Re-reading Anthony Powell: ‘Come dancing’

‘Come dancing’ by Tariq Ali for The Guardian, January 26, 2008

Anthony Powell’s 12-book series A Dance to the Music of Time is often seen as the epitome of the English novel. Tariq Ali finds some surprising European connections

Anthony Powell was the most European of 20th-century British novelists. We need to dispense with the blinkered view that his A Dance to the Music of Time is a novel sequence that can be enjoyed only by English “toffs” or readers of the Daily Telegraph. It’s a prejudice that has dogged Powell for far too long.

What is on offer in the 12 novels that constitute the Dance (published between 1951 and 1975) is not the nuances of class snobbery, but a reflection of the social history of five crucial decades of the last century, beginning with the end of the first world war and ending with the turbulence of the 60s. There is nothing quite like it in English letters. Some years ago I encountered one of our leading literary critics at a party and the following conversation took place:

“What do you think of the Dance?”

“Oh, you’ve read it?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Well, I didn’t like it. You obviously did?”

“I did. Why didn’t you?”

“Closed world.”

A closed world it is not. The sequence contains the most entertaining accounts of bohemian life in London from 1920-58, decades during which Powell not only mingled with that world, but also often enjoyed it more than coming-out parties in Belgravia. One of his jottings in A Writer’s Notebook (published posthumously in 2001) is apposite: “You can’t be a creative artist if you are in any restrictive sense an intellectual snob.” read more

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