ON APRIL 29, 1951, Kingsley Amis complained in a note to Philip Larkin about a slew of mediocre new novels he had been reading. He singled out Anthony Powell's A Question of Upbringing for especial contempt. "The most inconclusive book I have ever read," Amis called it. "The sort of book where you wonder whether someone has torn the last quarter out. It travels imperceptibly on its way, steadily losing direction, shedding feeling and discarding tension."

Amis seems not to have realized that he was reading only the tiniest opening installment of A Dance to the Music of Time, an eventual million-word monument to 20th-century London high society that would follow several hundred voyeuristic, miserly, sporting, autodidactic, Stalinist, rapacious, sluttish, alcoholic, ingenious, saintly, pedantic, and sadistic characters across two world wars and the collapse of the British Empire, from public-school playing fields to balls to country house weekends to Soho whorehouses to Singaporean prisoner-of-war camps to corporate boardrooms and to hippie communes, running from August 1914 to the autumn of 1971.

By the third volume of an eventual twelve, Amis was among the cycle's most ardent champions. In 1960 Amis described himself as "longing" for the publication of the fifth volume. A bit later he admitted that "I would rather read Mr. Powell than any English novelist now writing."

Amis's experience is not atypical. Even Powell's biographer Michael Barber, who has been obsessed for decades with A Dance to the Music of Time, writes of his first attempt to penetrate it: "Forty years on I can still recall my disappointment with the story." Powell, whose name rhymes with "Lowell" rather than "bowel" and who died at 94 in 2000, would have turned 100 this December 21. He reaches his centenary with his reputation coming to a kind of equilibrium. The cycle has gone in and out of vogue (and come in and out of print) every decade or so since its completion in 1975. And each time this happens, another name gets added to the list of those who consider A Dance to the Music of Time "the greatest modern novel in English since Ulysses" (Clive James), or even the greatest novel written in English in the 20th century, period.

These encomiums are due, whether the praisers admit it or not, to Powell's having written a novel in the traditional social-comic vein of Jane Austen. Or perhaps Fielding and Thackeray would be the better comparisons, since V.S. Pritchett, Powell's most clear-eyed critic, used to say that Powell was "the first to revive the masculine traditions of English social comedy."

Powell did not write this way because he was an old incorrigible--although, certainly, one feels a pleasant giddiness to read someone who died five years ago describing, first-hand, people born when Palmerston was prime minister. Powell's tastes in literature were decidedly modernist when he and the century were in their twenties. He was at Eton with Cyril Connolly and George Orwell. He annoyed (and was, in turn, annoyed by) Graham Greene. For a while in the 1930s he was considered the English novelist who had learned the most from Ernest Hemingway. But spending the entire Second World War in the army must have changed him as a writer. In A Question of Upbringing, his first novel in more than a decade, he tacked directly against what he called the "pedantic and technique-bound" style of Joyce and other modernist writers, and even against much of what he himself had written up to that point. It is not surprising that Amis was at a loss for what to make of it.

A Dance to the Music of Time begins at Eton (which is never named), where the teenage narrator Nicholas Jenkins shares rooms with two friends. One (Stringham) is a charming aristocrat, wise, but given to longueurs and lacking a sense of direction. The other (Templer) is the son of a tycoon, rich, fun-loving, but not exactly presentable in Stringham's company as life wears on. Through his two friends, Nick will meet much of the London that matters by the time he signs off in his late sixties. In a sense, life is just a matter of Eton ramifying endlessly. "Even now," he later writes of Stringham and Templer, "it seems to me that I spent a large proportion of my life in their close company, although the time that we were all three together was less than eighteen months."

With them at school is Kenneth Widmerpool, a fishy grotesque of undissembled careerism, the living, (heavy-) breathing antithesis of sprezzatura. When nervous, which is usually, he sweats and pants and frantically cleans his glasses. His boots squeak and his overcoat is the laughingstock of the school. His late father eked out a living peddling "liquid manure." It is easy to wonder what Widmerpool is doing in the book at all, except as a bit of early comic relief, to help lure you into the narrative. When he takes an office job for lack of funds to attend university, the reader can assume he has heard the last of him. But by the seventh volume of the cycle he will hold the lives of his tonier classmates in his hands. Widmerpool is not only the central character in A Dance to the Music of Time, he is a new kind of up-and-coming man, an archetype whose rise spells the killing-off of English society as the book's other characters know (and love) it.

When Widmerpool behaves in a predictably obtuse manner, a laughing Stringham says: "That boy will be the death of me." This turns out to be a kind of foreshadowing.

