting), inferring (deducing). No, I didn't think of AP as a scoundrel. He was essentially civilised even though he was chief book reviewer (perhaps even literary editor) for the Daily Torygraph. Which was a lot more Tory then.

mike M said...

Your sample sentence was so torturous I could only conclude that if purposeful its purpose was comedy. You alluded somewhere to a difference between "English" and "British". Will a dictionary help me here, or will you?

Roderick Robinson said...

MikeM: A very unfunny joke if it was.

England vs. Britain. If we ignore the much smaller islands such as the Orkneys, the Shetlands, Rhum, Skye, Eigg, etc, the British Isles consists of two comparatively large land masses. To the uninitiated the one on the left is called Ireland but this is inexact. That land mass is divided into two: the Republic of Ireland, an entirely independent state, and Northern Ireland (NI), six counties which are part of Britain. In total Britain consists of four countries - each theoretically self-governing but in practice controlled from Westminster: NI, Wales, England and Scotland (only a year away from a referendum to decide whether it too becomes independent, like the Republic of Ireland).

I hope that's clear.

mike M said...

My question pertained to a statement by you in this or your former) blog. I can't relocate it. The essence was that you considered yourself British, not English, or vice versa, I can't recall, but I suspect the latter. Wish your blog had a search tool.

Roderick Robinson said...

MikeM: Tone Deaf has a search facility: near the top left, third toolbar down. I've just searched British on it and it worked.

I do say in The Refuge of A Scoundrel? Pt 1 that The Dance series makes me proud to be English. And in the same post, third para, starting "Why did I persist?...!", I do say "Funny in an English (note: not British) way, often very cruel."

However I'm not really selling Englishness. I underwent apostasy in a Swedish castle where I was dining with a group of European journalists. Because the Brits bored me I was sitting with the Belgians. I was accosted by the entertainer, a guitar player wearing a Viking helmet, who had been accompanying the various national groups as they sang for their supper. He pointed out I hadn't joined the Brits when they sang and wanted to know why. "Because I consider myself European," I said. Then I would have to sing alone, he said. So I sang "Freude, schöner Götterfunken: Tochter aus Elysium..." in German, in the key of C major, since it has been adopted as the European Union anthem. Very proud of myself, too, given that I had a streaming cold. Please don't encourage me to boast. At heart I'm a mere dormouse.

mike M said...

The Ninth is the European Union anthem? A great choice, and bravo on your performance in describing your performance!