“There is something overpowering, even a trifle sinister about very large families, the individual members of which often possess in excess the characteristics commonly attributed to ‘only’ children: misanthropy: neurasthenia: an ability to adapt themselves: all the traits held to be the result of a lonely upbringing. The corporate life of large families can be lived with severity, even barbarity, of a kind unknown in smaller related communities: these savageries and distillations of egoism often rendered even less tolerable if sentimentalised outside the family circle.” (p. 31)
The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I’ve already read, leaving eighty-six or so left to go. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.
The Elevator Pitch: Hooboy, here’s another one that’s simultaneously really easy and really difficult to summarize. A Dance to the Music of Time is a twelve-volume megabook by Anthony Powell that looks at the way the lives of four men and their respective worlds revolve around one another over the course of the first few decades of the Twentieth Century. The main character, Nick Jenkins, is a bit of a cypher, in the grand English tradition of non-protagonist protagonists; he’s more of the lens by which we view the world than any real sort of character (I’ll discuss this more below). In this episode, Nick makes friends with Lady Molly Jeavons, a minor aristocrat who is known for having elaborate and strange dinner parties at her house. Also, the perennial font of ridiculousness Kenneth Widmerpool gets engaged and also contracts jaundice.
What I knew about this book, its subject and its author going in: This isn’t my first time at the Dance rodeo. I read the first three novels of the cycle last year, so I was fairly well acquainted with the subject matter. The book’s in the running for one of the longest ever to be written, giving this list project an added masochistic thrill of conquering it in addition to 99 other books. Based on my experience with the first three, I expected this one would have lots of aristocratic types in it, a frisson of 1930s Socialism, a hint of Hitler’s rise in Germany, and a lot of people falling in and out of love with each other. I was not disappointed.
Thoughts: There’s only so much you can say about these books, it’s basically the same thing as reviewing a big book like Infinite Jest chapter by chapter except with less formal experimentalism and tennis jargon. So far, 1/3 of the way done the book, I think it’s … pretty good? At Lady Molly’s is definitely better than the second book, A Buyer’s Market, but not by much.
This one did continue the annoying (to me) trend of having large events happen in Jenkins’ life basically get backgrounded into irrelevance. Seriously, the main character of the book cycle decides to get married, to Isobel Tolland. While you’d think that this is a pretty important character development, it isn’t really, it doesn’t even get a full page of recognition! Here’s one of the two (!) real mentions of this turn of events, wherein a line makes Jenkins irrelevant again!:
“A background of other events largely obscured the steps leading up to my engagement to Isobel Tolland. Of this crisis in my life, I remember chiefly a sense of tremendous inevitability, a feeling that fate was settling its own problems, and too much reflection would be out of place.” (p.203)
Too much reflection? You’re getting married, man! You’re allowed to reflect on your life for more than one paragraph here, it’s perfectly alright!
For those of you who remember my review of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, you’ll recall that I compared Dixon, the hero of the piece, to the Canadian comics slacker icon Scott Pilgrim. If I were to pick a character from that universe that would recall Dance‘s Nick Jenkins, it’d be Joey Comeau, the guy who knows everybody and tells Scott about Ramona Flowers. I’m sure he’s a great guy, he certainly knows a lot of cool people, but he’s not the main character of the book. It’s really frustrating for Jenkins to throw you a little bit of info about himself, then go right back into hearing about how other peoples’ lives are dramatic.
This book continues the apparent English tradition of not being able to deal with veterans of the Great War. Just like in The Death of the Heart, At Lady Molly’s features a WWI vet who articulates the huge differences between the generation who fought in the war and those who came after, Lady Molly’s husband Jeavons:
“‘People don’t think the same way any longer,’ he bawled across the table. ‘The war blew the whole bloody thing up, like tossing a Mills bomb into a dug-out. Everything’s changed about all that. Always rather feel sorry for your generation as a matter of fact, not but what we haven’t all lost our- what do you call ’em- you know- somebody used the word in our house the other night-saying much what I’m saying now? Struck me very forcibly. You know- when you’re soft enough to think things are going to be a damned sight better than they turn out to be. What’s the word?’
“Illusions! That’s the one.'” (p. 178)
So in short, I can’t recommend this book unless you’ve read the three before it, as you’ll be incredibly lost. If you want to read the prior books, this one’s pretty solid though. Here’s a bit I thought was funny about monkeys and people who don’t like them.
“He spoke in a preoccupied, confidential tone, as if Miss Weedon’s reply might make all the difference by its orientation to plans on foot for Maisky’s education (he’s a monkey named after the Soviet Ambassador to England).
‘I don’t care for monkeys,’ said Miss Weedon.
‘Oh, don’t you?’ said Jeavons.
He stood pondering this flat, forthright declaration of anti-simianism on Miss Weedon’s part. The notion that some people might not like monkeys was evidently entirely new to him; surprising, perhaps a trifle displeasing, but at the same time one of those general ideas of which one can easily grasp the general import without being necessarily in agreement. It was a theory that startled by its stark simplicity.’ (p. 168)
Similar books on the Time 100 list: Well obviously the three Dance books that came before this one have some similarities, but I feel as well that The Death of the Heart portrays the same time, social sphere and place in a similarly interesting fashion.
Total pages read since January 1st 2011: 16481 pp. (2022 this year)
Total books on the Time 100 list read: 58/113, or 51% complete.
Next up on the Resolution Project: A House for Mr. Biswas, (1961) by V.S. Naipaul.