If Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, as the most recent translation would have it entitled, is a modernist classic, then Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is arguably at least at home in a post-modernist category as the modernist insofar as it includes moments of meta-narrative, when Powell steps out of the story and tells us about issues related to the writing of the story. In this, of course, he echoes Trollope who was notorious for his authorial asides reassuring his readership that however bleak the picture looked for the star-crossed young lovers in his novels, all would turn out well for them in the end.
In the third volume of Powell’s sequence, The Acceptance World, Powell diverts from a description of an exotic South American family in the foyer of the Ritz on Piccadilly to remark that although he has no personal experience of South America on which to draw, he is better able as a writer to make clear the distinction between them, about whom he knows nothing as to their background, culture and motivations, and his central character Nick Jenkins, than between Jenkins and another English man of the same age and superficially similar background in society, Mark Members. Yet, for a person steeped in the culture of English Society at that time, the distinctions between Jenkins (middle/upper-middle class) and Members (aspirational-rising middle class from a northern rather than southern English county) would be too numerous and too self-evident to require elucidation yet would remain elusive to those on the outside rendering them difficult if not impossible to pinpoint for a writer describing them to his readers.
Powell also addresses not once but three times, the source of the title for the novel. The Acceptance World is first described to Jenkins by his friend Templer in chapter two when he encounters him at the Ritz, as the business world of the City of London where brokers “accept” bills of exchange – liabilities for future debts and are paid to do so by those who face those potential debts. It is then explained at greater length again twice more in chapter five, in an opening reflection by Jenkins and later in a speech by Widmerpool describing the working of the city at a dinner given in the Ritz (returning to the site of the original explanation, please note) in honour of Le Bas.
Then in the concluding paragraphs of the novel, Powell reflects on a staged photograph of two lovers to describe a chain of loves – part of which sequence we have seen unfold during the course of the novel, wherein each person accepts the cast off lover of a predecessor so that the world of society and the constant dance, changing lovers as easily as changing dance partners, is explicitly likened to the business transactions in the city by which successive traders accept debts and risks from previous owners who sell them on to manage their own positions.
Everyone, it transpires is intimately linked with everyone else. It is perhaps a house of cards. This allusion is of itself, self-referential since Mrs Erdleigh (pictured above – taken from the book’s cover) is a practising clairvoyant who both reads Jenkins’s fortune in the cards (she uses normal playing cards not tarot cards), and is one of the chain of hand-me-down lovers which links the central characters together.
This third novel in the sequence does mark a notable shift in the treatment of the women characters. Having been peripheral distractions to the main concerns of the young men hitherto, they now become more significant and central players in their own right, though still very much secondary to the key characters. Jean Duport (nee Templer) becomes Jenkins’s lover and we see her in control of the relationship – reflecting perhaps Nick’s still relative immaturity in relationship matters. This comes through in some peevish generalisations which his character makes about women and their willingness and ability to manipulate the men with whom they are in a relationship. This is carried over into Nick’s observations of the former model Mona playing cat and mouse with her husband Templer before leaving him for Quiggin and how Peggy Stepney ditches his other great friend from schooldays, Stringham, even though both Templer and Stringham are, in Nick’s mind at least, attractive to, and successful with, women – or at least more so than Nick is. So, as an author, Powell is allowing his narrator character to mature and show growing insight commensurate with his age – approaching thirty in this novel.
There is also the ongoing, post-modernist conceit that the central character/narrator is himself a published author with both art books and a novel under his belt. The parallels with Powell’s own writing career are obvious and intentional. This is part of the joke. Readers, in the know, would be expected to decipher which character was a thinly veiled representation of whom in the literary and artistic circles which feature in the novel and are a reflection of the actual lives of those around Powell. Of course, this leads to some one-up-manship as individuals claim to “be” the originals on which Powell has based his characters – some, bizarrely, even claiming to see themselves in more than one of the novel’s characters – surely an exercise in self-aggrandisement and delusion.
However, the novel as a whole, shares more in common with the modernist writing of say James Joyce or Virginia Woolf – with a free-flowing stream of thoughts which the narrator transcribes, featuring shifts of location and time, as well as featured characters, in mid-paragraph – than with more knowing, post-modernist writing. There is a sense of immersion in the world described from an insider’s perspective which draws the reader into the shifting kaleidoscope of scenes and characters. And the central characters are becoming more distinct, notwithstanding the difficulty described of making that differentiation between superficially similar people, which relies so much on nuances, and the accumulating list of secondary characters who flit in and out of view from one novel to the next.