Memory is fragmentary and episodic. Particularly childhood memories. The memories are frequently adrift in a blank sea of childhood, not anchored to a specific time, though often they are perhaps moored to a specific place. Thus Anthony Powell’s first volume in his Dance To The Music of Time sequence, focussing on the youth of the narrator, Jenkins – not unreasonably regarded by many as a proxy for Powell himself, appears as four (or perhaps five, depending on how you’re counting) isolated episodes. Indeed, they are surely episodes rather than incidents for a single dramatic action is not the focal point of any of the fragments but rather a collection of impressions.
Jenkins, the narrator, selects the episodes which for him have particular significance or resonance in his life with the benefit of hindsight. In this respect he has the authorial power which Trollope exercised frequently in his novels, of providing the reader with glimpses, tantalising at times, but at others reassuring, of future events which will arise in the lives of his protagonists. Thus he is able to comment on a leave-taking between two characters, Stringham and Templer, which includes the earnest, and very British, invitation that they must meet again the following week, with an aside which reveals that they would not meet again for several years. This continual cycle of meetings and partings, is what Powell characterises as the Dance.
Frequently Jenkins will refer back to the earlier episodes in subsequent conversations with other characters only to find that they do not share the feeling of the significance of those episodes which he himself feels. Thus Stringham fails to recall that Jenkins’s Uncle Giles intruded into the rooms he shared with Stringham and Templer at the public school they attended in the first episode recounted in the book but does recollect that this was on the occasion when Templer had got into trouble with the House Master for being late back from London as a result, it turned out, of an assignation. These differing perspectives on events are something which the mature Jenkins, as narrator, comments upon as an authorial aside.
The life described in the book is that of a privileged, upper-middle class world. The boys attend a public school and go up to university (or not as the case may be) as a matter of course. They travel abroad, to Kenya and to France, without comment. They prepare to take up roles in the City, in the legal profession or in the military – where the senior regiments of the guards and the household cavalry are the assumed to be the natural homes for them.
The lower orders, I can think of no more appropriate term in this context, are represented but little and then are often the butt of the schoolboys’ humour. Le Bas, the housemaster at the school, and would be poet, struggles to exert his authority over his charges. His paid position is automatically inferior to their privileged one. He is, therefore, fair game for their prank which lands him in an awkward position with the police. And giggling girls are picked up casually by Templer and then dropped when they have served their purpose and have ceased to be amusing pastimes.
This upper-middle class world in some ways resembles that Trollope described in his political series or that Galsworthy wrote about in his Forsyte novels – albeit both were concerned with slightly earlier periods. The comparisons spring to mind not only because of the milieu described but also because they are conducted over lengthy cycles of novels. A key difference here, though, is that the perspective is that of an insider. The narrative is first person rather than third person. This gives the sequence a stronger affinity perhaps with Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. Indeed, the opening sequence of Powell’s novel, charts a very similar process of the older man falling into a reverie about his younger self through an external cause – in this case observing a wintry street scene with snow falling rather the smell of a madeleine biscuit. Somehow this gives the reader a greater sense of immersion in the world described rather than the view of an outside observer. It also ensures that Jenkins, in spite of his role as reactor rather than actor in the scenes which unfold, nevertheless places himself at centre-stage in the story.
Over all the book is a pervasive hangover from the War – what we know as the First World War. It colours people’s perspectives. Older characters make much, or little (as befits their situation), of their involvement in the war and its aftermath. M. Dubuisson emphasises his war record as a token of his experience and, like many of the characters, notably Sillery and Widmerpool, is greatly concerned with who you know rather than what you know. They all wish to establish connections which give them influence and, however slight, a feeling (illusion?) of power or control over their own and others’ destiny.
It will be interesting to see how these supposed influences act out over the sequence of novels.