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Dance to the Music of Time, A

a novel in twelve volumes by Anthony Powell, published in 1951–75, A Question of Upbringing

Beginning with A Question of Upbringing (1951), ending with Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975), and borrowing its title and pervasive metaphor from Nicolas Poussin's painting in the Wallace Collection, London, the sequence is widely regarded as one of the main achievements in twentieth-century English fiction and Powell's finest work. Written in a typically rococo style, and calling frequently on chance and coincidence to effect connections, it is in essence the story of the first three-quarters of the century seen mainly from the vantage point of the upper classes and the bohemian demi-monde. Its narrator is the self-effacing Nicholas Jenkins, whose story begins at an English public school. Here we meet many characters who either reappear as time and novels pass, or who fade out altogether. Jenkins's generation grows up in the aftermath of the First World War and matures as Nazism rises and the Second World War begins to rage. Powell is rightly renowned for his ability to draw memorable comic characters and depict absurd situations, but this does not diminish the overlying seriousness of the work. His method is exemplified particularly by Widmerpool, the butt of school pranks who, though often seen as ridiculous by his peers, is a dogged achiever and a dark and damaged man. Among many unforgettable characters, some are relatives of Jenkins, like his Uncle Giles, the eccentric black sheep of the family; others, including X. Trapnel, a writer,Mr Deacon the artist, and the literary hustlers Quiggin and Members, are drawn from the creative fraternity to which the author belonged in youth and middle age. Powell's dance, though apparently improvised and haphazard, is strictly formal and rigidly structured. The novels are grouped in threes and symbolize the four seasons. A Question of Upbringing (1951), A Buyer's Market (1952), and The Acceptance World (1955) represent spring and, consequently, school, university, and the narrator's first adventures and misadventures in sex. The second trilogy, comprising At Lady Molly's (1957), Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960), and The Kindly Ones (1962), is symbolically summer, in which work and marriage dominate. The war years mark autumn and figure largely in The Valley of Bones (1964), The Soldier's Art (1966), and The Military Philosophers (1968). The final trilogy—Books Do Furnish a Room (1971), Temporary Kings (1973), and Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975)—moves to the dismal aftermath of war, in which Jenkins, now a writer in his sixties, recalls acquaintances either dead or lost with the passage of years. Winter closes as it opened the sequence with Jenkins reflecting that ‘Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.’

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Cwmfelinfach (Cŏomvĕlĭnvahχ) Monmouthshire to Walter de la Mare Biography