A Dance to the Music of Time is dedicated to answering the big question that draws people to novels, as surely as it draws them to high school reunions: What becomes of people? This is a book about what used to be called "vicissitudes." Some are dramatic. Several dozen of the most insouciant people in London are killed when a stray bomb falls on the fortieth birthday party where they are dancing. But some shifts in fortune dawn on the reader only gradually. In his first weeks at Oxford, Jenkins meets Bill Truscott, one of the most promising undergraduates in the history of Oxford, who had graduated two or three years before:

The chief question seemed still to be how best his brilliance should be employed. To say that he could not make up his mind whether to become in due course Prime Minister, or a great poet, might sound exaggerated . . . he was at any rate sufficiently highly regarded in the university, by those who had heard of him, to make him appear a fascinating, and almost alarming figure.

When we last encounter him, Truscott is stuck as a midlevel bureaucrat working at the Coal Board.

The great boast of literary modernism has always been that it respects the contingency, the relativity, of human beings and their feelings. With its disjointed narratives, the modern novel can present characters from multiple perspectives in a way that traditional literature cannot. A Dance to the Music of Time does a good job of exposing this claim as garbage. In a traditional novel, the mere passage of time presents a far fuller range of perspectives than any menu of "experimental" tricks.

One cannot give a more multi-faceted view of Le Bas, the sour and defeated tutor at Eton, than by having Templer note that he "started life as a poet" decades in the past, and then by showing him, decades in the future, in a "saurian" senescence, dependent for his self-esteem on the alumni over whom he once ran roughshod. Jenkins has a friend (we are protecting plot surprises here) who goes from being one of the most eligible bachelors in London to serving as a private in the army's Mobile Laundry Unit. Paintings by painters and novels by novelists conclusively revealed to their contemporaries in the 1920s as absolute charlatans come back into vogue in the 1960s, as everything gets reassessed. Evelyn Waugh said late in his life that finding out how Powell's cycle would end was one of the few reasons he wanted to stay alive.

Waugh was only two years older than Powell. They were often thought to share a style (Philip Larkin called it "Comic Mandarin") and a subject matter. Such comparisons made Powell insecure. In his undated journals, Cyril Connolly wrote (wrongly, as it turned out): "Powells to dinner, very nice. He asked for opinion on him and Evelyn. I said I thought Tony had more talent and Evelyn more vocation. Tony is likely to dry up and Evelyn to make mistakes, but you can learn from mistakes, you can't learn from drying up." The presumption was that if Powell did not dry up, he would be the better novelist.

A Dance to the Music of Time is plot-driven, but there is a paradox about this. So complex are the intertanglings of its hundreds of characters that few readers will be able to keep the whole thing straight in their heads. Many will be liable to read it as a novel about a milieu. A common objection raised to Powell is that he is a captive of that milieu, that he writes not so much about people as about People Like Us. In short, that he is a snob. There is not really any reasonable way to defend Powell against this charge. You can say the novel is about the middle class as well as the upper, but only if you use the definition of "middle class" that people of Powell's generation sometimes used; that is, to mean independently wealthy people without titles, or with mere baronetcies.

Powell's book spans the socioeconomic ladder of midcentury Britain from its 99th percentile to its 98th, and much of his humor is of the kind that blossoms in the mulch of class loathing. It is wry without being exactly funny. It is a humor that describes not people's looks or actions but their situations, the way they fit into their network of relationships, and does so with an instinctual cruelty and remorselessness. Jenkins, for instance, muses on why his Uncle Giles, the family black sheep, might find himself passing through Reading: "His connection with Reading had been established, with fair certainty, to be the result of an association with a lady who lived there: some said a manicurist: others the widow of a garage proprietor. There was, indeed, no reason why she should not have sustained both roles."

The book is not narrow, for all that: Powell's elite is much more porous than Waugh's. Even if Powell despises median Britons--and there is every textual evidence that he does--his elite is not inclined to raise the drawbridge against them. Most of the commoners one meets here--whether men-on-the-make like Widmerpool and the literary operator Quiggin, or ideologues like the Stalinist agitator Gypsy Jones--are in the throes of something that puts them in headlong flight from their class of origin.

Michael Barber is of the opinion that very little in A Dance to the Music of Time is invented. If, therefore, we think of Nicholas Jenkins as Powell's own alter ego, we get the sense of Powell as an ice-cold person who never felt any desperate need to be affirmed as belonging to the best circles, the way Waugh did. (This may not be unrelated to Powell's marriage to the daughter of the Earl of Longford.) On the one hand, Jenkins is a bit of a phony, rather like Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, who is "inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores." His conduct never commits him to anything. He is along for every prank, but never makes any social faux pas that requires atonement or even adjustment. Jenkins can be a confidant of commoners--Widmerpool has his only guileless moments when bragging to Jenkins about his schemes for advancement--without ever raising the suspicion that commoners are his natural habitat.

