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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

To the end of time: Volume 12 of Anthony Powell's series

As predicted in yesterday's post, Anthony Powell concludes his 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time with the image of fire, not just a bonfire but precisely the same image that started the series, a "fire bucket" with a coke-fire sending sparks up into the sky, people gathered around for warmth - the dance really is a cycle, at least in a way. But that's not precisely the way he closes the series - he does so with the account of the death, finally and as anticipated, of the loathsome Widmerpool: could this series of novels in any way continue without Widmerpool as foil? I have to say i was a little disappointed in how Powell handled W's death - in this final volume he falls victim to the writer's malady of telling not showing. Shouldn't Jenkins, the narrator, have directly witnessed W's demise? Shouldn't we see it eyes on rather than hear about it, through Jenkins, second-hand? And for all that it seems to me that W. just collapses as he's romping in a final escapade with the cultists he's taken up w/ at the end of his life. I expected something much more dramatic, even epochal: the destruction of the mansion (Stourwater) that had been central to the series, or a Manson-like cult episode, or a police raid on the cult - think how differently an American author might have handled the concluding scene, not in this hands-off, buttoned down British manner. Despite this late-in-the-game quibble I hae to say these books held my interest over a long period of tie and the series is a remarkable and almost unique account of the transformation of a society over 50 years of history, as experienced and recounted by one narrator and a kaleidoscopic set of characters; at times, it's comical how the names and relations overlap and how various characters leave the stage and then return unexpectedly. We don't know any (but Widmerpool, perhaps) intimately - even the narrator is opaque and unknowable - but they all become our familiars so that when names re-occur volume after volume, we get the sense that we, too, are part of this world. It's a more cerebral multi-volume memoir than Search for Lost Time, and not nearly so interior and reflective - but on the other hand it's more social and political, especially the wartime volumes, and a damning indictment of social class in England - w/ a lot of other targets as well, notably literary life, pseudo-intellectualism, sexual repression (the issue of repressed and oppressed homosexuality is hinted at but, I think, the term homosexual never even appears until the final volume). Powell doesn't really develop the dance metaphor, although he has some insightful things to say about time itself in the final volume - notably how literary time inevitably differs from time for an artist, as novels and stories are told in a sequence, with pace and rhythm - like life in that regard of course - and we understand, for a moment, how literature is an "imitation of life" in verbal form.

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