Over the last several years, at literary cocktail parties perhaps, or their on-line equivalents, I’ve overheard various intriguing fragments of conversation regarding Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The fragments have been highly complimentary, seemingly to the point of hyperbole, along the lines of the jacket copy on my dog-eared, time-yellowed used bookstore edition: “many critics regard [it] as one of the greatest achievements in all modern fiction.”
Clearly, at some point, I had to give it a try. The first installment, A Question of Upbringing, takes place at Eton, Oxford, and in 1920’s London. It is indeed very good fiction, although I’m still not sure whether I’m ready to go along with the jacket copy. But this is top grade stuff, no question: intelligent, funny, gripping, and satisfying both as intellectual nourishment and entertainment. Take this passage introducing Stringham, one of the main characters:
When I came in, Stringham was kneeling in front of the fire, employing a paper-knife shaped like a scimitar as a toasting-fork. Without looking up, he said: “There is a jam crisis.”
He was tall and dark, and looked a little like one of those stiff, sad young men in ruffs, whose long legs take up so much room in sixteenth-century portraits: or perhaps a younger – and far slighter – version of Veronese’s Alexander receiving the children of Darius after the Battle of Issus: with the same high forehead and suggestion of hair thinning a bit at the temples. His features certainly seemed to belong to that epoch of painting: the faces in Elizabethan miniatures, lively, obstinate, generous, not very happy, and quite relentless. He was an excellent mimic, and, although he suffered from prolonged fits of melancholy, he talked a lot when one of these splenetic fits was not upon him: and ragged with extraordinary violence when excited. He played cricket well enough to rub along: football he took every opportunity of avoiding.
I love that paper knife shaped like a scimitar: hints of romance and violence echoing back to the crusades. And yet: “There is a jam crisis.” How could one not be fascinated by this short paragraph, which conveys volumes about the social milieu and the character in question?
Then we have the references to 16th century paintings & Elizabethan miniatures. These provocative images linger and expand in our minds, serving not only to give us a physical vision of Stringham, but also to emphasize his pedigree: he is a patrician, rooted in a grand tradition, with all the accompanying connotations of noblesse oblige, dry humor, and highly accomplished social skills that flow from that heritage.We experience Stringham as a humorous and breezily pleasant companion, but we also sense that he suffers deeply. He is an average athlete, a melancholic, far from perfect. He is unhappy, perhaps in part because of the weight of expectations and responsibility that go along with his upper-class lineage. Still, he bears the burden gracefully. In just a few paragraphs, Powell has provided us with a stunningly rich, textured, and sympathetic portrait.
Contrast the above introduction to this quick sketch of Le Bas, the boys’ overbearing schoolmaster:
Le Bas had in his hand a small blue book. It was open. I saw from the typeface that it contained verse. His hat hung from the top of his walking stick, which he had thrust into the ground, and his bald head was sweating a bit on top. He crouched there in the manner of a large animal—some beast alien to the English countryside, a yak or a sea lion, taking its ease: marring, as Stringham said later, the beauty of the summer afternoon.
This is a study of Stringham’s opposite: emphatically non-aristocratic, graceless, an awkward, alien misfit. There is something so right about it that we immediately recognize it as true. For me, the most important thing to note is that Powell is again using metaphorical imagery (yes, word-detectives, I know it’s simile he’s using—but remember, simile is merely a class of metaphor) to paint the distilled essence of a character.Instead of sad figures in Elizabethan paintings, we now have a yak or a sea lion crouching in the English countryside. These metaphors give us a vivid, poignant, and deeply resonant vision of a character who doesn’t belong, is impossibly out of his depth. And yet Le Bas has a certain beastly power, and is therefore a bit of a threat as well, which harmonizes perfectly with his role in the story. It’s a cutting introduction to a disastrous character, and yet the portrait is complex and not entirely unsympathetic. This is very well done.
Let’s appreciate another example:
Fair, not strikingly pretty, with long legs and short, untidy hair, she remained without moving, intently watching us, as Peter shut off the engine, and we got out of the car. Like her legs, her face was thing and attenuated, the whole appearance given the effect of a much simplified—and somewhat self-conscious—arrangement of lines and planes, such as might be found in an Old Master drawing, Flemish or German perhaps, depicting some young and virginal saint; the racquet, held awkwardly at an angle to her body, suggesting at the same time an obscure implement associated with martyrdom. . . any hopes or fears orientated in her direction were quickly dissolved, because she hardly spoke when Peter introduced us, except to say in a voice unexpectedly deep, and almost as harsh as her brother’s: ‘The hard court needs resurfacing.’
We don’t get to know this character, Jean, very well in this book—it’s possible she will reappear later in the series—so we don’t find out whether the martyrdom imagery is actually “on the nose.” I suspect not, but it doesn’t really matter, because as it stands the metaphorical portrait is complex, contradictory, and interesting. The Old Master reference, the self-conscious arrangement of lines and planes, the way the tennis racquet seems intentionally held to create a certain impression, and the deep, harsh voice complaining about the tennis court—these are more than enough to intrigue us, and they fix this character indelibly in our imaginations.
A few more:
Loitering about the college in aged sack-like clothes and Turkish slippers, his snow white hair worn longer that that of most of his colleagues, Sillery could lay claim to a venerable appearance: though his ragged, Old Bill moustache (which, he used laughingly to mention, had once been compared with Nietszche’s) was still dark. He was, indeed, no more than entering into his middle fifties: merely happening to find convenient a façade of comparative senility.
Up to that afternoon I had only seen Members hurrying about in the streets, shaking from his round, somewhat pasty face a brownish, uneven fringe that grew low on his forehead and made him look rather like a rag doll, or marionette: an air augmented by brown eyes like beads, and a sprinkling of freckles. His tie, a broad, loose knot, left the collar of his shirt a little open. I admired this lack of self-consciousness regarding what I then—rather priggishly—looked on as eccentricity of dress. He appeared to have known Sillery all his life, calling him ‘Sillers’, a form of address which, in spite of several tea-parties attended, I had not yet summoned the courage to employ.
The power of the visual metaphors that anchor these character portraits may in part be due to the fact that they’re not too on-the-nose. They are at once economical and vivid – one feels the shock of recognition – and yet, at the same time, they are complex, textured, and full of internal contradictions. In other words, they create an extraordinarily lifelike impression. Sillery in his sack-like clothes and Turkish slippers partakes of the essence of both Wild Bill and Nietszche; Members is a rag doll, a puppet, true—and yet he is bold, unselfconscious, and admirably courageous.
Excellent stuff. There is clearly much to learn from Powell about how to employ metaphorical writing to create vivid, unforgettable fictional characters. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.