Jenkins's dirty secret is his intellectual curiosity. He dissents from the ethic of ostentatious mediocrity that characterizes the English upper crust. Powell himself had the same sort of attitude. In 1959, he praised a biography of the 19th-century psychologist and sex theorist Havelock Ellis for

the picture it gives of the curious politico-intellectual circles in which Ellis and his friends moved. At one end of the scale were figures like Shaw, soon to be rich and successful beyond the dreams of avarice; at the other, strange, forgotten folk who shade off into a ramshackle, near-criminal world. This was the community which largely formed so many views accepted in our own day.

This, mutatis mutandis, is the community of A Dance to the Music of Time. If Powell prefers the perspective of the outsider looking in, it is in an ambiguous way. His attitude is summed up in a passage he wrote on Lytton Strachey in the 1950s: "Strachey as a writer," declared Powell, "does not wear well. He could be intelligent, witty, the master of a phrase, and was usually genuinely absorbed by his subject matter. These qualities are vitiated by a giggling egotism that at its best often offers no more than the Victorian approach turned the other way up, and, at its worst, a deliberate falsification."

Powell, that is, insists on a respect for the world as it is. He likes intellectual curiosity, but not subversion. (In this he is the polar opposite of the recent generation of literary theorists, who praise "subversion" but lack intellectual curiosity.) Powell views sex, about which he is as inquisitive as he is lenient, as the source of the society's minor "deliberate falsifications." Communism, broadly understood to include Nazism, is the source of its major ones. Powell does not see many differences between the antidemocratic ideologies on offer in his time. His yardstick is whether they aim to destroy the world his characters inhabit, and in this their differences are negligible. The kind of characters who, in the 1930s, say "I like the little man they've got in Germany now" are likely to emerge as agents of Stalin in the 1950s. (And then, not to give away too much plot, as hippie cult heroes in the 1960s.) It is characteristic of Widmerpool's can-do attitude that he hates the Poles for raising a fuss about the Katyn Forest massacre.

For Powell, the Spanish Civil War is an archetype of the kind of politics--Americans would call it limousine liberalism--that flourishes on the outposts of totalitarianism. On one side are snobby megalomaniacs, like the novelist St. John Clarke ("'People like myself look forward to a social revolution in a country that has remained feudal far too long,' said St. John Clarke, speaking now almost benignly, as if the war in Spain was being carried on just to please him personally") and Jenkins's brother-in-law, "Erry" Tolland, the Viscount of Warminster ("'Oh, are you on strike?' asked Erridge, brightening up at once, as if it were for him a rare, unexpected pleasure to find himself in such close contact with a real striker. 'In that case you simply must come and have a meal with me'"). They live in symbiosis with social-climbers like the "progressive" poet J.G. Quiggin (a networking-class hero, one could say) who use such enthusiasms to peel money out of gullible aristocrats, and gain access to the drawing rooms of socialites and the bedrooms of their daughters.

Powell decided to write A Dance to the Music of Time during World War II. He was resigned that the war would destroy the last remnants of the world in which he had passed his youth, and sought a way to preserve it. Whether he considered it from this angle or not, only an English novelist could have preserved that world. Almost anyone else would consider it a society too sadistic, selfish, and unfair to merit preserving. In an essay on Powell several decades ago, V.S. Pritchett expressed the view that the key English value--out of which all other values grow--is cruelty. "To stand up to the best manners of English society," he wrote, "one has to be rude, exclusive and tough. One must be interested in behaviour, not in emotions; in the degree to which people hold their forts--and how much money the forts cost--not in what human beings are."

There is a terrible paradox about this. Americans have always been content--and an increasing part of the world, including the Powellian classes in England, is becoming content--with a society that pays more attention to emotions than behavior. In any newspaper sports section, athletes' frowning and weeping and trash-talking and high-fiving are more frequently photographed than anything they do on the playing field. But the fact that sports provoke emotions does not mean that they are about emotions. It is the same with novels. It is impossible to write a novel of the very highest sort unless you believe that behavior is more interesting (and no more superficial) than "what human beings are."

Hence the paradox. A Dance to the Music of Time is about a social system that can be cruel, and that few of us would want. And yet, like most classic English novels, it will inspire Americans to--I am afraid this is the word--envy the intricacy and elaboration of a social system that can create such beautiful patterns of charm and power. We modern people, we Americans, tend to look at social systems as annoying impediments to the poetry of life. Anthony Powell may have been the last novelist to realize that the system is the poetry, under certain circumstances. And perhaps under most.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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